At Starbucks and Thanksgiving Coffee, it’s not just a cuppa joe

A coffee farm in Costa Rica

Aside from being in the coffee trade, Starbucks and Thanksgiving Coffee would appear to have little in common.

Seattle-based Starbucks is a FORTUNE 500 company (2011 revenues: $11.7 billion) that sells its brews all over the world, pursues global dominance (its latest outpost is Helsinki) and owns an iconic  brand. The company bought about 428 million pounds of coffee last year.

Thanksgiving Coffee is a family-owned, artisan roaster that sells most of its coffee to grocers, specialty stores and restaurants near its home base in Mendocino County, CA, where the other popular crop is often smoked. Thanksgiving bought about 500,000 pounds of coffee last year.

Yet the big coffee company and the little one share a couple of important goals.

First, they want to win the trust of their customers and, of course, their own employees. One way to do that is by showing them that their coffee is ethically-sourced. Starbucks talks about responsibly grown coffee, citing its Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices, a set of social, economic, environmental and quality guidelines. Thanksgiving’s slogan is ““Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup.”  Reputation matters, whether you are big or small.

But, even if reputation didn’t matter (and to most customers, it probably doesn’t), Starbucks and Thanksgiving need to devote their attention to the social and environmental practices of their growers, upon whom they depend for a reliable supply of high-quality coffee. If their coffee farmers run into trouble–because of low coffee prices, poor environmental practices or climate change–Starbucks and Thanksgiving will struggle, too.

The other day, I wrote about the Fair Trade movement and its efforts to improve the lives of coffee growers. (See my blogpost, A Schism over Fair Trade.) About 9 percent of the coffee sold by Starbucks in the US is certified as Fair Trade; about 75%  of Thanksgiving’s coffee is Fair Trade certified. Today, I’ll dig a bit deeper into the ways Starbucks and Thanksgiving work with growers. [click to continue…]

An “iPod” for the global poor

While we Americans  plug an ever-increasing number of gadgets into the wall, about 1.5 billion people in the world, most in sub Saharan Africa and south Asia, live without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. It will take years, perhaps decades, to get electricity to all of them, so in the meantime a small London-based NGO called Lifeline Energy with big ambitions is rolling out new products called the Lifeplayer and Prime Radio.

Both operate off the grid. Powered by solar energy and/or a hand crank, the Lifeplayer is a multi-band radio, an MP3 player and a cell-phone charger that can be used to deliver information and education to the rural poor, farmers, teachers, government workers. Prime Radio is a simpler and less expensive radio, which is equipped with an LED flashlight as well. Both have powerful speakers and are designed for group listening.

Recently, I met with Kristine Pearson, the co-founder and CEO of Lifeline Energy, to talk about the group’s work, and especially its efforts to find support from  global corporations.

Lifeline is working with specialty coffee growers and an Wisconsin-based importer named Peter Kettler to get the radios to coffee farmers in Rwanda, who get timely market information as well as programming about agricultural practices. It recently worked out a similar arrangement with the SC Johnson Co. to provide radios to pyrethrum farmers, also in Rwanda. SC Johnson has been working with U.S. AID to help farmers improve their methods of collecting, drying and shipping pyrethrum, a natural insecticide used in such SC Johnson products as Raid.

The idea is to get the radios into the villages, and then give women and children an opportunity to use them, Pearson told me. “Culturally, radio has been a man’s preserve,” she said. Now, she says, “there are literally millions of children in Africa getting a high quality basic education from radio…I think of the Lifeplayer as an iPod for development.”

An American who spent three months traveling in Africa back in 1986, Pearson moved to South Africa soon after; today she lives in Cape Town, Johannesburg and London. “I’m an African American,” she jokes. She started Lifeline Energy (formerly known as the Freeplay Foundation) in 1999. Since then, Lifeline has distributed more than 215,000 radios since then, reaching anywhere from 20 to 250 listeners per radio. The group is currently distributing Lifeline radios in Haiti.

Lifeline has made friends in Hollywood, notably Tom Hanks, who was the prime funder behind the research and development of the Lifeplayer and Lifelights, which are LED flashlights powered by solar energy or wind-up technology. Hanks  has worked with the group since 2003, talking about its products on television, auctioning them on eBay and appearing in a YouTube video. The NGO has also received donations from foundations, Rotary clubs, the World Bank and individuals.

Even so, its current budget is less than $2 million a year,  Pearson told me. The Prime radio costs about $38 out of the factory, before shipping, and the Lifeplayer costs about $80. They are given to recipients, not sold, but in exchange people have to commit to maintaining and managing the radio and participating in follow up surveys. “There are lots of strings attached,” Pearson said. “They’re just not financial.”

The challenge for Lifeline Energy is getting to scale. Donations are will always be scarce. Business-oriented projects like the ones with SC Johnson and the coffee growers, where the companies gain by getting radios out to farmers in their supply chain, stand a better chance of getting the radios into the hands of a lot more people who can use them.

Manna from Houston

Of all the problems threatening the world today, two loom large. One is the climate crisis. The other is the fact that billions of people lack access to clean water and sanitation. A Houston, Texas-based startup with global ambitions wants to attack both, beginning in the tiny, landlocked African nation of Rwanda.

The startup, called Manna Energy Ltd., has an ingenious idea, some high-flying (literally) founders and the enthusiastic support of, among others, The Coca-Cola Foundation and Ashoka, a nonprofit group that connects social entrepreneurs. The company’s idea, in essence, is this: Collect rainwater, filter it using solar energy and finance the operation with credits generated by reducing global warming pollution.

Manna installs its water-treatment systems at secondary schools and, if all goes according to plan, they will more than pay for themselves.. “It’s the only for-profit model I’ve seen to bring safe drinking water to schools, and it would be pretty remarkable if they can pull it off,” says Paul Faeth, executive director of the Global Water Challenge, a Washington-based business coalition that supports Manna.

The founder of Manna Energy is Ron Garan, a NASA astronaut and aerospace engineer  who has logged more than 13 days in space, including three spacewalks,  and is preparing for a six-month mission next year. Spearheading the work in Rwanda is Evan Thomas, Manna’s executive vice president, who got the project started as a volunteer back in the early 2000s and since then has worked on sustainable development  in Rwanda, Nepal, Mexico and Afghanistan.

Thomas, who is just 26 and also works at NASA, has a PhD in aerospace engineering and bio-astronautics from the University of Colorado. His academic research on life-support systems in space informs his work in Rwanda, he explained when we talked last week by phone.

“We’re trying to keep people alive in Rwanda, just as we try to keep people alive and healthy in space, with air and water and energy,” Thomas says.

Founder Garan, evp Thomas and engineer Jean-Pierre Habanakabize in Rwanda

Founder Garan, evp Thomas and engineer Jean-Pierre Habanakabize in Rwanda

[click to continue…]

Acumen’s war on poverty

Jacqueline Novogratz was out for her customary morning jog on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda, when she noticed a young boy wearing a blue wool sweater decorated with zebras and mountains. This was 1987, and Novogratz was an idealistic 25-year-old aid worker, helping a  local women to start a microfinance bank. The sweater looked very much like one she had given away to Goodwill back when she was in high school in Virginia, and she startled the boy by asking to see the label. Sure enough, there was her name.

The anecdote is the perfect opening for Novogratz’s new book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in An Interconnected World, which is part memoir, part meditation on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and part manifesto about how to attack (and how not to attack) the problem of global poverty.  “The story of the blue sweater has always reminded me of how we are all connected,” Novogratz writes.

the-blue-sweater-cover

Novogratz is the founder and CEO of the Acumen Fund, a really impressive global nonprofit that provides “patient capital” to for-profit businesses around the world that help people climb out of poverty. She’s spoken at several FORTUNE conferences, I interviewed her for Net Impact and we had lunch a few years ago in Washington. (See this from HuffPost.) Novogratz is passionate and idealistic and yet hard-headed in her approach to global poverty. This book explains why.

Trained as a banker—she worked for Chase Manhattan in Latin America after college—she spent the late 1980s in Africa, particularly in Rwanda where she helped women start both Duterimbere, the microfinance institution, and a local bakery. These are among the most fascinating stories in the book—she arrives as a well-meaning do-gooder, bursting with ideas, and runs up against indifferent bureaucrats, petty corruption and women so conditioned to be passive that it’s a struggle to get them to believe in themselves. Just before heading to business school at Stanford, she climbs a volcano in Zaire and is beaten up by altitude sickness and hypothermia. She writes:

I came to Africa similarly unprepared, with no road map, no tools, insufficient gear and no protective layering…Like the volcano, Africa can stun you in an instant. It can throw floods and drought and disease at you, sometimes all at the same time. In the next moment, it will tease you with its magnificent beauty, so even if you don’t forget, you can find a way to forgive. Ultimately, it keeps you coming back for more.

Fast forward to 2001.  After Stanford and a stint at the Rockefeller Foundation, Novogratz raised about $8 million from Rockefeller, the Cisco Foundation and wealthy individuals to start Acumen (which her brother suggested she call ‘Ain’t Your Grandma’s Philanthropy’). Acumen tackles old problems — malaria, children’s health, housing – in new ways.

For example, Acumen invested $600,000 in a for-profit company called Water Health International that treats water as a business, not as a human right. WHI was started by Tralance Addy, a Ghanian entrepreneur who after working at Johnson & Johnson, developed a system to deliver safe drinking water to rural poor people, mostly in India, at prices they can afford. In the last four years, WHI has grown to serve more than 350,000 customers in 200 villages and it has raised $12 million in additional capital.

Early on, Acumen also invested in A to Z Textile Mills, which manufacturers bednets with long-lasting insecticides that are sold across Africa to prevent malaria. If I heard her right during a podcast with Dan Gross on Slate, Novogratz said that the company now employs 7,000 people, mostly women, and produces more than 10 million bednets a year. Again, Acumen took a charity model and turned it into a sustainable, purpose-driven business.

More recently, Acumen has expanded into the energy business, trying to bring electricity to some of the 1.6 billion people in the world whose lives do not include an on-off switch. Acumen Fund is investing in a startup company called D.light Design that makes low-cost LED lights. The company’s first product, called the Nova, is an all-purpose portable LED lamp that is both AC-rechargeable and solar-rechargeable, and can provide up to 40 hours of light on a full charge. Fascinating idea.

Near the end of The Blue Sweater, Novogratz writes:

After more than 20 years of working in Africa, India and Pakistan, I’ve learned that solutions to poverty must be driven by discipline, accountability and market strength, not easy sentimentality. I’ve learned that many of the answers to poverty lie in the space between the market and charity and that what is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them.

You can read more about Acumen’s work at its excellent website.
images11

Dingell vs. Waxman

Assume, for the moment, that you want Congress to pass strong and effective legislation to regulate greenhouse gases ASAP. Any climate change bill will need the approval of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, now chaired by John Dingell, the veteran Michigan lawmaker, who is being challenged for the job by Rep. Henry Waxman of California, a longtime rival. Dingell is a moderate Democrat, perhaps best known as the auto industry’s most important ally in Washington. (His wife has worked for General Motors for years.) Waxman is an outspoken liberal who last year introduced one of the most aggressive climate change bills before the Congress. (Dingell blasted him the other day as “anti-manufacturing left-wing Democrat.”) Easy call, right? Enviros may be inclined to back Waxman.

Not so fast. There are two reasons to hope that Dingell holds onto the job. The first is that he is a masterful legislator with the skills needed to get a complex, controversial bill through the Congress. The second is that a climate change bill that mandates that reductions in carbon emissions that are too steep and too rapid, even if enacted, could generate a political backlash.

So, at least, argues Bill Bumpers, a smart, thoughtful and personable Washington environmental lawyer (and a neighbor of mine in Bethesda) who I met over lunch the other day. Bill has a unique perspective on the climate-change policy debate. He’s trained as an economist. He understands politics, as the son of former Arkansas Gov. and U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. Most important, he’s been a Clean Air Act lawyer for 15 years—he’s currently a partner at Baker Botts–so he knows how cap-and-trade regulatory schemes work. The cap-and-trade approach now backed by most Democrats in Congress, as well as much of corporate America, including the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, was inspired by a similar program that effectively and economically cut SOX and NOX pollution from power plants under the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. While Bill represents utility companies, who have a big stake in the outcome, his views on climate change are his own; trust me when I tell you that they are shaped by his desire that the government do the right thing to curb global warming.

The argument on behalf of Dingell is that he has shepherded big bills through Congress—the Clean Air Act amendments, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, last year’s sweeping energy bill. “The guy knows how to get things done,” Bill says. What’s more, Dingell has been willing (and able) to push the automakers to places they don’t necessarily want to go. Witness the higher CAFÉ (auto-efficiency) standards in the energy bill.

The argument against Waxman is more subtle. Essentially, the worry is that an aggressive climate-change law (with a rapid dial-down in the emissions cap and 100% auction of permits to emit) will rapidly drive up the price of electricity and gasoline, sparking a political backlash. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that higher energy prices at retail would drive major gains from efficiency. The trouble is that while we would hope that higher prices would lead people to trade in gas guzzlers for efficient cars, insulate their homes, buy more efficient appliances and turn down their thermostats, and while some of that will surely happen—look what high gas prices did to SUV sales this summer—many people simply can’t afford to go out and buy a hybrid car or new washing machine. It would be far better, Bill argues, to drive efficiency through tougher building and appliance standards as well as high MPG standards for cars. But we can be almost certain that voters will blame environmentalists and Democrats for rising prices, even if the high prices are accompanied by tax rebates or per-capita dividends paid from the proceeds of auctioning emissions. (Sorry, but this is inevitably complicated stuff.) The key point is that “if you raise prices too quickly, people will get angry,” Bill says. Any rollback of climate-change legislation three, five or seven years from now would be a disaster.

Put another way, climate-change legislation will need to be politically sustainable at the same time as it leads us towards environmental sustainability. You can read an AP story about the Dingell-Waxman contest and the climate change debate here.

On a related matter, Bill has been doing lots of work in carbon finance, including a pro bono project that I was eager to hear about because of my interest in Rwanda. He and an associate at Baker Botts are trying to generate carbon credits for a small hydroelectric project in Shyira, a hilltown in northwestern Rwanda. The hydro project is being organized by Dr. Caleb King and his wife, Louise, two U.S.-trained doctors (Dr. King at Harvard Med School) who have been living and working in Rwanda since 2003. (Here’s their blog.) The project exemplifies the way in which carbon finance can be used to alleviate poverty: If the Kings can generate carbon credits, which could be sold on the European regulated market, the revenues from the credits can be used to help finance the hydro project and thereby provide reliable electricity to Shyira. Similarly, carbon finance can be used to help bring distributed, renewable energy (wind, solar or hydro) or efficiency gains (CFLs, modern wood-burning stoves) to other poor communities in Africa and Asia.

How GE gives away money

The easy way to do corporate philanthropy is to write a little check to everyone who asks. Many companies operate this way–$5,000 to the Boy’s Club, $5,000 to the YMCA, $5,000 to the local cancer society or heart association. This is mostly a feel-good exercise, performed, it must be said, with other people’s money.

Today’s Sustainability column at fortune.com and cnnmoney.com is about GE, and the company efforts to be strategic in its corporate giving. I met Bob Corcoran, who runs the GE Foundation, on a trip to Ghana in 2004, and had a chance to see GE’s health care initiative in action there—the company donated medical equipment, a generator, money and lots of expertise to a hospital in rural Ghana. Last week, Bob and I had a chance to catch up when he was in Washington.

Here’s how the column begins:

I’m not a big fan of corporate philanthropy. Too often, it’s a feel-good exercise, generating little value for a company’s shareholders. At its worst, it allows CEOs to use other people’s money to glorify themselves. (Tyco once pledged $5 million to Seton Hall University, which named a building or two after its then-CEO, Dennis Kozlowski.) Rarely is corporate giving both benevolent and strategic.

General Electric (GE, Fortune 500) is one company that does philanthropy right. On Monday, the company announced a new donation – a five-year $18 million grant from the GE Foundation to the New York City public schools, the largest-ever single corporate contribution to the school system. New York is the sixth city to join in what GE calls its “Developing Futures” program, which is aimed at improving schools in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Louisville, Stamford, CT and Erie, PA, all places where GE operates. GE has been working on school reform for decades.

The company’s other charitable focus – health care in poor countries – is newer. I had a chance to see it up close in 2004 when I traveled to Ghana, with Bob Corcoran, GE’s vice president for corporate citizenship and president of the GE Foundation. (See Money and Morals at GE in the Fortune archive.) Back then, GE had promised to donate $20 million of equipment and to lend its expertise to public hospitals and clinics in Africa, beginning in Ghana – a country where it does no business. Corcoran and GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, justified the Africa initiative in several ways: They told me the company had been asked to do more in Africa by its African-American employees, that GE wanted to develop good will in a region that soon could grow into a real market, and that knowledge gained from working in poor countries might pay off in unexpected ways for GE.

You can read the rest here.

Malaria no more

I covered television, and then the big media companies, for about 20 years before turning to the environment and corporate responsibility, and I have to say that I don’t miss Hollywood. Sure, show biz can be fun, but after a while it’s hard to care about who’s up in the Nielsen ratings or whether MySpace will be a big Internet hit. What I do miss are some of the people I got to know over the years.

That’s why it was great to see Peter Chernin, the second-in-command at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., this week at Michael Milken’s global conference in Beverly Hills. (I first met Peter when he was lowly programming exec at Showtime.) Peter wasn’t at the conference to talk about Fox or News Corp., though—he came to speak about his passion for ridding the world of malaria.

The malaria story is incredible, and revealing. Did you know that a child dies every 30 seconds from malaria? That the disease causes more than 1 million deaths a year? And that we could do a great deal to save those lives at a relatively low cost?

The deaths are “the equivalent of a World Trade Center every day. A tsunami, which drew the world’s attention, every month,” Chernin said. “And we can solve it…Shame on us if we don’t act.”

Simple and low-cost measures have proven to be highly effective ways to save lives. They include providing bed nets to people, spraying homes with insecticide, making sure those who contract malaria get treated rapidly and presumptively pregnant women in high-risk areas.

The fact that malaria is such a big problem and that we know how to solve it is what attracted Chernin to the cause. He learned about the disease, which is caused by a parasite spread from person to person by mosquitos, while he was on the board of an AIDS initiative at Harvard. Last year, he became the chairman of a New York-based nonprofit called Malaria No More.

“I’m a businessman,” Chernin said, when asked why this has become his issue. “I’m drawn, ultimately, by issues of effectiveness and return on investment. I’m paid to produce results. This is the most compelling global health crisis facing the world today.”

So what’s the problem? One problem is that, unlike AIDS or cancer, malaria kills people who are poor and live far from the U.S. or Europe—about 90% in sub-Saharan Africa, the rest in Asia and Latin America. “Most congressman don’t have a constituent calling them up and asking for help with malaria,” Chernin said. So the disease was neglected for years.

That’s changing. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a coalition of governments and NGOs, has provided $3.6 billion for malaria programs since it was formed in 2002, according to this excellent article in The Washington Post. In 2006, President Bush launched a malaria initiative; the federal government intends to spend $1.2 billion by 2010. “President Bush and Mrs. Bush have been remarkable leaders on malaria,” said Chernin, a prominent Democrat and party donor. The Gates Foundation has also made stopping malaria one of its priorities.

Businesses are getting active, too. ExxonMobil announced this month that it would donate $10 million to Malaria No More. American Idol, the TV megahit on Fox, raised about $76 million last year on its “Idol Gives Back” episode, of which $9 million went to Malaria No More and $8 million to malaria-related causes.; this year, it expects to raise nearly as much.

The money goes a long way in Africa. “Money can have more of an impact on malaria than virtually any other cause,” Chernin said. It costs about $5 to make a bednet that is impregnated with insecticide and another $5 to get it to an African home; the nets remain effective for about five years. Even more remarkably, new drug therapies “will cure a child completely within three days for a cost of 37 cents,” said Sir Richard Feacham, the former director of the Global Fund, who also spoke at the Milken panel. “Thirty-seven cents to save the life of a child who would otherwise have died. This is a miracle.”

Widespread use of bednets and the drug treatments have succeeded in cutting malaria deaths in half in Rwanda and Ethiopia, according to the World Health Organization. So there’s no mystery about what needs to be done.

To see what you can do, check out Malaria No More.

Czarbucks

“We’re in the people business, but we happen to serve coffee,” Jim Donald says. Jim’s the CEO of Starbucks, and we had a great talk earlier today. It was the first time we’d spoken although I’ve followed Sbux for years and wrote a chapter about the company in my book Faith and Fortune. I’m also such a loyal customer that the company sends me a gift every now and then—a mug, a CD, a half pound of coffee. In fact, I’m writing this blogpost in my local Sbux while enjoying a coffee and a black-and-white cookie.

Jim is a lifelong supermarket guy—Pathmark, Safeway, Albertson’s, Wal-Mart—who joined Sbux in 2002. But from the passion that he communicated when talking about Sbux’s employees, its coffee growers in the developing world and its customers, it’s clear that he’s been drinking the Kool-Aid, er, coffee. Our conversation was one of a series about corporate social responsibility produced by Net Impact, a terrific organization of business students, newly minted MBAs and a few undereducated hangers-on like me, dedicated to changing the world through business.

Here are some highlights:

On Starbucks “partners”: “The foundation of any business is the connection between its employees and the customers,” Donald says. He led a turnaround at Pathmark, not by financial engineering, but by fixing what he calls “the frontline.” He thinks it’s great that Sbux provides health insurance and stock options to full-time workers, as well as part-timers who put in at least 20 hours a week. “You really do develop a partnership that makes a difference in terms of engagement,” he says. Sbux’z attrition rate is high, about 80%, but less than the rest of the fast food business, where rates run from 120 to 200% annually. Interestingly, he said about 42% of the people who work at Sbux stores are college students—so attrition is to be expected.

On listening: Recently, Sbux surveyed about 100,000 of its partners, 83,000 responded and said, among other things, that they wanted more coaching and counseling about job opportunities, better communications and more total pay (surprise). Donald says the company responded to all three concerns; he also travels a lot and spends time with store managers and baristas. “I didn’t do that in my previous jobs,” he says, and now wishes he had.

On coffee growers and Fair Trade pricing: Unlike some other Sbux execs I’ve interviewed, Donald says the company strongly supports Fair Trade coffee. But there’s not enough of it to supply Sbux. (Critics complain that Sbux doesn’t promote or showcase Fair Trade coffee in its stores.) A more salient point: Sbux last year paid an average of $1.42 per pound for its coffee, well above the Fair Trade minimum of $1.26. More important, the company’s own standards incentivize growers to practice sustainable agriculture. “We’re in this for the long term, and we want them to be in it for the long term,” he says.

On managing a growth company: “The pace of this organization is mind-boggling,” Donald says. Sbux opens five to seven stores a day, hire 300 to 400 people a day, is growing fast in China, opening soon in Russia, looking at the potential for retail stores in Africa and India as well. (Donald is among the U.S. CEOs who have traveled to Rwanda, as I’ve written.) Sbux has about 16,000 outlets today and plans to get to 40,000, about half outside the U.S. At one point, Donald advised job-hunting MBAs to look for work in growing, global companies where the opportunities are greatest.

I was impressed with Donald. But it’s got to be hard, if not scary, to try to grow a company that fast (which is what Wall Street wants) while preserving its culture and values. Its size, for one thing, has made Sbux a target, fairly or unfairly. (Try Googling “I Hate Starbucks.”) Size also can lead to inconsistencies in operations, as Donald admits. “I ask for, every day, a list of complaint letters,” he says. “Some days it’s depressing.” He said the company needs to do better. “We have a mandate her about growing big while staying small,” he says.

The other interesting question about Starbucks is the degree to which its business model depends on selling a premium product—not to mention an addictive product–at premium prices. Because that’s what allows Sbux to treat its workers and coffee growers better, I don’t mind paying $3.38, as I just did, for my coffee and cookies. (I view it as a real estate deal; they are leasing me a chair and table for an hour, not to mention freedom from the phone and email.) But it makes me wonder whether its admirable approach to business can be spread more widely. Maybe someday Donald will return to the supermarket business, and we’ll find out.

Rob Glaser’s Man in Rwanda

Rob Glaser, the chairman and CEO of a Real Networks, a Seattle-based technology company, is an activist as well as a tech mogul. His Glaser Progress Foundation focuses on four areas: how we measure progress as a society, the diversity of voices in the media (which led him to support the left-wing public radio program Democracy Now), the treatment of animals and the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. It was his interest in HIV/AIDs led him to support an NGO called Project Access, which is based in Rwanda.

I met the other day with Josh Ruxin, who started Project Access. Afterwards, I talked by phone with Glaser, who visited Rwanda with his wife, Cori, as part of an extended trip through Africa in 2004. Add his name to the list of American business people (see Why CEOs Love Rwanda) who see the small African nation as a place where a confluence of internal and external forces can come together to defeat poverty and illness.

“What the world seems to need is a example of a country—a country that the world thought was hopeless, a country that is landlocked, 90% agragrian, with a malaria pandemic and an AIDS epidemic—that could be turned around,” Ruxin said. “Let’s just show that it can be done.”

Glaser said: “If you make a Rwanda a better place, you haven’t solved all the world’s problems, but you have demonstrated that the problems can be solved.”

This idea of Rwanda as an African turnaround story has captured the imagination of people at such companies as Costco, Starbucks and Google, and it is attracting top NGOs as well. By coincidence, I attended a reception this evening for Dr. Paul Farmer, the crusading public health advocate whose group, Partners in Health, works in Rwanda. (If you haven’t read it, please read Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s wonderful book about Farmer.)
[click to continue…]