On a past trip to South Sudan to help build a school for girls, Sasha Fisher noticed there were many other schools that had been built by foreign aid organizations that weren't in use. The reason for this was that the community was not involved in the planning and so they did not feel ownership of the schools. They were waiting for foreign organizations to come run them, since that was the norm. This sparked an idea. Sasha realized a solution would be to involve the community in the planning and design of these types of projects.
After graduating from college, the now 24-year-old moved to East Africa to start Spark Microgrants . The organization provides grants to poor rural communities in Rwanda and Uganda. Spark also works with locals on the design, implementation and management of their social impact projects. Since 2011, Spark has helped improve the lives of 15,000 people across 50 communities. Check out our interview with Sasha, who also happens to be one of our five Do Something Awards  nominees!
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you're addressing?
Sasha Fisher: When I first saw schools empty in South Sudan – an area with one of the lowest access rates to education in the world, I was horrified. How can we be spending energy and funds on programs that sound good, but don’t actually work well on the ground? How could we be in the 2000’s and yet billions of people lack access to their most basic needs? I was truly horrified.
DS: How do you feel about it now?
SF: I am extremely hopeful that we can support the poorest villages on our shared planet to meet their basic needs. The majority of aid - over 70 percent of America’s foreign assistance - is externally driven, however Spark and the millennial generation are making it clear that we want more locally-led development because it is cost effective and empowering. If we allocated part of that 70 percent towards supporting locally led change we could enable the poorest communities in our world to create real change. Spark’s impact in over 53 communities in the past three years gives me reason to believe our generation can effect wide scale change and turn international aid on its head, from top-down to bottom-up.
DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
SF: In Nyabageni – a village in northern Rwanda, Spark was supporting the community to launch a farm to improve food security. When the community was in their budget planning meeting, one man offered to sell his land to the community. A group of three women immediately stood up and started to argue with the man. My friend Ernest explained after that the women were telling the man that his price was too high and that he was only saying that because he thought that it was Spark’s project. The women defended the project as the village’s and said that they didn’t want to pay his high price because it was not fair. This scene has remained vivid in my head because it was a clear showing of female power, local accountability and village ownership over their project. While Spark has reached over 20,000 individuals, having the knowledge that our work is creating a strong society makes me even more passionate to drive it forward.
DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
SF: My work is continuously inspiring. I’ve watched 80 mothers in rural Uganda come together and build a school for their children. I’ve worked with a group of over 100 HIV+ family members to initiate a honey production project to fight stigma and make money to cover the costs of care. I’ve seen community members feuding start working together to bring increased food security and provide more meals for their families. I regularly get updates from Spark facilitators who report on the exciting progress of each village. Aaron Bukenya in Uganda sent me photos of the school that was built with a mere $1600 by mothers in rural Uganda. The school was initially built without walls – today it has tripled in capacity and has brick buildings. Seeing the impact in each community, and knowing that Spark can impact new communities that lack any opportunities to create local change keeps me inspired and consistently motivated to grow our impact.
DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?
SF: When I showed up in Wanteete Village, Uganda in June 2011 I was greeted by a group of singing children attending a school built and managed by their parents, and initiated by a microgrant. This was the first microgrant in Uganda. The mothers have spoken about their pride in running the school and their desires to grow and improve the school over time. When I had first met these mothers not even a year prior, in August 2010, they had said they wouldn’t be able to build a school, that the men would never be involved and that someone else would need to do it for them. The mothers are not only active and accomplished after organizing the school to be built, but they are proactive in seeking out new resources for their school and they hold new power in their village. Today over 300 students attend the school and it is constantly growing and improving. Knowing that a few meetings and a microgrant started this all has proven to me the immense impact that our work can have.
DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
SF: Spark’s work is unique- we don’t fit into any existing sector such as health or water or sanitation. Spark is creating a whole new way to use international aid however in order for our work to succeed we need to build trust in people facing poverty and in their project ideas. We’re working to change the misconception that people in poverty don’t know what they need - they do know and they are best equipped to create local change. Our work is proving this and providing support directly to communities in poverty so they can leverage it directly.
DS: What's been the biggest lesson through the process?
SF: Positive action inspires more positive action. Our generation is geared up to drastically change our world. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and bold belief our generation has in social justice and how many people trump social good over individual profit. Over 20 millennials have worked together to build Spark into an organization impacting 40+ villages a year.
DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
SF: Scalable impact is possible. After working intimately with over 50 communities and seeing them take control of complex and abandoned situations, people’s resilience has shown through. We can no longer be cynical about the potential to alleviate human insecurity and enable everyone on our earth to meet their basic needs; we can only take action to work towards increased human security!
DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
SF: Make sure you love what you do and try to surround yourself by people you admire. I deeply admire my closest friends and value their perspectives on my work and on life.
DS: What's next for your project?
SF: Spark’s microgranting model is working to empower communities in Rwanda and Uganda but millions more are being left out. We seek to bring our microgranting model for the first time to Southern Burundi, one of the poorest regions on our planet. We want to provide the first opportunities for families returning from refugee camps to lead a new future for their country.