Meet 2010 Do Something Awards Finalist Emma Clippinger

While interning with the Clinton Foundation in Rwanda, Emma witnessed a major problem with HIV/AIDS treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa: most of the patients on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) do not have access to adequate, nutritious food, which is imperative for the drugs to work effectively. She created The Gardens for Health program to enhance long-term food security, decrease malnutrition, foster economic development, and support effective HIV/AIDS care. Through micro-loans and nutritional training Emma has already helped 4,000 HIV-positive people.

Emma took a moment to answer questions about the program that may earn her $100K! What person or experience sticks with you from the beginning of the process?

Emma Clippinger: As an intern for a large foundation, I learned that breaking the cycle of poverty, malnutrition, and disease requires intervention at all levels. After a meeting with some of the local farmer cooperatives, a woman named Triphine pulled me aside and demanded to know how the program would serve her and her cooperative, which was made up of individuals, primarily women, who were infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Her cooperative could not obtain access to capital or land because they were perceived as too risky—unlikely to meet the terms of a loan, unlikely to productively cultivate the land. But even if they had the capital and the land, most members were too weak to carry fertilizer or dig irrigation trenches. Triphine wanted her cooperative to benefit from the proposed program but they required additional assistance. I knew that every assistance program had its gaps, but this one seemed particularly profound. Triphine was the first to powerfully demonstrate that improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable requires fully understanding their capabilities and limitations, and targeting their specific needs accordingly.

DS: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you’re addressing?

EC: The problem that Gardens for Health seeks to address has no single cause and no single solution. My interest in global health was peaked by this very real possibility of providing effective treatment to the world’s poorest populations. However, as I began to learn that drug therapy is often undermined by lack of even more basic and inexpensive support (such as food!), I was sad but that transformed to outrage. The nutritional needs of the world’s poorest will never be met by the current system.

DS: How do you feel about it now?

EC: I still feel a mixture of sadness, outrage, and disbelief. Of course, there are moments of hope, but with the global food crisis and the leveling off of international HIV/AIDS funding, the problem is only growing worse.

DS: Who is your inspiration to keep going?

EC: Everyday, I look to our staff and supporters for inspiration. The individuals whom we serve are constant inspiration. In the face of all odds, they work tirelessly to keep themselves healthy, and to support their own families and each other. The cooperative members and leaders have powerfully shaped the program and I feel immensely privileged to help them realize their aspirations of improved agricultural productivity, nutrition, and health.

DS: Can you describe the moment you knew you were actually making a difference?

EC: During my last visit, the Gardens for Health staff and cooperatives proudly toured me around the community gardens that we support. One gardens, Komera, the poorest and most rural cooperative with whom we work, took over an hour to get to. What’s more, the cooperative’s visionary leader, a man named Concorde, had been in the hospital for two months with a nasty Tuberculosis/AIDS co-infection. My expectations were low. Yet, as we rounded a bend, Julie pointed to a large, perfectly manicured valley—it was a vision of integrated agriculture. The members of the Komera Cooperative had dug two fish ponds, installed rabbit hutches over the fish ponds, with rabbit scraps (and rabbit poop) feeding the fish. They constructed a fruit tree nursery to provide avocado, moringa, neem, and tree tomato seedlings (usually quite expensive) to individual member households. A maze of vegetable beds lies alongside multiple acres of well-planted maize. Up the hill, land had been cleared for construction of a drying and storage space. All of this had been achieved with a loan of just under $2,500! The members of Komera have effectively leveraged Gardens for Health’s support and the results are stunning.

DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project?

EC: Credibility. The co-founder, Emily, and I were college sophomores with very limited experience in the competitive fields of International Development and Global Health when we began raising money for Gardens for Health. We possessed a fierce conviction, but none of the technical language to convey it or the credentials to substantiate it. We were fortunate that the foundation for which we had been interning agreed to chip in, providing us with some seed money and a name that came with a great deal of credibility.

DS: What about when you were trying to grow your project?

EC: Money. To acknowledge the obvious seems crass, but we have to invest in our growth. We have gone through periods of doing a lot, programmatically, on very little, financially. However, such periods are ultimately not sustainable. Money allows you to construct a more feasible, strategic plan of growth. Finding that money is another matter.

DS: What’s been the biggest lesson throughout the process?

EC: Clearly establish who your stakeholders are (constituents, staff, supporters, etc.), what’s at stake for each party, and actively solicit feedback from all parties. Monitoring and Evaluation, or “M&E,” rule supreme in this field, but once you evaluate, it is important to decide to actively implement proposed changes. As individuals and as an organization, we are always learning!

DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?

EC: The kindness of others. I have a reputation for crying when we receive donations, both big and small. We are committed to this cause with our whole beings and I am sometimes overcome by emotion when others are similarly moved. I recently met my uncle who serves as pastor at D.C. church. A homeless woman whom his church assists started giving him a dollar at the end of each week, saying “for a good cause.” He accumulated a little over $10 and, when I met him, he passed the gift on to me. Needless to say, I was very moved by the gift.

DS: What advice do you have for other kids who are having a tough time getting their ideas off the ground?

EC: Embrace failure. If you are committed to the idea in the long term, you are going to fail at one point or another. Maybe you are trying to host a speaker at your school/campus and, the first time, very few people show up. Take it as a learning experience. You’ve overcome the biggest obstacle of actually doing something and, if you are able to keep going, you will have a track record (you held an event!) and an understanding of what to do next time (a bigger budget, more publicity, other speakers, etc.). People tend to recognize and even reward perseverance.

DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be? Why?

EC: I would have asked for help more often. Most start-ups struggle to reconcile bootstrapping with thinking big. For better or worse, I am forever thinking big picture and getting ahead of myself. Yet, because we are still in “start-up” mode, I don’t allow myself to lay the foundations for the big picture. It is a conceptual leap — from wanting to someday have many volunteers to beginning to actively recruit volunteers — and is best achieved by enlisting the help of others, early on.

DS: What’s next for your project?

EC: We just signed a lease on new office space with about five acres of accompanying land! With that land, we are going to test some new ideas for community gardens, construct a superb demonstration garden, and host many more trainings, on-site. We are also working on an intensive curriculum that will develop a whole new set of community leaders in agriculture, nutrition, and health.