“The bottom-up approach of OVO is the only way forward”

“Meeting the right people at the right time, that's what matters." Speaking is Maureen Duru, born in Nigeria, but living in Belgium for more than 20 years. Maureen has been present at the inception of SusTech4Africa, the campaigns within which OVO supports African entrepreneurs to compete for a start-up loan to support their sustainability projects subsequent to an intensive coaching program. 

Maureen normally teaches language at school. This is not possible at the moment because of the coronavirus epidemic. However Maureen is much more than just a teacher. She is chairperson of The Food Bridge, a non-profit organization she founded in 2014 which brings people and cultures together through food. 
It is an initiative that resulted from her doctoral research at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (an acclaimed university in Brussels)  on the role of food in creating an identity among the African population in Belgium. Since 2016, she is also vice-president of Sankaa vzw (a non-profit), the umbrella organization for African associations in Belgium. 


Selecting new projects 


It is through The Food Bridge that Maureen came into contact with OVO four years ago. "I had agreed to meet Björn Macauter in a café in Leuven because I had an idea for a project for which I was searching for support," she says. "Björn told me about the way OVO brings Belgian entrepreneurs into contact with African entrepreneurs. 

"It seemed great to me and I asked him if he would not consider organizing a competition among the African diaspora in Belgium in selecting new projects. The idea worked out and subsequent to the first campaign locally in Belgium, follow up campaigns were organised in Uganda and Rwanda. There onwards, we had further involvement by VITO and Thomas More and SusTech4Africa was born". 


More impact than classical aid 

Maureen believes that the bottom-up approach of OVO is the only way forward when it comes to development cooperation. Maureen: "Classical forms of support often focus too much on 'aid'. And don't get me wrong, aid can be necessary, especially in war situations. But you have much more impact if you help people to become self-reliant. Look, if someone is hungry, you can give them a fish every day. If you teach them how to fish yourself, you give them something much more sustainable with lasting impact. Moreover, purely financial or material aid usually goes via the authorities and eventually reaches ordinary people in less substantial drips". 


"You have much more impact if you help people to become self-reliant. 


Entrepreneurs are therefore a more direct line to the population, Maureen proposes. They know the local problems people struggle with and are actively looking for solutions. "Of course they want to make money with their business," says Maureen. "But profit is not their sole motivation, the social impact they have through their business is a critical motivator. This applies not only to entrepreneurs in Africa, but also to the diaspora in Belgium who are considering to start a business in their home country. 

"Many of them have come here to support their families at home, not so much to seek happiness themselves. The big advantage is that the diaspora are familiar with both worlds: they have studied here and performed different jobs, but they also know perfectly how things operate in Africa: high unemployment, problems with food and energy supplies ... They form a valuable bridge between Africa and the western world. 


Building a new generation of entrepreneurs 

At OVO, African entrepreneurs with strong business ideas receive broad support. According to Maureen, this is invaluable. "People in Africa have the necessary capacities and the will, but they often lack resources, both human and financial. The expertise that OVO makes available through its volunteers leads to concrete, measurable improvements. In this way, OVO is building a new generation of strong entrepreneurs". 

“People in Africa have the necessary capacities and the will, but they often lack resources, both human and financial.” 


 "Moreover, you feel that the people who work at and for OVO do so with passion and not just to be able to tick off a 'good deed'. They are really engaged and look for connections, for example by visiting the Matongé district in Brussels. Wanting to help is one thing, connecting is a level higher. The fact that OVO is independent and can support projects which they deem most esteemable, is extra value added. And that applies for the local population as well as for the Belgian entrepreneurs who wish to diversify their investments". 
Text: Anja De Wit 

Maureen is chairperson of The Food Bridge, a non-profit organization that brings people and cultures together through food. (Photo: The Food Bridge)