My learnings from Sub-Saharan Africa

I felt compelled in these Covid times to get these words out into the world. When there are so many challenges mounting on our own doorstep in the western world, the needs of those in faraway lands gets drowned out. However, these forgotten communities require more support than ever. I’d like to highlight the great work of Deki.

It was Deki’s 10th anniversary last year and in that time, Deki has changed the lives of over 60,000 people. As Chair of Deki over the last five years we’ve seen some highs & lows and at times we have struggled to get the wider message of the mission to give people in Sub-Saharan Africa opportunity beyond poverty. Getting airtime for this message is now exponentially harder.

Deki was started by Vashti Seth, back in 2009 after her father’s death. She was inspired by her Dad sponsoring a child called Deki Dolkha in an orphanage founded by the Dalai Lama. Vashti went to visit Deki Dolkha in India and found that she was trapped in a cycle of poverty, reliant on the handouts. So Vashti created the Microfinance charity Deki to take a more holistic approach, providing loans to individuals like Deki Dolkha so they could work their way out of poverty. The charity focus became Africa and the first peer-to-peer lending platform in the UK was created, also enabling the lender to learn from the enterprising spirit of Deki entrepreneurs.

Our last field visit to Togo with the amazingly talented Deki team took place in November 2019. Our mission, to observe the work and build a deeper relationship with our Field Partner IADES and to measure the impact of the work they have been doing.

On the flight over to Togo we went via Accra, Ghana and I sat next to Peter, a Ghanaian who lives in London. His sage advice was ‘don’t think you will be able to solve all the problems, you have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you talk’ (…so wise. He’d only had to ‘listen’ to me for 4 hours!).

Lome, the capital city of Togo was bustling and the surrounding communities welcoming. Each time we arrived at a village, they would sing a welcome song in a large circle, we’d have a dance and then a lesson would take place. Song is a powerful communication tool in these communities and they carry important messages through the medium of songs such as saving money for a rainy day!

Some of the key challenges we heard during our community meetings were:-
– 1. Patriarchy/Polygamy – in Togo men can have multiple wives. There is also very little family planning, thus a man with three wives can have many children with each wife and not be able to afford to contribute to their upbringing (financially or time)
– 2. Health – there weren’t too many signs of malnutrition but if someone falls ill in the family, it is often the mother that takes out a loan to fund the treatment (see point 1)
– 3. Education – the government fund primary school but not secondary school. Many of the girls were not educated beyond primary school (parents have to decide which children they send to secondary and the boys are usually chosen). With little family planning, girls in their teens end up becoming mothers and the cycle goes round again and again (see point 1)

Changing the patriarchal society is a huge challenge but via our theory of change model we believe through education (SDG4) and providing the tools for self-determination, we can help lower the impact of extreme poverty (SDG1). I often refer to this diagram below to remind me of the steps needed to shift from equality, to equity to systemic change.

Change on this level requires government intervention but we focus our support through the grass roots and working with our Field Partners. We have been very fortunate to find Christian and his team at IADES who spend many hours with communities and their group leaders to help educate the entrepreneurs (90% are women) before money is received.

Since 2009 the world has changed & even more so since 2019. Deki has now implemented donating to communities, not lending to individuals as it became all too apparent that keeping the money in the country with the Field Partners helped to reduce the time to re-lend (a significant issue, especially in planting season when there is a small window to buy the seeds and get them in the ground). This will help support more entrepreneurs and increased the number of lives changed overtime.

Deki has evolved and is now responding to the Covid crisis by working with IADES to re-think how lessons can take place in a socially distanced safe way (they can still teach songs at distance). Also, to help with the imminent health challenges IADES are offering a MicroInsurance product that funds the medical treatment of family members in the event of an illness.

A success story. We went to see the first ever chocolate maker in Togo called ChocoTogo in Lome, that was created by a Komi Agbokou a chocolatier trained in Italy. Working through a cooperative, ChocoTogo now export to global markets. Togo’s cacao growers had been helpless in the face of prices set by international buyers but Komi is helping to change this. Through Deki/IADES we have helped create lots of micro businesses but now need to help those businesses form cooperatives so they can find routes to market in the same way ChocoTogo have. We now have a dedicated Togolese team member helping to accelerate this process.

If you have the time, please do take a look at the amazing work of the team at and remember that no matter which horizon we live, we are all experiencing the challenges of Covid together.


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James Potten


On a mission to democratise entrepreneurship by providing access to best practice, helping startups sustainably scale up.