Mostafa Shahat  interviewed Susannah Farr from South Africa, who started GOLD Peer Education Development Agency (GOLD). Her vision was to discover a generation of grassroots leaders and to develop social capital in African youth at the bottom of the pyramid. Susannah is an example of a pioneering social entrepreneur rising up on the African continent at a time when struggling communities require innovative and creative solutions to tip the system for positive change. She believes that youth have the power to implement these solutions, and that they need to be involved in bringing about the transformation in society to ensure sustained change. Development work is worth the sacrifice, as its results are bigger than any one person’s greatest success. It can change lives for entire generations, and that’s what Susannah has chosen to spend her energy on.

Could you tell about your personal story and what the challenges are that you have faced to help you to become who you are now?

I grew up in a loving yet financially tough home environment. My white friends got pocket money from their parents, who had two cars and owned a house. I did not have these luxuries.

Yet despite this, I always felt a sense of immense gratitude for how my parents modeled the important values in life to me, and exposed me to a world that so many young white South Africans sadly never had the “privilege of experiencing” because of the apartheid legacy and their own fears of embracing diversity.

My parents raised three Xhosa children as my foster brothers and sister whose biological father had been murdered and their mom had left them to make money through sex work at the time. I grew up in a simple yet cross-cultural family which was an extraordinary gift that I believe shaped so much of who I am today. Not only have my husband and I adopted two beautiful children whose biological parents died, but I have been actively committed to diversity and building bridges across the cultural and socio-economic gaps that are so prevalent in South Africa because this appreciation in me was shaped.

I was encouraged by my dad to do entrepreneurial ventures to make up for the pocket money my friends got and I ended up being positioned to share with my friends and family, too. I was always starting something and selling something. Losing my father to cancer was a painful experience and a huge hole in my life. It has given me a level of compassion I don’t believe I could have had before without having gone through the loss of a parent. Most young people do not have any adult role models and this is a critical lack in our society which GOLD is seeking to address at multiple levels.

Education matters, and it’s a priority in our life to be educated to be able to make change. How did your educational background support you in becoming a successful entrepreneur?

I was a hard worker and was given a “no strings attached” bursary to attend a top private school in my high school years which gave me a significant sense of the value of quality education yet also an awareness of the massive gap between rich and poor and its impact on society as a whole. After completing my schooling I studied advertising and media. However, in my early 20s, I felt an increasingly strong sense of purpose to be a part of seeing the next generation come into their full potential and be given opportunities that they would not else have, and my career path was redefined. I turned down an attractive job offer in an advertising agency. This was a big watershed moment for me. I felt that my media and advertising background would come to benefit me later once I had established a strong community development background and furthered my studies in an area that I could better use to serve others significantly in my generation. My Master’s degree helped me give academic validation to my dream of young people empowered to bring change.

What’s the social entrepreneur definition from your point of view?

I think a true social entrepreneur is an innovator. A person that is committed to discovering solutions for the world’s most pressing issues of the day and the big social challenges which are normally also economic in nature. A social entrepreneur is a unique breed. They are thought leaders that are committed to questioning and challenging the status quo by developing strategies, models, and products to change systems and start movements of positive change that can be sustained and scaled. They change things for the better over the long haul.

How did you come up with your GOLD idea?

My idea was birthed out of a dream to see young people provided with the platform to lead and shape their future—politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The dream is to see a generation of young African leaders very often labelled as the youth bulge crisis at the bottom of the pyramid—to see them given the platform and the tools to confront and overcome the pressures and desperate circumstances at home that make them do what they do to survive and forget the pain.  And to harness their potential and impart vision and skills so they can mobilise their peers and younger children to be a part of a revolution of hope for the next generation.

In South Africa particularly, the legacy of apartheid required an intentional approach to empowering youth in a restitutional manner and providing opportunities without forgetting the need for responsibility to go hand in hand with rights. The lack of leadership as a whole regarding HIV in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to a need for strong civil society organizations to address the key drivers of HIV and inadequate education whilst also challenging decision makers and addressing structural changes required for sustained change. Throughout history, key transformation was initiated by individuals, many of whom were young. If young people are given the tools and mentorship, their potential to lead change can be realized as the greatest force for development and improving their quality of life in the future. The stigma around technical skills as opposed to university degrees has perpetuated the skills gap that is fuelling the unemployment crisis amongst school leavers, most of whom will never attend university but are the backbone of the economy in taking up potential semi-skilled jobs and internships.

Entrepreneurs are usually struggling and facing problems and challenges all the way until they succeed. I am sure you have definitely faced some. Can you share the biggest challenge that you’re facing nowadays?

I have faced many during my life to start GOLD. I am a great believer in allowing adversity and difficulties to help fuel innovation and make you stronger. I think the biggest challenge has been dealing with donor cycles when you are trying to implement a long term model. Being committed to quality and scale is a challenge but has been an important part of our DNA. We can only sustain wide if we go deep first.

Give us an overview about GOLD activities, methodology, vision,…etc? And how could GOLD contribute to Southern African society? 

GOLD Peer Education Development Agency (GOLD Agency) is a dynamic, non-profit organization that aims to grow young African leaders with hope, character, and integrity to mobilise their generation with the tools and support to complete their education and go on to reach their full potential, despite obstacles such as poverty, apathy, inadequate education, unemployment, orphanhood, and HIV. We are currently operating in three countries in Southern Africa and it is our hope to grow. GOLD Consulting is a for-profit social enterprise holding company which is 100% owned by GOLD Agency. I established GOLD Consulting as a social enterprise to leverage commercial value in GOLD Agency to help towards sustaining the work of GOLD Agency in under-served communities. This is done through unlocking solutions in emerging markets and in doing so, creating jobs for the GOLD Agency youth beneficiaries.

The GOLD Peer Education Model, using a well-researched curriculum and supporting resources, has been tested and refined over ten years. Peer Educators attend weekly  skills training and mentoring sessions, run by the Facilitator Interns, equipping them to perform the four roles of a GOLD Peer Educator, namely to:

  1. Role model health-enhancing behavior.
  2. Educate their peers and younger children in a structured way.
  3. Recognize peers in need of help and refer them to relevant community resources for assistance.
  4. Uplift their communities through advocacy and volunteerism.

The Peer Educators thus gain valuable skills as well as practical work experience, while uplifting their communities, ultimately leading to an increase in their employability and to a stronger community.

Some photos of GOLD’s activities

GOLD Agency’s future forward initiative connects GOLD Grads (Alumni) to future opportunities in further education, workplace internships, access to entry level jobs, and entrepreneurship support.

The concept of Peer Education, which harnesses the influence that young people have on their peers, is not new. The new idea that I developed and implemented is the concept of a Peer Education Model that is measurable, replicable, and scalable, with clear indicators and expected outcomes which are entrenched in the understanding of character attributes as core to sustain change at an individual, peer group, and ultimately at a community level. This new idea is the GOLD Youth Peer Education Model and if rolled out in enough countries, provinces, schools, and community sites can effect systemic change and will positively impact the way that the education and health systems interact with and support youth.

GOLD is an effective social enterprise. You have received some international awards for your magnificent work; could you share some of them?

Thank you. I think however that awards do not do justice to the real heroes on the ground. I am honored to have recently received the Ashoka Fellow award in 2014 and have been so blown away by the incredible work and humility of so many others within this network. [Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in seventy countries putting their system-changing ideas into practice on a global scale.] GOLD won first prize in the first Commonwealth Good Practice Education awards in 2006 for a best practice model in supporting education in difficult circumstances out of applications from across fifty six countries. In 2013, GOLD received the Impumelelo Social Innovation Award. In 2010, GOLD won best health project by the Mpumalanga Provincial AIDS Council.

What’s your vision for South Africa and the green continent, Africa? 

I have a vision to see GOLD Peer Education being implemented across Africa so that millions of young people are developed and given hope and are better able to make good decisions for their lives and access future employment and study opportunities or grow their own businesses. Systemically this will strengthen education quality and increase healthy and purpose-filled social norms. I think Africa has the potential to show the rest of the world what true community and servant leadership is about. Africa is rich—its full potential is untapped. Its greatest resource is the GOLD at the bottom of the pyramid and I think how we develop the human and social capital of grassroots youth will determine our future.