Founded in 2013 and headquartered in Lomé, Togo, Kailend is a social enterprise working to empower women and at-risk youth through education and skills training for those who may not fit the mold of traditional schooling systems. Kailend welcomes international volunteers each year, and has a dedicated team of volunteers from Togo who support its activities as well. Ayiba’s Debbie Onuoha talks with founder Samuel Sarr on topics ranging from the organization’s unique volunteering model, to its impending transition to a more sustainable model, and the day-to-day challenges of running a non-profit.

Please tell me what your organisation does and why?

Our mission is to contribute to educating people from impoverished communities, mainly through skills training and education sponsorships. We believe that education is the key to unlocking Africa’s immense potential; that’s why we focus on education as a tool and not just in the traditional sense of a classroom.

How was Kailend founded?

I studied hospitality management in the UK, but before then I was in high school in Togo, and before that I was in school in The Gambia. I came back from the UK and realized hospitality wasn’t for me. I was lost: I didn’t know what to do. I stumbled upon a volunteering organisation in Ghana and decided to go as a short career break, but I was totally blown away. Not just that I had a great time there, but I felt like I was actually making an impact. I was teaching basic math in Class 4 and 5, and helping to coach a football team. I also helped at the orphanage. While I’m African, I grew up middle-class in Togo and The Gambia, so the experience was life-changing. I decided, “okay, this is my life, this is what I have to do,” that’s how Kailend started.

Can you talk about the name, Kailend? What does it mean, and how did you select it?

I’m from The Gambia, where the main language is Wolof. Kai in Wolof means “come” and “lend” is just English. Our whole ideology is “come and lend a hand to make a difference.” That is how it started: as a call to everyone. I felt a duty to help other Africans, so it’s a call to Africans. It’s also call to internationals. There are so many borders and passports, I think that whether we’re poor or rich, from Europe or Africa, we’re all global citizens and we have to unite. That’s why I believe in volunteering.

You base your mission on taking a “holistic approach to development.” What does this entail?

“Holistic” to us means that we take a hands-on approach. Our focus is at-risk youth and low-income women: some have never been in any education system and have had other serious issues in their lives. Some of the adults cannot read or write. Many don’t fit into the usual mould of education. This is where we come in and offer this new model: we train them in skills that take more practical training than theory. We’re doing sports training and skills training, like tailoring and jewellery making. We also teach local cosmetics making using shea butter, and local food production such as moringa powder. All this is for local consumption. That’s the approach that we’re trying to use to help people who maybe don’t fit into the system: we’re training them to have basic business skills and to be empowered. We also work with some street children.

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 What are some of the first projects that Kailend embarked upon?

We started off as a volunteer organization focused on education. Usually, we try to stress that volunteers have some background in that field. We had partner schools where our volunteers helped teach. Later, some of street kids that we worked with were allowed to attend those schools at heavily discounted prices or even for free.

Then we expanded to include women’s empowerment skills training. We trained ten women successfully for a year and a half on how to make jewellery out of local beads, and they made some quite intricate collections. I was blown away after the result! We also did football coaching with street children to help engage and empower them. Through that, we felt like we could engage them, and then later, get them back in the schools, and offer them skills training.

Then we began to work with orphanages: one in a village called Vogan, and another here in Lomé. We bring experts in to give them free consultations. We also provide them with donation materials from our fundraising. If the orphanages weren’t there, it would be another cycle of street kids and at-risk youth. By supporting them, we are working towards our goal. We help the village community of Kpome as well with sports and healthcare donations.

We also invite volunteers in healthcare to work with us, but because healthcare is such a sensitive area, we only allow trained professionals or maybe senior level medical students to work on those projects. We fundraise for equipment like heart machines, stethoscopes, blood pressure machines, first aid kits, gloves, et cetera.

I know there are a lot of critiques of “voluntourism,” but when you’re on the ground it’s different.

Compared to other volunteer-based organisations what do you think is unique about Kailend’s model?

First of all, Kailend is transitioning from a volunteer organization. We would like to set up skills-training centres with multiple social enterprises operating from them. Then from revenue generated we can house vulnerable youth. We’d like to cut cycles of dependency, so we’re trying to set up a sustainable centre. A lot of our inspiration, well personally, comes from a centre called Songhai in Benin: it’s an agriculture project with a zero-waste system. So Kailend is trying to transition from a volunteer NGO to this self-sustaining social enterprise based on these centres. The first one will be in Togo, and then we’re hoping to set up all over West Africa.

I don’t like to compare, but I think that what sets us apart from other people. I think we’re a family: everyone’s on the same level at Kailend. We do have a structure, yes: I’m the director, and I do have my junior staff. But you should see us, we’re always cracking jokes: it’s a family.

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You mentioned that you’re transitioning, what do you expect to be the biggest challenge of making this transition?

People want a track record, but how do you have a track record when you’re young? I’m not that young—I’m twenty-eight. By my standards I’m old, but to be honest I didn’t have that much of a track record, which is why it’s so hard. People want you to prove something, but you’ve got to prove it with very limited resources. I’m enjoying the process, because it’s character building. While I’ve become more dynamic and grown out of my comfort zone, financial resources, contacts, limited partners, all of these add to the challenges.

What does a day in the life of Kailend typically look like?

A day in the life of Kailend? We’ve got our HQ, where volunteers are based. A typical day for a volunteer could be: by 6 a.m. you go to sports coach on the beach with the street kids for two hours, and chat with them as you serve them a meal. Then back to base to get freshened up and eat breakfast. Afterwards, you’re ready to go to school to help teach. In the afternoons, the volunteers come home, have lunch, relax, and enjoy Togo’s beauty. In the evenings some volunteers like to go to the orphanage to do things like sports coaching with the kids there or dance training.

We might also have other volunteers on another schedule, who would go to the orphanage in the early morning to get the kids ready for school, and help with daily tasks: which includes bathing them, getting them dressed, feeding them, doing laundry, and helping to teach. So there are many things that volunteers do. Usually we try and put people where their interest is.

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What do you think has been Kailend’s main impact since it was founded? Can you share one specific example that illustrates this?

From the street kids that we were coaching at the beach, we had a core group of twenty-seven, so we managed to get all of them into school initially. Almost a third are still in school—that’s remarkable for kids who aren’t used to structure or regular care. Kailend pays for their education and feeding, but we’re not paying for their accommodation since the school agreed to take on that cost. The rest have gone back to the beach. But this is a long-term project. With the group that are back on the beach, we still coach and feed them on a weekly basis. We’re still trying to engage them because we hope to bring them into skills training.

For people who are interested in getting involved in Kailend, what can they do?

The best way is to email us or reach out on social media. We’re always welcoming of creative ways to help. A lot of people get involved in different ways. Some people run a marathon, or hold yoga classes to raise money for us. You can also become a volunteer, donate, or spread the word.

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In about fifty years’ time what would you like Kailend to have achieved? What’s one thing that you would like to have been done?

By fifty years, we would have been established: we would have these sustainable skills development centres all over different countries in West Africa and other regions. I would like that we would have put millions of kids through school, and they’d have jobs that they’re passionate about. I would like to sponsor other social entrepreneurs to achieve their goals and dreams. I’d like us to help Africa, and help our nations to become more democratic, to improve living standards and health. In fifty years, I would like to see African women treated better, respected more, given more opportunities. I would like to see more transparency, more hard work, more innovation, and more production from Africa. That’s the vision of our skills centres. I want to see goods made in Africa take off. In fifty years, come on, Africa should have taken a giant leap towards fulfilling its potential God-willing, I’ll be, what, seventy-eight?

What impact do you think Kailend has had on your life personally?

Because I do Kailend pro-bono I don’t pay myself, especially as Kailend isn’t making huge sums of cash. When it’s a sustainable social enterprise, making enough revenue then I will give myself a salary. So right now I have to do other side businesses. But Kailend—what it gives me— you can’t put it in a monetary value. First of all, it’s basic leadership skills as I’m running the project, as well as communication skills and humility: it’s making me more humble, more appreciative. It’s making me realise that it is a duty for every single person to help his or her brother who is in a less fortunate position. It’s just opened my mind, and made me realise that we’re all human, and in the struggle all of us are together.