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Our Home Practice teacher and founder of the Africa Yoga Project Paige Elenson talks about running a social enterprise in Kenya.
Yoga Journal: Tell us about the Africa Yoga Project—what does it do?
Paige Elenson: I started the Africa Yoga Project with Baron Baptiste in 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya. It is a 3-year leadership and yoga teacher training program where we educate, empower, elevate, and employ African youth. We created it for marginalized youth, ages 18 to 35, from the informal settlements or slums in Africa, where the unemployment rate is up to 80 percent and the only options for putting food on the table are things like prostitution, drug activity, or doing housework. After they complete the training, they earn international Yoga Alliance accreditation as yoga teachers and go teach yoga classes in their own communities, at orphanages, prisons, schools, and other places. We provide scholarships to many of these youth for the training, and then we also pay them to teach their classes. The wellness industry is growing in Africa, and our training offers people opportunities in the wellness field and the chance to get out of poverty and make a difference.
Our international mentors donate $125/month for their salaries. The idea is that we’re supporting these people to teach yoga for free in their own communities so they can become community leaders and also have an employable skill. The training prepares youth to gain self-sustaining incomes as community leaders in the health and wellness industry in Africa, which is growing rapidly.
YJ: What kind of results are you seeing?
PE: We employ over 100 teachers here in Kenya and we’ve trained over 200 teachers who live in 10 countries across Africa including South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Rwanda. In Nairobi, we have over 250 free classes a week that reach over 6000 people a month. There are close to a quarter of a million people per year throughout Africa who get free yoga classes through our program.
YJ: What inspired you to start doing this work?
PE: I went to Nairobi on a family vacation in 2006. I’d been studying yoga with Baron Baptiste in the US, and teaching full time. We were on a safari ride when I saw some young men doing handstands. I jumped out of the vehicle and started doing handstands with them and I had a true experience of service and feeling connected to people I didn’t know through the practice of yoga.
These young men later found me on MySpace. They said “Can you come back to Kenya and teach us yoga?” They were so insistent! They said, “we want to learn yoga here in Africa, and it’s really reserved for the elite.” And something in my heart said, “Yes!” and I bought a ticket to Africa.
They picked me up from the airport and they took me to stay at one of the local slums. Until then, I didn’t understand the level of poverty Africa was experiencing. They youth from the slums are marginalized from formal economic opportunities.
YJ: Why did you create a social entrepreneurship model?
PE: My inquiry was: What is the root cause as to why there’s so much suffering here? And one of the root causes is a lack of opportunity for sustainable employment. We’re taking the cliché of ‘Don’t give a man a fish, but teach him how to fish’ to ‘Let’s revolutionize the whole fishing industry’.
People are empowered by this program and feel a real sense of purpose. We’ve realized that jobs are not enough. It’s not giving people jobs or money that solves social issues. It’s giving people jobs that have a strong ethical fiber and a strong sense of purpose, passion, community, and civic engagement. Yoga is a wonderful place to provide those opportunities.
YJ: And now you’re expanding with new businesses and bringing your model to other countries in Africa?
PE: We really believe in social entrepreneurship. We’re opening up six different social enterprises in the next 12 months, including a yoga fashion company, a yoga retreat company, an enterprise for opening new studios, a yoga for special needs program, leadership trainings, and a kids yoga programs. These enterprises will enable people to make a significant difference in their own countries.
And we’re excited to bring our model to other countries in Africa. We’re setting up a social franchise operation in Uganda and South Africa to offer people more structure to be able to replicate our model. Then we can train people in three countries instead of having everyone come to Kenya.
YJ: You were recently chosen as an Ashoka Fellow—what does that mean for AYP?
PE: Ashoka fellows are usually social entrepreneurs, people who are providing system changing ideas to solve the world’s largest social problems. I was chosen for the fellowship in 2013. The most recently announced Nobel peace prize winner is also a fellow, so I am in good company. There are 3000 Ashoka Fellows in the world, but I am the only yoga person. I really feel blessed and grateful to be able to bring yoga into a network that’s making such a radical difference in the world. This award allows yoga to become part of the global conversation about development and social change.
See also: Yoga Classes to Help the Homeless
YJ: Do you have advice for anyone wanting to do something to change the world for the better?
PE: When you say yes to an opportunity and lead with your heart, anything is possible. So we need to just keep saying yes to the opportunities in front of us to make a difference for other people. That’s what I did and what I’m seeing hundreds of people do.
People wait for the context to change, but we have to change the context. We can’t wait for other people to make the change. It’s up to each of us to live our best lives every day.