Nok Nora Duany Bassey & Aprelle Duany: We wanted South Sudanese children to access education

nok duany bassey aprelle duany tasoos

South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. Despite the ongoing conflict, it’s status provides many opportunities for business. Sister-in-laws Nok Nora Duany Bassey and Aprelle Duany joined forces to create The American School of South Sudan (TASOSS) in order to provide much needed high quality early childhood education. Nok’s background is in finance and Aprelle is a fashion designer but both wanted the best for their native and adopted homeland. Below the founders share their greatest challenges, hopes and advice for creating a business in the midst of conflict.

Liz: Nok, can you tell me a little about how you came to leave South Sudan and live in the US?

Nok: We left South Sudan immediately after the civil war started and came to Bloomington, Indiana where my parents were graduate students at the time. Even during that period, my parents remained really connected to the conflict and worked on the peace process. My dad used to spend six months in Kenya or wherever he could in the bush in South Sudan and then six months in the US to check on the family. I had three brothers and a sister so there were five of us with my mother. She did a lot of advocacy work with churches from the US but there was always a narrative in the household that, “When there is peace we will go home.” And that narrative stuck.

So literally when peace came in 2005 after the CPA was signed, I went back after 21 years of being away. My father was already in Juba and we first went to the North, to Khartoum. I remember thinking, “Why haven’t I been here?” A Sudanese classmate from Georgetown was showing me around and everything was so developed. We spent Christmas there and I flew to Juba in time for New Year’s and when I arrived there was completely nothing. I remember getting into the back of a truck to go to my childhood home where I was born. There were no roads. Everything was still under construction.

My father had been there for a week and was working to set everything up but it had been abandoned for twenty years. When he came back home they had a found a corpse there and many dead animals. Coming back, I remember this feeling of excitement but also of anger. I thought to myself that I would never go back to the North until I had played some part in developing South Sudan. Coming back forever changed me. I finished my graduate studies in 2006 and moved back to South Sudan permanently.

Liz: How was the transition moving back?

Nok: Of course it was difficult but it was such a mix of emotions. There was a lot of excitement. So many South Sudanese were moving back after a long time. Over 4 million people were displaced during the war so there was an influx of different South Sudanese from all over the world. Everyone was so encouraged and inspired. I remember drums beating at nights and elders telling stories. People were finally moving freely and everyone was happy. My mom would say, “This really is what peace is: freedom.”

We were all building things from scratch and anything that you wanted to do in South Sudan was possible.  My father would tell me, “If you miss something you had in the US ,build it here.” I was so inspired and encouraged seeing the work being done for us to have our own country. Of course it was also a big culture shock and it took time and patience to take everything in.

2Liz: What about you Aprelle? How was it for you moving to Juba?

Aprelle: Moving to South Sudan was a difficult transition for me.  I left my family and comforts of New York City to support my husband, who like his sister Nok, wanted an opportunity to redevelop his home country.  As a new wife and mom, there were many cultural differences that I was not expecting.

In addition to the lack of development and language barriers, the environment was difficult to ease into.  Overtime, I began to meet new people and gain a better understanding of why South Sudan faced generations of challenges, which held the country back.  South Sudan was not an easy place to thrive, but everyday I would meet people who were so passionate about changing the country into a place where they could call home, it was inspiring.  At that time, I also began to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of life and I began to explore areas where I could also contribute.

Liz: So once you were based in Juba, how did the idea to create a school come about?

Aprelle: The school was inspired by my daughter Jinai.  The idea became actualized over lunch with Nok, myself, and a few friends. Children in Juba were often isolated in their compounds without an opportunity to engage with other children, which is key to healthy childhood development.  One of the things that I wanted for my daughter was a sense of community where she could play and learn.  Additionally, Nok and I both benefited from education in our lives from a young age and we wanted to create opportunities for young South Sudanese children to access education.

Nok: Yes, oftentimes, people were sending their kids to Kenya or Uganda for school. Young women like myself left kids with their grandparents in other countries. It was heartbreaking. We finally had peace and families were being split again after so many years of being unstable. There were not many schools to support kids in Juba.

We initially decided to start a nursery school because Jinai needed one. We started with one classroom and one student. The first day we held an Open House and a few people passed through but Jinai was the only student enrolled for the first two weeks. So everyone was looking over Jinai saying, “Oh, she’s coloring! She knows the ABCs….” Eventually we got more students enrolled and had a full class and a waiting list.

My background is in finance and Aprelle is a designer so it has been a learning process. But we’ve always had a lot of passion and it has been helpful to start small and learn along the way.

Liz: Aside from not coming from an education background, what have been some of the greatest challenges building a business in Juba?

Aprelle: There were many challenges. I think even with an education background, we would have still run into many hurdles.  You have to remember, South Sudan is the newest country on Earth, less than 5 years old at the time.  We didn’t have an education system, curriculum, or guidelines to follow, so we had to make it up as we went along.  We had to pay attention to what was working and what was not working in terms of building relationships with parents, training teachers, and gauging how much the students were growing.  It was a difficult task as we were basically pioneering the space but we had a lot of passion that helped us along.

Nok: In addition, when we started this we knew that we really needed to get it right. When we just had nursery level it was easier to say that we could build the foundation, but then as the students grow we really realized that we can’t mess up. Education is so important to the development of South Sudan so it was nerve-wracking. We knew we needed the right support and people who are skilled in educational development to get involved.

We knew we needed the right teachers, but the retention of these teachers has been a huge challenge because of the instability of the environment. Teachers often leave without much notice and really good teachers have been nervous about living in South Sudan. Another challenge has been learning the terrain and the culture and how business works here. Things like getting proper registration and licensing take time and can be quite costly. Once we got the technical stuff out of the way the main challenges were convincing people that investing in early childhood education and in getting girls in school are important. When we started, many people were asking, “Why work with this age?”

Ideas about girls’ education not being valued are not just present in rural areas but also in Juba. Families believe there is no immediate benefit to have daughters in school, but we know how investing in girls can change communities.

Why we need business education in the African market

Yaba Market

When considering female micro-entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa, I often remember the stark images of the women of Yaba market in Lagos. Some of the market women sell food produce, others focus on the textile business and a greater number work as the “Jacquelines” of all trades.

I often wonder if they designed and wrote out a business plan before they started their respective ventures and how they and their businesses have survived through the years. More importantly, I think about what can make their businesses more profitable and sustainable. During my last trip to Nigeria, I spent a few hours buying gifts at Yaba market and engaging different micro-scale womenpreneurs. My goal was to gain insight as to how these women got started in business, how their businesses were structured and what their biggest needs were.

Unsurprisingly, many women talked about limited access to loans and credit. However, I was more struck by the desire of many of the women to get an education. The conversations inspired me to think of creative and effective ways to empower women in the market with customized business skills and education.

I dug deeper to gain a clearer understanding of what can be done to empower these women, many of whom didn’t complete secondary school but still had a strong desire to obtain some formal education. The biggest challenge to getting formal education for many of these women was time, money and the opportunity cost of leaving their businesses for extended periods of time. Many women simply could not leave their kiosks during business hours to attend class at a school that would most likely be far away.

While auditing a Coursera class on Social Entrepreneurship, I applied the Principles of Design to the problem.

My solution: take the training and education to the women. 

I crafted a model that will function as a daily or weekly lunch-and-learn, allowing micro-womenpreneurs leave their kiosks for forty-five minutes to an hour and take skills-focused business classes at a location within the market infrastructure. To increase the chances of success, the program must be skills-focused and be offered in bite-sized digestible format. Many of these women manage shops, stalls and boutiques; hence they need an education that is timely, tailored and convenient.

Listed below are the reasons that having a skills-focused business school in the market will be beneficial to small-scale women entrepreneurs:

Timeliness and applicability of information

Given the focus on skills-based learning and real time application of information, women can learn about how to build a budget and exercise their knowledge of different commerce topics on their businesses the same day.

Their learning is further complemented by their respective business challenges, which can serve as case studies from which everyone else can learn. Additionally, women can real time advice from their teachers, mentors and fellow womenpreneurs.

Creation of a Womenpreneur ecosystem

A market-based schooling approach creates a network of entrepreneurial women who come together to share business experiences, engage with business lessons, and form a coalition. This creates a support system whereby women can rely on each other for support or even micro-credit; an ecosystem where women can share issues they are having in their businesses and find ways to learn from each other’s experiences promises to create trust among the women.

Women may also discover that they are serving different levels of the business chain and may decide to integrate or partner; hence creating potential value to be realized in efficiency gains.

Convenience and flexibility

It is difficult to convince a middle-aged woman who is the breadwinner of her family to leave her kiosk for hours at a time to attend school. However, if that education is right there in the market and is fitted into mini-education sessions, it creates a more compelling and readily available opportunity. Bringing education to the micro womenpreneurs creates the flexibility that has been missing in obtaining an education.

The Girl effect

Many of the women I’ve seen running shops over the years tend to have some help from another younger woman. Usually, it’s a daughter or a niece or a relation of some sort. Some of these relationships with younger women can be structured as apprenticeships with defined learning outcomes, which further fuel the entrepreneurial spirit of the young women. Coupling that structure with formal education (right there in the market) can create a powerful domino effect for years to come.

A program of this nature can take many forms. There are number of parties from the private, public and non-profit sectors who could come in as partners. From a funding perspective, the program can be sponsored through philanthropy, whether from an NGO, the government or a Private Corporation.

It can also be structured as a public-private partnership. While there are obstacles facing women entrepreneurship, most of these are in fact solvable. Education continues to be a primary issue, however, with some creative thinking we can develop meaningful responses and improve these solutions as ideas further develop.