St. Olaf College | News

Student’s project provides economic opportunity for Ebola survivors

Using a Davis Projects for Peace grant, Leonard Vibbi ’17 developed a program to help female survivors of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone begin rebuilding their lives.

Two years ago, West Africa experienced the largest Ebola outbreak in history — and for months, the deadly disease struck fear around the world and dominated the international news cycle.

Earlier this year, long after the media frenzy subsided and most of the world had moved on, the World Health Organization officially ended the public health emergency associated with Ebola.

The survivors, however, still deal with the effects of the disease on a daily basis. St. Olaf College student Leonard Vibbi ’17 is working to assist those who are still dealing with the impact of the disease — particularly women, who face more obstacles to rebuilding their lives.

Vibbi received a grant from the Davis Projects for Peace initiative that he used this summer to support female survivors of Ebola in Sierra Leone, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.

“Female survivors are more vulnerable, especially those who lost their husband or brother during the outbreak. Most women lost their business, home, and other property during the curtailment of the outbreak — through the burning of those properties by the government,” says Vibbi.

“As a result of those events, they were more vulnerable and needed assistance in getting back on their feet,” he adds. “Male survivors will, for example, acquire jobs much more easily than women because of the patriarchal nature of Sierra Leonese society — hence, the need to empower and support the female community.”

The $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grants are awarded to students who use creativity and innovation in the development of a project that both promotes peace and addresses the root cause of conflict.

Leonard Vibbi ’17 (third from left) with some of the 25 women who participated in his workshop this summer.

Vibbi, a native of Sierra Leone who attended UWC Red Cross Nordic in Norway and has designed his own Technology Innovation in Civic Development major at St. Olaf, used his grant to lead a series of workshops in his hometown of Kenema. The workshops aimed at empowering female survivors of Ebola so that the women and their families may return to some sense of normalcy.

“There are development strides being made, both from local partners and international organizations, but most are focused in the west and north of the country. One reason for this may be due to the limited resources available to the government in order to both help survivors and revive the economy that plummeted as a result of Ebola,” says Vibbi. “Irrespective of that, the irrefutable fact is that like all survivors in Sierra Leone, female survivors need urgent help.”

Bringing survivors together
Vibbi, along with leaders of the local community, selected 25 women to participate in the workshops.

Vibbi’s first action was to bring the 25 women together for the initial workshop. Both literally and figuratively, it was a task easier said than done. Heavy tropical rain batters Sierra Leone during the summer months, making it difficult for the women to get to the workshop.

In the more metaphorical sense, survivors of Ebola often feel like outsiders because of the social stigma that still surrounds the disease. While unable to change the weather, Vibbi was able to bring the survivors emotionally closer together through the first of the workshops.

We started with asking the survivors to share their stories and experiences with one another. We later found out this approach to be very successful as the group started bonding and there was an establishment of solidarity, friendship, and sisterhood among the participants,” he says.

Leonard Vibbi ’17 works with several women in his group to develop business plans. Each participant in the program received a loan to purchase the materials and machinery required to get her businesses to market.

Building businesses
After the initial workshop session had concluded, the group turned its attention toward the economic toll that the disease placed on the survivors and their families.

To overcome this, Vibbi aimed to give the 25 women the means to create their own businesses. He partnered with the Kenema Survivors Organization and Catholic Relief Services to provide the women with the necessary training required to start a business, the space to cultivate ideas for businesses, and the financial capital to get the businesses off the ground.

After initial brainstorming sessions had concluded, the women split into teams and created six business proposals focused on goods such as wood fuel, palm oil, and clothing.

Each program participant received a loan of approximately $200 to purchase the materials and machinery required to get her businesses to market.

The newly created businesses were also paired with longtime business owners from the local community who acted as mentors to the first-time business owners, a big form of assistance in a difficult economic climate that Ebola had a large role in creating.

With the programming concluded and women now ready to do business, Vibbi has high hopes for what lies in the future for Kenema.

“The long-term impact of the project will be to focus on helping other vulnerable women in Kenema,” Vibbi says. “I believe it will work because there is strong community mobilization around the project, which will keep it going and help other women in the near future.”