A revolutionary model for people in the world’s most challenging places to build lasting, world-class essential services — for life.
In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Asili is using co-creation to transform what it means to deliver humanitarian aid. Reimagining philanthropic aid as startup capital for self-sustaining businesses—and joining forces with like-minded partners along the way—Asili is not only operated by and for the people it serves, but is creating world-class service infrastructure for those who need it most.
Incubated by Alight and now powered by Eastern Congo Initiative, Asili is doing more than ever before to bring world-class essential service to the people of Congo. And this is only the beginning.
The Roots of Asili
Before Asili arrived on the scene in 2013, decades of hard international work and billions of dollars spent in humanitarian aid weren’t generating lasting results in Eastern Congo. People still had no consistent access to the vital services that life depends on. Water systems installed by NGOs would dry up as quickly as the grants that funded them. Disease-specific charity clinics had to get by with whatever medications their donors sent them, no matter what their patients actually needed.
But even worse than the lack of basic services was the lack of basic dignity. Too often, well-meaning aid programs met bare-minimum standards of quality—just “good enough” for the world’s poorest people, but nowhere near acceptable for anyone who had a choice.
In 2013, our partnership began with a bold challenge: How could we transform humanitarian funding into lasting improvements to essential services, human dignity, and economic prosperity in eastern Congo—for life?
The answer was a bold mix of partners who believed in simply doing better by the Congolese people, including Eastern Congo Initiative, Alight, IDEO.org, USAID, Asili’s faith partners, Caterpillar Foundation, and Nespresso. Together, we’ve kept Congolese voices, talent, and ingenuity squarely in the center. It’s that mix of public and private partnerships, like-minded business people, and, most importantly, Congolese families, entrepreneurs, and organizations, that continues to fuel the social enterprise.
The Asili Model
Asili, the Swahili word for “foundation,” addresses a range of urgent social issues, which are familiar to people in impoverished places worldwide: lack of quality healthcare, scarcity of clean drinking water, shortage of meaningful economic opportunities, and a history of low-quality humanitarian aid that injures human dignity.
After a single investment of startup capital, Asili businesses are built to operate independently and sustainably, providing world-class services that don’t stop when a grant does. And through a series of linked essential services—clean water and primary healthcare today, with more services in active development—Asili helps customers in Congo live better lives every single day.
Asili water points and health clinics are serving 120,000 daily customers at prices they can truly afford. But that’s not all—underlying Asili’s services is the idea that if it’s not good enough for our kids, it’s not good enough for theirs. That includes the services themselves (ensuring that the water is safe and clean, always) and also the environment in which people receive those services.
Asili’s clinics stand as beacons of hope and change in both rural and urban communities. These facilities are kept spotlessly clean, and you can always expect a friendly smile and patient nurse upon visiting. Asili’s water kiosks also offer small things to purchase, like a neighborhood bodega, so that moms and kids don’t have to trek all the way to town or wait for market day.
Even Asili’s brand—with the red, green, blue, and teal star—was designed by Congolese families, signaling that this business belongs to them, that they are the ones who are making it happen. It’s those little, thoughtful details that make for a dignified humanitarian aid service. One that anyone, anywhere, could feel proud to pay for and receive.
The heart of the Asili model is transforming how we think about people who live in the world’s poorest places. Humanitarian aid recipients have no choice but to take whatever they are given, no matter the quality. But customers have a choice: they can choose to spend what money they have on higher quality services, and they will refuse to pay for water that isn’t pure or healthcare that isn’t effective.
It might sound crazy to charge for water and healthcare in one of the poorest places in the world. But turning “aid recipients” into customers has enabled us to offer a radically new level of quality, while still allowing access for everyone.
Asili’s model works. After five years in operation, Asili water kiosks became self-reliant by the first quarter of 2019. That year, 28 Asili retail water points sold 43 million liters of clean water. Four Asili health clinics cared for 10,919 patients. And Asili services reached an average of 120,000 customers every day.
Today, in partnership with USAID and private-sector partners, Asili is on the way to serving 500,000 people by 2023, and we are piloting new service lines in sanitation and clean energy. As we expand the Asili platform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and someday beyond—ECI and all of Asili’s partners hope to bring this impact throughout the region.
Coffee, Congo, and Community
One of Asili’s latest and most exciting partnerships is a collaboration with Nespresso and the farmers of eastern Congo. Together, they’re releasing a special single-origin coffee called Kahawa ya Congo, created exclusively from USDA-certified organic beans grown by the farming families of the Minova region on the shores of Lake Kivu.
The region was once a leading supplier of gourmet coffee beans, but a generation of constant armed conflict almost destroyed Congo’s coffee sector. Nevertheless, the farmers in Minova persevered, and Nespresso is funding the initial capital cost of Asili water and healthcare infrastructure in Minova for farming families. Customers in the United States can buy Kahawa ya Congo starting today at nespresso.com!
“With Asili, ECI will take our transformative vision for health, freedom and prosperity farther than ever before,” says ECI executive director Abraham Leno. “The Asili business model provides a new vision for commerce, which is why some of the world’s most visionary companies have begun to invest in Asili services to build a long-term relationship with the people and communities who supply the products they need. Nespresso joins other partners—including USAID, charitable foundations, and a growing list of private companies—in recognizing the power and promise of this new model of global stewardship. For people accustomed to minimum-standard foreign aid, Asili services bring far more than water and healthcare: they bring respect, dignity, and an enduring commitment to the wellbeing of the community.”
You Can Help Asili Grow Too
Asili is just getting started. Partnerships are at the heart of Asili, from Congolese moms to Minnesota businesspeople to anyone, anywhere. If you want to learn more about how you can be a part of transforming aid for good, contact ECI!