Sussex alumna Réjane Woodroffe left a career in high finance to help South Africa’s poorest rural community get on its feet. After being awarded a British Council award for social impact, she describes why what she does now is so richly rewarding.
South Africa’s Wild Coast, at the far southeast of the country, is a stretch of stunning natural beauty. It is also an incredibly poor region, where decades of underinvestment have left the largely illiterate farming communities struggling to survive.
For Réjane Woodroffe, a South African who experienced some of the worst inequities of apartheid, it was the perfect environment to put to use her background as an economist and her Masters in Economic Development from the University of Sussex.
Moreover, after a decade of working in the lucrative but ultimately soulless world of high finance, she realised that here she could return to her activist roots and make a change for good.
Her plan is working. In April 2019 Rejane was awarded a British Council Study UK Global Award for Social Impact for the work that she and her husband Dave Martin have done in creating sustainable systems to support the education, employment and welfare needs of a community of 6000 people.
Their project, the Bulungula Incubator , which they set up in 2007, is having notable success. For example, an e-learning programme they developed to teach good-quality English and maths to primary school children (through using energy-efficient computer tablets and training classroom facilitators) is now being piloted in other deprived parts of the country.
They calculate that their projects have more than 10,000 direct beneficiaries, while their broader programmes impact and touch thousands more through sharing and collaborative partnerships with other organisations and government.
“A lot of things we have tried haven’t worked,” says Réjane. “But because we are embedded in the community we can adapt to its needs. We are focused on the ground and, in that way, we are starting to have a national impact.”
Réjane left behind a luxury lifestyle, with a flat in Cape Town and a high salary working in asset management, when she decided to do “something more fulfilling” with her life.
“At the beginning I’d really enjoyed my job,” she says. “I’d gone from studying business at Cape Town University straight to becoming an assistant economist at Merrill Lynch. I was totally sucked into the finance sector and my career carried on developing.”
But after eight years she was becoming increasingly more miserable. “I started to think back to when I was happy, and I realised that it was during the 1980s, when I had been part of the community organisation in the struggle against apartheid.”
Réjane was born during apartheid in the 1970s. With her family, she experienced the terror of being forcibly removed from her Cape Town home when the area became designated “white”. They were relocated in the impoverished townships of the Cape Flats.
Although Nelson Mandela’s presidency, which began in 1994, gave hope for many that the fight was over, the emotional pull of her past was too strong for Réjane. “I knew I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what.”
She took time out to think and, in 2003, successfully applied for a Ford Foundation Scholarship. “It gave me the opportunity to study at any university in the world. I chose Sussex because it had this reputation for being strong on economics and also the development side. It just seemed like a really good combo for me.”
At around the same time she met Dave Martin, a fellow Cape Town University graduate and “a back-packer at heart”, who had set up Bulungula Lodge, an eco-hostel for travellers in Nqileni village entirely owned by the community. Through donations from visitors and seed funding from organisations he had already started to help develop the local economy.
Réjane could see that they were both on the same journey. Her time at Sussex, which involved modules taught in Economics and in the Institute of Development Studies , helped to frame that ambition.
“I was not a development professional and at first I felt quite insecure. I didn’t know what to do. But at Sussex I was able to meet those who were professionals, to get their advice, to tap into resources and to feel confident about what I needed to do.”
She and Dave were married in 2005. For the next three years Réjane split her time between working in Cape Town and travelling to the coast. “I had tried to resign from my job, but they offered me the opportunity to work half from home. It meant that we had some money, and could start to do bits and pieces.”
One of the first projects was to raise money for water tanks in order to supply the four hundred households with running water. This led to education around water, and then to education more generally, from setting up pre-school groups, to holding regular health clinics, to arranging practical skills training, such as for carpentry.
“I can’t say we started off with a vision,” says Réjane. “We began with one thing, and then something else became urgent and we did the next thing. It’s only in the last three or four years that it has started to look like a holistic continuum.”
For every step, she and Dave have worked with the community to ensure that whatever structures and systems they have introduced are sustainable. This has meant helping to train individuals in the community to run their own schools and businesses, even when their levels of literacy and numeracy have been very low.
They’re also mindful that any new initiatives need to be complementary to the local culture and farming traditions. “Decisions are made by consensus,” says Réjane. “Every project has a community committee from the start, so we are under the will of the community. You often have to demonstrate why it’s good.”
They’re seeing now how their integrated approach is benefiting the community. The birth rate has dropped because of better health education around contraception, but also because children are more likely to survive.
“As a way of life, it’s incredibly challenging,” admits Réjane. “It’s stretching me in a way that the finance industry could never have done. But when we have success it is so rewarding.”