A change for good
Réjane Woodroffe (Development Economics 2004) left a career in high finance to help South Africa’s poorest rural community get on its feet. After receiving a British Council award for social impact, she describes why she finds her role today so richly rewarding.
The Wild Coast in South Africa is a stretch of stunning natural beauty in the country’s Eastern Cape province. 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 the apartheid regime, it was the perfect environment to put to good use her background as an economist and her MSc in Development Economics from the University of Sussex.
Moreover, after a decade of working in the lucrative but for her ultimately unfulfilling 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, Réjane received the British Council’s Study UK Alumni Award for Social Impact in recognition of the work she and her husband Dave Martin have done to create sustainable systems to support the education, employment and welfare needs of a community of 6,000 people.
Their project, the Bulungula Incubator, which they set up in 2007, is having notable success. For example, an e-learning programme 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.
Réjane calculates that their projects have more than 10,000 direct beneficiaries, while their broader programmes impact thousands more through sharing and collaborative partnerships with other organisations and government.
“A lot of things we have tried haven’t worked,” admits 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-salaried role in asset management, to do “something more fulfilling” with her life.
Bulungula Incubator projects have more than 10,000 direct beneficiaries, while their broader programmes impact thousands more through sharing and collaborative partnerships with other organisations and government
“At the beginning, I 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 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,” she says.
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 to the impoverished townships in the Cape Flats.
Children in one of the Bulungula Incubator Early Childcare Development programmes.
Although Nelson Mandela’s presidency, which began in 1994, gave hope to 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 says.
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,” says Réjane. “I chose Sussex because it had a 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, a community-owned eco-hostel for travellers in Nqileni village. Through donations from visitors and seed funding from organisations, he had already begun to help develop the local economy.
Réjane could see that they were both on the same journey. Her time at Sussex helped build her confidence to frame that ambition and take the next steps.
“I was not a development professional and at first I felt quite insecure,” she recalls. “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.”
Réjane speaking to students and staff at Sussex during her 2019 Study UK Global Winners visit to the University of Sussex
Réjane 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 the week 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 400 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 and arranging practical skills training, such as 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, due to 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 financial industry could never have done. But when we have success, it is so rewarding.
Could you be one of the next year's global alumni awards winners?
The Study UK Alumni Awards 2020 launched on 2 September and is open for applications until 30 October 2020. For more information, visit https://study-uk.britishcouncil.org/alumni-awards