Originally from Togo, Africa, Romuald Kodjotse Afatchao (aka Ro) was one of 22 children in his family. He grew up with his nine brothers, twelve sisters, and three mothers (as polygamy is practiced in Togo), and attended public schools for the majority of his K-12 education. Between 1992-1993, he enrolled in a Catholic high school, College Notre Dame, while living as a refugee in the Republic of Benin. Ro graduated high school in Benin and returned to Togo for college at the University of Lome; where he graduated in 1997 with a a Bachelor in Law. He continued his studies to eventually gain a Master's in Business Law and an L.L.M. in environmental law and politics (both from the University of Lomé in Togo), a master's in International Environmental Law from the University of Limoges in France, and a P.H.D. in Environmental Science from the University of Idaho where he is currently a Clinical Professor and Assistant Director of the Martin Institute and Program in International Studies.
Currently, Ro is the Founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Community Partnerships and Sustainable Development (ICPSD) and Professor at the University of Idaho. Ro's story is one of resilience, persistence, and overwhelming accomplishment. He has become a source of pride for his community in Togo, and his inspiration guides the founding principles at S H E. We're honored to share his story with you, because without his unwavering dedication to the development of his home country, our work would not be possible.
What was it like growing up in Togo?
I grew up in a small and rural town of Notsé in the southern part of Togo. By the time I was old enough to understand what was going on in my life, most of my older siblings had left the parental house to pursue their education and training elsewhere. In the 80s, I was the only male in the house with ten of my sisters. As such, I didn’t have to do much in terms of house chores. I, therefore, spent most my days between school and playgrounds. I played soccer with my friends and enjoyed life. I was an average student, and I could not imagine doing what I’m doing now. It wasn’t until high school that I started taking my education seriously. I was the first person in my family to attend law school; the first to study abroad; and the first to get a doctorate. Through it all, I had the support of my entire family and my community. I am a source of pride for many in my birth hometown. I feel privileged to have come from such a supportive environment.
What lessons did you learn from your parents?
My parents were pretty hands-off when it comes to our education, and they let us kids choose what we wanted to do with our lives. However, education was very important to them. Unlike many parents in my hometown, my dad was very eager to send all his kids, girls and boys, to school. My dad taught us to value education and my moms (my dad had three wives) taught us the importance of hard work and self-reliance. Those values are the guiding principles of my life today.
Can you talk about the adversity you faced when coming to the United states? How did you overcome this?
Coming to the US was a big change as you can imagine. I got to learn a new language, adapt to a new educational system, and immerse myself in a fundamentally different culture from the one I came from. Food, social norms, personal reference, etc. were different. Obviously, being a black male in the US comes with its challenges, but I’ve seen worse elsewhere. That said, I’m glad I landed in a community with people who are very open, and they were able to effectively help me in various ways during my earlier days here. I’d like to recognize Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church in Moscow for their support. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their help, prayers, support, and friendship.
What motivated you to start the Institute for Community Partnerships and Sustainable Development (ICPSD)?
I strongly believe that to achieve transformative progress, solutions must emerge from the African context. It only makes sense that members of a community have the best understanding of what they need to develop, or at the very least have the most appropriate knowledge base from which to begin such exploration. For example, the M-Pesa (mobile phone banking) was developed by an African in Africa based upon the unique needs of his community. It also turned out to be applicable in a greater regional context and continues to provide lower-income populations access to financial services. In similar fashion, ICPSD supports the human capacity development in African communities, as these communities build their own social capital, leadership, and infrastructure rooted in the ethics, values, and culture of their societies.
ICPSD is truly a dream come true for me. I am a strong believer in the in power of the community and the fact that together and in a concerted manner, we can make positive changes in our communities. I am passionate about the continent of my birth and expanding the cultural competency of my students. While leading a student-service trip to Ghana, I challenged the students to see beyond the excitement of being in a new country and to look deeper into themselves and the situations they observed and participated in. One of these students was ICPSD co-founder, Whitney Schroeder. Our shared experiences led to discussions and contemplations regarding the development in Africa and the impact of outside aid and influences. Some of the most impactful and profound observations surrounded the role and impact of aid in developing countries, especially in small, localized areas. After returning to Moscow, our conversations continued and out of those, the idea of ICPSD was born.
What is Sustainable Development?
Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most commonly used definition comes from Our Common Future: "Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
For ICPSD, sustainable development is a development that puts local communities at the center of their own development. We recognize that the root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment are complex. As such, we propose that there is a key component missing in past development models and a critical need for the convergence of homegrown knowledge, experiences, and practices with modern science and technology. ICPSD’s "essential value proposition" is found in its unique strategies for allowing solutions for development in African communities to emerge from the African context. It only makes sense that members of a community have the best understanding of what they need to develop or at the very least have the most appropriate knowledge base from which to begin such exploration.
For people who want to get involved in sustainable development, what advice can you offer?
Hmmm, good question. Be patient and follow your heart. It’s frustrating at times because you don’t get to see the results right away, however, in the long run, you will make difference in someone’s life.
What are the best ways to empower local community members?
The best way to empower local community members is to allow them to have ownership of their own development. We can assist with knowledge, skills, and technology transfer, but at the end the day, we have to allow them to find the most appropriate solutions for their own problems. By doing so, they’ll have complete ownership of the processes and the results. We also need to make sure that we empower local leaders via a strong mentorship program, hence the need for partnership.
Are there types of foreign aid that don’t work? Can you talk about why?
The whole concept of foreign aid as practiced for decades is absurd to me. The idea that you can invest millions of dollars in a community and solve their problems like magic is crazy. Many outside NGOs come to Africa with large quantities of money aimed at “fixing” a single issue or problem.
But the world of aid and development is starting to experience a dynamic shift. More and more conversation is acknowledging the shortcomings in aid history and proposing the need for change. Rising out of these calls to action are programs taking different approaches in hopes of producing different results. For example, the charity GiveDirectly gives money raised and donated directly to the poor in Kenya. The idea, similar to that of ICPSD, is that Kenyans know what is best for them. However, while giving people money can open the door to many possibilities, the lack of infrastructure, learning opportunities and access to collaborations does not set up such funds for long-term success in regards to broader development and stability.
ICPSD sees itself as the structure that connects all these pieces, a resource for all involved in assisting local individuals, organizations, and communities in their quest to generate solutions tailored to their own unique needs. We facilitate the emergence of human capital capable of finding innovative approaches to regional, country- and continent-wide development struggles.
We envision capable, self-sustained, and resilient communities in Africa created by its own people.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for people practicing the sustainable development approach?
The biggest challenge here is the fact that there is not just one sustainable development approach; each community, village, town, region, or country is unique. As such, each development model has to be tailored to specific local realities and needs. That is difficult to do. In some ways, it’s like having to reinvent the wheels all over again. Thankfully, a lot of the skills and knowledge are transferable and adaptable.
Can you talk about what it’s like to be a woman growing up in Togo?
Obviously; I’m not a woman; so I won’t pretend to know exactly what is like to be a woman in Togo; however, I grew up with my sisters, and I could talk about their experiences, at least what I observed. Generally, girls and women in Togo are strong leaders in their family in their own rights; they take care of their kids and their siblings and they complete house chores; however, in many families, they don’t have access to education.
It can be said that abject poverty is the main reason why most girls don’t go to school or succeed in school. Those who attend school face multiple hardships including exploitation, sexual harassment from their male colleagues and teachers alike. This situation, unfortunately, leads to teen pregnancy, which makes them drop out of school, hence creating a vicious cycle of poverty for girls.
As far as women are concerned, they are entrepreneurial and very resourceful; however, the lack of formal education and access to capital limit their potential for success.
What do you think women IN togo need to be empowered?
I think women in Togo are born leaders and they are hardworking and resourceful. With a more targeted education, professional development, and access to capital, they can achieve everything.
I also think they need women role models that could mentor them in achieving their full potential. I’d like to commend S H E for actions and supporting girls' schooling in Togo. I strongly believe that education is the most empowering tool you could give to girls in rural communities.
How do you think we can best promote gender equity?
I think gender equity is important in every society; when you look around the world today, the most equitable societies are those that provide access to education, jobs, leisure etc. to both genders. However, we have to recognize in some instances that we will have to give more opportunities to women in order to close the gaps that exist in society between men and women.
That said, it is equally important to educate boys on the values and the importance of equity for the society as a whole. Ultimately, those boys will grow up to be allies and supporters of an equitable society.
What is something you’d like people to know about you?
I like musicals. Haha, period.
What book do you recommend everyone reads?
The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer. It’s a fascinating read about communication across cultures and management across the diverse cultural contexts of today’s workplace.
What inspires you?
My inspiration comes from the novel “Sans Tam-tam” (French) by a Congolese author and diplomat Henri Lopes. I read this book in high school but the main teaching stays with me. In this novel as in other works, Henri Lopes denounces the corruption of African political elites to the detriment of the people, inviting the readers to consider the alternative towards better governance. For the purpose of this evolution, the female characters struggling for their emancipation play a vital role in achieving this better governance.
What are your dreams for ICPSD?
I don’t have dreams for ICPSD per say, my dreams are those of the communities we serve. We always welcome people who want to help achieve our objectives; we are looking for individual and organizations that would like to share their skills, knowledge, and trade with communities in Togo. We will organize service trips for individuals and organizations. Obviously, we welcome donations to our organization. For those who would like to donate, please, visit our website .
What is your hope for Togo, for the US, and for the world?
Interesting question. I’m both an optimist and a realist. As such, my hope for Togo is to achieve a peaceful transition to a more democratic, open, prosperous, and fair society.
For the US, I hope that we stay true to the values that make us the greatest country on earth and that we continue to be an example of a democratic and fair society, “a shining city on a hill,” to cite President Ronald Reagan.
For the world, I hope for a more fair, just, and peaceful global community.
What advice do you have for young people walking the path of empowerment?
Be careful; don’t impose your values onto others. Very often, we want to impose our way of seeing the world to the others. My advice is, provide the space and knowledge, build trust, and allow others to find their own path.