Five years ago, Blaise Judja-Sato was living a rural African's dream. Born poor in Cameroon, he had worked his way into elite schools and become a prosperous American. At 36, he was living in Seattle and traveling the world to cut deals for Teledesic, a satellite communications venture started by Bill Gates and Craig McCaw. Then he found his calling.
It happened in 2000, after freak rains caused devastating floods in southern Africa. Horrified by the televised images of homes, crops and livestock being swept into the sea, he used his U.S. connections to raise $1.5 million for relief efforts in Mozambique. Then he visited the country. "I've never seen so much dignity and generosity," he says. "People who had lost their families and communities still wanted to share what they had. I knew then and there that I had to do more to help, and not just during the floods. Even in normal life, they lacked the most basic necessities."
So he quit his job and started a new life. He now spends more time in cinderblock clinics than in corporate boardrooms, but he's getting more done. The group he founded--a Seattle-based nonprofit called VillageReach--is spearheading an effort to bring basic health care to 1.5 million people throughout Mozambique's impoverished Cabo Delgado province. Backed by donors such as the Gates Foundation, the World Bank and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, the effort has already raised the province's child-vaccination rates by 40 percent--this in a country where a fourth of all children normally die before the age of 5. And VillageReach plans to expand into the neighboring province of Nampula this year, reaching another 3.5 million people through 200 additional clinics. The goal is not just to vaccinate kids but to build a functioning health system.
That's hard enough in a place blessed with electricity, good roads and trained nurses. But Mozambique is one of the poorest countries on earth, and Cabo Delgado is its least-developed region. "The idea is that if VillageReach can make it here, we can make it anywhere," Judja-Sato says. Under a partnership he worked out in 2002, Mozambique's government provides vaccines, medicines and equipment for 90 rural clinics. His own team works with the Mozambique-based Foundation for Community Development to distribute the supplies, maintain the equipment and train local health workers. Thanks to this effort, each of the 90 clinics now has a propane fridge for storing perishable medicines, a bicycle for making emergency house calls and a radio or satellite phone for communications.
Though he still calls Seattle his home, Judja-Sato now spends roughly equal amounts of time there, in Mozambique and in Geneva, where he has a girlfriend and is setting up a VillageReach branch office. His salary (roughly $80,000) is just half what he made in his early 30s, but he counts himself richer today. "I'm fortunate to have a good education, business expertise and an amazing network of friends," he says. "Now I'm leveraging them. I have a new purpose in life."
His ambitions aren't confined to health care. VillageReach is now working to bring propane lamps and stoves to rural schools, so that kids can study at night and receive cooked meals during the day. "We're also helping people set up small businesses based on gas," he boasts while bouncing down a rutted dirt road in a Toyota Land Cruiser. "We helped a co-op of fishermen get a gas fridge so they could store their catch instead of having to sell it within a few hours." His dream is to replicate this miracle throughout the developing world. And fortunately, his dreams have a way of coming true.