Sarah Rosenbloom

Founder of The Toa Nafasi Project

Sarah Rosenbloom was born in raised in Washington DC, the daughter of a Jewish international tax lawyer and an African-American university professor and author. She attended Georgetown Day School and went on to earn her Bachelor’s Degree at Columbia University in New York City. Sarah worked as a publicist in the book publishing industry for nearly ten years, making her way around the literary circuit from fiction and non-fiction to arthouse books to bestsellers and finally an academic press. In 2007, she left publishing (and New York) to be a volunteer nursery school teacher in Tanzania, East Africa. She only expected to stay 6 months but ended up living and working there for 12 years. For the first 4 years, she worked for a small international NGO and discovered what NOT to do in development. In 2012, she incorporated her own NGO, The Toa Nafasi Project, aimed at supporting children with learning difficulties, a need she first observed as a volunteer teacher in 2007. Toa nafasi means “provide a chance” in Swahili and that is precisely what the project aims to do: provide a chance for all students to learn regardless of their learning style and to offer the opportunity for marginalized women to create a career as the children’s tutors. Sarah started the pilot project in one public primary school in Kilimanjaro with only one local tutor and 19 students. As of now, in 2020, the project has a presence in 11 schools over 10 wards in Moshi Municipality, the capital city of Kilimanjaro. It employs 30 Tanzanian women as tutors, offering them employment, in-service training, and professional development workshops. The administrative staff is made up of 5 Tanzanians and there is now no Westerner in any senior position; the project is nearly entirely locally run. Sarah was able to accomplish this by creating a vast network of partners and by working closely with local government authorities in Tanzania. By paying homage to the existing systems, Toa Nafasi has been able to strengthen them and to become a sustainable, scalable model for education development.

Where did the idea for The Toa Nafasi Project come from?

As a volunteer nursery school teacher in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania in 2007, I saw many young kids having trouble with what looked to me to be dyslexia. Lots of 6s for Gs and 5s for Ss and that sort of thing. I was just a book publicist so I had no idea really what was going on, but it was clear that the Tanzanian teachers had even less of a clue than me; there is very little awareness or training about such things in Tanzania. It was heartbreaking to watch them cane the kids for giving wrong answers or call them “mjinga” (stupid), “mvivu” (lazy), or “mbaya” (bad) when they were really just having trouble processing.

I soon learned that the word for kindergarten in Swahili, “chekechea” also has a literal meaning to describe the tool that separates wheat from chaff. Now imagine being designated wheat or chaff at age 6 with a learning disability! I just felt that a huge chunk of these kids was going to fall through the cracks if some intervention wasn’t initiated.

Africa is a poor continent, but it is rich in human resources. If Africa in general and Tanzania in particular is going to pull itself above the poverty line, it will require the mobilization of ALL those human resources and not just the few. If children such as the ones I taught in 2007 are not elevated to cope on the level of their typically developed peers, then they will end up being a further drain on the community and the cycle will just continue.

These observations during my 6-month volunteership in 2007 are what led me to found The Toa Nafasi Project, which supports such public primary school students with a unique pullout program whereby our trained tutors work with the kids one-on-one or in small groups to make sure they are understanding what’s going on in the main classroom.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

A typical day in Tanzania would have me going to the schools and checking in with the various tutoring teams on the ground, greeting the headmasters who allow us to do our work there, and maybe hanging out with the kids a bit. I have not actually taught class since maybe 2014 since we now have so many Tanzanian tutors to do that work! I should note here that all of our work in conducted in Swahili which is the national language of Tanzania, so it was really useful to develop that language skill early on during my time in Tanzania.

Then, I might have some meetings with local partners or parents or government officials depending on the day. It’s very important to have these meetings face to face as is the custom in East Africa.

Finally, I might go to a café and catch up on computer work: answering emails, writing reports or doing social media, investigating fundraising opportunities.

Now that I have been back in the States for almost a year, my time is spent almost 100% on the computer. I get up and Toa is the first thing on my mind: Tanzania is 7-8 hours ahead of us, so I check in on what has transpired while I’ve been asleep! I answer emails and put out a few fires, but all of the work on the ground is fully off my plate now: assessments of the kids, referrals to doctors or therapists in case the issue impeding learning is medical or psychosocial, interviews with parents or caregivers, the actual tutoring of the students, meetings with local partners and LGAs. All the social and community work is a thing of my past; I miss it!

My primary function now as Founder of The Toa Nafasi Project lies in fundraising and I work with the newly hired Executive Director, Director of Operations, and part-time Strategic Consultant (an autonomous position and the only paid Westerner currently) as well as some board members to suss out funding opportunities, send LOIs first and grant applications after, and then do the reporting when we receive grants.

How do you bring ideas to life?

There’s a lot of team brainstorming right now. We have a really great team and we work really well and collaboratively together. This has not always been so, so I do not take it lightly. We have had issues with both Tanzanian and Western staff not pulling their weight or not being good team players. At this point, what I really like seeing is our Director of Operations who started off as a part-time guy that I just threw data entry work at grow into his role. He has really come up in the past 12-18 months in terms of critical thinking and problem-solving and I appreciate the feedback he gives me. A lot of Tanzanians tend to be submissive in the face of Western authority, but I feel that Team Toa has grown comfortable enough with me that they know I value their opinions and I want that pushback.

What’s one trend that excites you?

A recent trend that we have been exploring since local leadership has taken over is that of partnerships with other NGOs on the ground in Kilimanjaro. Despite it being fairly obvious that the best way to accomplish the lofty goals set out for us in the United Nations’ SDGs is to work together, many of the organizations working in development do not cooperate well together. I’m not sure if it’s an issue of territory or ego or not wanting to deviate from your organization’s mission to make room for collaboration with another, but it’s incredibly unproductive. Since about 2018, Toa has been making a lot of inroads with other orgs on the ground in Moshi and internationally in the donor/funder communities. It’s been incredibly exciting to see these partnerships flourish and provide direct benefits for both the orgs as well as for the beneficiary communities we seek to serve.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I would have to say persistence. I am not a person who gives up quickly or easily (though I might whinge and moan along the way!) and I have yet to allow any of the MANY and VARIOUS obstacles to building and flourishing this organization put me down permanently. We have dealt with bribery and corruption from outside, theft and dishonesty from inside, lack of both human and financial resources at times, bureaucracy and red tape from the Tanzanian government, and misconceptions about foreign aid to contend with. To quote Maya Angelou, “And still I rise.”

What advice would you give your younger self?

Oh gosh! So many things!! I would have told young Sarah to study harder, particularly at Columbia, to not take things for granted, to savor every second, and to realize that yes, one day she too will indeed grow old and wise…. 🙂

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

This would probably be something about race as I have the fairly unique perspective of being mixed race and mixed religion. My best friend is half Brazilian and half Korean so she is the one who gets me most outside of my mom with whom I practically share the same brain (!!), but other than that, I would have to say that it’s hard to come to a middle ground with a lot of white friends about race. They mean well, but it’s not easy to understand the experience of a person of color from the outside. My black friends obviously get it, but then I do not share a lot of their experiences, so it’s important I’m sensitive to them.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I never ever do not respond to an email and I always always grow my network of contacts. You never know when some random contact might come in handy. Everyone under the sun has a purpose so I just keep people and orgs that might not seem relevant at the moment in my back pocket in case we can help each other later. Oh, and I’m always polite. Again, I might whinge and moan privately but in public, I wear my best smile.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

One strategy that has helped me grow Toa is actually letting go of Toa. Because I am the founder, I am inherently tied up in the organization and I used to do everything from financial management and fundraising to publicity and social media to on-the-ground programming and operations. In order to grow, I needed to step back and allow others to enter into those roles so that the onus of running the org does not lie solely with me. The rejection of “founder’s syndrome” has helped Toa to thrive into something that I still created, yes, but is now its own entity and owned by many stakeholders, primarily in the local community.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One failure I had early on was being a bit too trustful of people and assuming that once a directive was given, I could trust that it would be done and done correctly. I was very trustful of a local man who acted as our Deputy Director from 2016-2018. I tasked him with turning over money I gave him in cash to the Tanzanian statutory agencies and assumed that once he signed a petty cash voucher from me, the funds would go where needed: to pay taxes, social security, and workman’s comp. In 2018, it was discovered that the money had never made it to any of the agencies in over 25 months and that Toa was being penalized to the tune of $65,000USD. Needless to say, this was not a good look for the daughter of an esteemed international tax attorney!

In the end, we were granted amnesty and paid significantly smaller fines, but that episode taught me not to be too trusting of people and to keep a watchful eye on those who might not have our organization’s best interests in mind.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Gosh, I don’t really have any business ideas! This one idea I had for an NGO came out of a real-life observation, so I would just say let real life take you to the ideas!!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Funny story. So I spent exactly $100 on some reusable cloth masks which I ordered online but which never arrived. After a frustrating back-and-forth with customer service, my ire finally caught the attention of the founder of the mask company. She apologized profusely, reimbursed me for the lost masks, and sent me some free masks to replace the ones I had ordered. But that’s not all. She caught the signature line on my email and looked into Toa and thought it was a great project, so she donated 150 branded Toa masks which we are giving out to top donors and key stakeholders. This goes back to #8, why you never burn a bridge. Whinge and moan, but keep it classy in the end!! 🙂

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

This is soooo not the question for me; can I say Microsoft Word? 🙂 I am so IT-unintelligent, but I guess I would say Buffer because it helps me line up social media hits for the week and then I don’t have to worry about if we are going to have enough of a presence online and I can Tweet or post extra to Facebook or Instagram if I want, but be assured that we already have those Buffered hits.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Hmm, well I’ll just say the last book I read which is called “Why Fish Don’t Exist” by Lulu Miller and tells the author’s story to make order out of chaos interwoven with the story of David Starr Jordan, an ichthyologist who categorized all manner of fish and was the first president of Stanford University. It’s not my favorite book by any means, but it was a good pandemic read about trying to make sense of things we can’t control.

What is your favorite quote?

Oh, probably something from Dorothy Parker. I say, “What fresh hell can this be?” quite a lot, but that’s not so nice, so let’s go with the poem “Resume” in its entirety; it’s *slightly* more positive! 🙂

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Key Learnings:

• Live by the “Golden Rule” and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Basically, just be a good and decent person and let the rest flow.

• Give other people a chance – literally the name of my org! – as they can often surprise you in good ways. They can pick you up when you are down, relieve you of stress, share their ideas, and make hard work more fun.

• Don’t be fearful. Don’t doubt yourself. Don’t be afraid of being called crazy. Even the wildest ideas have merit and often are the ones that end up being most successful and impactful.