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Katie Emerson - Manu | Ghana & UK | Clear Goals

Hi, my name is Katie and I’m from the UK but I’ve been living in Ghana since 2015. I’ve always been someone that wants to help others and make a difference where I can. I feel that if everyone helps in a small way, the impact will be huge! I’m the co-founder of an NGO called Pen to Paper Ghana, which I have been running voluntarily for the past 5 years, whilst also working full-time.

What ignited the spark for you to start a charity?

I first came to Ghana as a volunteer in 2014 and a year later, after not feeling satisfied that I was making enough difference to people’s lives with my office job in London, I decided to pack up and move to Ghana in August 2015 to be with my partner, now husband, Richard. Richard was the project manager for an NGO that was building school libraries and through the work we did there, we realized that it was fantastic providing book resources to children in schools, but what if they couldn’t read them? We therefore decided to set up our own NGO, Pen to Paper Ghana, with the main focus being on helping children learn to read.

The NGO has now been running and expanding for 5 years.

We now:-

  • Run free phonics classes for teenagers struggling to read.

  • Have a mobile library.

  • Provide teacher training for primary school teachers on our reading programme.

  • Improve school infrastructure.

  • Provide educational scholarships.

What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your NGO and how did you overcome them?

We decided to start small and initially contacted one school and worked voluntarily with 16 teenage girls who couldn’t read. Our biggest hurdle was actually the school wanting us to add more pupils to our class, and also being contacted by other schools to run our programme there. Since Richard was still working in the daytime and I also had other commitments, we could only do our NGO work after school; our capacity was at a maximum!

It took a while, but with our savings and some donations, we started running more classes and Richard eventually left his job to pursue the NGO work full time. We are extremely happy with how we’ve grown but we have greater goals. Currently we are only running with one paid, local staff member, my husband Richard. Our hope is to bring on extra local workers so that we can reach more children and help them escape the tunnel of illiteracy. We want all children in Ghana to grow up to be adults that can fill in their own job application, read the instructions on their baby’s medicine bottle or enjoy delving into adventures in a book. We want to be at a point where our NGO is no longer even needed!

What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which is a series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith. They are set in Botswana and are easy to read; they are great for switching off after a long day of work.

Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your pursuits?

How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?

I am extremely lucky that my family and friends have always been very supportive of my choices in life. Of course, I’m sure my parents would have loved me to have stayed living near them or at least, not living on another continent, but they just want to see me happy so that’s made my journey much easier. They love what we do as an NGO and have been out to Ghana to visit our projects.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your charity success?

Probably the passion to improve others’ lives. Having the desire to see a child learn to read drives us on to grow and develop as an organization. It is the most rewarding thing when you see an illiterate teenager, who has been so withdrawn in class, read their first 3 letter word. It’s an amazing feeling; not only does this brighten their academic future but the confidence and self-esteem you see them gain is startling.

What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started setting up the charity?

I wish I had known how to ask for help better. When we first started, it was just Richard and I running our projects on our motorbike with a rucksack of books on my back! We had the passion but not as much knowledge on how to fundraise or ask for donations and funding. We are definitely getting there with the help of our lovely supporters but we are always looking for others to join our drive to improve literacy rates in Ghana.

What advice would you give to an upcoming entrepreneur locally and internationally?

Really scout the market and see what is needed and then focus on that specific thing. For a charity, I often see local charities being created but without a clear goal as to what they want to achieve; they end up spreading into too many fields to make a long-term impact.

It’s also great to work with other people rather than be competitive; as a charity, we are all about working with other organizations that have a similar goal. I learn a lot from talking and collaborating with other NGOs and we inevitably end up becoming more effective.


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