The Connector

Saran Kaba Jones harnesses social skills and social networks to benefit her native Liberia

FACE Africa founder Saran Kaba Jones with fashion
designer Whitney Port (left) and Paige Port in Liberia.

Saran Kaba Jones, 28-year-old founder and executive director of FACE Africa, keeps a schedule that can tax even the young and strong. In a six-week period last fall she traveled to Liberia, California, New Jersey, New York City (three times) and Washington, D.C. She met with potential donors and partners. She gave presentations and attended luncheons and award ceremonies. She talked to people on the street, on airplanes, anyplace she could do what she does best: meet people, make connections, form partnerships.

As she roams, she keeps the world apprised of her thoughts and deeds via Twitter, the online social network that allows her to transmit updates to her 8,000-plus Twitter followers.

This is how the Boston-based Liberian native builds support for her young organization. FACE Africa’s mission is in part to bring basic necessities like clean water to Liberia, a West African nation still reeling from a 14-year civil war. The problems she addresses are somber, but Kaba Jones lightens up her approach with an unlikely pairing of a love for fashion with a mission to help.

In October, Kaba Jones went to Liberia with Whitney Port, a young fashion designer featured in the reality shows “The Hills” and “The City.” Port is designing a line of T-shirts for FACE Africa. The shirts will be made by women in a new factory, part of the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project founded by Liberian social entrepreneur Chid Liberty, and sold in the United States to help fund FACE Africa’s projects.

It’s just the kind of multi-faceted partnership Kaba Jones loves.

“Over the summer I was thinking about ways to marry my love for fashion with my passion for FACE Africa,” Kaba Jones explains. “I thought of the T-shirt idea, and then I heard about Chid’s factory. I said, this is perfect — we can do something that not only creates opportunities for Liberian women but also serves as a sustainable way to raise money for our projects.”

She is also involved with I-ELLA, an online designer clothing marketplace that donates a portion of purchases to charities. She serves as — what else? — partnerships coordinator, recruiting fashion celebrities to auction off items from their closet for a cause, which is sometimes FACE Africa, if Kaba Jones has a say in it.

At FACE Africa’s borrowed office space in Cambridge on a November afternoon, Kaba Jones looks stylish in a dark plaid pencil skirt, a pale cardigan over a white ruffled blouse and shiny black-and-white spectator pumps. She’s slender and tall, and with her dark brown skin and striking cascade of jet-black hair, it’s easy to see why people have told her she should model. She supplements her five-foot-eight-inch height with heels: “Three or four inches, minimum,” she states, “sometimes six.”

(Photos courtesy of FACE Africa)

In Liberia last July, a damaged bridge prevented Kaba Jones and a small team from reaching the remote Joezohn Village by car, forcing the group to walk a muddy, slippery road for an hour. What sort of heels, you might wonder, was the fashion-savvy executive director wearing in that predicament?

“I was actually wearing flats that day,” she says, laughing, “but they were open-toed sandals, not very practical. I remember thinking next time I visit Liberia I have to bring rain boots.” She doesn’t seem 100 percent convinced though, adding, “I’ve been in situations where I’ve trekked a good distance in heels.”

Fashion aside, Kaba Jones explains that her early plan for FACE Africa, whose acronym stands for Fund A Child’s Education, was educational aid. But on a visit to Liberia in 2008 — her first trip back since age 8 when her family fled the country as civil war broke out — she came face to face with needs more urgent.

“My whole perspective changed on what needed to be done,” she says. “I saw kids that were so sick with diarrhea and other waterborne diseases. I thought, you can’t really educate kids if they’re too sick to get up each day to go to school.”

Kaba Jones had come to Massachusetts in 1999 to attend college. Concentrating in international relations and political science at Harvard, she knew her career would center on Africa in some way. The trip to Liberia crystallized her mission.

“Until you’re actually on the ground, it’s really hard to understand how hard the situation is,” she says. “I was shocked. I wasn’t prepared for that level of poverty and violence and devastation.” Speaking with a voice of authority and dismay, she ticked off a list of woes: The 1989-2003 conflict left Liberia with a shattered infrastructure. Unemployment is 85 percent. Few people have access to electricity or clean water.

And so FACE Africa’s focus turned to simple, tangible efforts such as the recently completed project to dig a well in Joezohn Village, where a dirty creek was the only water supply. “It doesn’t really get more basic than water,” she concludes.

Kaba Jones formalized FACE Africa as a nonprofit in January 2009. The organization’s first project, a water purification system serving 600 people in Barnesville, Liberia, was funded by a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant.

Kaba Jones went on to raise an additional $10,000 that first year. The pace has picked up steadily; she estimated her 2010 fundraising would reach $100,000.

Besides in-person networking, her prodigious use of online social networking sites has been key to bringing in funds. Take, for instance, the $20,000 grant from Chase Community Giving. “Chase was giving away five million dollars, and basically inviting people to vote on Facebook for their favorite charities. It was that simple,” she explains. With the help of some of Kaba Jones’s 5,000 Facebook friends, FACE Africa pulled ahead. “We made the top 200 charities cut — which I think was amazing.”

Additional funds flowed in from a successful Boston gala in March, a benefit in New York City in October and an online celebrity clothing auction.

People who have watched FACE Africa grow cite Kaba Jones’s skill in connecting with people far and wide.

“A lot of organizations in Liberia are focused on Liberia-based media, or only on Liberians, and it’s difficult to reach across the globe. But Saran’s reaching across that line,” says Taa Wongbe, founder of the Liberian Professional Network (LPN), an organization of Liberian Diaspora professionals around the world. “Everyone across the globe who’s interested in Africa and Liberia, and has access to Twitter and Facebook — she’s reaching out to them,” Wongbe adds. “Saran has expanded [her focus] to any global citizen.”

Providence attorney Zoe Cooper was introduced to Kaba Jones as Cooper was starting a local LPN chapter.

“I’m a huge fan of what Saran is doing,” says Cooper, who plans to make a donation to FACE Africa on behalf of guests at her large wedding next year. “Plus, she’s amazing at networking. Not just with Twitter, but in her everyday encounters with people. She’s comfortable with everyone. Networking to different levels of people comes naturally, and she’s really leveraged that.”

Saran Kaba Jones at home with her husband Ainsworth Jones. (Photo courtesy of Shawnea Frett Ajao, Don’t FRETT Photography)

Last summer Kaba Jones quit her six-year job as an investment project manager with the Singapore government to devote herself full time to FACE Africa, and is doing it mostly by herself, with no salary from the organization. She has little free time to spend with her husband, Ainsworth Jones, a Jamaican-born attorney she met at Harvard and married in 2007. He sometimes meets her for the last few days of a trip, she said. But she tweets from airports about missing him.

“He’s been very supportive,” she says. “He believes in me so much I have no choice but to keep going.”

She credits her sometimes 24-hour work habits with being an “only girl” amid three brothers. “It helped shape who I am today, because I never wanted to let my parents down,” she says.

Her parents, who came to the United States and settled in Maryland after she was here in college, are proud of her, she says, but they do worry. Last spring, when she was ready to drop after organizing the FACE Africa gala, her mother traveled to Boston to do what only mothers can do.

“I cooked for her to be sure that she ate,” Fatmata Kaba recalls, speaking by phone from Maryland. “She was exhausted. She lost a lot of weight. I told her not to ever do that again. I told her husband not to allow her to do that again.”

Kaba Jones’s father, Brahima Kaba, whose diplomatic posts moved the family to France, Egypt and Cypress while Kaba Jones was growing up, is now a commissioner with the Liberian Land Commission and spends much of his time in Monrovia, where he and Fatmata are planning to live when they retire. Brahima Kaba also serves as an on-the-ground advisor for his daughter’s projects in Liberia.

By the end of her late-fall travel rush, Kaba Jones was already planning to go back to Africa in December. Once there she would deliver the keynote address to a women’s empowerment conference in Senegal, check on the newly completed Joezohn project, launch another clean water project and visit small weaving shops in preparation for starting an online market for Liberian-made goods.

She’s looking ahead to a long-term grant awarded by All for Africa — again, won with the aid of Facebook and Twitter voters. The $30,000-for-30-years trust starts paying in 2012 and will go toward operational expenses such as travel and a part-time staff.

In the short term, she is planning for the second annual FACE Africa gala (“a coming-out party for the new T-shirts”) and a large clean water project with UNICEF, Irish Aid and Concern WorldWide to start in early 2011.

Her work has not gone unrecognized. She was nominated for a 2010 CNN Hero award. She had no expectation of making the cut, but she attended the Los Angeles ceremony in November, as she has done for the last three years. She remains awed by the heroes honored, and thrilled by the red-carpet glitz of the affair.

She was clearly on a high after that trip, which began with a presentation to potential donors in Santa Barbara and concluded with a serendipitous in-flight meeting with a CNN correspondent.

A tweet summed it up: “seatmate on my LAX/ATL flight was a CNN International News correspondent who has an interest in Liberia ... #thatisall #fate #productivetrip.”

But a few days later, in the wee hours of Nov. 27, heading back to New York City after a brief Thanksgiving break, she tweeted a less buoyant, more philosophical note:

“giving and taking. moving and shaking. winning, failing, learning and creating. I’m just a humble student in this human experience ...”