Her Unexpected Meeting and a Nation’s Recovery

April 6, 2015
Harper McConnell, third from left, walks with Richard Kabala, Christine Musaidizi, and Ben Affleck. Musaidizi is the founder and director and Kabala a staff member of Children's Voice, a partner organization of Eastern Congo Initiative. (Photo by Barbara

When alumnus Harper McConnell '06 met actor Ben Affleck and nonprofit executive Whitney Williams in 2007, she was hooked up to an IV, recovering from a bout of malaria in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The two philanthropists had stopped by to wish her a speedy recovery.

The meeting turned out to be fortuitous. A couple of years later, Affleck and Williams recruited McConnell to jumpstart a nonprofit called Eastern Congo Initiative to support community-based economic and social development initiatives.

Many view DRC as a nation lost to war and extreme poverty, but McConnell has spent the last eight years focusing on its potential. "I really believe in building capacity in Congo," she says. "I believe anything worth doing is going to take a long time and is going to be an arduous route."

McConnell's current focus is helping smallholder farmers become more competitive in the global marketplace by building relationships with buyers who will pay them a fair price.

McConnell now lives in Washington, D.C., and travels to DRC every couple of months. Visiting with the beneficiaries of her work, however, takes her back to the intensity of her first encounter with the African nation she has come to love.

"Every time I sit down and hear their stories, it feels like I've come to the Congo for the first time," she says.

This story was originally published in Minnesota, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.