Duke Senior Receives $25,000 Award to Pursue Social Venture in Africa

Duke University senior Michael Bernert has been selected as the first recipient of an award designed to support student social entrepreneurship.

(more information on ELI and the Hart Leadership Program)

The ELI Social Entrepreneurship Year-To-Launch Award, given by the Hart Leadership Program’s Enterprising Leadership Initiative (ELI), is a $25,000 prize granted to a Duke undergraduate student who commits to taking a post-graduation year to launch a social venture.

Bernert’s venture, West African Ventures in Agriculture (WAVA LLC), is a company that makes investments in agricultural projects in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Bernert, from West Linn, Ore., developed the idea after spending his sophomore summer participating in DukeEngage Sierra Leone. During that summer, he realized the potential to harness agriculture as a vehicle for community and economic development in these previously war-torn countries.

“I think the easiest way to understand WAVA is by telling the story of Ibrahim, one of the Sierra Leone farmers we’re working with,” Bernert said. “Ibrahim owns 30,000 acres of land, but is currently only farming on 200 acres of that land. Our team on the ground in Monrovia identifies farmers like Ibrahim with these large land holdings. With support, farmers like Ibrahim can utilize more land to generate greater profit, hire employees to work on their farms and scale his production of rice -- directly impacting the pervasive hunger in post-war Sierra Leone.”

WAVA helps farmers like Ibrahim dramatically scale up their production by providing the up-front capital, equipment and technical business support they need. Today, Bernert’s team is working actively with five partner farmers and has made $32,000 in loans.

The award is aligned with Duke’s recent commitment to encourage greater student engagement in innovation and entrepreneurship, and represents one large step in the direction of helping more students take on the challenging and rewarding work of launching a real venture.

“I want to be able to look back and see that I created something that would not have been created without my existence, and that I had a real impact on people,” Bernert said.

ELI is an initiative of the Hart Leadership Program, an undergraduate program at the Sanford School of Public Policy. ELI offers classes and co-curricular programs that help undergraduate students to develop the skills and act on their passions to address real-world problems. 

“Michael’s plan demonstrates an enormous amount of potential and he is passionately committed to launching this. He serves as a terrific model for other undergraduates considering riskier and less-defined career path choices after graduation,” said ELI Program Manager Liz Linzer.

The Year-To-Launch Award, made possible by an anonymous donor, allows ELI to support one graduating student’s continued development. Whether the award will continue in future years will be contingent upon funding.