November 4, 2020

In conversation with: Valentino Achak Deng

Valentino Achak Deng © Stoolhog, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

As a soft, warm voice greets me at the end of a Whatsapp call, he asks where I am in the world. Valentino Achak Deng is a man who has come to know the value of ‘place’, of ‘home’, through a series of painful life events that wrenched him from his birthplace at around six years old, forever.

What Is The What, the 2006 finalist for the National Book Award by award-winning author, Dave Eggers, chronicled Valentino’s journey from a rural childhood in southern Sudan, to becoming one of the country’s thousands of ‘Lost Boys’ when his village was attacked by militiamen. Travelling thousands of miles on foot to reach refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, he spent fourteen years knowing little else but the camp’s sprawling perimeters. Eventually, in his early 20s, he was granted asylum in the USA and began his long awaited ‘new life’.

Rural to urban

The constant transit and resettlement that Valentino has experienced in his life, the unmatched expectations of safety and prosperity upon reaching his desired destination, have led him to question the benefits of rural to urban migration. He says: “Especially in South Sudan, this creates a lot of issues. [Youth] go to the cities, live in slums, the crime rates go up, there is overpopulation. What I favour is the model where we provide services, such as training and financing opportunities to create markets for products and services in rural areas.”

This is exactly what Valentino has invested in. Despite becoming a celebrity after the release of the novel, he and Dave Eggers vowed to use all the proceeds they made from the book to support people in South Sudan. They founded the VAD Foundation, which ten years ago began providing secondary education to children in the village where Valentino was born.

Valentino and Dave in September 2008 with the first of the school's building being constructed on the school's land behind them © Greg Larson
Valentino Achak Deng and some of the youth he supports in South Sudan © 2020, Valentino Achak Deng

As well as the Marial Bai Secondary School and the Alok Girls’ Academy, the VAD Foundation now also teaches vocational skills and farming techniques, so that rural young people, particularly women, can become self-sufficient, start their own businesses, and have ambitions beyond marriage and raising children.

“Girls face hardship”

“Girls [in South Sudan] face hardship”, explains Valentino. “Young women are raised to believe their goal is to become wives and have a family. Early marriages are common among poverty stricken families, mostly those in rural areas. Girls need the opportunity to grow, support themselves.”

Valentino’s driving mission is sustainability. “I am a people orientated person, so I think that this is what encompasses social entrepreneurship. I do business, while thinking about people.”

Valentino's construction business, BuildMark Ltd., uses hydraform, interlocking brick-making machine technology to build affordable homes, schools and offices © 2020, Valentino Achak Deng
Valentino's construction business, BuildMark Ltd., was founded in February 2020 © 2020, Valentino Achak Deng
Valentino's construction business, BuildMark Ltd., employs over 50 youth already © 2020, Valentino Achak Deng

As an entrepreneur himself, with a startup construction company that uses interlocking brick-making technology to build affordable homes, schools, offices in South Sudan, Valentino understands the challenges of expanding a business in a conflict-affected region. “Capital is one major issue. [In rural areas], we have a situation where there is no data available on farming, it is not well organised. When you don’t have data, banks find it challenging to accept market potentials.”

“South Sudan has huge potential”

Yet, brimming with optimism, he goes on: “South Sudan has huge potential. The agro industry is the future. We have vast, fertile land – rivers, forests, swamps – that provide potential for fisheries, farming, horticulture. With that comes food processing industries, factories and potential for export.”

“COVID presents both an opportunity and a challenge. If this virus can spread so fast and affect everything, what we can learn is that all the ideas about how to change the world, if adopted, could have an impact very quickly.”

Rural Pathways

Valentino Achak Deng will open the Rural Pathways online conference on 28 October

Valentino is no stranger to labels, he’s been known as Lost Boy, refugee, immigrant, celebrity, founder, minister and entrepreneur. SPARK is delighted that he will join us under yet another name: keynote speaker.

On Wednesday, 28th October, Valentino Achak Deng will open the Rural Pathways online conference, which highlights new developments, ideas and approaches in rural entrepreneurship in Sub-Saharan Africa. The vast region is home to the youngest population in the world, and the average age of people in South Sudan is just 16 years old. Valentino sees youth as the key to unlocking the potential of his country, women and girls in particular. 

“The purpose of education is to instil a sense of sustainability in a person’s life. But getting an education is not enough, you need to use your gains to create more jobs.”