Ben Cobb became interested in the southern African country of Namibia while working there as a non-governmental intern in the summer of 2006. When he learned that one of the northeast regions of Namibia was well-known for local artists who make beautiful carvings from the soft mapani wood native to that area, he saw the potential for economic development.
"The problem was that these people had little access to various markets to sell their crafts," says Cobb, who will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in international affairs and a master's in economics. "If markets for those goods could be found, revenue from selling Namibian art could be used to help fund expansion projects for schools."
To make that happen, Cobb created Promote Africa, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that supports community development projects in Namibia by promoting not just African art, but also music and literature. To get Promote Africa up and running, Cobb had to create a business model and a website so that local artisans can utilize foreign markets to sell goods. He spent the summer of 2007 in Namibia organizing vendors and formalizing operational agreements to start displaying products on its website. As a Foundation Fellow at UGA, Cobb is allowed a travel stipend, which he used to help finance the trip.
The website, which launched in April 2007, implemented new software tools so that artists have individual online accounts.
"They can log in, load pictures and descriptions of their products, and set their own prices," says Cobb. "And the quality of the craftsmanship is unbelievable."
Cobb says 90 percent of the proceeds go directly to the artists with the remaining 10 percent covering administrative costs. Anything left over is allocated to community development.
The music component of Promote Africa could turn out to be huge.
"There's not a good centralized directory of African music online," says Cobb, who hopes to eventually release and maintain the world's largest directory of African music online. "We basically serve as a nonprofit music label targeting underrepresented and unsigned artists."
As for literature, Cobb's long-term goal is to target a number of African Studies departments in colleges across the U.S., make them aware of the program and its homegrown literature, and ideally get the website on each course syllabus.
With so much growth and expansion, Cobb has relied in part on UGA and Terry.
"Our university has considerable resources to utilize in helping push this project forward," he says. "For example, we were able to employ two interns from Terry's music business program, and I think the experience was extremely advantageous for both parties."
So while many of his fellow graduates will be signing lucrative offer sheets in the coming months, Cobb will be busy applying for large development grants to help bolster the Namibian economy.
What motivates him to do all this?
"I see the developing world as humanity's hope," says Cobb. "In these countries, there are no corporate interests and no extensive bureaucratic structures. What's important are community values and cultural identities. The personal incentive is that I want to feel as though my life had a meaning."
For thousands of Namibian residents, Ben Cobb has already reached that goal.