"I always wanted to go to Africa," says Jennifer Morris, a vice president at Conservation International
(CI) and managing director of the Global Conservation Fund
(GCF) and Verde Ventures
. Soon after graduating from Emory University and spending a year teaching English in a rural Japanese fishing village, she made it happen. Her passion for public health took her to Namibia in 1993, where she worked as a volunteer teacher for a women's group.
The experience was more difficult than she'd expected: "As you would imagine, it was often very depressing. I lived next to a hospital, and every day I would see some people who would make it, but so many who would not."
Morris soon realized that most of the illness she witnessed was caused by the interaction of abject poverty and a degraded environment. Having only scant natural and economic resources to support themselves, rural villagers, usually women, were forced further and further away from education and income-generating opportunities. They spent up to six hours a day collecting fuel wood and water a vicious cycle that increased their exposure to disease and their need for better nutrition. In an effort to help, Morris set up a cooperative venture to enable local women to sell their handcrafts to local and overseas markets.
Morris's realization that public health, poverty, and natural environments are inextricably linked was powerful for her. "If you don't have healthy ecosystems and don't address poverty, of course you're not going to have healthy people," she says.
Her newfound awareness led her to pursue a new calling, linking economic development and conservation. She returned to the United States after her two-year stint in Namibia and earned an M.A. in development economics and small business development at Columbia University. Soon after, a friend suggested she apply for a job with CI. Morris did and started her career at CI by helping local partners develop conservation-friendly products for Western markets. In September 2006, she'll have been with CI for nine years.
Over the past five years, Morris has spearheaded the expansion of the Verde Ventures program, which invests in pro-conservation, small- and medium-sized businesses in CI's priority areas. Verde Ventures currently invests in 36 enterprises around the world.
One recent Verde Ventures investment took her back to Africa. Through a local NGO partner, she found the company that runs the Ibo Island Lodge in Mozambique and traveled there to evaluate the project's potential contribution to conservation and poverty alleviation. Sure enough, she says, the owners are "really great people who are dedicated to conservation." The lodge, scheduled to open in late 2006, will improve the livelihoods of local people as well as the management of nearby marine and terrestrial protected areas. Verde Ventures invested nearly $500,000 in the lodge operator, WildLife Adventures, to help ensure that the company can continue its work.
Outside of CI, Morris loves to hike, camp, and bike. Last year, she completed a sprint-triathlon with a group of CI employees. Having lived on three different continents, she speaks some Spanish, Japanese, and Oshiwambo (a Namibian dialect), but is hoping to add French and Portuguese to the list.
For Morris, seeing CI grow has taught her a lot about people. "Everyone in this organization has something to offer, no matter their position or how different their opinion may be from my own," she believes. "To be respected as an organization means being open and learning from people within the organization and just as importantly from our partners."
She continues, "It's essential to understand the hardships our partners and field programs face in the daily drama that is conservation. Saving the world is a tough job, and we all need to support each other to get the job done."