BusinessDay

NOELLA COURSARIS MUSUNKA is changing lives through Malaika

…partners with FIFA, others to chart this course

Noella Coursaris Musunka is a Congolese/Cypriot philanthropist, an international model, and Founder & CEO of Malaika. A unique and fearless spokesperson and the face of leading beauty and fashion campaigns across the globe, Noella is a voice for the power of girls’ education worldwide.

Founded in 2007, Malaika is a grassroots non-profit that educates and empowers girls and their communities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Today, Malaika’s education and health programs are impacting thousands of people’s lives and are all offered free of charge.

She is an ambassador for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, an advisor at Concordia, and a member of the advisory Boards of the Segal Family Foundation and the World Football Summit.

Born in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she told Financial Times that when she was five, her father passed away and her mother didn’t have the means to take care of her, so she was sent to live with relatives in Europe. During the 13 years she was away, she had very little contact with her mother – just a few letters – but she did have the opportunity to get an education.

Take us through your formative years and influences

My childhood was difficult. I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and when I was just five years old, my father passed away suddenly. My mother couldn’t afford to keep me and sent me to live with relatives in Europe. It was not a loving environment to be raised in, and I only spoke to my mother a handful of times on the phone and we exchanged a few letters. Despite the difficulties, I was given the opportunity to get an education and I threw myself into it and tried to do the best I could. It made me a strong person and helped me to have that inner drive to succeed.

What inspired your passion for philanthropy?

I went back to the DRC for the first time when I was 18. I was reunited with my mother and when I saw her living condition, I was shocked. There was hardly any infrastructure, no electricity, no running water. There were many children out of school, and the majority of them were girls. It struck me then how privileged I had been to gain an education. In the DRC, families have to pay to send their children to school and so boys’ education is prioritised. I knew I needed to give back to my home country out of what I had been able to achieve because of my own education. During that visit when I was 18, the dream for Malaika was planted in my heart and my passion to bring education to girls was ignited. Presently, there are over 50 million children out of school in sub-Saharan Africa and so I continue to advocate for this course.

Share with us about your modelling career

After I finished my degree back in Europe, some friends entered me into a competition to be the model in a campaign for Agent Provocateur. I won and then landed other modelling work, soon travelling to cities like London and New York to model in various campaigns. I was a tomboy growing up and never thought I’d work in the fashion industry, but my career grew from there, and I have been lucky to work with some incredible brands such as, Roksanda, Versace, and many others. Over my career journey, I have adopted the phrase ‘modelling with meaning’ and that represents the way I will bring in some element of giving back into the campaigns I’m working on. Malaika has had several partnerships with brands that have helped fund our work. I also now prioritise working with brands that value sustainability and fair treatment of workers in their supply chains.

What advice do you have for anyone who desires to be a model?

It’s a very competitive industry but if you want it, keep believing in yourself. If there is anything that’s different about you or makes you stand out, don’t try to change it but lean into it.

As the face of leading beauty and fashion campaigns across the globe, what would you say is your distinguishing factor?

It is my values and priorities in terms of philanthropy. Modelling isn’t just about your physical appearance but who you are as a person comes through. I am grateful that modelling and the other work that I do sitting on various boards has provided me with a platform to start Malaika and the ability to continue to generate the funds we need to run the programs. I work entirely voluntarily for Malaika and my other work enables me to do that. I work very hard in everything I do and have an amazing team around me.

What is Malaika about?
Malaika was founded in 2007 in order to provide girls with education. Over the past 15 years, our mission has grown to be: empowering girls and their communities through education and health programs. We have a primary and secondary school that provides education to 430 girls, including STEM, English, music, theatre, art and sport. In partnership with FIFA, we built a community centre that provides technical classes in mechanics and electricity, which we launched this year in partnership with the Caterpillar Foundation, and sport for development to 5000 youth and adults each year. We have built and refurbished 28 wells to provide 32,000 people with clean, potable water, protecting them from water borne diseases. We are also involved in agriculture.

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Your programmes for the girls are all free of charge, how have you sustained it?

We have worked hard over the years to build a facility that is sustainable. Over 80% of the funds raised go directly to funding the programs, there are few overheads and we have a large cohort of volunteers around the world. We ask donors to commit to sponsoring a girl’s education, or a STEM program, or some school supplies. Fashion brands have been great donors too and every year I donate my birthday.

Fill us in on the agricultural aspect of your involvement with the girls and women

We have farming at our community centre, which we opened in 2017 as part of the Sustainable Pathways project. It forms part of the programme to teach out-of-work youths about conservation farming, entrepreneurship and enterprise development. It also serves as a teaching platform to the community at large about sustainable agriculture methods. The farm helps provide two nutritious meals each day to students and staff. It also provides an opportunity for our students to plant trees and learn how to care for the environment.

Give us insight into your partnership with FIFA in details from when it commenced till date

Our partnership with FIFA started in 2013 when they part-funded our community centre. We were one of 20 community centres that were funded following the 2010 World Cup. This enabled us to launch our sport for development program and involve the community in playing football. We would then take time during football games to teach people about social cohesion, equality, health and conflict prevention and resolution.

Aside FIFA, are there other organisations you work with?

We work with FIFA and other sport organisations such as UEFA Foundation and Common Goal, who are all supporting the programs in our community centre, which includes: education for adults and out of school youths, vocational education, sports for social development, and health education and outreach. Through our community centre, Malaika offers free access to a broad range of programs including literacy, vocational training, IT courses, English, numeracy, civics, and sports. We reach thousands of individuals per year through the centre, and work to ensure that anyone who wants to learn, can learn. Malaika takes an inclusive approach to education, welcoming and supporting students of all backgrounds and abilities. We also ensure the information and skills we provide are relevant to our participants’ lives.

Being an ambassador for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, an advisor at Concordia, and a member of the advisory Boards of the Segal Family Foundation and the World Football Summit, how has it been?

It is a great privilege to serve in this role. It’s deeply personal for me and I took on the role in memory of six-year-old Miriam, a Grade 1 student who passed away in December 2015, due to complications from malaria, when the school was closed during the Christmas vacation. We sadly lost three students, Leya, Esther Annie, and Noella in the time the school was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. They all passed away as a result of contracting malaria. I am also proud to sit on the board of the Segal Family Foundation who support organisations doing great work across sub-Saharan Africa, and I am part of the advisory boards for the L’Oreal Fund and the World Football Summit.

What is your greatest desire for humanity?

Equality of opportunity. That everyone would have access to education and therefore would be empowered and equipped to design their own futures. We would all benefit if this was the reality as we would have a greater wealth of knowledge, creativity and solutions to the huge problems we are facing as a global community.

What impact did Forbes8 series, ‘Creating Opportunities’ have on you and in your work?

It was a great interview and such a prestigious series. It enabled me to showcase our work and my passion for seeing girls’ education and their communities empowered.

How are you juggling motherhood and work?

It’s never easy, but I try to spend quality time with my kids when I’m home and take time for myself too. I will disconnect from my phone and computer and walk our dog and use the gym. I also involve them in my work. They have done a couple of modelling campaigns with me in recent years. They also travel to Congo with me every summer and join in with what is going on at Malaika. Malaika is important to them too and they love to help with fundraising and the events we run.

What future do you see for Malaika?

Malaika is a sustainable ecosystem that can be duplicated in any context globally. We have made a Malaika Model toolkit so that others can create a similar provision and I hope to see many more Malaika’s spring up around the world to provide education and health programs to more people. Next year, we will see our first cohort of students graduate and we will be supporting them into their next steps towards their future goals.

What is happening in December and how can people can be part of it?

In December, we are doing a special fundraiser, celebrating 15 years of Malaika as well as my birthday–which is on Christmas Day! It is a virtual party and one of our fundraising campaigns during the year. This year’s donations will go to supporting our first ever class of girls who graduate next summer. Eve (award-winning singer and songwriter) will host, and we’ll have a special performance from Youssoupha (an incredible French/ Congolese musician). Also, there will be words from our students, staff and other special guests.

Concluding words

Thank you for having me on the cover of your magazine. I have been to Lagos for the fashion show and to speak at an event. It is a magical country and I love Nigerian music artistes, they have awesome rhythm and dancing. I’m so proud of what we have achieved at Malaika. It’s not just down to me, it has been a team effort and our staff, volunteers, and supporters are amazing. I’m looking forward to celebrating 15 years of impact at our fundraiser on the 4th of December and if anyone reading this would like to join us, you can find out more and register to attend on our website www.malaika.org