Gert Johansson

“If you want to get something done, you need to start off where things are worst!”

Describing the story of how and why Dispurse came into being feels important, to those of us working on it, to those who the foundation is helping and to those of you who follow and support our work. But not to founder Gert Johansson.

That’s the reality; he feels that the work should speak for itself and he does not want to end up in the limelight for what he has set in motion. However, after a great deal of persuasion he finally agreed to an interview.

The Dispurse Foundation was founded by entrepreneur Gert Johansson in 1993, with the aim of providing underprivileged girls with an opportunity for education, primarily in South America. Today we are sitting here with Gert, who will take us through the whole journey. Join us for the ride!

How did you come to set up Dispurse?”

“There were many things that contributed to things turning out as they did. Once my two girls had completed their education, I needed something to motivate me and started reflecting on a problem that I often encountered in my job out in the world at large. Namely that there were, and are, so many women who never get the chance to be involved and influence social development because they, completely or partially, lack basic education. For me, this is not just a threat to the individual, it is also a threat to development, democracy and humanism on our planet. 

“My company that I started in 1971 did very well as time went on. I had many good employees, meaning that I had both time and money to spare. I began to discuss with my lawyer, Peter Wåhlin, and with my daughters how we could do our bit to create positive change, no matter how small.

“These discussions resulted in the Dispurse foundation being established and we created scholarships so that poor girls out in the world at large would be able to get a better education and thereby become a positive force in their respective communities. The first scholarship was actually in Peru.” 

“So you started in Peru and I know that you also operated in Russia and Lebanon, but you now work in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. How did that come about?” 

“That’s right. Our fundamental approach has always been to try and provide help where the situation is worst with regard to women’s rights to get an education. There are numerous reasons why women don’t get the chance, with poverty being one of them, and that’s somewhere we can get involved and make a difference. We have tried to find channels in the Arab world and Russia, but haven’t had much luck, since there is always some outside party in a position of power who will profit from the project, and we don’t approve of that. We kept at it with our scholarships around the world and felt that it yielded results, not as significant as changing the whole society, but we succeeded in helping more women to get an education, right up to university level. These women have since become good ambassadors for our activities and do a lot of good at home within medicine, law, economics and within education.

“We were constantly trying to improve our global contact network and also investigated the parts of the world where it was most needed and where we judged that it would do the most good. We saw, in the parts of Africa that needed help, that there were already many other organisations providing aid, but no, or only a few, organisations working in South America, so that was where we set our sights. We have admittedly funded some water projects at schools in eastern and central Kenya, but our focus now is, as I said, on South America. 

“Over 420 million people live in South America and roughly 20-30% of them cannot read, write or do arithmetic. If you want to get something done, you need to start off where the situation is worst. If you can tackle that successfully, the rest will follow. We have built schools and day centres in Bolivia and Peru that have all become a good springboard for the local population. We have also built up a good contact network in these countries that has given us great scope for providing aid where it is most needed.  

“The fact that we are now focusing heavily on Peru is due to our collaboration with Gerd Dahlin-Öberg, a wonderful lady who has worked for the Salvation Army in Bolivia and Peru for over 30 years. Her contact network has been a huge help to us.”

Slowly but surely you have also increased your efforts and more people have received help, but if there are now over 80 million people who cannot read, write or do arithmetic in South America, it will take a very long time before you make significant headway with this.” 

“Well, yes, we’re aware of that. But you shouldn’t hesitate in helping those you can just because you can’t help everyone. We naturally hope that others will lend a hand and that those who gain an education will become the small pieces of the puzzle that are needed to gradually complete the whole picture. It’s about doing things that change the world for the better. 

 “When we contacted Gerd down in Peru we talked a lot about how we could best serve as the force that sets the snowball rolling. We asked ourselves what is the root of the poverty and problems that exist in Peru? It turned out that illiteracy is the single biggest cause of the poverty we can see. Just over 1.5 million people in Peru cannot read, write or do arithmetic, approximately 75% of these are women. These people frequently end up excluded from everything that democracy represents, they often end up excluded from the labour market and if they manage to obtain some sort of low-level job they are very poorly paid. This is where we need to do some good and we need to find ways to do it faster!”

“But Dispurse is a small foundation from Sweden, how do you generate resources for this?”

“Admittedly the Dispurse Foundation is a small player in a big world and only survives today on the return we manage to obtain from the capital invested in the foundation. But if you are small, then you have to think differently. 

“We realised around 6 years ago that we needed to increase the rate of learning and that we needed to create a platform where the individual controls their own progress. As the learning then increases, the separate individuals also become resources for the next round of learners. We thought a lot about these issues and this resulted in an app.” 

We have tested at an altitude of 4,000 metres and in deserts 

 

“We did a preliminary study back in 2012 and since then we have been working with neuroscientists, educators and digital experts to create a platform that, as far as possible, enables self-learning. This has not been an easy process, but we have tested, discarded and tested again together with students in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. We have tested at an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level, we have tested in the desert, we have tested in a refugee camp in Colombia, and now, five years later we have a finished product. We have achieved really good results so far and now feel that the app is ready to launch on a larger scale.”  

“Five years sounds like an extremely long time for developing an app?”

“It is a long time, but, as mentioned, we have had limited resources. Now I wouldn’t say that that is the major reason why it has taken so much time; what has taken most time is understanding how the actual learning should be accomplished. This is a completely new technique, it’s not based on having a person, a teacher, to guide you the whole time, it’s based on building up your knowledge yourself, from almost zero. Essential guiding principles in our work have been that the education process must be individual and that the students must be able to study when and where they can. Another important factor is that it must be possible to break off from the studies at any point and begin again from where you left off. We had to create our own teaching methods, and this process has involved many experts, in many areas, to achieve the best exchange possible. 

“If we look at the situation in Sweden, children always have someone around them who can read, write and do arithmetic, so you can learn gradually; there is fundamental comprehension in society. When we look instead at the poorest segments of the population in the countries where we operate, there is no one you can turn to, and if, contrary to expectations, there are a few people who would be able to teach, they are too few and it would take much too long. The aim of our efforts is, as you know, to increase the rate and volume of educated students, so that they can serve as a resource for others, thus yielding the snowball effect we want to achieve.”

“But 400 people still sounds pitifully small when there are over 1.5 million people in Peru alone who cannot read, write or do arithmetic.” 

“400 is a good start and these 400 have been with us through the development work. Since we now know that it works, we will start distributing tablets with our app installed in very different volumes. We are now talking about a target of getting 25,000 students on board within three years. If we can get these to help us with the next stage, the snowball will be rolling and within a few more years perhaps we will have doubled the numbers many times over. Now it is just our own finances that are setting limits.”

What would you say is the level of education of students who have completed the programme compared with here in Sweden?” 

“The time taken to complete the programme is individual, and so too is the level of education naturally, but if you were generalising a little I would say that they have at least a level of education equivalent to three years of Swedish school in terms of reading, writing and arithmetic. That perhaps doesn’t sound especially remarkable to many people in Sweden, but in these parts of the world it can be crucial to how the future will look.

“We are currently in discussions with Universidad Católica del Perú, who intend to validate our education process, and based on this we will give out a certificate to those who complete the programme. We believe that this will provide additional motivation for programme participants and will also be a useful testimonial to show when applying for jobs.”

“This is a huge project and a wonderful vision you are painting. How has this journey been for you personally?” 

“Educational! I have gained insight into so much that I couldn’t even imagine and I have met so many talented people that I feel genuine hope that we are all moving towards a better world. Naturally there have been many occasions of waking in the night and wondering whether we can manage such a big project and whether we have the means to see it through, but this has always been eclipsed by the joy and energy that I have had the privilege of encountering among everyone involved, and now we have reached our goal, well, at least our first goal:-)”

“What do you see as your next goal?” 

“We are now joining several farming collectives in the poorest parts of Peru, which will be an exciting journey in itself. If that turns out well, we can accelerate further. Knowledge validation from the university for the learning effect that I mentioned earlier is also important. To translate the app into Portuguese. So you see, there is much still to do.”

Portuguese because you intend to target Brazil, I presume? What else?”

We have a large percentage of Spanish-speaking population in the USA, for example; we envision that this may be of interest to the families, it could be one of our challenges.”

Finally, I just want to express my delight about the project and to say thank you for doing this interview, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“No, it was very agreeable. But you must understand that I myself have never sought, or had any need for, acclaim for this personally. I am old now and am doing this so that the project will obtain the resources it deserves; we need more people to help push the snowball, so thank you in advance to all of you who are reading this.”

Thank you for sharing!

And you will be helping people to read, write and do arithmetic!