Dan Myatt enrolled at the University of Virginia in 2004 in the midst of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and felt moved to join the Air Force ROTC.
The Portland, Oregon native graduated in 2008 with an undergraduate degree in engineering and spent the next seven years in the Air Force as an explosives ordnance disposal officer in Afghanistan.
“Our job was basically to disarm IEDs in support of combat operations against the Taliban,” he said.
David Masomo’s early years took a decidedly different path. As a teenager growing up in Congo, he was abducted in the late 1990s by a rebel group and forced to fight in that country’s second war. Somehow he eluded death, even as many of his friends were killed in the bloodletting, which ended in 2003. Undeterred by the war and its consequences, Masomo went on to earn a B.A. in economics from Adventist University of Lukanga and an advanced diploma in computer hardware and networking from another school in India.
Despite the hardships of combat, Myatt and Masomo both emerged with a compulsion to make a more positive difference. In a curious twist of fate, their paths crossed by chance in 2013 at a church in South Korea, where Myatt was stationed on active duty and Masomo was studying for a master’s degree on a scholarship.
Masomo said there was an immediate kinship. “Our hearts connected because of this experience we shared,” he said.
Their common passion led them to create “Mavuno” in 2014 in Masomo’s home province, North-Kivu. The non-profit works with leaders in local villages and empowers them to create their own solutions to extreme poverty by improving things like agriculture, education, health care and sanitation. The work is based on the premise that the cycle of violence is broken when people create prosperity in their own villages.
Myatt recently talked with UVA Today about how his time on Grounds prepared him for his life in Afghanistan, South Korea and Congo and how rewarding his military experience was.
Q. Why did you choose to attend UVA?
A. I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and applied to schools all over the country. When I visited UVA, I instantly fell in love – UVA is, of course, one of the most beautiful schools in the country, and it is home to some amazing history. One of the things that really appealed to me was that you could experience a lot of the things of a major, public university, like attending Division I sports, while not sacrificing academic excellence.
Honestly, I was quite surprised that I gained admission to UVA and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up!”
Q. Why did you join the military?
A. I entered UVA in 2004, so right in the middle of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. I suppose my motivations were rather idealistic, but I just wanted to make a difference. I just felt like if our country was at war, I couldn’t not contribute, if that makes sense. So I joined the Air Force ROTC program at UVA. The financial assistance to cover my out-of-state tuition didn’t hurt either.
After graduation, I commissioned as an officer in the Air Force and served on active duty for seven years. (After separating from active duty, I served in the reserves for one year too, so eight years total.) Going back to my earlier point, I wanted to make a difference on the battlefield and pursued entry to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal career field. I was selected for EOD, went down to Naval School EOD in Florida for a year (it’s a joint school, so all four services go through this same school), was fortunate to be my class honor graduate, and then led EOD units in the years that would follow.
EOD is the career field that was primarily responsible for disarming improvised explosive devices, and given the fact that was the weapon of choice for the Taliban, EOD really played a central role in these conflicts. Our job was to disarm these devices, so that others could return safely home to their families. I had the privilege of serving with a lot of amazing guys, a lot of heroes that sacrificed a lot and did some pretty incredible work. It was rewarding work, and a privilege to lead EOD operators during my time in the service.
Q. Can you describe your combat missions?
A. In Afghanistan, I was an EOD Company [Executive Officer] – we had nine EOD teams that were dispatched all over Kandahar Province in support of various ground forces. From disarming IEDs to routine clearance patrols to destroying weapons caches, our guys were everywhere and did some amazing work.
However, I also thought there had to be a better way than what we were doing (“we” meaning the international community). I saw the potential for business and economic development to create systems change and prevent conflict. Through my time in Afghanistan, I saw how extreme poverty seemed to be a fuel and accelerant of conflict (I’m not necessarily saying it’s a causal relationship, but they are inextricably tied – extremism gives legs to extremist movements). I became passionate about getting after things at a more root-cause level.
Q. What did you learn at UVA that would prepare you for your roles in the military and, later, at Mavuno?
A. I am a School of Engineering and Applied Science ’08 grad, and in retrospect, I’ve found that there has been a common thread in all of my experiences that have prepared me for my work with Mavuno. Engineering is about problem-solving – it teaches you how to think critically, how to solve problems. EOD is the same thing – you have to outsmart the bomb-maker; you have to solve problems.
Now, I am using my problem-solving skills to get after one of the greatest problems of our time: extreme poverty in fragile states.
I’m also quite thankful for my time at UVA in that I think it opened my eyes to the world. Through classes and relationships, I gradually developed a more global perspective and an appreciation for nuance. This ability to cross cultural boundaries and attempt to understand things from someone else’s worldview would serve me well.
Lastly, I was really involved in a number of things outside of the University that broadened my experiences and honed my leadership acumen. ROTC was, of course, a big part of my University experience and really developed me as a leader. I was also a manager at the Aquatic and Fitness Center and a volunteer firefighter at Stony Point Fire Department. All in all, I had great friends and great experiences in Charlottesville that put me on a path for future success.
Q. What does the word “Mavuno” mean, and why did you choose it?
A. “Mavuno” is the Swahili word for “harvest.” We wanted a name that was primarily identifiable with the population that we’re working with – that was more important for us than our U.S. brand. We want local communities to own this, for Mavuno to be a movement that is theirs – we thought it was important that the name reflect that. Congo is a Francophone country, but the primary language spoken in the rural areas of eastern Congo is Swahili.
Q. What motivated you and David to launch Mavuno?
A. In 2013, when I was still active duty military, I was stationed in South Korea. And that year, I met a man named David Masomo, who was also in South Korea pursuing a master’s degree in agriculture and rural development. We met in a Korean church and became great friends.
As we got to know each other better, we found that we had a common passion for development. We both saw the potential for effective, bottom-up development to help create stability in the world’s most fragile states. After months and months of talking, our conceptual notions started to develop into potentially actionable solutions. These ideas didn’t do anyone any good sitting on the shelf, so we resolved to have a bias for action and do something.
The exact moment that Mavuno was born – when we were like, “Let’s do this” – was over a plate of kimchi at a Korean barbeque restaurant in November 2013. We were formally founded in April 2014.
Q. Why work in Congo?
A. Congo was a natural place for us to start, since this is David’s home. The unique advantage of Mavuno thus far has been that it was co-founded by an American and a Congolese – so at the founder level, we’re intrinsically at the grassroots. This wasn’t me parachuting in with some good ideas.
I also want to say that working in conflict-affected areas is our niche. In fact, our entire theory of change is based upon the premise that one of the best ways to prevent conflict is to end extreme poverty. Overwhelming research points to this truth, but David and I also know this to be true from personal experience.
Globally, 14.5 percent of the world’s population is in extreme poverty. In fragile states/conflict-affected areas, that number is 43 percent. Since 1990, over 700 million people have risen above the extreme poverty threshold (which the World Bank now defines as $1.90 per day). Yet in that same time period – from 1990 until today – the number of people in extreme poverty in fragile states remains unchanged: 400 million. The needle hasn’t moved at all.
So if the international community actually intends to eradicate extreme poverty, that’s only going to happen if we work in the hard areas. Mavuno was built for that, and we intend to be a leader in that effort.
Q. How is Mavuno different from other types of interventions from say, missionaries or peacekeeping forces?
A. Great question. I have a few thoughts on this.
The U.N. maintains the most expensive peacekeeping force in the world in eastern Congo, to the tune of $1.4 billion per year and 19,000 troops. This place is home to the deadliest conflict since WWII; over 5.5 million people have died. Yet [peacekeeping] hasn’t worked – it’s been woefully ineffective, the list of reasons for which are too numerous to detail here.
The fundamental premise of Mavuno is this: that extreme poverty is a solvable problem, but that it is best solved by the talent and creativity of the poor themselves, and not by outsiders. So through listening and through relationships, we affirm the dignity and value of local people as equal human beings and build solutions with them. We are quite outspoken against the rather paternalistic nature of most international interventions parachuting in to save the day; the “white savior” voluntourism effect just simply doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes in one’s effort to do good, you have unintended consequences that do more harm than good.
The other main differentiator is that our primary goal is to work ourselves out of a job. We actually intend to solve the problems we set out to solve, not just alleviate them. That means that there should no longer be a need for us there. We aspire toward complete international exit from the Congo, where our work is sustained by the Congolese for the Congolese, and powered by enterprise, not international philanthropy or donations. We think we can do it by 2035.