No short circuit: An electrical engineer educates African kids

Malian school children in the country’s rural areas are supported by Spanish nonprofit Global Play through education, sporting events and other programs. Photo by: Carlos Hornstein

When asked where his office is, Carlos Hornstein’s response says a lot about how he leads his life.

“I don’t have one,” he said.

Since the mid-1990s, Hornstein has worked in four foreign countries. Now he is back in his native Barcelona with one major goal: to help African children get proper education.

The Spanish-born Swiss national founded Global Play in 2006 to make good on a promise he made to friends after a trip to Africa the year before.

“I showed them the slide shows of pictures I took in Mali and promised to start a foundation. I had no idea what it was going to be about,” he said. “It’s a poor place, but people are its richness. Authenticity is their main quality.”

Hornstein’s journey from a career in electric engineering to a full-time commitment to international development started in 1994, when he completed his first master’s degree in Spain and took part in a one-year work abroad program offered by Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya in Barcelona. While most fellow graduates chose to travel to the United States, he decided to work in an electricity plant run by global electronics and electrical engineering powerhouse Siemens in a Malaysian fishing village.

“I have always loved traveling and I wanted to experience something really different. I thought I could always go to the U.S., but not to a place like that,” he recalled, referring to Malaysia.

Hornstein - whose father owned an animal food processing factory in Sudan and whose late grandfather lived in Mexico and traveled across Latin America - developed a deep interest in different places and cultures during his childhood.

“Every Christmas, my grandfather would show us photos and Super 8 films of his journeys. And I remember my father calling from Sudan and telling me about life there,” said Hornstein, who was also a fan of Spanish nature conservation pioneer and documentary filmmaker Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente.

During the 10 years after his stint in Malaysia, Hornstein worked in Germany and the U.S. He began to realize he could not be happy with just an ordinary job in a Western country. His attraction to developing world issues was too strong to be ignored.

“I could have waited to become richer, as many people do before they turn to philanthropy, but I didn’t,” he said.

In 2004, the former engineer started a Master of Business Administration program at Emory University in Atlanta, which included a Carter Center-sponsored course on African development. The program required students to present a development project to be implemented in Mali to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose Atlanta-based organization was active in the West African country.

Hornstein and several other students developed a project on sustainable tourism, which gained praise from the Carter Center. That project also won $80,000 from Emory University and Coca-Cola.

By February 2005, the group was off to Mali. When he arrived there, Hornstein was very surprised to find a piece of his native Spanish province of Catalonia in the middle of Africa. He met three Catalonian women who had thought about working in sustainable tourism long before he did and had opened a resort in Mopti, a very popular tourist town also known as the “Venice of Mali.” His friendship with fellow Malian-based Spanish citizens led Hornstein to his calling.

The daughter of one of the three Spanish women worked in a rural school where she helped teachers and staff overcome daily challenges related to poverty.

“They told me about the education system there, so when I got back I just finished my master’s in four months time and wrote a business plan for an organization. Three friends of mine joined along with another partner. One dropped out shortly afterward, but we registered our organization in 2006,” Hornstein recalled.

That’s how the idea of Global Play emerged.

In 2008, Global Play received approximately 100,000 euros from Spain’s aid agency Agencia Espanola de Cooperacion Internacional para el Desarrollo for its pilot project in Mali. Its resources continued to grow, with donations coming from Catalonian aid agency Agencia Catalana de Cooperacio al Desenvolupament, the municipalities of the Barcelona and Sant Cugat, and Reale Seguros, the Spanish branch of Italy’s insurance giant Reale Mutua. The money enabled Hornstein’s organization to help three Malian primary schools improve the quality of education and increase children’s attendance.

The organization has a permanent staff of eight, including Hornstein, its president. The group comprises architects, professors, doctors, engineers and economists from the U.S. and Spain who work on a voluntary basis. The organization also has about 20 temporary volunteers, many of whom are deployed to projects over a course of two weeks. They all refer to themselves as “global players.”

Temporary volunteers working in the field tend to be between 24 and 48 years of age and - at this point - all happen to be from Spain, although this is not a requirement. Volunteers generally learned about opportunities with Global Play via word of mouth and their expenses - including airplane fare and food and housing costs - are covered by the organization.

Given the many development challenges in Mali, Hornstein knew much work needed to be done. As such, he decided to leave his job as a sales manager with U.S. lighting control system maker Lutron in 2006 and to become a full-time “global player.”

In 2008, he accepted a position as associate director of international executive education at IESE Business School in Barcelona, which he said is easy to combine with his work for Global Play, since it helps him to meet with people who may be interested in supporting the organization.

Although busy with his two jobs, Hornstein hopes to expand the activities of Global Play to other countries and continents where teachers struggle to deliver education to disadvantaged kids - but under one condition.

“We will only expand when we find the right local people to work with us,” Hornstein said. Global Play has been in contact with potential partners in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and El Salvador.

About the author

  • Tiziana Cauli

    Tiziana has contributed to Devex News since mid-2008, focusing mainly on Africa as well as the European donor landscape, especially those in Brussels, Rome and Barcelona. Tiziana has worked as a journalist for Reuters and the Associated Press in Johannesburg and at Reuters in Milan and Paris. She is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish.