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A Startup's Songs for Africa

Many students go abroad for a semester during college to open their minds to other cultures. But Jesse Brenner, a 23-year-old senior at Wesleyan University, came back from Botswana last year with much more than an understanding of African life -- he had a business plan.

Brenner and a friend, Eric Herman, started Modiba Records to use African music to help people caught in the escalating ethnic violence in Darfur, Sudan. The Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project (ASAP) is the label's first release, a compilation of African-beat music with 100% of the proceeds going to Kebkayiah Smallholders Charitable Society, a community group that helps the Sudanese find food and shelter. The organization is affiliated with international charity Oxfam.

Brenner looked to a fellow entrepreneur for startup funds -- Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, whose True Majority charity and advocacy group had assisted Sudan in the past. Cohen fronted Modiba the cash needed for production and legal costs (about $10,000), while Brenner secured the African artists through connections from his semester abroad and New York-based music organization Afropop Worldwide.

Then iTunes, Apple's (AAPL) successful Internet music store, signed on as a pro-bono distributor -- its first foray into charitable work. Launched just last week, ASAP has already cracked the iTunes top 30 albums chart, sharing space with the likes of Shania Twain and U2.

BusinessWeek Online reporter Erin Chambers recently spoke with Brenner about the roots of his startup and his plans for the future. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: Starting a record company is a huge endeavor in itself. Why choose to do your first album based on the music and culture of a foreign country?

A: We have been studying African-related topics at school and studied abroad there, and the ethnic violence has reached such a level in Sudan that some are calling it ethnic genocide. I studied culture and social and economic development in Botswana, and Eric Herman, my partner and co-founder, studied music and culture in Mali.

Both of us knew we wanted to do something related to Africa, and we had both been into African music for a while. So when we came back, we said we should really use the richness of African music to serve as a development tool.

We started formulating ideas for companies in the vein of social entrepreneurship to find ways for Africa to use its vast and rich cultural resources as a tool for development and social-economic improvement. We learned a lot when we spent the summer in Brooklyn working for Afropop Worldwide, a not-for-profit multimedia organization that's dedicated to bringing African music to the world. And then towards the end of the summer, more and more press came out about the situation in Darfur, and we decided to do it.

Q: How did you secure funding for the project?

A: A friend of ours is a very good friend of Ben of Ben & Jerry's, who runs True Majority and had already done some work in Sudan. Ben's a big music fan himself and a brilliant marketer, and I guess he saw potential for this.

We submitted a long proposal about what we would need, how much we would need, how long it would take. It was the first major business proposal we had ever done, and I'm a philosophy major. We requested just a small fee to cover production costs and legal expenses. True Majority decided they were going to market the entire thing. Then iTunes agreed to host it for free.

Q: What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur and a college student at the same time?

A: The first is inexperience. We have a lot of people that are helping us out, but you can't replace your own experience. You're going to make mistakes. It's knowing little things like what equipment you'll need ahead of time, or how to encode specific codes you need on the tracks before they can go up on iTunes, or that you have to register a barcode with a certain company.

We've made albums ourselves before, but in terms of creating a professional product to be released in the mainstream market, none of us have experience doing that. It has been a lot of consulting with people, and it has been some trial and error.

The other main challenge is that we're college kids and have heavy workloads. This is a full-time job. There's never an end to how much publicity and promotion you can do for your product, so it always feels like, "Well, should I do this piece of homework right now or make 10 more phone calls or send 10 more e-mails about the album?" And for us, our studies are important to us. We're intellectually minded kids, but at the same time, this is our future. It's a project we really care about, and it's for a cause that's immediate and pressing in the world right now. It's a challenge in terms of time management.

Q: What are your plans for Modiba Records?

A: While we're planning to keep Modiba a private company, we want to use the projects we produce in Africa to fund local development initiatives. So, for example, perhaps we will do an album whose proceeds will be used for an urban-renewal project or irrigation development.he [company's] short-term goal is creating employment, the medium-term goal is generating money for development projects, and the long-term goal is to create a self-sufficient music industry that's run by and for Africans.We're interested to see where it goes.

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