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The Young Greek Who Started a School in Zanzibar

Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis
Greek philanthropist Renos Fountoulakis with students in Zanzibar. Photo courtesy of Renos Foudoulakis.

Renos Fountoulakis is an inspiring Greek philanthropist who, when confronted with poverty on Zanzibar, decided to use education to change people’s lives.

In an interview with Greek Reporter, Fountoulakis provides insight on the school he helped found in 2020 and the amazing story of how it all began.

“Ripple effect” of kindness, Greek describes humanitarian work in Zanzibar

Currently, the CR Hope Foundation, which Fountoulakis co-founded, is educating 53 children in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar. However, the way in which his amazing humanitarian work came to is just as incredible.

It all began when Fountoulakis and his brother, Yiannis, visited Zanzibar in July of 2016. They visited a remote village on the second day of their trip which inspired him to be the change.

“This was the first time in my life I saw poverty in terms of houses made of grass and palm leaves. Without doors…a great number of people were living in there, like seven or eight people in this little hut. And I just felt terribly sorry [for] them,” said Fountoulakis.

“But what really made me wonder was, when I was looking at them, they [had] this big smile on their faces although they’re so poor,” he commented.

Fountoulakis turned into a philanthropist when faced with actual destitution.

“And in that moment, I had a calling that I needed to do something to prove that I’m very grateful for what I have by giving them a chance in their life,” he explained.

Over the next few days in Zanzibar, Fountoulakis tried to devise a plan that would best serve the community he had visited. Eventually, he landed upon the idea to sponsor a teacher—but it was a chance encounter with a Tanzanian local which led to the CR Hope Foundation becoming a reality.

Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis
Cosiano Ismaili Mbise, co-founder of the CR Hope Foundation. Photo courtesy of Renos Fountoulakis.

When visiting a souvenir shop in Zanzibar, Fountoulakis struck up a conversation with the owner of the store, Cosiano Ismaili Mbise. It soon became clear that they were both philanthropists at heart. 

Mbise asked Fountoulakis to become his business partner and try to sell some of his stores’ products in Dubai, where Fountoulakis lives.

“I’ll buy them,” Fountoulakis said. “But if I make a profit, I want it to be donated to a teacher. I want to find someone to educate children in the English language for free to help your community.”

“And [Mbise] was so impressed by my idea…he mentioned that he would also offer his profits for the same purpose,” said Fountoulakis, the Greek philanthropist, of his first encounter with the co-founder of the CR Hope Foundation.

However, things did not exactly go to plan. Fountoulakis was unable to sell Mbise’s products in Dubai because there was no market for them, but they kept in touch, and after Fountoulakis confessed that he was unable to sell the samples, he told his new friend that he was still determined to help educate children in Zanzibar.

“I have a piece of land, that’s the only asset I’ve got, I can donate it to you. And we can build a school together,” Mbise said out of the blue.

His response shocked Fountoulakis so much so that he felt the need to understand where his generosity was coming from.

When he asked Mbise what inspired him to donate his plot of land, he found out that, in the past, he himself had been the recipient of the gift of education, which changed his life forever.

Mbise used to sell fabric to tourists on the mainland of Tanzania until he had a chance encounter with a Canadian man named William Fraser. Fraser noticed how Mbise struggled to sell his products due to his lack of English skills, and with the aid of an interpreter, he offered his help.

“Then Fraser offered to sponsor [Mbise’s] English language schooling for six months. Plus, he gave him money to feed his family for this period. [Mbise] used this money wisely—he learned English until he met another individual, who invited him to sell gifts within his hotel in Zanzibar,” Fountoulakis recounts.

Eventually, Mbise began earning enough money to turn his dream of owning his own store into reality. His eventual encounter with Fountoulakis propelled him to “pay it forward” and help people become educated in much the same way he had been able to.

Struggles on the path to success

After establishing the CR Hope Foundation (named after Cosiano and Renos) and taking over the plot of land, the Greek philanthropist met a stumbling block in terms of funding.

“We started building in 2017; it was so hard because no one believed in our story, and no one wanted to give us money, because all they could see was an empty plot,” recounts Fountoulakis.

Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis zanzibar
The construction of the Seeds of Light school, in Kizimkazi, Zanzibar. Photo courtesy of Renos Fountoulakis.

He devised a plan to take groups of people from Dubai on tours of Zanzibar, and show them the plot of land on the last day in order to collect donations. He also started contributing part of his own paycheck to the building of the school.

However, this was not the only problem Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis had to overcome.

“At the same time, it was very difficult for me to gain trust from the village. Because they’re Muslim, and I’m Christian, and in their eyes I just came across as a missionary,” he revealed.

“So they thought the curriculum would include some Christian related modules. I had to convince them that my religion is love and it doesn’t matter where I come from or what my God’s name is, because after all, we are one,” explained Fountoulakis.

Fountoulakis was eventually able to gain the trust of the village and successfully build the school named “Seeds of Light.”

Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis opens school in Zanzibar

Seeds of Light school zanzibar
The completed Seeds of Light school. Photo courtesy Renos Fountoulakis.

The Seeds of Light school began operation in January of 2020. It currently has five classrooms, as well as housing for volunteers. The CR Hope Foundation educates a total of 53 children in the English language for free.

“The way we work now is we accept students from pre-nursery, then they go to nursery, then first grade, and this is where we are now. So each year we will be introducing a new grade until they finish primary. So (in the next five years) we will have a secondary school,” Fountoulakis said proudly.

Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis
Children learning at the Seeds of Light school in Zanzibar. Photo courtesy of Renos Fountoulakis.

Inspired by the Greek spirit of education

Fountoulakis, who has Cretan parents but was born and raised in Athens, Greece, shares with Greek Reporter how the importance of Greek pedagogy has influenced his work in Zanzibar.

“Well, the logo of the Foundation is an owl. And this is the symbol the Ministry of Education in Greece uses in every [textbook], so that’s definitely something I carry with me,” he said.

Greek philanthropist Fountoulakis zanzibar
Yiannis Fountoulakis in Zanzibar before he tragically passed away in 2017. Photo courtesy of Renos Fountoulakis.

Fountoulakis has also dedicated his work to the memory of his brother, Yiannis Fountoulakis, who passed away in May of 2017. He describes his brother as having been very happy that he was going back to Zanzibar to see how he could help at the beginning of the project, and his brother continues to inspire him to this day.

“I just thought the best way to overcome this depression is by [making] a promise to [make] him proud with my actions, and so I dedicated this project to his memory,” Fountoulakis clarified. “And I asked him to spread his light because he was an angel on Earth…I just can’t describe how good he was.”

“And I can tell you he’s definitely my angel,” says Fountoulakis of his brother.

A video of the day the Seeds of Light school started operation may be viewed below.

Fountoulakis’ work in Zanzibar as a Greek philanthropist is sure to have made not only his brother but the entirety of the Greek community incredibly proud. Those who wish to donate or volunteer at CR Hope Foundation can do so at this link.

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