What's it like in rural Malawi?

This week’s post is a journal entry I wrote as we were leaving Malawi and heading up to Kenya in August. I know that this short description doesn’t even begin to explain the complexity of life in Manyamula village, I’m just sharing my reflections on a few of the interesting experiences we had there.
— Tanya Cothran

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August 1, 2011
Lilongwe, Malawi

Lilian (left) and a friend pose in the cooking area behind her house.

Lilian (left) and a friend pose in the cooking area behind her house.

Boyd and I had three days full of visiting, seeing, and learning. I took so many notes about the amazing progress people are making with the help of the Small Business Fund and the Manyamula Village Savings and Loans group (MAVISALO) there – it really was inspiring. But, in addition to that, it was also fascinating and special to stay with Canaan Gondwe, SIA SBF Coordinator, and his family for three nights.

Life in Manyamula is very different from what I am used to in Minnesota. Firstly, there is no electricity in Manyamula. When the sun goes down, around 6:30-7:00pm every night (they are not too far south of the equator), people sit in the dark or use candles or flashlights for light. The total lack of electricity means that the stars are absolutely amazing at night. They said that when there was a full moon you could walk to Mzimba (22km) just on the light of the moon!

Tanya carries a basket on her head.

I attempt to keep a basket on my head. The women laughed at my lack of balance!

There is also no plumbing. Canaan lived right next to a well borehole put in place by World Vision, so his family didn’t have to walk too far to get water. The women pump water before sun-up (and others do it throughout the day) and carry it to their houses on their heads. The water is treated with chlorine so it is safe to drink. Each family has an outhouse for using the latrine.

Each morning we got to take a bath with warm water, which always felt so refreshing and amazing. They heated up the water over an open fire in the back of the house then put it in a water basin with some cold water. There is a small cement room next to the cooking room where you can bathe and rinse.

Nsima, maize flour mixed with water, is the staple food and indeed we had it everyday for lunch and dinner. Boyd really took a liking to nsima! It’s served with chipies (French fried), relish dip (blended kale), soup (tomato, also for dipping), and some salad of cabbage and tomatoes. So, the meals are carbohydrate-heavy, but flavorful!

Our typical lunch meal at Canaan and Lilian's house.

Our typical lunch meal at Canaan and Lilian's house.

We had the good fortune of having fried chicken from the MAVISALO coop that was established with a SIA grant. One of the SBF groups we visited gave us groundnuts (peanuts) and Lilian, Canaan’s wife, roasted and salted them for us. Yum! There is no refrigeration so nothing can be stored for long once it has been cooked.

The custom is to eat with your hands so at the beginning of each meal there is a hand washing ritual where one person pours water from a pitcher over a basin for each person to wash their hands.

Boyd and Canaan at the table with doughnuts and roasted peanuts for tea time.

Boyd and Canaan at the table with doughnuts and roasted peanuts for tea time.

Saturday was a busy day of visiting the market and all the Small Business Fund and MAVISALO beneficiaries and their projects. People were so proud of their accomplishments and they all had visions for more expansion and greater food security, health, and prosperity. They were pleased that someone had come all the way from America to document their testimony and take a picture to share with more people in the US. I was happy to be there to do that – to listen, record, and encourage.

So sunny you could boil an egg!

Camily Wedende was excited for us to visit his solar cooker storefront in Eldoret, Kenya last month. He eagerly texted our host and driver, Dennis Kiprop, to find out when we would get there.

After a long trek down crowded roads, Boyd Cothran, my husband and SIA Board member, Dennis Kiprop, and I finally made it there. Even though the sky threatened rain, there was enough solar energy to “hard boil” an egg in one of Camily’s solar cookers!

Camily proudly showed us around his shop, telling us of grateful customers and interested potential customers. Solar cookers greatly reduce the need to search for firewood and eliminate the need for expensive cooking fuel, features that are especially appealing for rural Kenyans and internal refugees.

Below is a photo essay of our visit to the Sun Cookers International store.

Related posts:

Realizing potential with just $150! Small Business Fund FAQs

How much a difference can $150 really make? While visiting Kenya and Malawi, Boyd and I saw many thriving businesses established through the Spirit in Action Small Business Fund. Read on to learn more about this life-changing program.

1. What is the SIA Small Business Fund (SBF) and how does it work?

Woman selling doughnuts at the market in Malawi.

Woman selling doughnuts at the market in Malawi.

The Small Business Fund (SBF) is SIA’s program to support economic development in developing countries. SIA has supported 445 small businesses in Kenya, Malawi, DR Congo, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, India, and Philippines since the program started in 2003.

Groups of 3-5 people receive business training and a $100 initial grant to start or expand their business. After three months, if the group is successful, they receive an additional reinvestment grant of $50.

The SIA office receives a copy of the business plan, a 3-month Business Report and a One Year report, so that we can follow the group’s successes and challenges.

2. So it’s a grant, not a micro-loan?

Our grants are the first step out of poverty and can eventually lead to micro-loans once the businesses are established. Micro-finance institutions, even ones that claim to help the poor, often require high collaterals and have crippling interest rates – we heard countless stories about families losing their belongings and being charged as much as 48% interest on a two week loan. SIA works with people and in areas that are often ignored or exploited by micro-finance institutions.

It is a rarely acknowledged fact that no company in the United States begins without start-up capital from outside investors. These investors are known as “angel investors” because they believe in the business model and they are willing provide the entrepreneurs with the capital needed to get their idea off the ground.  SIA follows the same principle; SIA donors are effectively Angel Investors for people in developing countries.

3. Who are the SBF Coordinators?

We currently work with eight SBF Coordinators who serve in their local communities. They are dedicated volunteers with experience in community development, who work with our SBF Guidelines and send us reports and stories of the businesses. Before people become SBF Coordinators, we get to know them over the course of many months to establish a relationship of mutual trust. Through this process, we also come to better understand the specific needs and challenges in their community.

4. How do you decide who receives the grants?

Our SBF Coordinators develop location-specific criteria to identify the poorest households in their community. They visit families to ask how many meals they eat and if children can attend school, and to detect the opportunities and skills that the family could use to start a new business.

5. What do you provide in addition to the grant?

Benoit Malenge goes over record-keeping with a new business leader in DRC.

Benoit Malenge goes over record-keeping with a new business leader in DRC.

Before anyone receives a SBF grant, they receive business training from our Coordinators. They learn about record keeping, accounting, decision-making, marketing, and budgeting.

After receiving the grant, the Coordinators continue to check-in with the group, offering tips to help them improve their business and giving words of encouragement. Many people we met in Kenya and Malawi appreciated this individual support and saw this as a crucial part of their success.

6. Is $150 really enough to start a business?

Yes! Without capital, capable business people cannot get the start-up supplies needed to open a business. The initial $100 grant can enable them to buy materials for repairing bikes or items for their new store.

To ensure that the businesses continue to thrive, our SBF program also requires reinvestment. Members often reinvest 25-50% of their profits to expanding their business.

7. What kinds of businesses do people start?

People start businesses to fill the needs and wants in their community.

Some typical businesses are:

  • Farms (maize, vegetables, tomatoes, cassava, etc.)
  • Bakeries and restaurants
  • Bike repair
  • Brick making
  • Basketry and other handicrafts
  • Buying items in bulk and reselling in the market
  • Small grocery stores

8. What do people do with their business profits?

Woman in Malawi with iron sheets ready to go on her new house.

Woman in Malawi with iron sheets ready to go on her new house.

SBF members use their profits to expand their businesses and improve their lives. After receiving the small SBF grant, their businesses can generate enough profit to:

  • Send a child to school
  • Buy roofing for their house
  • Buy new clothes and shoes for their families
  • Provide better food
  • Buy a bicycle, so that they don’t have to walk everywhere
  • Buy more items to sell in their stores

9. Shouldn’t people have to pay back the grant with their profits?

Rather than ask people to pay back the funds to SIA, we ask them to pay it forward, through our Sharing The Gift initiative.

Once a business has been successful they give back to help someone else. For example:

  • Winkly in Malawi received the gift of a piglet from a successful SBF piggery
  • 5 groups in Nigeria saved $150 from their business profits so that someone else could start a business.
  • Mary in Kenya trained another woman to make wedding cakes, so that she could open a new business.

10. How do your Christian principles enter into the SBF program?

Most of the people we work with come from a Christian faith tradition and people from many different churches and denominations come together through the SBF program. Our training guidelines teach about listening prayer and starting prayer groups to help group members share their problems and pray together for solutions. However, SIA is not evangelical and does not require anyone to declare his or her faith to participate.

Your donation of any amount helps people start small businesses and live up to their potential! We invite you to become an Angel Investor and take a chance on these worthy business-people. You can donate online or find more information here.

Dancing with Joy

Watch this video and be instantly transported to Manyamula Village, Malawi. Boyd and I were greeted with singing, dancing, and testimonies of SIA’s impact in their community. We welcome you to join in on the celebration!

*See the transcript below.

I am Linly Nkhata, Vice-Treasurer [of the Manyamula Savings and Loans Group]. I come from Sacara Village. I am also thankful for the [Spirit in Action] Small Business Fund and it has assisted me.

I started a small grocery. Inside of that grocery I made a profit and I bought a cow.

Now as I’m talking, the cow has multiplied! I drink the milk. I sell the milk and the cow is producing manure for my farm. [Everyone applauds.] Out of the money from the milk, I am also able to feed the dairy cows [good food].

Before I say anything else I want to sing a song! [Sings.]

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