Helping their children to have a better life

Helping their children to have a better life

All around the world, parents have the common hope that their children will have better lives than their own. This was the hope of Chimwemwe Beza and Timothy Mtambo in Manyamula, Malawi.

Chimwemwe left high school after her second year and never was able to return. She didn’t have the support of family to continue her education, especially since they were struggling to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and a home. Still, Chimwemwe and Timothy held onto the hopethat their children – Mphatso (15), Jestina (13), and Constance (10) – might be able to attend high school.

In 2014, when the family was invited to join the Spirit in Action Small Business Fund (SBF) program, the dream of sending their children to school felt far-off. They used their $100 initial grant to open a small retail shop in the Manyamula marketplace. They also bought a piglet, since pigs are a good way to invest savings in rural Malawi. Timothy and Chimwemwe worked long hours to save some money for their children’s education.

Chimwemwe in her first retail shop in 2014, after receiving the $100 Small Business Fund grant.
Malawi

A year later, the family changed their business from a retail grocery shop to a second-hand clothes shop. This is a good business because they are able to buy the second-hand clothes for a good price and there is lower competition in the marketplace.

The Best School in the County

The business has been so successful that for the last two years, Mphatso and Jestina have been able to attend one of the best elementary boarding schools in the county! The test results are now in and the parents are so proud that both children were selected to attend one of the top high schools next year.

Chimwemwe is so proud to be able to afford a top quality education for her children!

When Small Business Fund local coordinator, Canaan Gondwe talked to Chimwemwe, he reported: “She was all joy to tell me that the Small Business Fund has impacted her children tremendously. She says, ‘had it been not for SBF, her children could not have attended boarding school and would not have been able to make it to high school.”

The business continues to this day – 4 years after the initial grant! – and the family is working hard to continue to support the children in having a brighter future! Instead of Spirit in Action paying for school fees directly, we are helping families earn enough so that they can pay for the school fees themselves.

Chimwemwe in her roadside clothing shop

Lessons from a coworking space in Malawi

Lessons from a coworking space in Malawi

This is reposted from the blog Centre for Social Innovation’s blog. I wrote it for my coworking community in Toronto.

Halfway around the world, stepping into the Blantyre Entrepreneurs Hub was reassuringly familiar. Even though the dusty streets and tin-roofed houses of Malawi, a tiny country in southern Africa, are very different from the condo towers and streetcars of Toronto, spaces of social innovation around the world seem to share more similarities than differences.

Motivational quotes from famous innovators decorated the lime green walls. Bright orange chairs surrounded the black glossy work tables. The office was quiet on the cool evening in May when I visited. Most of the entrepreneurs – the photographers, caterers, and website developers – had already gone home to their families or guest houses for the evening. Dineo Mkwezalamba, Program Manager for Entrepreneurs Motivation Network (EMNET), greeted me with a warm smile. She was excited to show me around the cooperative’s facilities.

Tanya with Dineo (pictured left) the HUB director, and one of the top entrepreneurs (pictured right).

The Hub, as it’s known, is a coworking space for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, which is the financial and business capital of Malawi, and a city of one million people. The space provides access to high-speed internet, meeting rooms, electricity, and security. These are big perks for the entrepreneurs, most of whom do not have access to the electrical grid at home. The collective buying power of the Hub makes the amenities affordable. In addition to the monthly memberships, they’ve begun to offering day-pass for about CAD$1.75. The hope is that once entrepreneurs visit the Hub for a day, they’ll become sustaining new members.

On the tour, Dineo pointed out the ocpen-seating desks for Silver Members (like CSI’s HotDesk space), the café (with member discounts!), and the closed offices that can accommodate up to four people in a single business. One of the offices stood empty and Dineo assured me that this was because the interior design company had recently “graduated” up to an office building of their own.

The vibrant Hub space for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, Malawi.

Training Youth to Be Entrepreneurs

In addition to providing space for entrepreneurs, EMNET also hosts a local Pitch Night (read an article from the BBC about their pitch night) and runs a youth entrepreneurs training program. I eagerly listened and took notes as she told me about how they frame the concept of entrepreneurship for the youth. I wanted to be able to remember the way she described their mentorship program, connecting local business leaders and high school youth, and the way she connects the concept of entrepreneurship with ideas that the youth already understand.

“All youth know vendors,” Dineo explained to me, “because many of their parents and family members are vendors.” According to the latest labor statistics, 89% of people who are working in Malawi are in the informal employment. Informal employment covers farming and, especially for women, buying and reselling food and household items.

When Dineo talks to youth about entrepreneurship, she wants them to think beyond selling eggs. “Youth know that vending is the first step to being an entrepreneur. Our goal is to help them get to business success, and to make sure entrepreneurship doesn’t seem like a scary thing.”

Dineo and her team use the motto, “train to sustain,” when teaching the youth about adapting a mindset of starting a sustainable and scalable business. I am incorporating this process of helping people imagine themselves as entrepreneurs into my work with Spirit in Action International.

“I have not failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Animating Community

Similar to my experience at CSI, perhaps the most important perk of the Entrepreneur’s Hub is the access to community and to those serendipitous moments of collaboration. I told Dineo about one of my favorite parts of CSI – Salad Club. Some of the best conversations and exchanges of ideas at CSI have been over a plate of salad. When I mentioned this, Dineo smiled with a twinkle of excitement in her eye. She’d been working on creating more buzz around the Hub office. In July, I got a text message from her, “Keep an eye on our Facebook page today! Your visit sparked some new activities!” That day, the Hub kicked off their #SocialFridays, showing a movie in the lounge space. Generating ideas for animation from their community, they’ve also established: Leadership Mondays, Startup Tuesdays, Business Wednesday, and She Leads Malawi Thursday.

It’s so easy to focus on the differences between places like Blantyre and Toronto. In my experience, Malawians are just as likely as Canadians to think that there’s little we could have in common. Representations of North America arrive in Malawi through the distorted examples of volunteer programs, television shows, and music videos. These leads to a belief that Americans (and Canadians lumped in with them) are all rich people who don’t have any worries or challenges.

Similarly, representations of Malawi (lumped in with all of Africa) mostly arrive in Canada through calls for charity and news about poverty. There are not many opportunities for each of us to see the wealth of experiences and cultural diversity in each country or to experiences each other as individuals.

My conversation and exchange of ideas with Dineo felt different. It gave us a chance to connect as individuals and peers. I left feeling like we were on the same team. Around the globe, there’s always a need for spaces like CSI and the Hub. Places to build community, to bring people together, and to share costs so that entrepreneurs can get our ideas and products out in the world.

“Mindset preparation” on the path to success

“Mindset preparation” on the path to success

Guest post by Michael Hegeman, SIA Advisory Board Member. He traveled with me to Kenya and Malawi this year.

“I’ll always be poor.” “I’ll never make enough money to feed my children.” “I don’t deserve to have a good life.” “I have only known poverty.” “I don’t know how to build a successful business.”

These are self-defeating thoughts. We can find them in any culture around the globe. And not only are these thoughts self-defeating; they are self-fulfilling as well. If you think you will always be poor, you most likely will always be poor.

The first thing that Spirit in Action coordinators encounter with potential grant recipients is a way of thinking that cannot see past present circumstances: the necessity to escape dire circumstances, provide immediate nutritional needs for one’s family, and send children to school. Because SIA coordinators “target” the most vulnerable members of their communities to receive SIA grants, they are sure to encounter a “mindset” that has pre-determined failure as the only option.

Canaan Gondwe, SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator in Malawi, is passionate about mindset preparation and helping people live up to their God-given potential.

Power of Positive Thinking

Norman Vincent Peale, sixty-five years ago, published his now famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, in which the reader is “encouraged to achieve a permanent constructive and optimistic attitude through constant positive influence of his or her conscious thought (that is, by using affirmations or visualizations) and consequently achieve a higher satisfaction and quality of life.”

Many of us are quite familiar with the practice of using positive affirmations to shift one’s way of being in the world. For SIA Small Business Fund (SBF) grant recipients, the circumstances of poverty seem overwhelming. The principles of “mindset preparation” are crucial for coordinators to use to help others get ready for big changes in their lives.

The SIA team visiting Malawi and Kenya in May of 2017 heard testimony after testimony from SBF grant recipients about how changing the way they thought helped them take actionable steps to positive change in their lives. And the results were evident. Paul Lungu told the group: “At one time I had only a blanket to my name, and I slept in empty houses, begging for food. Now, I have a home of my own, a small farm, and a business that helps me provide for myself and my family.”

Spirit in Action Small Business Fund grantees

The Lungu family have been able to build this brick home since starting their shoe repair business in 2005. Paul says, “life is no longer the same.”

Mindset Preparation

The key elements in “mindset preparation” are”

  1. Training the body, mind and spirit to say, “Yes, I can do it.” “Yes, I can succeed.” “Yes, I am worthy of a good life.” Change doesn’t happen overnight. SIA SBF Coordinators tell us that they need to be vigilant with support during the process. “Don’t sink back into that stinking thinking! You can do it.”
  2. Hosting motivational sessions: These positive messages need to seep into the subconscious mind, and the most powerful way for this to happen is to hear the testimony of those who have succeeded and to witness the changes that others have made in their lives.
  3. Reminding people of their God-given potential, and how, through Spirit, they can co-create a better life. “You can do something different from what is currently happening.” ~ Canaan Gondwe, SIA SBF Coordinator, Malawi
  4. Using biblical passages that speak to the need for perseverance: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23
  5. Supporting them to see what each of them “brings to the table.” When we discover our own natural gifts, we can use those gifts to help ourselves build a successful life.
  6. Encouraging them build a network of support with like-minded people, that is, others who are using their full potential to succeed.
  7. Urging them to Share the Gift, pay-it-forward in some way, whatever that gift is. The expression of gratitude is healing to the weariest soul.

 

The perception of poverty effects every aspect of one’s being: mentally, emotionally, socially, economically, physically, and spiritually. Genuine and lasting change comes through thoughtful and diligent mindset preparation. The realization of this success creates a joyous experience in every aspect of one’s being as well.

“I never thought I could be leading the life I now live. I respect myself and my community respects me. I have become a leader and an example to others. I want to pass on this happiness I’ve found.” ~ Sylvester Nkhoma

“I never thought I could be leading the life I now live. I respect myself and my community respects me. I have become a leader and an example to others. I want to pass on this happiness I’ve found.” ~ Sylvester Nkhoma

Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists

Seeing Capacity Where it Already Exists

What works to help families move out of poverty? Spirit in Action is addressing this on the international level, with our Small Business Fund, and our support of grassroots organizations. It turns out our answer is similar to the one presented in a fascinating article and interview in the New York Times this month!

When social worker Mauricio Lim Miller was asked for advice about how to address poverty in California in 2000, he turned away from the programs and institutions that were part of the “war on poverty” and instead looked to individuals for answers.

“Lim Miller had long had doubts about the effectiveness of his work helping people escape poverty.” He didn’t know the answer, but he did know who would have some ideas. (I’ve also written about knowing how much I don’t know.)

The article quotes Lim Miller, “When I came to Jerry Brown’s office [mayor of Oakland, at the time] I told him, ‘I don’t know what to do. But my mother figured out how to get me out of poverty, and I think other mothers, fathers and guardians might also have ideas about how to get their lives together. I would ask them to show us how to build their lives.’

The outcome of the discussion was the Family Independence Initiative, which helps to strengthen social networks and provide resources to low-income families in the U.S., so that they can create a new future for themselves.

Smart Risk #5 Practicing Vulnerability

Smart Risks

Trust and invest in families,” pleads the front page of the Family Independence Initiative. The request is a familiar one to us in international development. People don’t want to be seen as victims, they want to be trusted and supported to move forward.

In the interview, Lim Millar highlights how people attempting to address poverty have missed the capacity in the communities themselves. War on poverty fell into a “listening gap,” he says, providing services without listening first.

Listening to Small Business Fund leaders in Malawi as they tell me about their successes.

This is in fact the same message as my co-authors and I write about in the new book, Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. The book features thirty short essays, all stressing the importance of listening to local experts, investing for the long-run, and building up community support systems where empowered individuals work with peers to rise up out of poverty.

When we dare to trust, we see results. From Lim Miller, “The data showed that when we provided an encouraging environment, but didn’t provide services, families had better outcomes.”

It can feel like a risk to trust people when you are giving money. However, if we give money without listening first, we risk something even greater. We risk leaving untapped the power, knowledge, initiative, and expertise that already exists in all communities.

It is an honor to witness the strength that exists in the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative in Malawi.

Beyond Grants: Rebuilding After Conflict

Beyond Grants: Rebuilding After Conflict

Rebuilding a life and a community after years of conflict, violence, and trauma is no easy task. The pain doesn’t go away immediately. The healing doesn’t happen automatically. Those who remain must figure out the way forward.

The Spirit in Action Small Business Fund (SBF) is helping with this rebuilding, with more than just cash grants. Naomi Ayot is the coordinator for SBF in the Kole District in Uganda. This is where the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted girls in 1996 and years of conflict broke up families and forced people into refugee camps. Many of the families in the area are missing family members, with many women now in charge of running households.

The Small Business Fund provides grants of $150 and business training. And it also is providing psychological support through peer support groups and encouragement.

Members from different SBF groups meet to discuss their businesses and lives.

Turning Lives Around

Imat Milly is the main breadwinner in her family. During the peak of the conflict with the LRA, when it was no longer safe to stay at home, her family moved into a camp for Internally Displaced People. When the violence ended, they settled into a grass roofed house.

Now, with their successful farming business – growing food for sale, in addition to home consumption – they have built a iron-roofed house!

Imat Milly proudly stands next to her new house.

Imat has also bought a plow, so that they don’t have to plow by hand anymore! They are producing better quality and quantity of crops now. They have even adopted a five year-old girl and paying for her school fees. This generous act of caring for children in need is just part of rebuilding community after conflict. 

“She thinks her life has really turned around,” reported Naomi. The sentiment is perhaps understated, but the satisfaction and joy in Naomi’s voice told me just how big this change is for Imat and her family.

Thinking Beyond Basic Needs

I wrote in April how Samsa used the profit from her agricultural business to send her daughter to pre-primary (nursery) school. When I met with Naomi in May, she told me again how much that meant to Samsa.

When Samsa’s daughter finished the school year, the school had graduation and Samsa was so proud to see her daughter receive the honors and be able to move onto primary school! For this community in rebuilding mode, education has not been a priority. However, Naomi reported that part of the success of SIA is that our program, “helps them think beyond basic needs to think about education.”

Naomi Ayot is the wonderful SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator in Uganda. She mentors others with passion and skill.

Counseling for Healing

In addition to these business successes, Naomi and her team on the ground in Kole District have created a spiritual counseling group, for anyone in the community who wants to join. SBF members and those who have not yet been chosen for grants come together to share about their challenges and to motivate each other to move forward. When I met with Naomi in May, she told me that these groups were helping to reduce domestic violence and levels of alcoholism in the group members.

SIA is on-going,” says Naomi. “It not just a one-off project. This encourages teamwork and cooperation between families.” Rather than competing against each other, SIA SBF groups are working together, sharing their grief and joy, and helping to rebuild their community in the wake of conflict.

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