Why does it matter?

Why does it matter?

Droughts. Climate change. Tough farming conditions. Human rights violations. Self-expression denied. This week, two news stories highlighted how important the work of Spirit in Action is to combat these devastating realities.

New York Times: Loss of Fertile Land in Kenya

“More than in any other region of the world, people in Africa live off the land. There are relatively few industrial or service jobs here. Seventy percent of Africa’s population makes a living through agriculture, higher than on any other continent, the World Bank says.

“But as the population rises, with more siblings competing for their share of the family farm, the slices are getting thinner. In many parts of Africa, average farm size is just an acre or two, and after repeated divisions of the same property, some people are left trying to subsist on a sliver of a farm that is not much bigger than a tennis court.

“Fast-growing populations mean that many African families can’t afford to let land sit fallow and replenish. They have to take every inch of their land and farm or graze it constantly. This steadily lowers the levels of organic matter in the soil, making it difficult to grow crops.

“In many areas, the soil is so dried out and exhausted that there is little solace even when the prayed-for rains finally come. The ground is as hard as concrete and the rain just splashes off, like a hose spraying a driveway.” (Link to full article.)

SIA Partners in Action

SIA partners like CIFROD Kenya are helping to address the challenge of concrete-like soil. When I visited many CIFORD gardens last month in Maua, Kenya, I saw how CIFORD’s sustainable agriculture training helps farmers to break up the soil, replenish the nutrients with manure, and reduce water usage. (Read my blog post “How to garden in a drought” here.)

One of the grateful farmers we visited in Kenya. After implementing the sustainable agriculture techniques he learned from CIFORD, he noticed now much more he can grow.

The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative also trains members to use manure and compost, and to intercrop their crops by alternating rows of beans and corn. The corn pulls nitrogen from the soil, and the beans help add it back into the soil. This can improve the soil and also increase the farm yields.

BBC: Mass arrests of gay people in Nigeria

“More than 40 men have been arrested in Nigeria over the weekend for performing homosexual acts, police say. Nigerian newspaper Punch reports that the police raided a hotel in Lagos State on Saturday afternoon and says the hotel was cordoned off while the investigation was carried out.

“Homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Nigeria, while gay marriage and displays of same-sex affection are also banned.” (Link to full article.)

The situation is similar in Uganda, where gay and lesbian people have no legal protection and there are laws banning gay marriage. Extreme social stigma and threat of physical violence means that it takes great courage to be out as LGBT.

Spirit in Action is in the early stages of partnering with Universal Love Ministries (ULM), a grassroots organization to end violence against women and LGBT people in Uganda. ULM delivers seminars in schools, churches, and communities creating awareness on human rights for women, children and sexual minorities.

I see the work of ULM as an important part of SIA’s mission to help everyone know that they are spiritual beings and that we all hold the divine within us.

Sharon Kukunda shares about why she works with ULM in Uganda:

These two news stories remind me that the work we are supporting is not trivial. It is about life and death. SIA’s partners are boldly helping people live better lives, with enough food to eat, and the right to be safe. Thank you for joining us in supporting this work.

What are the Malawian six food groups?

What are the Malawian six food groups?

The tour of facilities at the grand opening ceremony of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training and Development Centre in Malawi included a review of Malawi’s Six Food Groups.In the hot sun of midday, cooperative members showed us samples of the six food groups, telling us the benefits of each. The cooperative is more than just a savings and loans financial cooperative. They also train the member families in nutrition and encourage a varieties of foods.

Cooperative members show us samples of the six food groups. Small fish from Lake Malawi are an inexpensive form of protein.

So what are the six groups?

  1. Vegetables (leafy greens, kale, tomato, carrots)
  2. Fruits (apples, oranges, lemons)
  3. Legumes and Nuts (groundnuts/peanuts, beans, peas, cowpeas/black-eyed pea)
  4. Animal Foods (meat, eggs, milk)
  5. Fats (cooking oil, soybeans, groundnuts/peanuts, can also include milk)
  6. Staples (grains, maize, rice, cassava)

Vegetables are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Staples and fats provide the body with energy. Proteins from animal foods and legumes are good for muscles, skin, hair, and bones.

Almost all the cooperative members are also farmers. In addition to their small businesses they have farms and kitchen gardens.

On our tours of several member farms, we saw lots of maize (corn) stalks piled in the middle of fields after harvest. We saw sacks of peanuts (groundnuts). We saw chickens running around yards, and goats, cows, and pigs penned behind houses. Peas are planted in between rows of maize. Cassava fields, dry and dusty, thrive on little rain. Of the six groups, I think it’s only fruits that I didn’t see growing in the village.

A cooperative member in Malawi demonstrates how to dig up the cassava roots.

In a place of low food security, cooperative members are proud when they are able to provide varied diets for their families. In her testimony of SIA business success, Love Vinkhumbo told us that she was able to provide for her son’s university education and that, “I am now eating the six food groups!”

Love Vinkhumbo told us that after receiving her SIA Small Business Fund grant, “I am now eating the six food groups!”

Changing Food Guidelines in North America

Learning about Malawian nutrition guidelines made me realize how little I remember about the US Food Guidelines. After some Googling, it seems there is a new set of US guidelines for 2015-2020 with a plate instead of a food pyramid – one that ignores oils, and has dairy as a distinct category.

The 5 food groups in the US Guidelines.

Just this week, Health Canada released their preliminary new food guide for public comment. It seems they are moving in the direction of the Malawi guidelines, encouraging the consumption of legumes and other plant-based protein and removing the dairy category. The new guidelines also affirm that a wide variety of foods are the foundation of a healthy diet.

What do you know about the food guidelines in your area? Do you eat from the five or six food groups regularly? When was the last time you had black-eyed peas?

A Malawian food not part of the healthy food groups…so tasty though!

“I didn’t even have basic soap”

“I didn’t even have basic soap”

When we met Wilson Nkosi at his shop in the Manyamula Saturday market last month, he started by telling us what his life had been like before 2012. “I used a grain bag as a blanket at night. We didn’t even have basic soap for washing. There was no salt for our food.” Wilson, along with his wife, Joyce, and their two children, Ellen (18) and Mateyo (15), were struggling. They tried to get a loan from the micro-loan bank in the nearby city and they were turned away because they didn’t have enough collateral.

In the narrative of their lives, 2012 marks a turning point. That January was when they attended a Spirit in Action Small Business Fund training workshop and put together their business plan for a grocery shop. They wrote on their plan that they could contribute sacks to the business because this is something they already had at home.

Wilson and Joyce used the $100 initial grant to buy bulk quantities of sugar, soap, and cooking oil. After the first month, they had earned $50 in profit, with high demand for these basic necessities in the small town!

“If you are going to do business, you have to write it down. From there you can calculate the profit and see what to invest. That is why our business is growing.”

Reinvesting for Success

By the end of 2013, the Nkosi family had managed to save $180. They calculated that they had reinvested over $400 in expanding the business over the previous two years. Wilson told us about the value of record-keeping for success, “If you are going to do business, you have to write it down. From there you can calculate the profit and see what to invest. That is why our business is growing.” 

Most Small Business Fund (SBF) recruits have never kept records for any of their informal business activities. One of the primary roles of the local SBF trainer and coordinator is to talk to the new business owners about the importance of tracking sales and expenses.

The Tiyezgenawo Groceries Shop we visited now has much more to offer than just soap, sugar, and salt. They also have cooking oil, hair and skin products, snacks, and other treats. The Manyamula Market was buzzing with people and Wilson had many people wanting to buy from him.

On the road into Manyamula on market day. Women carry baskets full of produce from their farms – tomatoes, kale, peanuts. Men ride bikes with chickens tied to the handlebars.

Sharing the Gift

Without prompting, Wilson also told us about how they’ve Shared the Gift with another family. In addition to their shop, the Nkosis also have a tomato farm. (Everyone has a farm in Manyamula.) As a way of paying it forward, they shared tomato seeds and fertilizer with two families. “Those friends are doing well,” said Wilson, clearly honored to have been able to help them.

Telling us how his own life has changed, Wilson proudly told us, “We now have blankets. We take tea and can add sugar.” These simple indicators mark real change in the quality of life for families in the SBF program. Life is a little more comfortable. They are healthier and they feel better about the future. All this, sparked with a $150 SIA grant!

Wilson and Joyce in their tomato field.

The many ways a mill can benefit a community

The many ways a mill can benefit a community

Electricity coming to town changes everything. It provides new business opportunities: cellphone charging stations, welding shops, cafes where you can watch soccer matches. It also forces other businesses to adapt and change.

When the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative (read more about them here) bought their gas-powered maize/corn mill in 2013, it was the best technology available. The mill grinds corn – the staple food – into a fine flour, adding value to the crops and processing the grain for eating.

Cooperative member feeding maize into the grinding mill. The ground corn is then made into a dry polenta-like meal.

People paid to grind their maize in town with the cooperative, with members paying a reduced price. Before the maize mill was there, they would have to walk long distances to other communities to grind. The cooperative took advantage of this business opportunity. In 2013, they earned over $600 from the maize mill facility.

Then the electrical grid arrived in rural Manyamula Village in northern Malawi. Mills that were connected to the grid could grind faster and cheaper. The cooperative saw their profits dropping. And so they adapted. Last year, they moved the maize mill from their building at the centre of town to the Matopoto zone, on the outskirts of town, where there is no electricity yet. The mill is profitable again, earning $35 every week!

Under Local Management…

The maize mill is collectively owned by all 150+ cooperative members. However, the mill is managed by the cooperative members who live in the Matopoto zone. (The cooperative has divided themselves into eight zones.)

Tanya singing with members of the Motopoto Zone.

75% of the profit goes to the main cooperative office, for low-interest loans and other community development programs, such as hygiene and healthy diet programs. The remaining 25% stays in the Matopoto village compound, benefiting the sixteen members and their families. These members also benefit from having the maize mill nearby. They can process their food right outside their homes!

But wait, there’s more!

At the end of 2013, the cooperative used their saved profits to start a “pig pass-on project.” They bought twelve pigs and distributed them to all the zones. The zone members were charged with raising the pigs and then passing on the piglets to the vulnerable members in their group. A pig is a valuable gift.

A grown male pig can sell for $50 and female pigs can have 6-9 offspring, generating more wealth. 

So far, 55 members across all zones have received piglets through the program! The members in the Matopoto zone have shared ten piglets amongst themselves. And the day that I visited them last month, they had another one to share. This time, they were sharing with a young boy in their community. He is not a cooperative member (yet) but they saw that he – who had lost his mother, and whose father drinks all day – could use some extra support.

The blessing of the pig.

It is this community spirit, this generosity, that fills my spirit and inspires me. When we support Manyamula COMSIP they use the funds effectively, they adapt to the changing business opportunities, and they spread the wealth so that everyone is uplifted.

SIA Updates: New grants, crops in Malawi, and a run-raiser!

SIA Updates: New grants, crops in Malawi, and a run-raiser!

1. Five new small businesses sponsored in Malawi!

Last week, five new entrepreneurs attended a day-long workshop with Small Business Fund local coordinator Canaan Gondwe to plan their new business ventures. Over the course of the day they formed Business Plans and described the roles each family member would play in the business. Help me in welcoming:

New business leaders in Manyamula Village, Malawi, received SIA grants this month!

2. Run-raiser

We’re going to write the name of Spirit in Action all over Alameda, CA! When I say “we,” I mean SIA friend Joshua Brooks. 🙂 Joshua is going to trace SIA’s roots (Alameda is where Del lived and our first office was located) and run a solo half-marathon on March 18th to raise money for the SIA Small Business Fund! I hope to have details about how to follow along in real time soon. To contribute to the campaign, click here. 

3. Crops threatened in Malawi

“The outbreak of fall armyworms has erupted in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi and follows a crippling El Nino-triggered drought which scorched much of the region last year.” The armyworm caterpillars are attacking the maize corn crop, which is the staple food and is essential to the diet in Malawi. (Read more about the effects of the armyworm in Malawi.)

So far, the crops in Manyamula Village are mostly unaffected. The crops will be harvested in April/May and so we pray that they will be fine until then!

Canaan Gondwe’s crop of “groundnuts” (peanuts) is about read to harvest! 

4. Fresh manna

SIA Board Member Barbara Deal sent this to me, remarking how closely it resembles the language that Del used to talking about needing “fresh manna” each day.

“I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.”

-Langston Hughes

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