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.

How to garden in a drought 

How to garden in a drought 

Dispatch from Kenya: 

“The dry season is supposed to be December through March, but this year the rains aren’t coming, even up until now.” This we heard from Joseph Gichioni and so many others in central Kenya. Rahab Mugambi, a member of CIFORD Kenya in Meru County, confirmed that water is their biggest problem.

The rains aren’t coming. Climate change is right there in front of them. In a place where the great majority of people rely on farming for food and livelihood, the lack of water is a serious issue.

So CIFORD Kenya, (whose name stands for Community Initiatives for Rural Development), is working with farmers to make the water that is available last as long as possible. The community-based organization, which we visited over the weekend, has a training garden with various configurations of gardens to reduce water use.


Josephat stands in a “horseshoe” garden. This type of garden channels the water to the center of a group of plants, retaining the water. It also provides space for the farmer to walk into the cluster of plants to easily weed and care for them.

Sunken beds help pool rain water to get the most moisture to the plants.

Margeret Ikiara, director of CIFORD, shows us the “mandala” garden, which has rocks in the center to disperse the water.

Using these methods, farmers are able to successfully maintain “kitchen gardens” – small plots next to the kitchen, mostly for home consumption. They grow staple vegetables like kale (called skuma wiki in Swahili) and tomatoes.

They use water from the trickling streams, from sporadic rains, and from the county-supplied water faucet. However, the faucet only has water one or two days a week, and they never know when that will be dry.


Caption: Rose shows me her maize and beans. She uses the waste water from her kitchen and washing for her garden plot. (Also shown, photographer Mike Hegeman’s thumb!)

Almost every member we talked to over the course of the day stressed how much these gardens had reduced their household expenditures and improved their diet and food security. “We have food all year now, and we don’t even have to buy it at the market anymore. We grow it right here,” said Margaret Karayu (pictured below) proudly as she showed us her verdant garden.

Spirit in Action support for dynamic community organizations like CIFORD help them to find and teach local solutions to the global problem of water scarcity and climate change.

We leave Kenya tomorrow and I return home. This has been such a positive trip and I have met so many wonderful people who are serving their communities and working with unbelievable dedication to change their lives. I have seen women carrying heavy jugs of water long distances, and met passionate teachers and leaders. I can’t wait to share more of what I saw with you…after I get a good night’s sleep in my own bed. Thank you to all who supported this trip and who support the work of SIA. You are so appreciated by all who we met. 

Grants underway and I’m on my way!

Grants underway and I’m on my way!

We sent out the latest round of grant funds last month and the community projects are already well underway!

Women’s Group Curio Shop

The women of the Namaiyana Women’s Self-Help Group completed their roadside jewelry shop just in time for tourism season! This was the first major construction project undertaken by these women, who are jewelers and members of the Samburu tribe in central Kenya. The first SIA grant was not quite enough to finish the shop and so they asked for a small additional grant to be able to add the final touches. Just a few weeks after receiving the additional $500 grant, the building is ready to go! Look how beautiful it turned out! Supporting these woman was definitely a “smart risk.”

Poultry House Construction

The folks at the Matungu Community Development Charity were eager to get started! Soon after receiving the grant funds they were already hard at work building the new poultry house in western Kenya. Community members worked together to make the bricks and built up the walls. Group leader, Vincent Atitwa wrote, “The poultry house is under construction and in particular we are working hard to lead families and community out of malnutrition and poverty once more.”

They hope that the building will be completed by June 1st. They already have a supplier for the chicks and they will have them delivered soon. The profits from the poultry project will serve as a loan fund for the table banking and low-interest loan program!

I’m on my way!

I leave today for a month-long trip in eastern Africa. After a short vacation, I will meet with all the SIA Small Business Fund partners for a conference and training workshop in Malawi. We will have coordinators from Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi there to discuss and evaluate our program. The manual is printed and ready to be packed!

I’ll try to share my experience with you along the way and post what I can here on the blog, and on Facebook and Instagram. Thank you for your prayers!

Spring Newsletter – Fresh Stories!

Spring Newsletter – Fresh Stories!

The 2017 Spring/Summer Spirit in Action newsletter is here! You can view a PDF version here and hard copies will be in the mail next week!

In this newsletter we feature:

  • Hope for Relief in Malawi is a new grant partner. They are helping girls stay in school by making and distributing feminine hygiene pads to girls in rural Malawi. In this story, we feature Mary, one of the girls who is now promising not to miss a day of school. Mary is just one of 630 girls who have received free pads, with a total of 1,890 pads distributed overall!

One of the tailors distributes cloth feminine pads to girls.

  • The Manyamula Community Savings and Investment Promotion Cooperative in Malawi is named Best Performing COMSIP cooperative in Malawi!

I get to visit the Manyamula cooperative and stay in their new building in just three weeks!

  • Welcome new Spirit in Action Board Members, Wendy and Terry Silverthorn!
  • Descriptions of our six on-going grant projects.
  • Collective farming in the Small Business Fund program in Uganda.

Read the full newsletter and donate now to support the work of Spirit in Action. Your support helps empower more families and communities in Africa!

Is it risky to invest in community leadership?

Is it risky to invest in community leadership?

This past weekend, on April 15th, the book I’ve been co-editing with Jennifer Lentfer for the past 5 years, was printed! It is now officially available for pre-order!

The book is a collaborative effort with 22 authors from 20 different organizations from seven countries, representing a variety of viewpoints on the international development and philanthropy sectors.

Is it worth the risk?

On her blog this week, Jennifer explained how this group of authors, all who saw the importance of working directly with people at the community level, came together:

When people in the aid and philanthropy sector learned about our approaches to making small grants at the international level, there were always questions that revealed how “risky” this seemed to people:

How do you find the groups? (In other words, “It’s much easier for us to fund the same, usual players in the capital cities who talk like us.”)

“How do you measure your results?” (In other words, “Small grants are too insignificant to make a real dent in any social issue.” or “Hard numbers are the only way I know if I am getting a return on investment.”)

How do you keep your overhead costs down? (In other words, “It’s too expensive to fund at the grassroots. It costs me the same amount of money to make a US$5,000 grant as a $50,000 grant.”)

We didn’t get it. For us, not investing in the wisdom, experience, and leadership of people most affected by poverty was an opportunity cost we were unwilling to bear.

In our minds, placing our relatively small amounts of money in the hands of people who are already doing something to address the challenges in their own communities was actually one of the least risky things we as funders could do, and also one of the smartest.

Youth learn about their rights and about healthy relationships at a workshop hosted by CIFORD Kenya.

The least risky way to support lasting change

Investing in these local leaders and grassroots organizations is the heart of our work at Spirit in Action. Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, Community Initiatives for Rural Development Kenya (CIFORD), Samro Schools, and so many more community-based organizations are dedicated to working for positive change in their communities.

They do this by using their local knowledge and their connections with local officials, encouraging others to join them, and fostering a sense of solidarity and camaraderie that plants the seeds of change.

There are so many wonderful people and organizations supporting these grassroots partners. So many who honor the role of faith in their work and partnerships. We know that investing in local leaders is worth the “risk.” “Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems” is dedicated to reframing the idea of “risky” grants; to instead look at the opportunity of small grants.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what we and our co-authors have to say!

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