“A partner who has walked with us side by side”

[Above: A video snippet of Canaan’s speech; with Winkly Mahowe interpreting into the local language.]

It was exactly a year ago that I was in Malawi and witnessing the amazing change happening in Manyamula Village. When I was there, Canaan Gondwe, who has been an honest and dedicated leader in his community, gave a wonderful welcome address to us and the gathered SIA friends. Imagine you are in a crowded, cinder block meeting room, the smell of dust outside, the music from the band and the clapping and singing are dying down. Over 100 of us settle ourselves in the plastic chairs and give our attention to Canaan:

Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members sing a song of welcome. (Malawi, 2014)

Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members sing a song of welcome to Tanya. (Malawi, 2014)

“On behalf of Traditional leaders, Area Development Committee, Government Staff present here, all Cooperative and Small Business Fund members and all people gathering in this room and on my own behalf, I feel greatly honored and excited to sincerely welcome Tanya Cothran (SIA Administrator) and Dr. Boyd Cothran (SIA Board Member) in Malawi and in particular here in Manyamula COMSIP (Community Savings and Investments Promotion) Cooperative, “where together we grow.” Feel free and feel at home in the warm heart of Africa (Malawi) to interact with each of us and hear remarkable stories of positive change in our lives.

The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Society, formerly known as MAVISALO, and the Small Business Fund project, supported by Spirit in Action, have played a critical social and economic role in enabling members to escape poverty and marginalization. I am saddened to recall and report the situation of our members before these institutions were established in this area:

  • About 80% had never used a bank
  • About 90% had poor housing infrastructure (houses that are grass thatched, houses that leak during rainy season, houses built of mud and with poor ventilation
  • Members of the cooperative had to travel 44km each direction to access commercial lending institutions with high interest rates, high demand of unaffordable collaterals, coupled by short period of loan repayments
  • About 60% of our people were food insecure; members could not afford fertilizer

I am extremely excited and pleased as a leader of the Cooperative and the Small Business Fund (SBF) that these programs can and have begun to reverse the above mentioned trend. Both the cooperative and SBF project have continued to post continued economic growth on its members from year to year.

Our members of the Cooperative and SBF project are entrepreneurs. The mobilized savings (shares), which currently are 4.8 million Malawian Kwacha [about $10,000 USD], form the capital base from which members borrow and engage in various forms of business: such as poultry, retail shops, irrigation farming, livestock production, baking, bicycle repair, shoe repairing, carpentry, tomato sales, fish marketing, transport, music shows, restaurants, pre-school, barber shops, photography, and winery sales among others.

COMSIP and Small Business Fund members in their meeting hall.

COMSIP and Small Business Fund members in their meeting hall.

Impact

I am extremely excited to openly expound the positive change and better life that members of the project enjoy:

  • All 167 members (with 47% women) have embraced a culture of savings and investment.
  • Members of the cooperatives and SBF have created self-employment
  • There is increased income and general economic empowerment at household level because of improved skills and experience in entrepreneurship
  • Better housing for 95% of cooperative and SBF members (Houses with burnt bricks and iron sheets)
  • Increased asset acquisition by members (eg. Motorcycles, bicycles, band equipment)
  • Improved health at household level (good nutrition); our members afford to go to private clinics and pay medical bills.
  • Members of the cooperative support their school-going children well (uniforms, fees, transport)
  • Improved food security amongst members.
  • A total of 20 members have either done electrical wiring of their houses or are completely connected to the power grid.
  • Increased cooperation among members
  • Reduced marital violations (including income abuse)

Support from Spirit in Action

Through and over the years of our operation in the Cooperative and Small Business Fund, Spirit in Action has been a true and faithful partner; a partner who has walked with us side by side on our growing of the institution. SIA has assisted the Cooperative with grants that have moved the organization to acquire relevant assets and projects like the maize mills, motorcycle, poultry project, camera, and a laptop.

Through its Small Business Fund project from 2004 to date, SIA has supported 102 families with business training and skills with $150 paid in two installments. Over and above, all traditional leaders, SBF and Cooperative members are grateful to SIA for these landmark projects.

Conclusion

The Manyamula COMSIP cooperative, as a rural-based economic vehicle, embarked on the journey to economic empowerment of its members. With the assistance of Spirit in Action, our true and faithful partner, the cooperative and SBF project want to achieve positive change in our members. Finally, I am pleased to report that the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative, in a recent supervision missions by government officials and COMSIP Cooperative Union national leaders, has been rated a national model and a success story amongst all rural economic cooperative in the country. I believe SIA is very proud to be associated with such remarks. We believe that this partnership will grow even to greater heights in the future.

COMSIP sharp! [Cutting through poverty!]

SIA sharp!”

The band (who had also received a low-interest loan from the cooperative) played before the presentations.

The band (who had also received a low-interest loan from the cooperative) played before the presentations.

How do their lives change?

How do their lives change?

Last week I highlighted the 5 most common businesses that Small Business Fund (SBF) grant recipients typically start. The groups received $150 and are mentored over the course of a year. This week I received a batch of final One-Year Reports from our two SBF local coordinators in Uganda. These are shorter reports that check in to see how each business is doing one year after receiving with grant. The report also asks how the lives of the groups members have improved and what they have used their profits to buy. Again, the responses seem to fall in 5 categories. These are the 5 basic needs that families are empowered to meet after starting an SBF business:

SCHOOL FEES

Paying for school fees is by far the most common goal and use of SBF profits in Uganda. There is supposed to be free universal education in Uganda, but the public schools quickly fill their limited spaces and the families must pay for private schools. School fees for the average private school near Kasozi Village, Uganda are about $12 per term for each student (with 3 terms per year). This adds up quickly with many children and with the additional costs of uniforms and school supplies!

Yuba Robert and his extended family show  us their pottery, including a clay savings box. They have been able to pay for school fees, build a house, and pay for another person to plow their fields. Godfrey Matovu, local SBF coordinator is seated on the right.

Yuba Robert (right, standing) and his extended family show us their pottery, including a clay savings box. They have been able to pay for school fees, build a house, and pay for another person to plow their fields. Godfrey Matovu, local SBF coordinator, is seated on the right. (Uganda)

MEDICINE

Ziba and his wife Annie started a furniture business this year. The profit will help cover their medical bills and to feed their 6 children. (Malawi)

Ziba and his wife Annie started a furniture business this year. The profit will help cover their medical bills and to feed their 6 children. (Malawi)

IMPROVED HOUSING

Before…

House with a thatched roof and dirt floor in Uganda.

House with a thatched roof and dirt floor in Uganda.

During…

A new house in progress. We visited this potter in Uganda and they are slowly building the house that will also be a storefront. Bricks for the project are piled in the front yard.

A new house in progress. We visited this potter in Uganda. They are slowly building the house that will also have a storefront for their pottery. Bricks for the project are piled in the front yard.

After!

Completed brick house with a tin roof in Malawi! Kondwani started a business in photography and also selling vegetables. The family now has a solar panel and wiring for lights in his house. They are waiting for the electrification project to reach their neighborhood.

Completed brick house with a tin roof in Malawi! Kondwani’s family has both a photography and a retail vegetable business. The family now has a solar panel and wiring for lights in their house. They are waiting for the electrification project to reach their neighborhood.

More stories about improved housing:

BETTER DIET

The diet in Uganda is mostly ugali (maize meal, like a dense polenta), rice, and some vegetables such as kale, collards, and tomatoes. Improved diets means having enough food to eat and also adding animal protein, like this chicken dish.

The diet in Uganda is mostly ugali (maize meal, like a dense polenta), rice, and some vegetables such as kale, collards, and tomatoes. Improved diets means having enough food to eat and also adding animal protein, like this chicken dish.

FURNITURE

A new table for the the Phiri family! Other families are able to buy beds and other simple, yet profound, dignities.

A new table for the the Phiri family! Other business groups have been able to buy beds and couches – simple, yet profound, dignities.

The Power of Hope

The Power of Hope

Finally! This week there was some great news about aid programs that really alleviate extreme poverty (less than $1.25/day). And – yay! – the programs with this long-term, positive impact are very similar to our Small Business Program. A recent multi-country study evaluated a program with range of interventions, including “cash to meet basic needs, training on how to earn a living, access to health services, and frequent check-ins from field workers.” In the same vein, our Small Business Fund provides business training, regular check-ins from our local coordinators, and start-up funds for a business of the group’s choosing.

Even a year after the program ended, the researchers found improvements in food security, women’s empowerment, and mental health. “But one of the most important effects of the approach,” the Christian Science Monitor article suggested, “could well be its tendency to spring participants from a mind-set that sees little or no hope of breaching the extreme-poverty ceiling.” The power of the program was that afterwards, people felt better about their future; they felt hopeful. And this, in turn, helps them continue to improve their lives.

"We began this work as if we were joking. Now it gives me joy." A Small Business Fund leader in Uganda makes clay pots and then sell them at nearby markets.

“We began this work as if we were joking. Now it gives me joy.” A Small Business Fund leader in Uganda makes clay pots and then sell them at nearby markets.

Del knew well the importance of self-esteem. It came across in our conversations and in the many letters he sent to me. “Within you is the power,” and “use what you already have and, step by step, uncover results that prove that we are greater than we realize,” he wrote. Perhaps we know from our own lives that money troubles can bring stress and make it even hard to get motivated to make a change. We can’t see beyond the immediate challenges or grasp the big picture.

On the other hand, as families in the Small Business Fund begin to see the great changes they have achieved through their own work, they get excited and hopeful. In part this hope comes from what Canaan Gondwe, Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinator in Malawi, calls “mindset preparation.” He has on-going conversations with group members helping them mentally prepare to make these big changes in their lives, to seize their future, and to put in the many hours necessary to make their business successful. After three months in business, 84% of his groups report feeling better about their future.Our family has really moved from a minus to a plus,” one family proudly wrote.

When we were in Malawi, Theu, who had received a SBF grant to start a restaurant, testified that the business is growing and that he "has bought everything he needs." Other SBF Members in Malawi  cheer him on!

When we were in Malawi, Theu, who had received a SBF grant to start a restaurant, testified that the business was growing and that he “has bought everything he needs.” Other SBF Members cheer him on!

Even our Sharing the Gift initiative, where SBF families are encouraged to pay-it-forward to another family in need, is part of building self-esteem. I have written about how it gives the gift of giving. Groups that have gone through the program and have been successful get to help someone else. They see how far they have come and then there is the opportunity to bring others along with them.

Was I surprised that hope turned out to be a factor in alleviating poverty? Not for a second. Still, it is exciting to have confirmed what I already knew from our Small Business Fund – that encouraging people, meeting people with dignity, and helping them work to realize their own dreams is the way we’re going to make the world a better place for all.

Pre-school students celebrate Easter in Malawi

Pre-school students celebrate Easter in Malawi

A year ago, the first preschool in Manyamula village was started with a Small Business Fund grant. Nellie, newly divorced, moved to Manyamula to start a new life. Nellie and two assistants – Deliwe and Tamara – each already had teaching skills and they were eager to help the 30 new students learn and grow. With the Small Business Fund grant they were able to purchase some books, crayons, mats, and cups for snack time. Thus was born the First Steps Pre-School.

The pre-school has already grown to 50 students and has created a ripple of business activity in town. Mary Phiri, who owns one of the shops in the market, has enrolled her youngest daughter in the pre-school, allowing her to concentrate her efforts of building her grocery business. And Chimwemwe, another shop owner and knitter, received a commission from the school to knit sweater uniforms for some of the students.

Children from the local SBF-supported school told us what they wanted to be when they grew up: a nurse; teacher; poilot.

Children from the local SBF-supported school told us what they wanted to be when they grew up: a nurse; teacher; pilot.

Recently the students, ages 1-4, put together an Easter pageant for the community called “Time to Come Together.” Nellie said that, “it has been my passion to organize such an auspicious occasion for the school so that children can share their experiences together and enjoy the love of God.”

The children sang, recited Bible verses, and danced together. Several community members gave speeches to encourage the children and thank them for putting together this new kind of event in Manyamula. Nellie was extremely happy to have the students appreciated by the community and was quick to say, “It is beautiful for our children of different churches to come together. This will strengthen their social structures and spiritual growth!”

Nellie, Canaan Gondwe, and Tanya with puzzles and toys from Tanya's nieces.

Nellie, Canaan Gondwe, and Tanya with puzzles and toys from Tanya’s nieces.

Success Story: “Darkness is cured”

Success Story: “Darkness is cured”

Back in October 2012 I shared the success story of Hastings and Ruth Fuvu in Malawi. They had received a $150 Small Business Fund grant in early 2012, ramping up their business of selling tomatoes and onions in the market. This expanded business increased the family income enough to buy school uniforms for their children and seek medical attention for their daughter Miness, who experiences periodic seizures. The 2012 post ended with Fuvu’s dream to build a house of their own, using burnt bricks.

Malawi, bricks

Hastings and Ruth with bricks for their house. (2012)

Well, in July, 2014, I got to visit that new house! We sat in their home, listening to their story of how their lives have improved since growing their business: “We have wealthy relatives,” Ruth told us, “and they have never given to us, but SIA has given to us.”

This week I received another exciting update from Canaan Gondwe, the SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator in Manyamula: Hastings and Ruth have been able to connect to the new electrical grid.

Canaan reports:

“After making enough savings, they molded bricks, built a house and now they have electrified the house. One part of the building they are using it as a barbershop where they get the additional income. With the same power, they are renting to someone who is welding at the premises. This is an income diversification for the family.

The Fuvu home with electricity! A welder pays to tap into the electricity. Welding has been only available with generators before the grid came to the village.

The Fuvu home with electricity! A welder pays to tap into the electricity. Welding has been only available with generators before the grid came to the village.

“The family was quick to tell me that very soon they are Sharing the Gift by assisting one person to begin as they began.

“Life is new because they no longer go for fuel to light up their house. Life is made easy as darkness is simply cured up with pressing the ‘on’ switch in the house.

Imagine such a difference in just three years! This $150 small grant is continuing to pay amazing dividends to the Fuvus and others in the community.

Malawi, house, home

Tanya in front of the guest room of the Fuvu family’s new home. They invited me to “take a sleep” at their house next time we visit!

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