A second chance for Sylvia

A second chance for Sylvia

It’s not easy being divorced in Malawi. Three years ago, Sylvia S.’s husband left her and ran off to South Africa, leaving her (now age 33) alone with her two daughters (ages 7 and 12). Sylvia had no visible source of income. Previously, Sylvia had relied on her husband for income. She spent her time caring for the children and their home. Suddenly, she was without her husband and without a job, and without money for even soap or food.

She didn’t have a lot, but Sylvia did have some experience as a hair dresser. It is the goal of the Small Business Fund to reach people like Sylvia. Our local coordinators recruit families who are well below the poverty line and who also have some skills that they will be able to leverage with the $150 grant. (Read more about how we choose business groups.)

New Beginnings

Sylvia used the first grant installment of $100 to rent a shop in the Manyamula market. She also bought things like hair weaves, shampoo, and other hair products that would appeal to her new customers. The Debbie and Nomsa Hair Salon (named after her daughters) was open for business!

Sylvia with a customer. She has a style chart and many options for extensions to braid into her customer’s hair.

Just three months later, the shop was so busy that Sylvia needed to hire an assistant to help with the hair braiding and styling services. She used some of her profit to buy a new hair dryer so that she could expand the services at her shop.

Sylvia is now earning her own income and is able to provide for her family. She has enough money for food and to send her two daughters to school.

In a letter from Canaan Gondwe, our local coordinator who recruited, trained, and is mentoring Sylvia, he reports that, “Sylvia is grateful to SIA for the transformation in her life, and most times you find her smiling.”

Training youth to run better businesses

Training youth to run better businesses

We know the value of business training from our Small Business Fund program. Grant recipients are trained in marketing, record keeping, risk management, and planning so that they are well prepared to start their small enterprise. This helps them find the right product for the market and make sure their businesses will be profitable.

Seeing the confidence that people have after the training, I am so excited to announce our new partnership with Junior Achievement (JA) to train high schoolers in Malawi to be entrepreneurs! The JA program is being run in 120 countries around the world, including 16 in Africa. Nick Vilelle saw the “mind-blowing” benefit of the JA Company Program in Swaziland and is eager to introduce it to students in Malawi.

boy makes samosas in uganda

Youth making samoas for his family’s business in Uganda.

Hands-on Learning

The Company Program is a hands-on way of learning business, teamwork, and creative thinking. Approximately 25 students at the high school learn by doing as they form, capitalize, operate and liquidate their own companies over a 12-week period, using real money raised from “shareholders.” JA uses volunteers as teachers, mentors and role models for the students, keeping the cost low and integrating the community into the program. Since it is an extracurricular, after-school program, it attracts students who are motivated to learn and get involved.

The SIA Community Grant will fund implementation of the JA Company Program at five urban and 5 rural schools in southern Malawi. This will reach a total of 250 high school youth! And  will serve as a test case for expanding the program to other parts of Malawi.

Paying-it-Forward

I really appreciate that JA has Sharing the Gift built into its model. To begin with, the majority of the work is done by volunteers from the community. Often, these are accomplished business people, donating their time to help teach the students these important business basics. This is a great example for the students to see.

Second, as a part of forming these mini-companies, the student teams are expected to build Corporate Social Responsibility into their plans. This often takes the form of students volunteering on Saturdays to help out a less fortunate member of their community. “The learning gained from carrying out this part of the program is powerful,” reports Nick, from his experience in Swaziland.

For Sustainable Futures. A business 12 years later.

For Sustainable Futures. A business 12 years later.

This Saturday we will celebrate 20 years of Spirit in Action. Twenty years ago, in February of 1996, Del and Lucile Anderson, twelve Board Members, and Marsha Johnson (as administrative coordinator), met to officially form Spirit in Action in order to “carry on Del’s loving ministry.”

“Spirit in Action. For Sustainable Futures” declares the heading of the recorded minutes from that meeting. Sustainability has always been and continues to be a focus for our grant projects. We want to support programs, schools, businesses, and social movements that will last long after we send a grant.

In Malawi, this goal of long-term impact is a reality. Since 2004, Spirit in Action has supported 122 family/business groups in Manymaula Village through our Small Business Fund and most of those enterprises are still operating today!

Mulla and Mollen with their six grandchildren, in front of their renovated home.

Mulla and Mollen with their six grandchildren, in front of their renovated home.

Twelve years ago, Mulla Tembo and Mollen Mtonga started Mulla’s Livestock Production with a $150 grant. Their lives, and the lives of their six children and six grandchildren, have dramatically improved since receiving this grant and learning to run a business. They raise pigs, goats, and oxen. And they are able to use the oxen to plough their fields, a big luxury in rural Malawi. 

Mulla and Mollen happily report that they are now food secure. This means they have enough maize to last through the hungry season between planting and harvest. They have built a house with tin roofing sheets, replacing the “very poor housing structure” that they had before joining the Small Business Fund program.

Mulla with two of their six cattle in a yoke for ploughing.

Mulla with two of their six cattle in a yoke for ploughing.

Mulla with their plough in the maize field.

Mulla with their plough in the maize field.

Besides the fourteen family members that have benefitted and continue to benefit from this business, the family was one of the first groups to participate in Sharing the Gift. They offered a piglet to Winkly Mahowe. (Read the amazing story of Winkly and the gift of the pig!) Winkly and his family took this pig and used it to improve their lives and livelihoods. They also continue to raise pigs to this day. In 2014, I saw their full chicken coops. That’s another 14+ people who have been positively impacted by that initial grant.

And Winkly also Shared the Gift by giving a piglet to another family. And on and on it goes…

This Saturday, let us really celebrate that Spirit in Action is living up to our founding mission. Stories of Mulla and Mollen, Winkly and his family, and each of the 122 business groups in Manyamula are real proof that Spirit in Action is indeed helping people to realize the dream of a more sustainable (and prosperous) future.

Jane raises chickens and pigs with her husband, Winkly. They have built a new house with the business profits.

Jane raises chickens and pigs with her husband, Winkly. They have built a new house with the business profits.

4 things making me happy this week!

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Malawian Coffee at Starbucks

What a fun surprise to see coffee from Malawi at my neighborhood Starbucks shop! I sent a WhatsApp message to Canaan, our partner in Malawi, to tell him about it and let him know it was good. “What?? Malawi coffee in Toronto!!! Very exciting. We are really a global village,” was Canaan’s joyful response.

Poem calling for unity in Kenya

“Stand up. Get up. Show up.
And say no to violence, no to terrorism, no to instability, and live as one.”

I first read the full poem, written by Shanize Njeri Wanjiku (age 10), who lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Nairobi, Kenya, in this blog post from the New York Times. Later I watched the video of her reciting it. An inspiring and hopeful message, indeed. Join me in praying now for peace during Kenya’s election season next year.

New Businesses in Nairobi

In the same Nairobi neighborhood, Mathare, Spirit in Action has supported three new family businesses with $150 start-up grants. One of them is named “Mama Laban Veggies” and they will sell vegetables along the roadside.

The mother of the family – and the business leader – is named Violet. She is called Mama Laban as a sign of respect. In Kenya, parents are called Mama and Baba followed by the name of their first child. Violet’s son is named Laban, and so she is called Mama Laban. The family is planning to use their profits for school fees for Laban, who is six years old.

flower bouquet

Poem about how we are a beautiful bouquet

We come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes.
Some of us grow in bunches.
Some of us grow alone.

Some of us are cupped inward,
And some of us spread ourselves out wide.

Some of us are old and dried and tougher than we appear.
Some of us are still in bud.

Some of us grow low to the ground,
And some of us stretch toward the sun.

Some of us feel like weeds, sometimes.
Some of us carry seeds, sometimes.
Some of us are prickly, sometimes.
Some of us smell.

And all of us are beautiful.
What a bouquet of people we are!

by Thomas Rhodes

Thank you for being a part of the bouquet of Spirit in Action!

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

I won’t give in: How savings cooperatives help

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in ’til I reach the end and then I’ll start again. No I won’t leave, I want to try everything, I want to try even though I could fail.” “Try Everything” by Shakira

“I won’t give up, no I won’t give in,” proclaims Shakira in my current favorite you-can-do-it song, “Try Everything.” When we fall down, it usually helps when someone is there to pull us up again. In Malawi, COMSIP cooperatives are strong community organizations whose members pull each other up to the next level and to a better, more stable future.

COMSIP stands for Community Savings and Investment Promotion. It is a national project in Malawi that is more than a bank. From what I witnessed at a gathering of the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative, they were like a support group as well as a catalyst for economic growth – giving each other advice and encouragement in their endeavors.

“Our members of the Cooperative are entrepreneurs,” said Canaan Gondwe, leader of the Manyamula COMSIP, and a member of the national COMSIP Union Board. “The mobilized Savings form the capital base from which members borrow and engage in various forms of businesses, such as poultry, retail shops, irrigation farming, baking, pre-school and carpentry among others.”

After 3-4 months of saving money from her business, Beauty was able to use the savings as collateral for a larger, low-interest loan from the cooperative. Cooperative members can apply for loans in proportion to their savings shares. Beauty used the loan to buy high-quality feed and medication for her chickens. She knows that the medications are crucial for protecting her investment in the chickens. 

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Beauty with her daughter.

For Grace Banda, a widow, the COMSIP cooperative was just the kind of encouragement she needed to try again. Before joining COMSIP she had taken a loan from one of the traditional micro-finance lenders in Mzimba, the nearest city and 44km away. When an unexpected event caused her to business to flounder, she was unable to pay back the high-interest debt and had to forfeit her collateral.

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Grace in her shop in the Manyamula market.

COMSIP loans are not only low-interest, they also have repayment schedules that are adaptable to the business cycle – with longer terms for farming and cattle rearing. The local COMSIP leaders can work with the members to give them the highest chance of success. Grace’s Kikumala Shop is still going strong, and is a good source of fresh produce in Manyamula.

These are profound ways that COMSIP helps people start again. And the result is that lives are changed. Ninety-five percent of the 150+ cooperative members have improved their housing since joining. Many more can pay medical bills when illnesses arise. Grace Banda can now pay for school for her three children. “Life is continuing to become simple,” she told me with joy and relief in her voice.

This sentiment is echoed in a wonderful article from the World Bank about the successes of COMSIP groups. Gilaselia Denesi, who became responsible for her four grandchildren when her daughter and son-in-law died, shares how joining a COMSIP cooperative in central Malawi has led to positive change in her life. ““Look at me now!” she says. “God be praised, today my grandchildren, are in school, they are not hungry and even I have some time to have tea in my home. Can you imagine that? I am wearing a new dress today and I have some time for tea!””

For more about COMSIP:

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

After Finly joined the COMSIP cooperative and began saving, he used a small loan to buy improved Red Creole onion seeds for his farm.

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