Ripples of success even when a project “fails”

Ripples of success even when a project “fails”

Mbwenu is not satisfied with the status quo. He is always looking at new ways of doing things. After visiting Mbwenu in 2014, I wrote about how Mbwenu was bringing new irrigation and solar power technologies to the rural areas about the rural town of Manyamula Village in Malawi. He was also starting a new bio-gas project to use manure to produce energy.

Last May, I visited Mbwenu again. He again showed me the structure of the bio-gas contraption. “This is a failed project,” he said without no trace of despair. He had started this project to try to combat climate change and deforestation. In the end, the project required the expertise of a professional to finish the container. They couldn’t persuade the professional to come all the way out to this far-off farm, and so the project is uncompleted.

Mbwenu, in the white shirt, talks to us about why the bio-gas project failed.

The innovation mantra is “fail fast.” Try something and if it doesn’t work, move on. Following this mindset, Mbwenu’s entrepreneurial spirit is not broken by this setback. “We invested in another way. We hired someone to care for the cow. Now we get milk and sell 15 liters a day. Our boys can go to school.”

ABE: Always be expanding

The entrepreneurial mindset of the SIA Small Business Fund teaches people to diversify. Always be looking for new opportunities to invest and expand. Mbwenu’s family also has a side project of raising goats. They have a grocery kiosk in town, where they can sell the milk. And like any rural resident in Malawi, they also farm. One failure definitely didn’t stop this family from succeeding!

Goats in their pen, which is off the ground to keep them healthy and safe.

Sharing the Gift

Before I had a chance to ask Mbwenu about how he’s Sharing the Gift, he volunteered the information. (When people receive our grants we ask them to pay-it-forward to someone else in need, so that the blessing ripples out in the community.)

Mbwenu told us that one of the ways he is Sharing the Gift is through training others. He has a model garden with drip irrigation – a great innovation in an area where water for crops is hauled by hand. (More on irrigation in another post!)

Mbwenu is not only Sharing the Gift by training, he also shared the entire Sharing the Gift concept with his church! The church members pooled resources to purchase ten pigs. They are raising them together and sharing the piglets with different families in the congregation. So far 17 families have received piglets – a great asset in Malawi!

I look forward to my next visit to Malawi and to seeing what new projects Mbwenu is exploring!

Mbwenu, with one his sons, in front of their home.

Seeing change in Malawi

Seeing change in Malawi

(Please excuse any formatting errors! This is coming direct to you from my iPhone in Malawi.)

“When God’s Spirit is in action, good things happen,” said Mbueno thoughtfully, as we wrapped up our finally meeting in Manyamula village just a few days ago. When the spirit of generosity and cooperation are in action, good things happen. When the spirit of partnership is in action, good things happen.
This is my third trip to Manyamula, Malawi. I visited in 2011, and 2014, and this time, more than ever before, I can really see the positive change that is happening in the community. I am so proud of the work we are doing there, and I am excited for the future projects we will take on together.

Wednesday, the day we arrived in Manyamula, was the day of the grand opening of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training and Development Centre! This is a compound of buildings that SIA supported in a cost-sharing agreement with the cooperative. The Mzimba District Commissioner (equivalent to the governor) was there, and was clearly impressed with the buildings and the show of support from the community.


Caption: Tanya holding up the ribbon officially pronouncing the training centre open for business!

In 2014, I did a small ground-breaking ceremony in front of 5-6 members. The grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony was a different story: We were joined by several other top level non-profit partners, and 150+ cooperative and community members!

It was truly an afternoon to remember. This savings and loans cooperative is strong and its future is bright!


Caption: Small Business Fund coordinators from Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and the SIA North America team.

The next three days, we held a Small Business Fund Conference and Training. We trained two new coordinators from northern Malawi, and one more from Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was part program review and evaluation, part peer-to-peer learning, and part field visits to see the successful Small Business Fund businesses in the area.


Caption: Tanya meets Sophia Banda in her shop in the Manyamula market. Sophia started a tailoring shop with a Small Business Fund grant. She has already trained two more people about tailoring as part of Sharing the Gift.


Caption: The team visited Uncle Gly’s Computer Services shop which used a Small Business Fund $150 grant to buy a printer and scanner. This is just one example of entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of the electricity that has recently arrived in the town.

One of the most exciting things to see and hear was how strong the culture of Sharing the Gift is tied in with the Spirit in Action programs in Manyamula. Everyone we talked to eagerly told us how they had helped someone else after receiving their grant from SIA. Poodle have shared skills, supplies, piglets, chicks, seeds, time, and more.

We met a group of women who were all part of the same “ripple” of Sharing the Gift. Lackson received the SIA grant and he passed a piglet to the widow Tionenge. She passed a piglet to Meekness. And just this month, Meekness passed a piglet to Winifi. Four ripples away from the “drop” of SIA, the impact continues!


Caption: Tanya with Meekness and Winifi. Meekness has shared the gift of a piglet with Winifi, continuing the ripple of SIA’s impact in the community. 

On Sunday, we said good-bye to Manyamula and all our friends there. I will miss their bright spirits and their beautiful songs. I will cherish their stories. And I will be sharing many more if their stories of success with you in the months to come.

On Friday we fly to Kenya to meet with more Small Business Fund groups, and meet with more of our wonderful, dedicated partners.

Thank you for all your prayers and keep them coming!


Caption: Dressed in our Sunday finest! Boyd and Tanya Cothran, and SIA Advisory Board members and all-around support team, Mike Hegeman and Dana Belmonte.

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.

Sharing the Gift: Moringa Edition

Sharing the Gift: Moringa Edition

“Of course I remain grateful to you and Spirit in Action for your patience with me and the encouragement you have always given to us in our work. Please remember that anytime you will be in need of expert knowledge to support any community-based Moringa project, in any part of the world, you can count on me to offer free voluntary service. It is not an exaggeration to say I can help in any work on Moringa from cultivation, processing and the entire value chain development.”

Sharing a piglet may be the most tangible way of Sharing the Gift. But the offer of “free voluntary service” by Newton Amaglo, SIA grantee and long-time correspondent with Del Anderson, is another exciting way that our partners pay-it-forward to benefit the larger Spirit in Action community.

Del and Newton (then an ambitious researcher at the Kwame Nkrumah’ University of Science and Technology, in Ghana) discussed bio-intensive farming, which can produce large amounts of food in a small garden plot. They also shared an excitement for the possibility of Moringa – a fast-growing and highly-nutritious tree – to improve the diets of people around the world.

moringa_growing_4-16

How can Moringa be incorporated into a diet? Newton explains, “the leaves can be harvested fresh and eaten cooked or uncooked in vegetable salad, soups and stews. It can equally be dried at home, milled, and stored in air-tight containers where it can be added to meals.”

In 2008, SIA gave $5,500 to Newton and his research team to start Moringa plantations at an elementary school and one of the local prisons. Prison food is as bad around the world as it is in the US, and so they were in particular need of nutritious supplements in their diets! The training and garden plots were just getting off the ground when Newton left Ghana for China, where he began working on a Masters degree and PhD in Horticulture.

In his letter Newton told me more about what he was researching, “During my Masters I worked on Moringa leaf production under high density and I have been working on various Moringa seed oil extraction technologies. I pray that all these years of painful sacrifices and studies will go a long way to help the human race.”

moringa_harvesting_4-16

Harvesting the Moringa plants.

Needless to say, I eagerly took Newton up on the offer to share his findings! He emailed back with a very helpful guide for starting a small-scale Moringa garden at home. The guide, (with pictures!) shows how to prepare a four meter square plot by turning up the soil (double digging) and adding manure. Then you sow seeds in the four quadrants and the Moringa leaves will be ready to harvest after two months!

The research is already rippling out through the SIA network. I remembered seeing small Moringa plants when I visited Meanly Mbeye’s home in Malawi in 2014 and thought that she could benefit from the information about intensifying her production. I sent the instructions to Canaan Gondwe to pass along to her and other community members.

Canaan was excited to receive the document and to learn more about Moringa. “The tree seedlings you saw at Meanly Mbeyes home have grown big and they are using the leaves for nutrition. May Newton share more literature of his research. Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative is interested in this.” And so, the research of one SIA partner is shared to another, strengthening our network and improving diets.

Menaly with the Moringa trees around her family's farm. Moringa leaves contain Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, potassium, and protein!

Menaly with the Moringa trees around her family’s farm. Moringa leaves contain Vitamin C, Vitamin A, calcium, potassium, and protein!

SIA’s pay-it-forward model in the news

SIA’s pay-it-forward model in the news

In January 2013, Lackson Lungu bought two piglets with a Spirit in Action Small Business Fund grant. We gave the $150 as a grant, without the high interest rates and short repayment schedule that so often come with microfinance loans.

However, there was a string attached. We asked Lackson to pay-it-forward to help someone else in need, once his business was successful. Lackson was happy to comply and in May 2014 he gave one of the piglets from his successful piggery to Tiwonenji, one of the widows in his village of Manyamula, Malawi. (Read more of his story here.)

This pay-it-forward aspect of the Small Business Fund means that each grant sets off a ripple of change. Sharing the Gift can take the form of sharing piglets, teaching other women to bake and sell donuts in the market, teaching sustainable agriculture skills, and sharing seeds or food with more vulnerable members of the community.

Yesterday, Humanosphere, a news agency that focuses on stories of the fight against poverty, gave a shout-out to Spirit in Action for our pay-it-forward model. In her article, “Pay-it-forward model shows potential for microfinance in developing nations,” Lisa Nikolau notes that we are part of a movement that is looking at new ways to help people thrive, without getting them trapped in cycles of debt.

Nikolau quotes Muhammad Yunus, the man who helped develop and popularize micro-credit around the world, who said“Poverty should be eradicated, not seen as a money-making opportunity.” And we whole-heartedly agree!

I encourage you to read the full Humanosphere article here.

The ripple of change continues with Tionenji paying-it-forward to Msumba.

The ripple of change continues with Tionenji paying-it-forward to Msumba.

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