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.

Beyond Grants: Rebuilding After Conflict

Beyond Grants: Rebuilding After Conflict

Rebuilding a life and a community after years of conflict, violence, and trauma is no easy task. The pain doesn’t go away immediately. The healing doesn’t happen automatically. Those who remain must figure out the way forward.

The Spirit in Action Small Business Fund (SBF) is helping with this rebuilding, with more than just cash grants. Naomi Ayot is the coordinator for SBF in the Kole District in Uganda. This is where the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted girls in 1996 and years of conflict broke up families and forced people into refugee camps. Many of the families in the area are missing family members, with many women now in charge of running households.

The Small Business Fund provides grants of $150 and business training. And it also is providing psychological support through peer support groups and encouragement.

Members from different SBF groups meet to discuss their businesses and lives.

Turning Lives Around

Imat Milly is the main breadwinner in her family. During the peak of the conflict with the LRA, when it was no longer safe to stay at home, her family moved into a camp for Internally Displaced People. When the violence ended, they settled into a grass roofed house.

Now, with their successful farming business – growing food for sale, in addition to home consumption – they have built a iron-roofed house!

Imat Milly proudly stands next to her new house.

Imat has also bought a plow, so that they don’t have to plow by hand anymore! They are producing better quality and quantity of crops now. They have even adopted a five year-old girl and paying for her school fees. This generous act of caring for children in need is just part of rebuilding community after conflict. 

“She thinks her life has really turned around,” reported Naomi. The sentiment is perhaps understated, but the satisfaction and joy in Naomi’s voice told me just how big this change is for Imat and her family.

Thinking Beyond Basic Needs

I wrote in April how Samsa used the profit from her agricultural business to send her daughter to pre-primary (nursery) school. When I met with Naomi in May, she told me again how much that meant to Samsa.

When Samsa’s daughter finished the school year, the school had graduation and Samsa was so proud to see her daughter receive the honors and be able to move onto primary school! For this community in rebuilding mode, education has not been a priority. However, Naomi reported that part of the success of SIA is that our program, “helps them think beyond basic needs to think about education.”

Naomi Ayot is the wonderful SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator in Uganda. She mentors others with passion and skill.

Counseling for Healing

In addition to these business successes, Naomi and her team on the ground in Kole District have created a spiritual counseling group, for anyone in the community who wants to join. SBF members and those who have not yet been chosen for grants come together to share about their challenges and to motivate each other to move forward. When I met with Naomi in May, she told me that these groups were helping to reduce domestic violence and levels of alcoholism in the group members.

SIA is on-going,” says Naomi. “It not just a one-off project. This encourages teamwork and cooperation between families.” Rather than competing against each other, SIA SBF groups are working together, sharing their grief and joy, and helping to rebuild their community in the wake of conflict.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Today’s story of Small Business Fund success in Kenya is about more than monetary success. Sister Magrina, who received a Small Business Fund grant in 2014, is using her success to encourage and empower women in a very rural, isolated part of Kenya.

Mike Hegeman, SIA Advisory Board member who traveled to Kenya with me, wrote about the inspiring life of Sister Magrina. The following is excerpted from his sermon, “Our Uncommon Life.”

I recently returned from spending six weeks in the developing world, in countries such as the Philippines, Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya. And in each place I encountered common people of faith living in uncommon ways.

One such person was Sister Magrina. It took us several hours to reach her, down a winding highway from the lush, fertile highlands of northwest Kenya, into the arid and seemingly desolate lowlands of the Rift Valley, an hour’s journey down a shockingly bumpy road, then a twenty minute hike into the brush, all to find a woman dressed humbly in a blue habit and shod with a worn pair of laceless sneakers, sitting under a tree in the limited, but much desirable shade, holding in one hand an outdated cellphone and in the other a bunch of rocks which she would throw one by one to keep the birds out of her withering crops.

Sister Magrina, Dennis Kiprop (SIA-SBF Local Coordinator), Mike Hegeman, Ursula, and her daughter, Chebit, on Sr. Magrina’s farm.

Sister Magrina is a nun with degrees in counselling and addiction therapy, who had given up the “comforts” of her highlands home to come live among the poor of this most forgettable village on the edge of nowhere. Just a smattering of mud huts and farms, with no running water and no latrines; only a paltry stream to water the vast desert valley.

Sister Magrina had come here to plant a farm, not for herself, but to have a reason to be closest to some of Kenya’s most vulnerable people. Here in this village spousal violence is rampant, alcoholism legion and malnutrition ubiquitous. Sister Magrina sits by her crops, and when women of the village or children wander by, she invites them to sit and pass the time of day. She listens to their woes, how evil has befallen them and scourge has come near their tents. She quietly teaches them about ways they can support themselves when their husbands are off drinking and neglecting support for them and their children. She teaches them how to grow kitchen gardens and about helpful hygiene techniques. She encourages the children to stay in school.

Women and children who pass by Sister Magrina’s hut are greeted and welcomed over for a cookie.

She is the presence of God’s love in that place; the God who promises to be with us, is present in that place through a sister willing to live in a mud hut, drink from a simple stream, and hope to teach people to create a sustainable way of living for themselves.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Drinking warm coca-cola and eating cookies with Sister Magrina in Kerio Valley, Kenya.

More than anything else, she teaches them about love, and thereby teaches them about faith in God. Sister Magrina says, “In this place, I am not a Catholic; I am not a Protestant. I am one who comes in Christ’s love to make a difference; I have come to a place where no one else will come…to be among God’s people…even if they don’t know yet that who they are.” Sister Magrina lives a pretty uncommon life. Her work bears witness to God’s salvation, God’s delivering grace.

When first we came upon Sister Magrina, we were strangers. Yet, she set out burlap sacks for us to sit upon the dusty ground. Warm Coca-Cola appeared, along with some fruit and crackers. We fellowshipped in the dappled shade, still sweating, and we listened to an uncommon woman, express her uncommon faith, embodying hospitality to strangers…with children in her lap and at her feet.

Sister Magrina shows Tanya her beans and watermelon plants. The crops are dry-farmed, relying on rain.

“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.

“This is not a house of a poor person.”

“This is not a house of a poor person.”

shoes Malawi

Paulos discusses his business with us during our visit to Malawi in 2011.

One of the very cool things about my recent trip to Malawi is that I got to check in again on people I had visited on my previous two trips. Seeing the amazing changes since my first visit in 2011 blew me away!

In 2011, I visited Paulos Lungu at this shoe repair stand in the marketplace. The Saturday market mostly consisted of temporary stands, with a few roughly constructed shops. Paulos and his wife, Sequina, had received a Small Business Fund grant of $150 in 2005. They had invested in a shoe repair business, building off Paulos’ skills.

In 2011, he told me how he wanted to build a home for his family. He was already buying bricks (fired clay, to last longer than packed mud bricks) for their future home.

In 2013, they proudly posed in front of their new home – complete with a thatched roof!

The Lungu family in front of their own home in 2013.

During our visit in 2014, Paulos was eager to have us visit his house. He welcomed us inside, showing off the cement floor (no longer dirt!) and showed us where they were storing the iron sheets. They were slowly buying the corrugated iron whenever they had extra money at the end of the month.

Boyd and I with the Lungu family in 2014. Note the cement floor (rather than dirt), and how the windows can now be opened. Roof is still thatching, which needs to be replaced every year.

Seeing the Change

Just last month – 12 years after that small Spirit in Action grant, six years after my first visit – I had the honor of walking across the threshold of the beautiful, iron-roofed Lungu home. They will no longer live with leaks during the rainy season!

With the Lungu family in May, 2017. The floor is reinforced and they have replaced the thatch roof with iron sheets! They share some of their peanut harvest with us.

Before Spirit in Action, Paulos told us about how his life had been. He had no house of his own. He would stay at a relative’s house as long as they’d have him, then he would move onto another relative.

“This is not a house of a poor person,” Canaan Gondwe, local coordinator and mentor, said proudly of the Lungu home. If you have iron sheets over your head, you are doing well in Malawi. It is a sign that you have made it.

Paulos with one of his daughters. He is also a member of the local savings and loans cooperative, Manyamula COMSIP. His shirt – with the COMSIP logo – proclaims his entrepreneurial spirit.

Spirit in Action is 21 years old now, and it’s inspiring to witness and honor the deep roots we have, and the transformation we see, in places like Manyamula, Malawi.

Postscript: I can attest to Paulos’ good repair skills! When my sandals broke less than a week into the trip, I was annoyed. Then I remembered that I knew a shoemaker! He reattached the toehold to the sole in a matter of minutes. He didn’t charge me for the repair – he said it was the least he could do after the incredible support he’s received from SIA.

In a matter of minutes, Paulos repaired my Kenyan sandals! The fix is holding tight!

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