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a worn pair of laceless sneakers, sitting under a tree in the limited, but much desirable shade, holding in one hand an outdated cellphone and in the other a bunch of rocks which she would throw one by one to keep the birds out of her withering crops.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!

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.

Update from Nairobi, Kenya!

Update from Nairobi, Kenya!

Should we call Korogocho a slum? It’s complicated. The residents in this sector of Nairobi are extremely poor. There is no running water or sewer. People often skip meals and may work full time to earn only $1/day.

But calling it a slum brings up images of desperation, despair, and depravity. And from what I saw yesterday, that is not the mentality of everyone in Korogocho (called Koch for short).

Using the term “informal settlement” as an alternative to slum is perhaps more descriptive. The houses are made of corrugated iron and are built without permits or foundations. They have no address and the whole area could be bulldozed down by the government at any time.


Even in these conditions (or maybe because there is so much need here), the SIA Small Business Fund is thriving in Koch, and people are transforming their lives for the better.

Last weekend, we met with about 15 Small Business Fund grant recipients in a classroom in Koch (pictured above). The group greeted us with celebratory song. They thanks us for the $150 grant which had sparked such change in their life. They clapped and cheered for each other as, one-by-one, they told us their stories of moving from desperation and hopelessness to pride, hope, and self-sufficiency.


“We don’t struggle the way we used to struggle,” said Jamarose Anyango (pictured above), whose second-hand clothing business has enabled her to pay for rent and school fees for her children (plus two orphans she has taken into her care).

Sarah Owendi (pictured below), who sells grains along the roadside, proudly told us that, after starting her business, “now I stand on my own two feet.” She used to wash clothes for $2/week, now she is making enough money from her business to pay the $15/month rent. She also can pay for school fees and has enough to eat.


Caption: Sarah can now earn $10/week from her grocery kiosk, where she sells grains and other staples. 

We heard similar stories over and over. Whereas before people were barely making ends meet day to day, now they are expanding their businesses, reinvesting, and planning for the future.

They are also Sharing the Gift, by passing on the blessing to others. They are encouraging others, training them how to select the shoes that people want to buy, how to run a roadside cafe, and how to sew and tailor clothes.


Caption: Tanya with local mentor Josephine and her daughter, Dorcas, who has trained to me a new SBF Coordinator. 

At our Small Business Fund conference in Malawi last month, we trained another coordinator who will also be working in Koch. Dorcas Okoti lives in Koch (which she calls a slum) and she is well positioned to work with the most desperate families to help them chart a better future for themselves. Dorcas knows the reality of Koch, and also the great potential for entrepreneurship, hope, and change.

Thank you again for all your prayers! We have another week here in Kenya and we’ll be visiting more grant recipeients all over the country!

With faith and gratitude,

Tanya

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