Lessons from a coworking space in Malawi

Lessons from a coworking space in Malawi

This is reposted from the blog Centre for Social Innovation’s blog. I wrote it for my coworking community in Toronto.

Halfway around the world, stepping into the Blantyre Entrepreneurs Hub was reassuringly familiar. Even though the dusty streets and tin-roofed houses of Malawi, a tiny country in southern Africa, are very different from the condo towers and streetcars of Toronto, spaces of social innovation around the world seem to share more similarities than differences.

Motivational quotes from famous innovators decorated the lime green walls. Bright orange chairs surrounded the black glossy work tables. The office was quiet on the cool evening in May when I visited. Most of the entrepreneurs – the photographers, caterers, and website developers – had already gone home to their families or guest houses for the evening. Dineo Mkwezalamba, Program Manager for Entrepreneurs Motivation Network (EMNET), greeted me with a warm smile. She was excited to show me around the cooperative’s facilities.

Tanya with Dineo (pictured left) the HUB director, and one of the top entrepreneurs (pictured right).

The Hub, as it’s known, is a coworking space for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, which is the financial and business capital of Malawi, and a city of one million people. The space provides access to high-speed internet, meeting rooms, electricity, and security. These are big perks for the entrepreneurs, most of whom do not have access to the electrical grid at home. The collective buying power of the Hub makes the amenities affordable. In addition to the monthly memberships, they’ve begun to offering day-pass for about CAD$1.75. The hope is that once entrepreneurs visit the Hub for a day, they’ll become sustaining new members.

On the tour, Dineo pointed out the ocpen-seating desks for Silver Members (like CSI’s HotDesk space), the café (with member discounts!), and the closed offices that can accommodate up to four people in a single business. One of the offices stood empty and Dineo assured me that this was because the interior design company had recently “graduated” up to an office building of their own.

The vibrant Hub space for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, Malawi.

Training Youth to Be Entrepreneurs

In addition to providing space for entrepreneurs, EMNET also hosts a local Pitch Night (read an article from the BBC about their pitch night) and runs a youth entrepreneurs training program. I eagerly listened and took notes as she told me about how they frame the concept of entrepreneurship for the youth. I wanted to be able to remember the way she described their mentorship program, connecting local business leaders and high school youth, and the way she connects the concept of entrepreneurship with ideas that the youth already understand.

“All youth know vendors,” Dineo explained to me, “because many of their parents and family members are vendors.” According to the latest labor statistics, 89% of people who are working in Malawi are in the informal employment. Informal employment covers farming and, especially for women, buying and reselling food and household items.

When Dineo talks to youth about entrepreneurship, she wants them to think beyond selling eggs. “Youth know that vending is the first step to being an entrepreneur. Our goal is to help them get to business success, and to make sure entrepreneurship doesn’t seem like a scary thing.”

Dineo and her team use the motto, “train to sustain,” when teaching the youth about adapting a mindset of starting a sustainable and scalable business. I am incorporating this process of helping people imagine themselves as entrepreneurs into my work with Spirit in Action International.

“I have not failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Animating Community

Similar to my experience at CSI, perhaps the most important perk of the Entrepreneur’s Hub is the access to community and to those serendipitous moments of collaboration. I told Dineo about one of my favorite parts of CSI – Salad Club. Some of the best conversations and exchanges of ideas at CSI have been over a plate of salad. When I mentioned this, Dineo smiled with a twinkle of excitement in her eye. She’d been working on creating more buzz around the Hub office. In July, I got a text message from her, “Keep an eye on our Facebook page today! Your visit sparked some new activities!” That day, the Hub kicked off their #SocialFridays, showing a movie in the lounge space. Generating ideas for animation from their community, they’ve also established: Leadership Mondays, Startup Tuesdays, Business Wednesday, and She Leads Malawi Thursday.

It’s so easy to focus on the differences between places like Blantyre and Toronto. In my experience, Malawians are just as likely as Canadians to think that there’s little we could have in common. Representations of North America arrive in Malawi through the distorted examples of volunteer programs, television shows, and music videos. These leads to a belief that Americans (and Canadians lumped in with them) are all rich people who don’t have any worries or challenges.

Similarly, representations of Malawi (lumped in with all of Africa) mostly arrive in Canada through calls for charity and news about poverty. There are not many opportunities for each of us to see the wealth of experiences and cultural diversity in each country or to experiences each other as individuals.

My conversation and exchange of ideas with Dineo felt different. It gave us a chance to connect as individuals and peers. I left feeling like we were on the same team. Around the globe, there’s always a need for spaces like CSI and the Hub. Places to build community, to bring people together, and to share costs so that entrepreneurs can get our ideas and products out in the world.

Inspiration from Kenya: Change, one step at a time

Inspiration from Kenya: Change, one step at a time

At the blessing of the piglet ceremony in Malawi in May, all the guests were invited to share some words of inspiration and encouragement. The assembled group included members of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative where were gifting the pig, the boy receiving the gift, and Spirit in Action Small Business Fund Coordinators from Kenya, Uganda, and other parts of Malawi. In turn, each offered prayers, words of gratitude, or Bible passages.

This piglet was given by the community organization to a promising young boy in the neighborhood. A cooperative member presents the piglet to be blessed.

Soft-spoken and earnest Dennis Kiprop from Kenya stepped into the circle and greeted the group. He had a story to tell us, a story of encouragement. He spoke in English, with fellow SIA SBF Coordinator Thomas Nkhonde from Malawi, interpreting into the local language, Tumbuka, for the rest of the group. 

Dennis Shares a Story:

This is a story about a ten-year-old boy playing on sand along the beach. As he was playing, he noticed that the tides were pushing little starfish up onto the shore and into the scorching sun.

The boy paused to watch and felt he should help in some way. He started throwing the little starfish back into the ocean. As he did this, an old man who had been watching from a distance approached the boy.

The old man looked at the boy and said, “Young boy, what are you doing?” The young boy replied so humbly, “I’m throwing the starfish back to the ocean, to keep them alive.” The old man looked at the boy and at the long beach filled with scorching starfish. He shook his head and said to the young boy, “No matter how long you do this, you won’t really make any progress.”

The young boy looked into the old man’s eyes. He picked up one more star fish and said, “this one matters.”

Here is the moral to the story: We can’t solve all the problems in the world at one time, but one little thing counts, day by day!

Thank you, Dennis, for sharing your optimism and hope with Spirit in Action!

Dennis Kiprop, SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator from Kenya, always had a motivational story to share with the group!

Taking a selfie with a cow

Taking a selfie with a cow

“The camera is right here!” I try – successfully! – to get a selfie with a cow at a Megabridge Foundation farm in Kenya. After our visit, Joseph wrote: “We appreciate that you found time to visit our project. Your team was the first “Wazungu” (Swahili for white people) to visit a homestead in the village; a particular honor to the family that hosted the team. The team’s visit to the project has elicited a lot of publicity and interest among the community wishing to learn among others more about the project.”

Lucky Nylenda, his wife, and I try to pose with their uncooperative calf. Lucky is a member of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative. He has used the low-interest loans to expand his flocks of goats, chickens, and guinea fowls.

Finally got a better picture of him! This cute calf was just two days old when we met him. His mother can produce 10-15L per day of milk, which can sell for $3-4! A cow can sell for $275-325.

Chickens for Sale

Chickens outside the Matungu Community Development Charity poultry house in Mumias, Kenya. When I visited in June, the heavy rains were delaying the construction progress. Now it is done and housing 250 hybrid chickens! Chickens sell for $7 each. The profit from the chickens will add to the group’s loan fund.

Evans Okumu, secretary of the Matungu Community Development Charity, shoveling the high-quality chicken feed into bags. Vincent Atitwa, the group’s chairperson, writes: “Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must but take the step. I believe we have taken the step together with SIA.”

Piglets for Women

Visiting the Megabridge Foundation piggery in June! A Spirit in Action grant helped the organization buy top quality breeding stock and construct a pig pen to keep the animals healthy and dry. The piggery holds up to 50 pigs. The sows eat a healthy diet of ground oatmeal, corn, and fish. 

Piglets will be distributed to women in the community soon, once the heavy rains die down. Most of the women in the area pick tea leaves as day laborers. A piglet is a significant increase in wealth for a family.

One more for the road….

cows on the road in Malawi

A familiar scene from the trip: sharing the dusty road with cattle. Malawi, 2017.

P.S. If you want to see my selfie with a cow, click over to our Facebook or Instagram page. 🙂 

“Mindset preparation” on the path to success

“Mindset preparation” on the path to success

Guest post by Michael Hegeman, SIA Advisory Board Member. He traveled with me to Kenya and Malawi this year.

“I’ll always be poor.” “I’ll never make enough money to feed my children.” “I don’t deserve to have a good life.” “I have only known poverty.” “I don’t know how to build a successful business.”

These are self-defeating thoughts. We can find them in any culture around the globe. And not only are these thoughts self-defeating; they are self-fulfilling as well. If you think you will always be poor, you most likely will always be poor.

The first thing that Spirit in Action coordinators encounter with potential grant recipients is a way of thinking that cannot see past present circumstances: the necessity to escape dire circumstances, provide immediate nutritional needs for one’s family, and send children to school. Because SIA coordinators “target” the most vulnerable members of their communities to receive SIA grants, they are sure to encounter a “mindset” that has pre-determined failure as the only option.

Canaan Gondwe, SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator in Malawi, is passionate about mindset preparation and helping people live up to their God-given potential.

Power of Positive Thinking

Norman Vincent Peale, sixty-five years ago, published his now famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, in which the reader is “encouraged to achieve a permanent constructive and optimistic attitude through constant positive influence of his or her conscious thought (that is, by using affirmations or visualizations) and consequently achieve a higher satisfaction and quality of life.”

Many of us are quite familiar with the practice of using positive affirmations to shift one’s way of being in the world. For SIA Small Business Fund (SBF) grant recipients, the circumstances of poverty seem overwhelming. The principles of “mindset preparation” are crucial for coordinators to use to help others get ready for big changes in their lives.

The SIA team visiting Malawi and Kenya in May of 2017 heard testimony after testimony from SBF grant recipients about how changing the way they thought helped them take actionable steps to positive change in their lives. And the results were evident. Paul Lungu told the group: “At one time I had only a blanket to my name, and I slept in empty houses, begging for food. Now, I have a home of my own, a small farm, and a business that helps me provide for myself and my family.”

Spirit in Action Small Business Fund grantees

The Lungu family have been able to build this brick home since starting their shoe repair business in 2005. Paul says, “life is no longer the same.”

Mindset Preparation

The key elements in “mindset preparation” are”

  1. Training the body, mind and spirit to say, “Yes, I can do it.” “Yes, I can succeed.” “Yes, I am worthy of a good life.” Change doesn’t happen overnight. SIA SBF Coordinators tell us that they need to be vigilant with support during the process. “Don’t sink back into that stinking thinking! You can do it.”
  2. Hosting motivational sessions: These positive messages need to seep into the subconscious mind, and the most powerful way for this to happen is to hear the testimony of those who have succeeded and to witness the changes that others have made in their lives.
  3. Reminding people of their God-given potential, and how, through Spirit, they can co-create a better life. “You can do something different from what is currently happening.” ~ Canaan Gondwe, SIA SBF Coordinator, Malawi
  4. Using biblical passages that speak to the need for perseverance: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23
  5. Supporting them to see what each of them “brings to the table.” When we discover our own natural gifts, we can use those gifts to help ourselves build a successful life.
  6. Encouraging them build a network of support with like-minded people, that is, others who are using their full potential to succeed.
  7. Urging them to Share the Gift, pay-it-forward in some way, whatever that gift is. The expression of gratitude is healing to the weariest soul.

 

The perception of poverty effects every aspect of one’s being: mentally, emotionally, socially, economically, physically, and spiritually. Genuine and lasting change comes through thoughtful and diligent mindset preparation. The realization of this success creates a joyous experience in every aspect of one’s being as well.

“I never thought I could be leading the life I now live. I respect myself and my community respects me. I have become a leader and an example to others. I want to pass on this happiness I’ve found.” ~ Sylvester Nkhoma

“I never thought I could be leading the life I now live. I respect myself and my community respects me. I have become a leader and an example to others. I want to pass on this happiness I’ve found.” ~ Sylvester Nkhoma

The Fall newsletter is here! Lots of pictures from my trip!

The Fall newsletter is here! Lots of pictures from my trip!
The 2017 Fall/Winter Spirit in Action newsletter is here! You can view a PDF version here and hard copies will be in the mail next week!

Blessing a pig that the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members are giving to an orphan in the community.

In this newsletter we feature:

  • The time I blessed a pig in Malawi, as part of a community “Sharing the Gift” ceremony
  • Girls Empowerment Workshops in Kenya teach girls about their wholness
  • A poem of gratitude to SIA from Matthews Mahowe in Manyamula, Malawi
  • Photo collage of the people we met in Kenya and Malawi this spring!

Read the full newsletter and donate now to support the work of Spirit in Action. Your support helps empower more families and communities in Africa!

SIA Team and Small Business Fund Coordinators visiting business groups in Malawi. Coordinators from three countries came to Malawi for training and program evaluation.

P.S. If you’re in Toronto tomorrow, Wednesday, October 18th, join us for a discussion on risk and social change, and a celebration of the launch of Smart Risks: How Small Grants are Helping to Solve the World’s Biggest Problems, featuring Spirit in Action. Read more details and RSVP here!

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