What We Learned: SIA Team Members Visit Kenya & Malawi

What We Learned: SIA Team Members Visit Kenya & Malawi

*Today’s post is a reflection from SIA Team Members and Advisory Board Members, Michael Hegeman and Dana Belmonte, who traveled with me to Kenya and Malawi last year. I appreciate their insights on the SIA program and the success of the trip.

Africa Trip 2017: Team Member Report
By Michael Hegeman and Dana Belmonte

It is with an overflowing sense of gratitude that we begin this report. Over the last eight to ten years, we have heard about and supported the mission of Spirit in Action (SIA) and have enjoyed spreading the news about SIA’s work to others in our various friend circles. Our appreciation and love for the relationship building, business training, mindset preparation, and grant giving has only grown and deepened.

Tanya Cothran, Dana Belmonte (left) and Mike Hegeman (right) with two local teachers who rent a room at the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative training center. These two women teach tailoring skills at the technical school. They made the shirts that Dana and Mike are wearing, having produced them in 24 hours from the COMPSIP cloth and from the pattern of shirts given them by Dana and Mike.

Upon our return home, it seemed many wanted us to compare and contrast the countries we visited with our own. We found ourselves searching for words simply because there is no comparison. Suffice it to say, life is very different in Malawi and Kenya and immediately upon arrival in Malawi we were reminded that one must take the new culture and tradition being experienced on its own terms. The time spent simply soaking in the atmosphere, listening, and quietly figuring out the rhyme, reason, and rhythm of our surroundings was very important and an education in itself.

Concepts around time are fluid. “Hakuna matata,” roughly translating to “no worries,” is a mentality that rules the day. Seldom did we have to be concerned about plans not working out, but flexibility around timing and expectations of arrival/departure/meeting is required. That being said, our hosts were very aware that we come from a more clock-oriented society and they strove to keep us on schedule. “Going with the flow” was key to any success we had.

Mottos on the dashboard.

Our trip included the following valuable connections:

Training new Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinators and reviewing the impact and efficiency of SIA’s program. The Coordinators conference was an education for us. Sitting with the coordinators and hearing about the day-to-day issues they face as they employ SIA’s business training model as well as review the SIA Coordinator’s Manual was an important look at the “nuts and bolts” of SIA.

The SIA SBF Coordinators are a strong part of our worldwide network! Pictured left to right, local SBF Coordinators with Tanya:: Dana Belmonte, Hastings Phiri, Thomas Nkhonde, Naomi Ayot, Dorcas Okoti, Canaan Gondwe, Tanya Cothran, Braswell Nkhonjera, Mike Hegeman, Dennis Kiprop, Boyd Cothran.

Meeting with and encouraging Small Business Fund entrepreneurs in Kenya and Malawi. It was inspiring to see the on-the-ground reality of how SIA is reducing poverty. Program grantees were eager to show us their successful shops and other business models, as well as tell us about these life-changing benefits: Ability to pay school fees, access to medicine, improved housing, better diet, and essential home furnishings.

Witnessing the impact of SIA Community Grants and developing closer working relationships with grassroots partners. Meeting partners face-to-face strengthened our relationship and facilitated better understanding in future communications. Listening to beneficiaries helped us confirm that the program is working.

In the afternoon of June 11, 2017 the SIA team met with the gathered women and a few men of CIFORD at the training center. The women shared their stories of empowerment, business success and how they encourage others to join in the education and empowerment of young women.

Ensuring that funds are being spent as proposed and reviewing potential future projects. In-person visits are one way to do due diligence and verify that grants are reaching those they are intended to help. Visiting potential partners allowed us to evaluate and discern how we may be able to work with them in the future. The amount of people benefiting from SIA grants is amazing. We saw so many examples of sustainable business and through which lives have been changed.

A few months out from the trip, we find ourselves coming back to some key points:

SIA’s model is working! It is a model that is balanced, positive, and welcoming to everyone. SIA’s work is based on the belief that a small grant and sincere encouragement can enable people to tap into their own potential. This is the most important element leading to better food and nutrition, education, housing, etc. The grantees, and not the SIA board and team members, are the true experts and we learn from them.

SIA approaches business training from an abundance mindset and NOT a scarcity mindset. A business serves the community. “When others are doing well, I’m doing well” is an encouraging way to look at business.

Failure is OK. While we saw a lot of success stories, there were some accounts of failure or things that did not work or did not go as planned. It is important to learn from these experiences and be open to the possibility that mindset preparation may need to be revisited rather than simply abandoning the cause.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael G. Hegeman
Dana A. Belmonte

Mike reading with one of the students at Maruge School in Kenya. Children here are reading quite well, decoding the words easily. Reading comprehension was sometimes affected by the subject matter. One boy was reading a book about weather conditions that included snow, sleet and fog. He could pronounce these words, but did not know what these were.

But what do we have in common?

But what do we have in common?

I shared the following testimony of faith and mission at First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond a few weeks ago. The message was about finding common ground around the world, seeking connection, rather than differences.

Last month, when the fires here in California made it on the news in Malawi, Canaan Gondwe, our long-time partner, sent me a message. He was worried about us after hearing about the fires and let me know that he was praying for us and our donors and board members in the area. “To raise a home,” Canaan said, “it takes time, it takes a lot of money and effort. And just to lose it through fires is very unfortunate. We are praying for California.”

Fires, floods, drought. Dry cops, unbearably hot or unbelievably cold days. Possessions stolen or lost in disaster. Jobs lost, unemployment stretching on and on. Fighting and scheming for the best education for a child. Being part of Spirit in Action is a practice in living and seeing our shared humanity. These are basic experiences we have in common.

It’s so easy to focus on the differences between places like rural Malawi and the Bay Area. In my experience, Malawians are just as likely as Americans 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 (Peace Corps and church mission trips), movies (James Bond and Disney movies), and music videos (Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson). These leads to a belief that Americans are all rich people who don’t have any worries or challenges.

Checking Facebook in Malawi. Think complaining about internet speed is only a #firstworldproblem??

Similarly, representations of Malawi (lumped in with all of Africa) mostly arrive here 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 experience each other as individuals.

Do only poor people pray?

While I was in Manyamula Village in Malawi in May, my Spirit in Action team spoke at the local church. Like this church, they share a love of music. The raw, loud, acapella voices filled the church, singing praises to God and proclaiming God’s goodness. (Listen to Standing on the Mountain of Zion.) The children’s group presented their offering of tubs for water and some utensils for cooking to the visiting church leader – while singing and dancing down the aisle. Like your service here, they said prayers and made announcements, and greeted one another.

Children presenting at church in Manyamula, Malawi.

After the service, Matthews – who was one of our hosts there said how wonderful it was to have us in the service and how good it was to have Mike Hegeman, from the SIA team, give a sermon. Matthews said, “People here think that Americans don’t pray, because they are all rich. And only poor people need to pray.”

It is true that we pray in need, perhaps more than we pray in abundance. But certainly, all of us have times of need. These assumptions create space, rather than bring us together.

If their logic was that you are rich – therefore you don’t need to pray. What are we also assuming, what flawed logic do we have when we think of Malawians as poor? I think many of us might also be guilty of thinking that all Malawians, maybe all Africans, or most at least, are poor. What it took to break through some of these assumptions was simply sharing a church service together, praying and sharing together.

#firstworldproblems

One of my recent pet-peeves is the use (or misuse) of the phrase, #firstworldproblems. Here are some examples:

  • “Don’t you just love it when your phone keeps dying on 20% battery #firstworldproblems”
    • BUT: Who knows better about having a cell phone running out of battery than someone who doesn’t have electricity in their home
  • “Need a nap, but have to wait up for packages… #FirstWorldProblems”
    • Think slow mail systems and lack of sleep only happen in America? Seriously, sending letters to our donors from a Kenyan post office took longer than even the busiest American post office!

My point is that we can be almost glib in creating distance between our experience and how we think others experience life. When actually, there is so much more we have in common.

Kenyans – They’re just like us! They like photobombing selfies! [Mumias, Kenya]

The significance of a house

Coming back to the loss of houses in the fires, and in storms and floods. These are moments that call us to work and pray collectively, with people all around the world.

In America, having your own home is some status of “making it.” Believe me, that’s also the case in Malawi. In 2011, I visited Paulos Lungu at his 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 sent me a picture of them proudly posed in front of their new home – complete with a thatched roof!

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.

Visiting the Lungu home – complete with iron roofing sheets – in May!

Then in May – 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! They have tremendous pride in how far they’ve come.

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. And how they have their own gorgeous home that also houses other relatives – Sequina’s mother and various aunts.

“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. Canaan, Paulos and Sequina know very well how devastating it would be to lose a home. Their prayers – after hearing about the fires here – are prayers of solidarity and understanding.

Building Long-term Relationships 

It’s this network and mutual support that is so key to Spirit in Action’s impact. I think I mentioned last year about the book I was working on: Smart Risks: How Small Grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. One of the “Smart Risks” is Being Flexible and with a long-term outlook.” Long-term relationships with our partners give us time and space to deeply understand each other. Long-term relationships mean there is time to know each other, and celebrate our successes and milestones many, many years after the first grant.

My visits to over 100 Small Business Fund groups and nine grassroots organizations in May and June were about more than reports and oversight. The trip was about making this connection, building this cross-cultural understanding.

This year, these holidays, I invite you to consider how similar we all really are the world around. Rather than focus on differences, let’s take time to learn about the true individual experiences of others. Let’s be open to seeing the potential and goodness in those around us and those all around the world. Amen.

A Song of Praise and Thanks for SIA

A Song of Praise and Thanks for SIA

Our last night in Manyamula Village, Malawi, the SIA team met with the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative management team to celebrate13 years of working together and to plan for the future. I have deep respect for these leaders who work tirelessly to reduce poverty and to promote prosperity for all in their community. As the sun set and the air grew cool, Matthews Mahowe – a farmer, schoolteacher, COMSIP leader, and Small Business Fund grant recipient – recited his poem of thanks and praise for SIA. He performed the poem in the local language, Tumbuka, and Canaan Gondwe interpreted in English for us.

A song of praise and thanks for SIA

by Matthews Mahowe

I have a song of praise and thanks for SIA.

Yes, I have come out of the depths of poverty because of the Small Business Fund.

Life of food insecurity, begging, even poor clothing, I am out of it.

I have a song of praise of SIA and the whole Board.

When I sleep and have some inside thinking, I think about SIA and the Board.

Why would I fail to sing a hearty song for SIA and the board?

When I see the motorbike, when I see maize mills, when I see people eating well, I think of SIA.

When I remember the time when Boyd and Tanya were doing the ground-breaking,

These remind me that I sing the song of praise.

In 2014, Tanya and the Manyamula COMSIP Team breaking ground for the Training Centre, guest house, and office building, completed in 2017! Matthews is pictured to the right of Tanya.

We have been given funds for five years for operations what stops me to sing the song of praise?

If I fail to sing a song of praise, if it birds from the bush who will sing that song looking at the infrastructure and bricks.

Leave me alone to sing a song of praise.

When I see that home, the office block and the guest wing block, then I have tears of joy and gladness falling through me.

If dead people were to come alive, they would have said, “God bless Spirit in Action.”

If you look at the chairs, if you look at the cooking pots, and women dressing well, that is part of SIA’s support.

Singing a song of praise for the Maize Mill.

SIA affects changes again through Sharing the Gift.

We have a story of a project, Pig-Pass-On, whose major source is the maize mill from Spirit in Action.

We have also this concept of Sharing the Gift, which is a concept born of Spirit in Action, through the Small Business Fund.

Yes, even the district commissioner came to say that, “I have never seen a huge project like

this one done by local people.”

So, we thank you, Spirit in Action!

Tanya Cothran and Rebacca Mahowe in Our Grace Mini Shop. Rebecca and her husband Matthews were the first Small Business Fund recipients in Manyamula Village, in 2004. They started the restaurant, then a grocery shop at home. Rebecca buys chickens then she cooks and sells them. The family is now able to afford good clothing, food, and education.

This poem was also featured in our latest newsletter, available here!

Blessings for a happy Thanksgiving!

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.

“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

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...