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.

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.

Why does it matter?

Why does it matter?

Droughts. Climate change. Tough farming conditions. Human rights violations. Self-expression denied. This week, two news stories highlighted how important the work of Spirit in Action is to combat these devastating realities.

New York Times: Loss of Fertile Land in Kenya

“More than in any other region of the world, people in Africa live off the land. There are relatively few industrial or service jobs here. Seventy percent of Africa’s population makes a living through agriculture, higher than on any other continent, the World Bank says.

“But as the population rises, with more siblings competing for their share of the family farm, the slices are getting thinner. In many parts of Africa, average farm size is just an acre or two, and after repeated divisions of the same property, some people are left trying to subsist on a sliver of a farm that is not much bigger than a tennis court.

“Fast-growing populations mean that many African families can’t afford to let land sit fallow and replenish. They have to take every inch of their land and farm or graze it constantly. This steadily lowers the levels of organic matter in the soil, making it difficult to grow crops.

“In many areas, the soil is so dried out and exhausted that there is little solace even when the prayed-for rains finally come. The ground is as hard as concrete and the rain just splashes off, like a hose spraying a driveway.” (Link to full article.)

SIA Partners in Action

SIA partners like CIFROD Kenya are helping to address the challenge of concrete-like soil. When I visited many CIFORD gardens last month in Maua, Kenya, I saw how CIFORD’s sustainable agriculture training helps farmers to break up the soil, replenish the nutrients with manure, and reduce water usage. (Read my blog post “How to garden in a drought” here.)

One of the grateful farmers we visited in Kenya. After implementing the sustainable agriculture techniques he learned from CIFORD, he noticed now much more he can grow.

The Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative also trains members to use manure and compost, and to intercrop their crops by alternating rows of beans and corn. The corn pulls nitrogen from the soil, and the beans help add it back into the soil. This can improve the soil and also increase the farm yields.

BBC: Mass arrests of gay people in Nigeria

“More than 40 men have been arrested in Nigeria over the weekend for performing homosexual acts, police say. Nigerian newspaper Punch reports that the police raided a hotel in Lagos State on Saturday afternoon and says the hotel was cordoned off while the investigation was carried out.

“Homosexual acts are punishable by up to 14 years in jail in Nigeria, while gay marriage and displays of same-sex affection are also banned.” (Link to full article.)

The situation is similar in Uganda, where gay and lesbian people have no legal protection and there are laws banning gay marriage. Extreme social stigma and threat of physical violence means that it takes great courage to be out as LGBT.

Spirit in Action is in the early stages of partnering with Universal Love Ministries (ULM), a grassroots organization to end violence against women and LGBT people in Uganda. ULM delivers seminars in schools, churches, and communities creating awareness on human rights for women, children and sexual minorities.

I see the work of ULM as an important part of SIA’s mission to help everyone know that they are spiritual beings and that we all hold the divine within us.

Sharon Kukunda shares about why she works with ULM in Uganda:

These two news stories remind me that the work we are supporting is not trivial. It is about life and death. SIA’s partners are boldly helping people live better lives, with enough food to eat, and the right to be safe. Thank you for joining us in supporting this work.

What are the Malawian six food groups?

What are the Malawian six food groups?

The tour of facilities at the grand opening ceremony of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training and Development Centre in Malawi included a review of Malawi’s Six Food Groups.In the hot sun of midday, cooperative members showed us samples of the six food groups, telling us the benefits of each. The cooperative is more than just a savings and loans financial cooperative. They also train the member families in nutrition and encourage a varieties of foods.

Cooperative members show us samples of the six food groups. Small fish from Lake Malawi are an inexpensive form of protein.

So what are the six groups?

  1. Vegetables (leafy greens, kale, tomato, carrots)
  2. Fruits (apples, oranges, lemons)
  3. Legumes and Nuts (groundnuts/peanuts, beans, peas, cowpeas/black-eyed pea)
  4. Animal Foods (meat, eggs, milk)
  5. Fats (cooking oil, soybeans, groundnuts/peanuts, can also include milk)
  6. Staples (grains, maize, rice, cassava)

Vegetables are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Staples and fats provide the body with energy. Proteins from animal foods and legumes are good for muscles, skin, hair, and bones.

Almost all the cooperative members are also farmers. In addition to their small businesses they have farms and kitchen gardens.

On our tours of several member farms, we saw lots of maize (corn) stalks piled in the middle of fields after harvest. We saw sacks of peanuts (groundnuts). We saw chickens running around yards, and goats, cows, and pigs penned behind houses. Peas are planted in between rows of maize. Cassava fields, dry and dusty, thrive on little rain. Of the six groups, I think it’s only fruits that I didn’t see growing in the village.

A cooperative member in Malawi demonstrates how to dig up the cassava roots.

In a place of low food security, cooperative members are proud when they are able to provide varied diets for their families. In her testimony of SIA business success, Love Vinkhumbo told us that she was able to provide for her son’s university education and that, “I am now eating the six food groups!”

Love Vinkhumbo told us that after receiving her SIA Small Business Fund grant, “I am now eating the six food groups!”

Changing Food Guidelines in North America

Learning about Malawian nutrition guidelines made me realize how little I remember about the US Food Guidelines. After some Googling, it seems there is a new set of US guidelines for 2015-2020 with a plate instead of a food pyramid – one that ignores oils, and has dairy as a distinct category.

The 5 food groups in the US Guidelines.

Just this week, Health Canada released their preliminary new food guide for public comment. It seems they are moving in the direction of the Malawi guidelines, encouraging the consumption of legumes and other plant-based protein and removing the dairy category. The new guidelines also affirm that a wide variety of foods are the foundation of a healthy diet.

What do you know about the food guidelines in your area? Do you eat from the five or six food groups regularly? When was the last time you had black-eyed peas?

A Malawian food not part of the healthy food groups…so tasty though!

“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.

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