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.

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. 🙂 

Creating a more inclusive Uganda

Creating a more inclusive Uganda

How are Ugandans fostering a more loving and inclusive society? Universal Love Ministries (ULM) is hosting a series of workshops, supported in part by Spirit in Action, at schools in Uganda. Their team talks with students and teachers about life planning skills and human rights, particularly the rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) people. At the end of the workshop, students are encouraged to form “inclusive clubs” to defend human rights in their school.

Taremwa Kenneth is a Fine Arts teacher and deputy head teacher at Bitereko Vocational Secondary School, where ULM held a recent day-long workshop. In his many roles, he works closely with head teachers, and government and community leaders.

Kenneth sees that the Universal Love Ministries’ workshops are having great impact in his community in Mitooma District. LGBTI youth are safer and more confident. Youth are focusing on inclusion and standing up against hatred. After talking with youth who attended the workshops, Kenneth shared his findings.

Skits are common in Ugandan workshops. They are a more fun and accessible way to talk about social change.

Report from Kenneth, Deputy Head Teacher

“I attended two of the day-long ULM sessions, the one held at my school and another that was delivered at the Kitojo Secondary School. After ULM left Mitooma, the message they delivered in the workshops circulated around the district and reached community members and government officials. This happened by word of mouth as teachers and students who attended the ULM workshops retold what they had learned to others.

“Recently, I traveled to Kampala and spent a week of training at the ULM office. The training opened my inner eyes and ears. It helped me to start thinking in a different way: a way that seeks a constructive solution to the problems faced by people in our communities.

Samson Turinawe, director of ULM, leads a workshop session on human rights and life skills.

What have students learned about being inclusive?

“I talked with students, including those who attended the ULM workshops, as well as those who got word about what happened at the workshop through inclusive club members. Through this I learned how the previous ULM workshops helped the students and teachers who attended.

  1. They learned about human rights. They had heard about human right but they did not know exactly what human rights mean.
  2. Students came to know that one’s sexual orientation cannot be changed.
  3. They learned the difference between gender and sex.
  4. They learned that LGBTI people are not cursed nor are they agents of the devil, as they’ve been told by local religious leaders.
  5. LGBTI youth were happy to know that there is an organization which is educating people to accept them and include them in each and every activity in their communities.
  6. LGBTI students started believing in themselves and accepting who they are. It was their first time to hear someone affirm them. 
  7. Some LGBTI students who were in the closet are now coming out openly to their fellow students about their sexual orientation.
  8. Students now socialize in the inclusive club, which meets twice a month. In club meetings, they educate others on human rights, and to accept LGBTI.
  9. Students told me that they would love to have more training because they have more questions they need to ask, and that they are also asked many questions which do have answers.
  10. LGBTI students reported that they are no longer teased and bullied by their fellow students and that after the workshops some students approached and apologized to them. 

Inclusive club members. At their meetings they talk to others about human rights and help people accept LGBTI students.

ULM fills the knowledge gap

“They all thanked ULM for the good work. I want to personally thank the ULM team and Samson for the good work that ULM is doing for issues that affect our country. I did not know how to handle these issues beforehand. Many professionals still do not know how to handle these issues. ULM is there to fill the gap. I am committed to use the knowledge I gained at ULM along with my connections and my network of friends to see that ULM’s work and teachings reach many people, directly and indirectly.”

A different way to keep girls in school

A different way to keep girls in school

When we listen to the needs and solutions of the community, instead of providing our own answers, we sometimes hear something we wouldn’t expect. Such was the case of Hope for Relief Organization in northern Malawi. They want to help more girls stay in school and instead of providing new classrooms or school fees, their solution is to provide girls with cloth feminine pads. Having the reusable pads means that the girls don’t miss school during their menstrual periods. A simple solution that I would not have considered a year ago!

Sarah Simwaka, age 13, is in 7th grade at Phalasito Primary School. She is one of 1,282 girls who have each received at least ten feminine pads (called “fem pads” in Malawi) from Hope for Relief.

An orientation at Phalasito primary school shows the girls how to use and wash the reusable fem pads.

The road has not been easy for Sarah. “I am a second-born daughter in a family of five. My father died when I was six years old and mother died when l was nine.” Sarah and her siblings are now being raised by her grandfather who provides food and a place to sleep but cannot afford their education costs. Sarah used to do small jobs to support herself. “Each time after classes, l used to go to the nearby forest and fetch firewood. l would sell that to get money for pads, school uniform, and school supplies. Thanks to Hope for Relief Organization, now I am free.” Sarah is now happily attending school.

She is one of 1,282 girls who have received fem pads from Hope for Relief.

In addition to the fem pads, Sarah also receives emotional support through Hope for Relief. She told one of the Hope for Relief counselors that her family was hoping to arrange a marriage for her, so that they could get the dowry. The legal age of marriage in Malawi is 18, so it would be illegal for her to marry now. The counselor encouraged Sarah to report any marriage arrangements or family challenges to the school leaders. The head teachers, who are respected and have influence with community members, have promised to watch out for Sarah.

SIA is very honored be part of this holistic support of girls in Malawi. By listening to community solutions, we are supporting simple and innovative ways of empowering girls.

Tanya admiring some of the fem pads made by Salome in Malawi.

Tanya meeting with Richard and Hastings, two leaders of Hope for Relief. The organization is youth-led!

 

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!

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