There is a saying in Malawi that goes ‘kumayenda kumaona agalu amichombo’ which literally means people must explore new places to appreciate and learn new things. I have just returned from India where I spent a cool 6 weeks at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India (EDI) attending an international training program on women empowerment through entrepreneurship development. India is a lovely place and boy do they know how to make you feel at home. At least where I was in Ahmedabad.
At exactly 4:15pm on 9 August 2015, after 20 hours (8 hours flying and 12 hours in layovers) of travel, I landed in Ahmedabad, India’s 6th largest and probably the safest city. Ahmedabad is the largest city of the state of Gujarat, about 1 hour flying time from Mumbai. As soon as I disembarked from the plane, as per usual every time I travel by any means, I said a little prayer and then off I went to pick my luggage from the belts. As I was about to get onto the down escalator, a boy and a girl- probably brother and sister – came to me and said ‘excuse me sir, can I take a picture with you?’ I just smiled and posed with them to make them happy. That was going to be the trend every time our group travelled to a crowded place throughout the 6 weeks. I can’t remember how many times people asked me to take a picture with them. But I am not complaining because one of my colleagues Margarita from Lithuania, posed for at least a 1000 times- probably people mistook her for Miley Cyrus. As we drove from the airport to the institute, I noticed not one, not two but three elephants on the highway with 3 people on top of each. I wondered because back home in Malawi and Africa in general, Elephants belong to the wild and national parks and cannot be tamed. I told myself that I am here for a ride and its going to be fun.
The aim of the training program was to expose officers working in government departments and other organisations in partner countries to new ways of thinking and trends in women empowerment through promotion of entrepreneurship as opposed to charitable options. The training was not intended to produce entrepreneurs, but to train us so that we can support and promote women entrepreneurship programmes as well as to introduce women oriented programmes in our institutions once we get back home. At Empower Projects, our work primarily focuses on building self-reliant communities through access to sustainable technology, access to affordable capital through development of financial cooperatives and finally capacity building. Our work in cooperative development, which forms the backbone of our support to rural communities and is one form of enterprising, means we work hand in hand with the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Malawi, especially the office of the registrar of cooperatives. My participation at this training in India was therefore a recommendation and nomination by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Malawi after I had approached them for the opportunity. My heartfelt gratefulness goes to the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Malawi (Madam Esther Mwimba, Director of Private Sector Development) for accepting to recommend me, as well the Government of India for sponsoring the trip.
Relevance of training to Empower Projects
In all Empower Projects in Malawi, 70% of the members and beneficiaries are women. Over the past 5 years in Kapita, Mzimba, Empower Projects has supported a community bank project which has in turn given out business loans to at least 15 women. These women have gone on to start their own businesses at a micro level. In Mpamba, Nkhatabay district, Empower is supporting the establishment of Timbiri Community SACCO which will offer banking and loan services to more than 5000 people in the community of Chief Timbiri, of which 60% are women. Empower further organizes business clinics and training support programmes for entrepreneurs. Therefore, the training in India was a good investment in an organisation that invests a lot of time and resources in promoting sustainable development for rural communities through entrepreneurship.
The visit to Seva Mandir
Part of the training program involved study and institutional visits. One institution which we visited and which I liked the most was Seva Mandir, in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Seva Mandir is Hindi which literally means ‘temple of service’. According to their mission, Seva Mandir helps the neediest communities improve their lives
by tackling problems they identify as important. This thinking is similar to Empower Projects’ approach to development. Among the programmes that they run is promotion of social entrepreneurship and cooperatives. One successful example of such initiative is the Dhal Mill Cooperative project which today has 3500 farmers. All these farmers are women. Under the Women Empowerment Programme, Seva has established 573 savings and credit groups across 182 villages with net owned funds amounting to US$615, 000 (quite a lot of money for the women there). My brief meeting with the programme director for women empowerment helped me learn how Seva manages its program and how they ensure that their groups are sustainable. One thing she told me is that women are trustworthy. All credit cooperatives that Seva establishes are for women only because ‘women are supposed to take care of the families, while men go drinking. So we invest in the women and then the women can in turn empower their families and send kids to school.’ That’s what Laxmi Thakur told me when I asked her why credit cooperatives are for women only. On the back of mind I kept thinking how our 2 credit cooperatives in Malawi; Kapita and Mpamba may be able to achieve the success that the women under the Women Empowerment Programme by Seva have been able to achieve.
India is a country which has seen tremendous growth on the back of a vibrant small and medium enterprise industry mainly in textile manufacturing and weaving, handicrafts and tourism. Every corner of India, in the cities and rural towns alike, you are welcomed by side stalls of jewelry and handcrafts. The jewelry can range from highly detailed and expensive ones to the simply beautiful cheapies. The choice is yours. But the most important thing is that all these crafts are handmade- mostly by women. The tradition of handcrafts is passed on from generation to generation. Indeed Malawi can learn a lot from India. Personally I was marveled that most things in India seem to be made by hand. This creates jobs for which otherwise the government and large private corporations would not have provided. One handmade paper factory called Salim’s Paper makes cotton based paper from recycled cotton garments cut offs. The paper is used to make anything from heavy duty carry bags to simple shopping bags, gift wrapping paper, storage boxes and so many other paper products that you can think of. This company employs over 500 people who produce the paper by hand. Amazing. This made me think of what would happen if Empower Projects helped a group of women to make paper from all the waste paper that is readily available across Malawi. I think these are some of the projects that Empower should be supporting.
It wasn’t all official in India as we took time as well to relax and explore the rich culture of India. Our tour guides took us to some of the best places for tourists in India like Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Mount Abu. The climax of it all was the visit to Taj Mahal in Agra- Uttar Pradesh. Growing up, I had become aware of the Taj Mahal as one of the most decorated piece of ancient art in design and construction. Setting my foot on Taj Mahal was a not only a dream come true, but also it was like stepping on a holy land where you can clean all your shortcomings and come out feeling so refreshed and energized. My visits to Taj Mahal overall made me agree with what President Clinton once said to journalists after he had visited Taj Mahal and spent almost 8 hours inside. ‘There are 2 kinds of people in the world, those who have seen Taj Mahal and love it, and those who have not seen Taj Mahal and love it. I would like people to see the Taj Mahal and fall in love with it.’
Back in Malawi
I”m now back in Malawi and raring to pass on the lessons learned and work with our team to kick goals across our projects in Kapita and Malawi.
Over and Out,