A Happy New Year to everyone!
First and foremost, I have to apologise for the rather large delay in sending this out to everyone. While our time in Africa was amazing, I had the misfortune of contracting a serious strain of Malaria along the way. I only felt the impact when I got back to Sydney and it’s been a very challenging month as I relapsed after my initial treatment. The good news is that I’m back on my feet and keen to share our experience as well as work with everyone to map out a year of action.
I’ll strive to make this a snappy, picture-filled update so that you have the cliffnotes of our journey.
Our visit to Zatuba Village was intense! It was a 2 hour drive from Mzuzu town, through many muddy dirt tracks. The closest major town is 50kms from the village. We hit the ground running after a warm welcome from the community as we had a raft of activities to put into action!
a) Baseline Survey
We conducted extensive household level surveys in order to get a deeper understanding of household conditions in the village. We managed to complete 20 interviews and the balance 17 will be handled shortly. This information will also help us track the impact of the project. Some of the key findings were that:
• A number of households do not enjoy 12 months of food security (need to purchase or barter).
??• Households use torches, lamps or bundles of straw for lighting with energy costs avg. $ 4-5 per month.
• Tobacco and Maize (Corn) are the lifeblood of the community – though the market for the former is declining.
• The vast majority do not purify their water before consumption.
• All households use 3 stone stoves and firewood for cooking (they emit high volumes of thick smoke).
• Most adults in each household are literate.
• Most were in favour of group/community businesses..
• Very few residents use banking facilities and most have a positive attitude towards loans (being in debt).
• They feel a lack of access to capital is a major impediment to the development of micro-enterprise in their community.
• Groceries, Juice-making, Poultry farming, Bee Keeping and Second-hand clothing are some of the popular suggestions for businesses.
b) Introduction to Business – Workshop for Entrepreneurs
One of the main objectives of our project visit was to impart a message of “self-reliance” and our business workshop had a big part in that. Hats off to Shyamika, Shashika and Belinda for putting the manual together!
With 9 modules spread across 3 days – we had an average of 40 adults in attendance on each day! James and I ran some modules while Titus (Mzuzu University) and Jones translated. We ran all our sessions in a little shed, it was perfect for the occasion! The community enjoyed our involvement and our attempts to greet them in Tumbukka. The workshop focused on the qualities of an entrepreneur, the responsibilities involved in running a business and tools to critically evaluate a business idea.
The workshop modules were highly interactive with group work and role plays that both the men and women really enjoyed – all of the role plays were truly entertaining! While Jones is still compiling official feedback from the workshop, the general feedback was that it was extremely useful (there was a lot of diligent note-taking). Their enthusiasm was evidenced by the fact that they stayed on till 8-9pm on two days – they usually sleep by 7-8pm.
c) Solar Lantern Demonstration
While we have raised sufficient funds to distribute Solar Lanterns philanthropically, this practice would be damaging and go against our ethos. Thus we sought to demonstrate this versatile lighting solution to the community and offer the package on loan. We purchased 5 units from a SolarAid entrepreneur – she sells Solar Aid’s “Sunny Munny” units for a living. For those who are less tech savvy, the solar lantern consists of the following :
• A small rectangular console with a switch and light indicators for charging/charged. Standard rechargeable batteries fit in the back.
• An LED bulb – this energy efficient bulb connects into the console via a wire – they are colour coded and fit one way.
• A Solar Panel – a little panel that fits into the console via a color coded wire. This is kept outdoors and works in both direct and diffuse sunlight throughout the day.
• A universal mobile charger – This is a valuable extra that plugs into the console. It can charge a whole range of mobile phone batteries.
These units are simple to use and provide 6-8 hours of lighting on a full charge. We offered to make these units available at MKW 6,500 with a 50% deposit and the balance payable over 9 months (under $42 in total) . We are currently in discussions with Barefoot Power to make an identical unit available to the community at a price 20-30% lower – fingers crossed!
We ran through the usage of the lanterns and were able to demonstrate the tangible benefits. The women cooking our food used the light as they cooked and more importantly, our workshops were able to go until 9 pm thanks to the lanterns. In a community that is pitch black after 6pm, it is easy to understand the enthusiasm towards owning such a unit. We have asked the community to list the interested households and we will make lanterns available to those able to cover the initial deposit.
(Solar lanterns in action)
c) Design for Change – Encouraging children to be change makers
This was another part of our activity list that I was particularly passionate about. “Design for Change” is a global change initiative pioneered by Riverside School in India. The purpose being to give children the opportunity to connect with an issue in their community that they can take action to solve/alleviate. Children are often left out of development initiatives and labelled as being “future leaders” without being given a role in the current context.
Over a 100 children were in attendance and our timeline was condensed, we had only 3 days for the program as opposed to an ideal 5-6. Children from adjoining villages also participated, as Kapita Primary School services the entire area. The children took to the task immediately and came up with an impressive list of issues and possible initiatives in their respective groups. Sanitation seemed to be the biggest commonality between groups and ultimately the children decided on improving cleanliness and sanitation at their school. Given the compressed timeline, they committed to weaving basket bins and sweeping their school the next day and to commence work on pit latrines the next week!
I was able to have detailed discussions with the headmasters from the school. They are convinced that such a program will have a huge impact on surrounding communities by mobilising children with the entrepreneurial spirit. They are keen to make it a regular feature in their school activity list each term. We rewarded the children with a football and volleyball after they demonstrated their hard work.
Meetings with Partners
We met with both the University Administration team (Deputy Vice Chancellor, Director of Finance…) as well as the Project Technical Team at Mzuzu University. The conversations revolved around the nature of our partnership and the need to draft a clear memorandum of understanding (MOU). We openly discussed issues faced to date, primarily centered on slow communications at the Malawi end. We also discussed arrangements for the solar lanterns and the project visit.
It was encouraging to confirm that we have high-level support and enthusiasm from the University with regard to the project, though the administration team would like to see more detail in terms of a project plan. We explained the organic nature of our model (community vision) and that we’d be working on a log-frame shortly. The main concern raised by both teams was with regard to the delivery of micro-finance as they feel they lack the know-how and experience. We proposed that we’d look into the creation of community-run banking that would minimize liability and micro-management by the university team.
We expect to sign an MOU with Mzuzu University’s Energy Studies Dept in the near future.
We met with McDonald from Care & Support Network in Lilongwe. We discussed how we could collaborate to provide Zatuba Village with access to Solar Cookers (both Foil-based and Parabolic). We concluded that starting with foil-based solutions (Under $7) would be more cost-effective and can be supplemented by training the community on the construction of energy saving stoves during the rainy season. We will work towards implementation in April-May.
We met with Grivin from BEED, a social enterprise that focuses on capacity building for rural entrepreneurs. They have worked with many established NGOs such as the Hunger Project. Our discussions focused on how we can offer micro-credit to the community through the formation of a village bank. Grivin expressed great faith in the success of such a model and feels that his organisation has the experience to make this happen. The main impediment being food security in the community. We all agreed on the need to fast-track interventions to incorporate permaculture and develop a community food bank before the development of a community bank.
The Road Forward
The biggest shift in direction seems to be in regards to the delivery of microfinance. James and I noticed that MFI’s in Malawi tend to have quite a notorious reputation for high interest rates, rather extreme measures for debt collection and a fixation on dense urban areas. The difficulty in finding suitable partners coupled with the apprehension of the university in dealing directly with loan logistics has left us with quite a challenge. However, it is one we believe we can tackle together, with some trust and creative thinking.
James and myself feel strongly about the development on in-village banking, a community managed fund that would take the logistical and management concerns away from the project team. Of course, this would involve placing considerable faith in the community – and I think this is what we’re about, and is ultimately what is more sustainable, as we have no interest in being a commercial banking operation. Our meeting with BEED was a big nod to the idea of community banking, an area in which they have had previous experience with the Hunger Project.
• We are curently compiling baseline information that we obtained during the project visit.
• We’ll be coordinating with the Project Team in Malawi to develop a log frame for the project so that we can have a clear set of objectives and activities.
• At present the priority is to get Jones trained with a Permaculture certificate so we can initiate training sessions with the community to improve their agricultural practices and address food security. This will be an investment that we can carry on to future projects as well.
• Business education services will continue through BEED to complement the foundation we have laid. Future sessions will likely involve an affordable fee for participation in order to address project sustainability.
• The village will soon confirm the formation of a Village Development Committee that comprises of Men, Women and Youth. This committee will be responsible for project administration and their first task is to manage the Solar Lantern purchase process.
• Investment in a community poultry business seems to be the most likely way forward as it is by far the most popular suggestion for collaboration. We will have to work to establish the true costs and technical requirements of enabling this possibility.