September Update

I may as well just admit to myself that I struggle to do anything more than a monthly update. So, here is the monthly update:

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Another exciting month has passed for TPM. We have been overwhelmingly focused on growing the garden program. When we started the program back in April I told Mary and all of our other employees to be saving their earnings because I could only guarantee the project would continue through 2014. After that, I couldn’t make any promises about the future of the program. Over the past month that plan has changed, and we couldn’t be more excited.

You may remember from my last update (or maybe it was too long ago) that an organization called Better Lives visited our project. At the time they mentioned that they were very happy with the progress we had made. We were happy with that, because they are working on similar projects elsewhere in Tanzania as well as in the Philippines and Cambodia. The next week I met with Better Lives again and got even better news. A lot of good news actually.

First, Better Lives offered to support TPM by purchasing a small vehicle to help us transport materials and visit families efficiently. I hope to post a picture soon, but the vehicle is a motorcycle in the front and a truck bed in the back. They are great for the difficult mountain roads and very fuel efficient. A bag of compost weighs around 100kg. A full size garden requires between three and four bags of compost depending on soil quality. While we made a great caravan – me pushing a wheelbarrow, Mary and her sister carrying half bags on their heads, and Gilbert with a bag slung across his back – we are grateful not to have to repeat this trek too many more times – especially as the gardens we work with get farther away. And don’t forget we’re on a mountain.

We will also use this vehicle to make family visits. Currently it takes us about three hours to visit the four families we have planted gardens with. Three more family gardens should be completed around the end of the month, and then we’ll be doing a new garden every two weeks after that. The vehicle will make this task go a lot faster and will keep it manageable as the program expands.

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Finally, we are getting ready to open up a stand at the local market. From the stand we will sell the families’ vegetables as well as seedlings, pesticides, booster, and other garden products. All of this moving back and forth would be a huge task without a good vehicle.

So, that was the first piece of good news we received from Better Lives – a new vehicle. Pictures are coming soon. I plan to pick it up on Thursday.

The next piece of good news was even more exciting. Better Lives liked our project so much they offered to make it one of their supported projects. This means that, as long as Mary and the team keep up the good work, the garden program will continue indefinitely.

Excitement, relief, gratitude. It’s hard to put into words how amazing that was to learn.

Learning that Better Lives wants to support the gardening program (the garden program runs under the name “Lishe Bora” or “Better Food”) also means a bit of a change of concentration. Previously, we had been focused on coming up with ways to make the project financially sustainable by the end of 2014. While we still want it to become financially sustainable as soon as possible, we now have time to build a stronger foundation and experiment with various ways the program can add value to the community.

One way that Better Lives is interested in using the gardening program to add value is to incorporate a microcredit program into the gardening program. Much of this is still in the works, but I can try to offer a broad overview of the strategy. The idea would be that through the gardening program Better Lives would build relationships with the families – that will be a huge part of Mary’s job. She will see how people take care of their gardens and will be able to tell who is really responsible and willing to make sacrifices to improve their lives. After a family has proven their reliability through the garden, they will be eligible for small loans. The loans will start out small and grow larger as they are repaid.

An important aspect of the program is that the gardens should be generating small incomes for the families. That income can be used to repay the loans.

However, in order for the gardens to generate incomes, we will need to make sure the families are able to sell their vegetables. The process of finding a market for vegetables warrants its own separate post – one I hope to write soon. Already it has involved a trip to Arusha to meet with some experts, a trip to the local market where we will set up a small shop in the coming weeks, and visits with hotels and restaurants in Marangu to get an understanding of the value chain for small farmers and vegetables in Tanzania.

On top of all of this, we have been continuing on with the families we are working with. Soon, there will be a link on the Better Lives website with regular updates on each family. Below, you can see pictures of how all the families are progressing. So far we’re pleased with every one of them!Image

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Soon, we will be falling into our two week schedule where we put in a garden every two weeks. We hope to increase this pace to two gardens every three weeks after a few months.

Lots of updates to come and exciting news to share. It’s hard to believe I have just over two months until I go home. I hope to pick up the pace and get some updates up about the entrepreneurs we have worked with, our trials with our new water pump, our work finding markets for vegetables, and a number of other subjects.

Thanks as always for the support!

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What I Learned from Jonny

This year has been a learning experience for me on every level. One piece of this experience has been being an employer instead of an employee for the first time in my life. A lot of things remain the same,  but in many ways it’s a different point of view. TPM has employed five people on long terms bases and dozens of others for quick jobs and day labor. Especially with the five people who have worked longer periods I have learned a lot about what makes good, bad, and great employees. A great employee is a beautiful thing. Mary and I will both agree that the best employee we have had so far on the garden project – and probably the best we will ever have –  is Jonny. Unfortunately for us Jonny had to leave to help his uncle run a hardware store in Kigoma. His presence has been greatly missed, but after a month of searching for  a good replacement I have put together  a list of what I think makes a truly great employee. I feel lucky to have met Jonny and watched him work because I know these lessons will transfer to work in my own life in years to come. These lessons transcend culture, specific jobs, and pay level and I will always have Jonny in my mind as a role model. Jonny was a quiet, hard worker and I realized I didn’t actually get any good pictures of him. Fortunately he looks almost identical to his mom and all of his brothers and I did get a good picture of his younger brother (left). Just add about 10 years.Image

One point I think is important to make is that I think there is a difference between someone who would make a good employee and someone who would make a good employer. This isn’t a leader vs. follower thing because good employees lead by example for all the other employees. I also don’t attach any value to employee vs. employer. Both are critical. Any busy professional will tell you that having a good secretary is priceless, but they wouldn’t be a good partner at the firm. Some people can excel in both roles, others do better in one or the other. Both are needed to make the world go round.

So now to my lessons from Jonny:

1. Don’t tell me about your problem, tell me about your solution.

I have often thought that telling my boss about various problems I have identified will make me seem like an alert critical thinker (or something like that). I’m now realizing that, as an employer, my first thought when someone tells me about a problem is usually something like, okay, so why aren’t you doing anything about it? For sure, I’d rather have someone tell me about a problem than just do nothing. But what I would love is for someone to just fix the problem. Jonny was great about this. When he saw something he knew he could fix he just did it without anyone saying anything about it. It’s the kind of thing you don’t fully appreciate until it’s not there. Thus, when I have a boss again I’ll make sure to send them a quick email letting them know what I did, “just to keep them in the loop.”

2. If you have to ask me what to do, you don’t get it.

Again, I always thought asking my boss what I could do would make me look flexible and eager to help. What I’m now realizing is it is just another thing for someone to think about and a diversion from whatever strain of thought they were on. Jonny always knew what he could be doing and was always doing something productive. He knew that if Mary or I needed something specific we would tell him, otherwise he just made sure he was constantly doing something that added value to the project. If you have a good understanding of what’s going on, you will always know something you can do.

3. Get there before the boss.

Maybe not all employers are like this, but I loved that Jonny was always at work before me. It didn’t have to be by much, but even if he was able to achieve just one small task before I arrived it made me feel like we were off to a good start. Even if it’s just five minutes before your boss arrives and all you do is empty the trash can, your boss has no idea if it was five minutes early or an hour and they show up to a workplace that is better than they expected.

4. Trust is invaluable.

Mary and I both felt we could really trust Jonny. We could give him the keys to the shop to open up early, money to purchase supplies, or a list of tasks to do on a day we weren’t around and we knew he would do what was asked with no problems. Having employees you can trust takes so much stress and second guessing out of life. I’m not sure anyone knows the secret to building trust, but if you can build it with your boss you’re instantly more valuable.

 

So thanks Jonny, And I’m sure my next employer thanks you, too.

 

What if it doesn’t work?

Did you know that over the past forty years somewhere between $2-$4 trillion have been spent on “aid” for Africa? That’s a lot of money. Many critics of aid will say that this money has largely been wasted. At best it does nothing and at worst it actually harms communities. They will tell you that improvements in living standards in Africa and around the globe have come as a result of business development and technological advances. I agree with this for the most part.

I think for years we were doing “aid” wrong and I have written about that in previous posts. Now that I am here and running a series of programs, I have tried to maintain that critical perspective. It is easy to want your own programs to be successful for their own sake regardless of their real world impacts. That has often led me to the question, what if they don’t follow through? What if we put in all of this hard work and money and the families we plant gardens with decide it’s not worth the effort to maintain a garden? After everything we’ve put into this project there could be no trace of it in five years.
First of all, I would say concerns like this are a great reason to support existing locally developed institutions that have already proven to be sustainable and effective. That is a big reason the other initiatives TPM is undertaking this year – working with community banks, entrepreneurs, and the local vocational school – are geared toward supporting what already exists instead of creating something new.

Still, there are times when an opportunity exists to form a new institution and make a difference. The best way for me to lay out my thoughts on this is by exploring two sides of the issue.

Let me explain why I like the gardening program despite its risks.

One reason I like the project is that it’s really just about knowledge. We are using one new product – EM1 – and everything else can be found locally. EM1 is a microorganism and its cultures can be reproduced indefinitely, so even that will be a local product before long. Knowledge is power. Some of the knowledge we are spreading with the garden project: best practices in bed design and crop rotation, which vegetables can grow well in Mkyashi, the nutritional and economic benefits of vegetables, organic methods for making pesticides and fertilizers. Whether or not the families we work with keep up their gardens exactly how we have showed them, we have already seen the impact of our work in the community. A number of people have started small kitchen gardens on spare plots of land using some of the techniques from our garden. People are beginning to experiment with new vegetables that we have had success with. People are beginning to make quality compost instead of just using straight manure (we hope to move this forward even more by distributing EM1). One mama came by our garden ecstatic because she hadn’t been able to eat many vegetables for years because the chemicals gave her stomach problems (there is no labeling in local markets for organic or non-organic) and after she tried ours and felt fine. The project can disappear but the knowledge will continue.

I also like the project because it gives people an opportunity and a bit of help to start and lets them take it where they want. Experience has shown us that you can’t give people prosperity or a better life. However, you can create opportunities for people to seize. That’s exactly what the garden program does. By helping a family start a garden and teaching them how to maintain it they have an opportunity to create a better life. Without a doubt there will be families that decide it’s not the right opportunity for them. Even after all the time and energy we put into starting the garden, they just won’t be feeling the veggie love. At the same time, some families will thrive. The first family we planted a garden with has already expanded and started planting more vegetables along the outside of their garden fence. All we can do is create opportunities and support the families who seize those opportunities by providing knowledge, connections, and the occasional helping hand.

We’re not giving away vegetables. We’re teaching people how to create the best and most nutritious produce they can with what’s around them.

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”
– Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka

The next step will be to create a steady market for these vegetables. We are working with some local connections and hope to have some exciting solutions for this task soon.

July / August Update

TPM Show Garden

TPM Show Garden

Oops! I have once again failed to update the blog for more than a month. But once again I can say it is only because we have been busy making such exciting progress. The past month has been all about the garden program. We have finally gotten to the good part – working with families to create beautiful and nutritious gardens.

You never know who will stop by to lend a hand.

You never know who will stop by to lend a hand.

Over the past month we have worked with families to complete three home gardens and we should have a fourth done next week. I will post photos of the families with their gardens soon. I would do it now but it would just look like they were standing in front of neatly arranged dirt. More of a Zen garden than a vegetable garden at this point, but within a month families should start harvesting their first crops. In our case, Chinese cabbage is the first vegetable ready for eating and selling.

First family garden coming up.

First family garden coming up.

The build-up to now has been hectic. We have been learning as we go and the short-term concerns of the day often take precedent over long-term strategy and planning. Now that the foundation has been set, it’s time to get organized and efficient. Mary and I are working to create a two week schedule that will allow for one new garden to be planted every two weeks without interruption. This will mean regulating our supply of compost, pesticides, boosters, seedlings and other inputs. A two week schedule will need to include at least two days devoted to preparing compost, three days to plant a new garden, two days to make advisory visits to families, one day to keep up with nurseries, and one day to gather supplies. That’s my guess, anyway. We’ve got some experimenting to do to come up with the final solution.

Seedlings ready for planting.

Seedlings ready for planting.

Having a set schedule will make things much easier for Mary to run when she takes over management of the project and it will also make budgeting much easier going forward. It will also allow me to spend more time working on TPM’s other projects knowing that things are progressing smoothly with the gardens.

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The garden project has proven to have a number of benefits locally. Aside from the obvious – food security and income – the project has also provided an experimentation ground to introduce new vegetables. Kale, loshuu, corn, and beans are the four vegetables that everyone knows grow well in Mkyashi so everyone plants them. Venturing outside of these four crops presents substantial risk. If crops die, food and income are lost. We tried growing okra in our garden and it grew slowly for two months until its head fell off. Good to know. New crops also mean a learning curve for farmers and their customers. Even if something grows well, it does no good if nobody knows what it is or how to eat it. Just imagine if someone gave you a pumpkin for the first time. You probably would have no idea how to eat it and you would just carve a face into it and then smash it on your neighbor’s driveway.

Okra was a failure, but zucchini has proven to be a big success. We have grown some beautiful, juicy zucchinis that are thriving despite the unseasonably cold weather and prolonged rains. Once the rains pass and things start to warm up, we should start seeing even more zucchinis. At first people were confused by them, but we gave them away to people with simple instructions about how to prepare them. So far everyone has loved them. It’s pretty cool to introduce a new crop that grows really well to a community.

Fresh organic zucchini.

Fresh organic zucchini.

Babu Lyimo (who has diabetes) even said he felt like the zucchinis were helping with some of his side-effects. We gave him some more and told him to report back to us. I looked online and it does look like there is some precedent for zucchini helping with diabetes, but I think you can find a precedent for anything on the internet. We’ll wait for Lyimo’s report.
Finally, on Tuesday the 13th we had a visit with Better Lives (www.betterlives.org). Better Lives has been a pioneer of FAITH Gardening and has helped us tremendously. They were very excited and impressed at the progress we had made. Three cheers for Mary! We showed them around our garden site, nursery, and compost making operation and then took them to the three completed family gardens. We have been psyched about our progress this year, but actually had no idea how it compared to anything else. It was great to get such a positive report.

It’s been a great month and I’m excited to see what the future has in store for us.

The Word is Out: An Invitation to Expand

A couple of months ago we got a visit from Babu Albini. Babu Albini lives in a village towards the base of the mountain called Pofo. He is a bit of a legend. He built his house with his own two hands. That’s nothing special here, except that Babu Albini’s house is made of stone and it’s two stories tall with a porch. He’s had two wives and fourteen children. When he was a bachelor he took an interest in airplanes and built his own which, it is rumored, flew 12 feet. Somewhere along the journey he met a German friend who gave him an ATV with a matching helmet. Somewhere later on in this journey, people in Pofo heard about the garden program going on in Mkyashi and asked Babu Albini to investigate. So one morning we had an unexpected visitor, gave him a brief overview of the program, and made a date to come Pofo and talk about how and if we could help implement the program there.
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We had a great visit and it was rewarding to hear the excitement of people in Pofo. We told them our resources were extremely limited but if they could provide all of the labor for free we would provide the inputs they couldn’t get locally – rice husks, EM1, and some pesticide inputs. The people of Pofo also offered up some central real estate in the center of town, right in front of the church and the school, to start the demonstration garden.
We left wondering how much follow through there would be. People were excited and this really is a cheap program if you don’t have to pay for labor, but you never know how much people will follow through on things.
Last week Babu Ablini called us and said everything is ready to make compost, now we just have to go down and show them how to make it, then they’re on their way!

Pesticide Update

Bugs. Can’t live them, can’t live without them. Some of them are crucial components to your garden eco-system, others are nothing but pests. We were told by farmers and gardeners in Mkyashi from the start the bugs would probably be our biggest problem. When we asked some of the more successful gardeners here how they handled bugs, they all told us they had to use chemical pesticides bought in town. Aside from the health side effects of chemical sprays, they are also financially unobtainable for the small scale farmers we’re working with. So we knew we would have to find some better solutions.
Twice per week we apply an organic pesticide made entirely from locally available inputs. It costs about 10,000 Tshillings ($6.25) to make 250 liters of pesticide. The ingredients include:
Green papaya
Aloe vera
Ginger
Peppers
Tea leaves
Other grasses and leaves
Vinegar
Molasses
Gin
EM1 (a special microorganism that we always have on hand for use in compost making, booster, and other products)
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We apply that to all of our plants twice per week along with a booster made from fish guts (free at the market because it’s a waste product), EM1, and molasses. It’s a weak pesticide but it has done a good job on everything except the Chinese cabbage and the kale. It’s cheap, organic, and edible; easy for families to make and has no health effects.
However, we have had to use some more aggressive measures to fight the red ants that have been attacking. The first strategy we tried was applying a more potent mix of the aforementioned pesticide. Next, we took hot ashes and put them around the base of the affected plants. This worked to temporarily disperse the ants, but they soon came back.
Next, we tried applying a pesticide made from tobacco leaves dissolved in water. This is thought of as a ‘’last resort’’ pesticide because it kills good bugs like spiders and worms as well as bad ones like caterpillars and ants. We applied it only to affected plants. We also tried adding kerosene to the hot ashes to further deter the ants. In the end we have managed to slow the spread of ants and disrupt their damage for days at a time, but we have not found a solid solution to the problem. We are continuing to monitor the spread of the ants and their effect on the health of the vegetables they target.
As I have mentioned before, we are happy to have these problems coming up in our demonstration garden. It gives us the opportunity to learn how to deal with different pests so when they come up in family gardens we know how to handle it quickly. It also gives us the opportunity to play with some interesting dilemmas.
For example, at what cost do we stick to our goal of being organic? If we can make a pesticide at low cost using easily available local materials, should we discount it because it’s not organic? I’m pretty sure that kerosene doesn’t count as organic, but mixing a bit of it with ash is our most successful effort yet against the ants. Is it worth letting potential food die if we can’t find an organic solution? If we find an organic solution but it is expensive, can we expect families to use their money to pursue that solution? And if we decide to supply it for them, is it worth sacrificing their self-sufficiency for our goal? We have decided that finding cheap, local, organic pesticides and boosters is our goal, but in the meantime we need to learn about as many solutions as possible so that we can share the knowledge with the community and let people make their own decisions. There are good solutions out there and in time we will find them.

Long Overdue Update

It’s been a fast-paced couple of months here on the mountain. We’ve made some incredible progress that I’m excited to report. Over the past two months since the last blog post I’ve written about 3 posts that became outdated before I was able to get to town and post them. Hopefully this one makes it.

The most exciting bit of news over the past couple months is that our demonstration garden is in full swing. We have even begun harvest some of the ‘’fruits’’ – vegetables – of our labor. Each day we get about enough vegetables for one family so we have been bringing the vegetables to some of the families interested in planting gardens to keep their excitement up and also help carry them through the period between starting work on a garden and actually getting vegetables from it. Check out the progress of our garden:

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Once our demonstration garden was planted, the next step was to start educating the community about what we are trying to do. The Sunday that we finished planting the garden, Bosco called the community together to learn about the project and then Mary gave a brief speech outlining the program, the benefits of organic gardening, and how we hoped people would get involved. The immediate response was great and we got about 15 families signed up for gardens. In the weeks that followed we have gotten over 20 requests from families for assistance to start their gardens.

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It was great to see such a positive and enthusiastic community response to the project. However, we have very limited resources to carry out our goals and we want to make sure each garden we help plant succeeds and has maximum impact for the family and community. Before we could start working with families to plant their gardens we wanted to make visits to each of their homes to identify the most qualified families. In identifying which families to work with first we had three criteria we were looking for. First, we want to work with families who have the ability to make and maintain successful gardens. There are a couple elements of ability. The first has to do with the demographics of the family. For example, a household that is just a grandmother and her young grandchildren may have a difficult time maintaining a full-size garden given the amount of labor involved. The second element of ability has to do with the actual land owned by families. The land must be large enough to support a garden, it must be in close proximity to a reliable water supply, and it must receive adequate sunlight throughout the day. The second criteria we were looking for in families was the potential benefit a garden would have for them. We want to work with families whose situation could be significantly improved by a steady supply of food or additional income. One family we visited told us not to worry about how far away from water they lived because they have a truck to carry it. That doesn’t quite qualify in a place like Mkyashi. The third criteria we were looking for in families was willingness – willingness to work hard on their own gardens and willingness to assist other families in the future.

After conducting our home visits it was clear to us that a couple of changes had to be made in the ‘’ability’’ criteria. First, we did not want to tell some of the families who could benefit the most from a garden that they couldn’t have a garden because we didn’t believe they were capable of taking care of it. Besides, who are we to tell anyone what they can or can’t do? They are the ones taking on the most risk if they are unable to look after their garden. Instead of counting families out because of ability or land size we will simply work with what’s available. If a family owns a small piece of land, they can start a small garden. They will still benefit from it and if it is successful they can expand it by replacing another crop like coffee or bananas. If we are unsure of a family’s ability we can start off by giving them a few beds and then expand if they feel they can handle more.

So far we have selected the first two families we are going to work with and we have begun working on preparing everything for their gardens. The first step in making a garden is to prepare the compost. Once compost ingredients are put together it takes between six and eight weeks for it go from its various inputs to good. Luckily we started that process long ago and the compost will be ready. The next step is to choose which vegetables to plant. Some seeds can be planted directly into the garden with no prep work. Others must be planted in a nursery first and then after two weeks they can be transferred to bags for a week before they can be put into the garden. We are about a week into that process, so that puts us about three weeks away from starting to plant for families.

While the nursery plants are growing the families’ land must be prepared. This can be a heavy job in Mkyashi as we often have to remove trees and roots. Once the big stuff has been removed, we cultivate the land to bring lower and more nutritious levels of soil to the top. We also get rid of any grasses and weeds that have been growing at this point. The final step before actually forming the beds and planting the garden – which we won’t do until seedlings are ready – is to measure out where each bed will grow. This can actually be the most difficult part of the task. Trying to form square angles and beds of correct size with nothing but strings and sticks is tricky. Doing it through a bit of a language and education barrier (try explaining the Pythagorean theorem in another language to someone who has never studied geometry) is even harder. Still, somehow it gets done.

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If all goes well our first two families will have their gardens in by the first couple weeks of July. We are still deciding whether to plant a full-size garden with a third family or work with three or four families to create smaller gardens. There are so many deserving families that we would love to work with, it is a tough decision and there is no way to make a completely objective decision about it.

We are psyched about the progress we have made with the garden program so far and the promising future we believe the program has in Mkyashi and surrounding villages, but we have had a few difficulties to work through as well. The biggest challenge facing us is the biggest challenge facing many small farmers in Mkyashi: bugs. We have a serious red ant problem. Each season here on the mountain comes with its own notorious pest. Right now we are in the cold season and the bug du jour is red ants. They scuttle underground to avoid the cold and feed on roots while they’re down there. So far they have only caused problems for our Chinese cabbage and our kale, but we are keeping a close eye on things. The Chinese cabbage has proved resilient, the kale seems stunted. This is actually a good problem to have in our demonstration garden because it gives us the opportunity to try out different strategies and pesticide recipes which we can then pass on to families. I will write more about this issue later as it brings up some interesting questions about the goals of the program and the popular debate about organic versus local.

It has been a busy couple of months and there are more posts to come about some of the other projects we’ve been working on. I have been lucky to have visitors from home this month and I even managed to sneak off to Kigamboni for a couple days to take a beach vacation. Between my being away and taking some days off with visitors it has been a great opportunity for Mary to practice being in charge and for her and me to work on our long distance communication for when I am back stateside. So far I’m pleased with how smoothly things have gone.

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There are more updates to come and it looks like things are really about to get exciting. I promise to update more often now, so check back soon!