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.

Janet carrying grass

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.