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.


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