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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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!

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!

3/12 Update

It’s been a while since our last blog update. Blame it on the rolling power and network outages as well as a very busy schedule as of late. In any case, a lot has happened so I’ll try to give a brief run-down of recent progress.

First, on Thursday I returned from a trip to Dar es Salaam. It was a whirlwind trip. I left Mkyashi early Tuesday morning and arrived in Dar some thirteen hours later. The Dutch Embassy had invited a member of TPM to come and share about our work. The meeting was at 9:30am on Wednesday so I went to the meeting first thing in the morning, spent a few hours afterwards taking advantage of internet access in Dar, and then spent the afternoon and evening exploring what turned out to be one of the most unique cities I’ve ever been to. More on the city in another post, for now I’ll focus on the meeting.

It turns out that the Netherlands is pulling its funding from Tanzania. Budget cuts and other austerity measures have forced it to narrow its focus in Africa significantly. It will maintain a small team at the embassy focused on economic policy and foreign affairs but will no longer provide foreign aid. But all was not lost.

As it turns out one of the embassy’s Policy Officers, Theresia, is actually from Mkyashi. Mkyashi is a tiny village. Even a few miles away people won’t know what you’re talking about if you say Mkyashi. As such, she was very surprised to see a project focused on economic development in Mkyashi come across her desk. We talked for a couple of hours and she shared with me that she knows a number of people who have family roots in Mkyashi but have moved away to pursue opportunity. Theresia believes there is an enormous opportunity to engage the knowledge and expertise of these people who have gone on to become doctors, business people, and development experts.

This was an exciting connection and one that could truly get to the ideal of “Tuko Pamoja” – “We Are Together.” Theresia and I plan on keeping in touch and starting a serious dialogue about how we might be able to get people who have left Mkyashi to come back and assist with projects related to their areas of expertise.

Second, the FAITH Garden program is set to go for this tomorrow (Wednesday).  We have secured a plot of land in the village for a training garden and a small shop from which to sell garden supplies. Today I went down to Kahe alone to meet with Deo, who runs the garden program in Kahe. It was exciting to see the program and to begin thinking how we can adapt Mkyashi. Mary and Lyimo are excited to come down tomorrow and begin learning. Our first step will be  making high quality compost. Should be fun, right?!

The future home of our garden shop! Hoping to post some good before and after pictures.

The future home of our garden shop! Hoping to post some good before and after pictures.

The future garden site! Again, it will be more impressive in the before and after pictures.

The future garden site! Again, it will be more impressive in the before and after pictures.

Third, our entrepreneur program continues to make progress. On Thursday Emmanual finally purchased his pigs! We had spent a long time building a business plan and learning about best practices for raising pigs and he was so excited to finally be getting started. This marks the second entrepreneur in just over a month we have helped to start a business. We will continue to monitor the success of Mama Regan’s chapatti business and Emmanual’s pig project as well as working with a number of other entrepreneurs to work towards their goals. Emmanual is hoping to expand to chickens next.

Emmanual's pigs! He got give in total. Two females and one male. Don't worry, these little guys are for breeding, not bacon.

Emmanual’s pigs! He got give in total. Two females and one male. Don’t worry, these little guys are for breeding, not bacon.

We have also been exploring other ways to help expand the local economy. VICOBAs (Village Community Banks) may end up being a key partner in this mission. For those who have kept up with this blog, you will be familiar with VICOBAs. We have been trying to find the best way to partner with these locally initiated projects for a while now.

We’re still discussing options but one idea that has come up is for TPM to help VICOBAs implement profit generating projects as a group. These projects would be looked after by members of the VICOBAs (each VICOBA has about 30 members) and profits from the projects would be deposited into the bank to help increase capital and enable group members to take out larger loans. By the end of the month we hope to have determined exactly how TPM can help these projects get started.

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a month and a half since we got started on the ground! Much has happened and even more has been planned. The next month or so should be very exciting as plans start to be implemented and projects take shape.

Progress Update

It’s been an exciting week! We welcomed Mary, her new baby, and Mosses back to the TPM team. Mary has returned for good from Mtwara in the southern coastal region of Tanzania and Mosses is just back for a couple of weeks before returning for his last trimester of college. It’s great to be back and we are already making more progress because of their presence.

On Monday I offered Mary the job of being in charge of the vegetable gardening programming we are hoping to begin in the coming weeks. She accepted enthusiastically and immediately hired Babu Lyimo as her assistant. This will be a team that does great things! Mary is hardworking and energetic and she brings an entrepreneurial energy to everything she does. She also has a huge heart and is excited to be given the opportunity to help some of the poorer families in her community.

Lyimo brings experience, professionalism, and language skills to the team. He was a team leader for a contracting company for many years before losing his leg and he knows about project management and village politics. It will be exciting to see what this team can accomplish!

Mosses and I have some meetings lined up with various local organizations that we are hoping to support. Mosses started a youth group a couple of years ago that seeks to create local employment opportunities, so we will definitely be meeting with them. We are also hoping to continue meeting with Mama Betty.

Just yesterday I finally worked through the last step in the loan process with Bosco before actually applying. He now has his business plan, his bank account, and his Tax ID #. This was a very valuable learning experience. Once we know the process we can help more entrepreneurs – and we do have many more in the pipelines – to secure financing for their projects, big and small. I believe that it is very important to get people working in the formal financial sector. The government of Tanzania has recently passed legislation making it much easier for small farmers and other business people to access capital for their projects via low interest loans. Getting into the formal financial sector provides much quicker pathways to growth and prosperity. Local microfinance can help people get started in business and learn the basics, but most local organizations aren’t able to provide funding for more than around $100 per loan. Bigger loans mean bigger businesses and more jobs. Additionally, working in the formal financial sector means entrepreneurs build credit and relationships at banks that they wouldn’t build with small microfinance institutions. Our goal is to create a solid microfinance organization that produces entrepreneurs capable of taking out banks loans within a few years.

So it’s been a busy week and no doubt next week will bring more challenges, opportunities, and progress. Thanks for the support!

Ethical Dilemmas

The primary goal of everything TPM does is to “Cultivate Prosperity.” “Cultivate” implies that the process is a slow one and one that must be cared for and looked after over time. There are no quick solutions to poverty and personal growth. To “prosper” is to flourish, thrive, grow, and succeed. It’s not about money or material wealth; it’s about having your basic needs met and being able to become what you want to be in life. So we are on a long, slow path to self-fulfillment and personal growth. Our major projects during the 2013 program are aimed at helping people achieve this long-term security and personal success. Short-term band aids and hand-outs feel good for the giver, but they inhibit long-term solutions and the personal growth of recipients. Further, they cheapen the impact of any long-term solutions being cultivated in the community – why should anyone work hard to cultivate prosperity alongside us if others are being given things? – and create a culture of dependency where people have no imperative to get creative.

So that is a brief background of some of my philosophies gained from multiple trips to Mkyashi and much studying of charitable aid and economic development.

On Wednesday evening after a long day of meetings with local officials and entrepreneurs I came back home to call Bank of America and try to sort out an issue with my debit card. Obviously, I was put on hold for a very long time – worst bank ever. I was sitting in a chair with my Blackberry open on speakerphone and my debit card out in front of me when Honorata (name changed) came into the room and sat down beside me. I have known Honorata since the first time I came to Tanzania three years ago. She is a tiny, strong woman who has somehow managed to produce nine children and she is always very sweet. She sits next to me with a cup of tea and waits for me to finish on the phone. As she sits there, I wonder why she has come. Maybe she just wants to visit, but maybe she has a business idea she wants to talk to me about! Maybe after years of being dependent upon handouts she is finally ready to take control and become independent. She is fidgety and seems uncomfortable as I finish up my phone conversation.

I hang up my fancy telephone (in Africa Blackberrys are still considered fancy), put away my debit card to an American bank account and begin the usual extended pleasantries that are customary in Tanzania. At this point I’m still smiling stupidly and hoping that she has come to discuss some idea. Almost immediately she says the words “shida” – problem – and I know I’m in for the ask. She explains to me that she needs money for two of her kids’ school fees.

I’ve told myself since before I left that I am not going to give away money in this manner. I’m not going to buy soda and cookies for kids, I’m not going to buy beers for people at the local bar, and I’m not going to give away money for school fees or flour. I believe that if I set a precedent from the start and prove that the other projects we are working on can be successful, people will stop seeing me as a source of free money and start seeing me as a potential partner who is willing to help them become self-sufficient however I can. Additionally, I am working with money from donors, and they did not donate to TPM so that I could just give money away. It was donated because people believed in programs that could create lasting change.

It all sounded logical and easy when I thought it through in America, but now here I am with a fancy cell phone and a debit card telling a mother with nine kids and no job that I simply can’t give her money. Even when I say no she continues to look at me expectantly. Clearly, this is not her first rodeo and she has obviously seen the material signs of wealth in front of me. I explained to her that in the next few weeks we will begin the implementation of a gardening program and that I would love to make her family one of the first to get training and supplies to begin their vegetable garden. She looks at me indifferently and is no doubt disappointed not to be leaving with cash in hand, but she thanks me and we schedule a time for me to come to her home to plan the garden. I know I have let her down and that the next few weeks will be difficult for her. I know I could have eased that short-term difficulty by giving her a bit of money. But I firmly believe that I have to stick to this principle if TPM is going to create the kind of change we want to see.

I do not believe that giving money to Honorata would have truly made a difference in her life. I would have had to do the same thing next month and the month after and I’m not planning to spend my whole life here, so eventually she would be in this same position. Better to stop now and find a solution. Still she is a hard-working and genuine woman and it was heart-breaking to say no to her. But we have to take that energy and turn it into even more passion and commit ourselves to helping people in Mkyashi begin cultivating their own prosperity. Honorata will be a great woman to start with.

For readings on this subject I recommend: Dead Aid by Dambiso Moyo (an African woman explaining the damage aid has done to her continent), Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, and The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz.

The Program Begins

In the first few days of the program we’ve already had great meetings and things are feeling very promising. Two major lessons stand out almost immediately and frankly probably could have been predicted by someone who had never visited Mkyashi before. Still, it is important to understand them in a local context.

The first lesson is that lack of capital is almost always cited as the primary difficulty to starting new businesses. You would probably get this same answer if you asked entrepreneurs anywhere in the world what their primary limitations are. At the same time venture capitalists will say their major limitation is a lack of good projects. The same is true of charities and philanthropists. However, there are some added difficulties for the entrepreneurs we are working with. Getting loans from banks is difficult and costly even if you have a proven business idea and plenty of collateral (not many people do). Banks charge around 30% interest and the process for getting a loan is very time-intensive. The banks drag their feet carrying out feasibility studies and other research, hoping to attract a bribe to grease the wheels on their operation. 30% interest plus a bribe are tough terms.

Still, we have met with a few entrepreneurs who have found innovative ways of saving up money to finance the slow expansion of their businesses. Emmanual is a great example of this. He is in twenties and his dream is to run a large livestock operation on his parents’ property. They had almost nothing to start with so he got trained to sell Vodacom vouchers from his phone. It’s a common small business for young men who can give you phone credits electronically and they take a small percentage of the credits they sell. Using money saved from this as well as hard manual labor on his property he has managed to complete about ¾ of a pig pen to house four couples of pigs. His plan is to breed the pigs and sell the offspring. I asked him if pig farming is his dream or just a means to an end and he said his dream is to have pigs, cows, chickens, and a number of other animals all being raised on his farm. I asked him why he wanted to do that and he said he just loves it from his heart.

Emmanual's parents insisted on a picture together, and I'm not one to ever turn down an awkward photo opportunity.

Emmanual’s parents insisted on a picture together, and I’m not one to ever turn down an awkward photo opportunity.

So, some people are managing to raise capital and slowly build their dream businesses. However, what we’re still looking into is how many people don’t save because they live hand to mouth and how many don’t save because they budget poorly. There seems to be a bit of both.

Another lesson that made itself quickly apparent is the importance of really digging to reach women and the truly poor. Many people have approached me in the past and in my first few days back with development and business ideas. They often hold leadership roles in local organizations. They are all fairly well-educated men who have their basic needs met and feel confident approaching foreigners. Women and poor people are not accustomed to being so assertive in their community and don’t seem to feel as confident approaching foreigners or speaking about their ideas. It takes some intentional outreach to hear the thoughts of those who aren’t in power. Then it is a delicate balance between approaching people and making it clear you want to work with them, and ensuring you aren’t spending time convincing people to come talk to you – they have to come on their own accord.

While we keep a strict policy of confidentiality for the entrepreneurs we work with – we want people to feel secure that their ideas will not be leaked – we can share some vague descriptions to give an idea of the kinds of business dreams we are hearing about.

–          A project piping water into a tank in the center of the village and then selling the water cheaply to people who don’t want to have to walk to fetch water (it’s the distance so much as the gradient that makes it a hassle here) as well as providing delivery services

–          A business providing music for local celebrations

–          A service that collects rotten bananas that people would otherwise throw away and ships them to facilities that can make use of them (I haven’t yet heard what that use is, but I’m super curious)

It’s still early and we haven’t gotten into any great detail with people, mostly just meeting entrepreneurs and sharing what our plans are. But it’s exciting to see some ideas already taking shape and people who are excited to get to work.

Over the next week I hope to continue to spread the word about our programs. Meetings have been scheduled with the local women’s microfinance projects, the agricultural specialist for the village, and a few other individuals. Hard to believe it’s only been a few days!

We’ve also got a meeting scheduled for March in Dar es Salaam to meet with the Dutch embassy – and hopefully a few others – about getting funding for the ecolodge and a trip tentatively planned for the end of the month to visit and learn from Mambo View Point. Check them out at www.mamboviewpoint.org