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 Over the past two months since the last blog post I’ve written about 3 posts that became outdated before I was able to get to town and post them.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!

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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.