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!

Valentine’s Day Progress Update

Simon meeting with one of the landowners on the proposed TPM building site.

Simon meeting with one of the landowners on the proposed TPM building site.

We are continuing to make progress towards the goals of our 2013 program. To be effective in Tanzania, one has to be able to make the adjustment from American speed to Tanzanian speed. That can be frustrating at first. It feels unproductive and slow. However, it is the only way to build solid programs and institutions that can be successful long-term.

Just this morning I was telling Babu Lyimo about making this adjustment and he advised me to be like a chameleon. He explained to me that the chameleon moves very slowly. It can’t outrun predators and it takes a while for it to change colors. It should be easy prey. However, the chameleon can reach branches that no other animal can reach. It moves slowly because it tests each branch and twig as it moves further and further out. Thus, it always knows the branch will be able to support it. Other animals move quickly and cannot travel with this same confidence. So, we must move forward slowly and build upon foundations of trust.

While the day to day can feel frustratingly slow, I am quite pleased to look back and report on our progress to date. We have received continued interest and support for the vegetable gardening program we are aiming to begin in March. Local leadership has shown resounding support for the project and many people have asked how/if they can be put on a list to receive training and supplies to start their own gardens. The next step will be for me to go down to Kah’e and get trained on the program for a week. I will visit again the next with a small team from Mkyashi. After that we will be ready to implement a garden shop and three gardens here in the village. We hope to do one garden per month for the rest of the year and then evaluate the program’s success and potential for the future.

I have also met with a number of local entrepreneurs working on an array of small businesses they hope to begin or grow. With most I am still working on business planning and financial management, but a few are beginning to seek credit from banks. I am working with Bosco – village chairman and entrepreneur – to learn more about the lending process for small businesses in Tanzania. Recent legislation has made it much easier for people to get small business loans in Tanzania. However, the changes have not been well-publicized. If we can learn more about these changes – and if they play out as they are supposed to – we will be able to help a number of local entrepreneurs receive credit.

Along this same line, we have made an exciting connection with Mama Betty. Mama Betty is a former bank employee who has worked for the past year to start a series of Village Community Banks (ViCoBa) in Mkyashi in surrounding villages. ViCoBas function as community help groups as well as banks. A group of 20-30 local people (mostly women) get together and agree to each deposit 2000 Tsh (about $1.25) per week into the bank as well as 500 Tsh into the self-help fund. During once-per-week meetings group members discuss any difficulties they are having and can receive money from the self-help fund to take care of these difficulties. Then members make pitches asking to receive loans. Loans are given out Grameen Bank-style to groups of five people who are all accountable for ensuring other group members pay. It’s basic microfinance and it helps people build credit and business acumen so eventually they will have the assets and the knowledge to take loans from banks.

In the past year Mama Betty has started six banks serving 130 members and holding around $30,000 in deposits. She has done it all without a salary and without any donations. We are currently working with her to develop a sustainability plan for the project that would allow her to continue to grow current banks and start new ones. We hope to create a plan that would allow her to take a salary from her work with the banks within two years. During those two years we would give her a small salary to compensate for the time and energy she spends working on the banks.

It could truly be a powerful partnership and would fit perfectly into our goal of supporting local initiatives and local visionaries. Still, there is much work to do before anything formal can be agreed upon. Perhaps we will find it is best to let the banks be and stay out of their way!

We have also visited the proposed property for the eco-lodge and confirmed our agreement with the landowners. It was great to stand their again and take in the incredible view, dreaming of what could one day be!