Monday, October 22, 2012

Week Four: Not Côte d'Ivoire but Liberia

Hi folks!  This week should have been a report from Côte d'Ivoire but unfortunately I was not able to travel there due to border difficulties.  My time was not at all idle in Liberia, as there is always much work to be done! 

We spent much of the week working on LEAD's capital project.  The fundraising for this project started about two years ago, and we are 4/5ths of the way there, so we hoped to begin building at the beginning of this dry season (November).  However, this week, we began seriously considering switching strategies from building to buying.  There are two buildings that we saw that have so much potential for both adequate office space as well as income generation to help make LEAD more sustainable.  To say that it is easier to buy instead of build (especially in Liberia), would be a HUGE understatement!!!  So we are very hopeful that we will get approval from the LEAD board, from LEAD GR, and then be able to negotiate on the property to make it a good deal for LEAD.  Please pray with us that someone else will not buy the building in the meantime!

LEAD has also started a new type of loan product, still in the PEI category if you are familiar with LEAD's programs, but designed for institutions instead of small groups.  The institutions are Savings and Loan Clubs or credit union types, have to be registered with the government and have been in existence for two or more years.   They are able to receive much larger loans as their membership is large.  The first loan went out for 1.5 million Liberian dollars (about $21,000 US) for 56 members, and the picture on the side is of the second such loan going for one million Liberian dollars (about $14,000 US) for 200 members.

Joseph with his wife, brother, and daughter.
We also went around Monrovia to show Dana some of LEAD's business, and specifically asked to see businesses who have been members of LEAD for many years, having their third or fourth loan.  We went to an area called Duala where there were four such businesses in close proximity.  As we walked from one to the other, a man named Joseph rushed across the street to greet us.  He told us that he had gone through LEAD's training in 2008 and had benefited so much from the training that his business has more than doubled, even though he had not taken a loan!  He was so excited to see us and to show us the progress that he had made in his video club business since then.  He quoted to us a number of things that stood out to him from the LEAD training that he still implements today, including the fact that training alone can increase the profit of a business by 25% without a loan!  It was encouraging to hear his story and know that our training makes real impact!

Allen Jr writing his ABCs.
Even though the week was very busy with work, I also had a great time catching up with people.  Allen's son, Allen (or Dada), is getting so big and will be four years old next month.  He had a good time showing off how he can write his ABCs and count!  I also had the delight of meeting Allen's new son, Andrew, who is now four months old and very healthy!  He laughed and laughed and was full of joy!

Baby Andrew with lots of hair!
We also had the honor and privilege to attend the wedding of Moses Davies (the Finance Officer of LEAD) on Saturday, October 20.  There are some pictures below of their wedding.  It was a very participatory, exuberant wedding with lots of dancing, cheering, and celebration!  October 20 is also our wedding anniversary (would have been 22 years), which made attending a wedding very bittersweet.  I had a hard time getting through that day.  I was very thankful to have Dana here with a shoulder to cry on and to remind me to take deep breaths to get through the service, as well as my very thoughtful daughter calling and texting me. 

Below are also some beautiful pictures of the sunset over the water, which always reminds me of God's presence, creativity and beauty, available to us no matter where we go in the world!

Moses (white suit) waiting for his bride.
And here she comes!

Beautiful landscape and clouds
Beautiful sunset

Monday, October 15, 2012

On the Road In Nigeria Week 3: Sannu!

Sannu!  (Hausa greeting)  Week three is behind me and I am now on week four of my five week trip in five countries.

I was joined last Sunday by Dana Boals, the Director of Global Partnerships for Partners Worldwide. We left early Monday morning (4 am) for Nigeria.  Our goal on this trip was twofold:  one, to visit the East Kambara Area (EKA) of Nigeria, located in the North-West, where one of the two projects of Partners Worldwide, called Water Wins, is taking place.  The second goal was to give a Training of Trainers to the affiliate leaders of the other project, called PCEN, on the business training curriculum of Partners Worldwide.
We landed in Abuja and were picked up by Jeremiah Yongo, the Nigeria Partnership Manger for Partners Worldwide, and began the 8.5 hour road trip north to the EKA.  This trip consisted of about six hours on fair roads (West Africa standards) and the last 2.5 hours on terrible roads (56 km or 31 miles).  Most of the trip was going through rural areas and small towns; the terrain was beautiful. You just can't capture it in pictures  I did try.

The EKA is a very rural area, made of of many villages of a number of different tribes.  The work of Water Wins is primarily to drill wells in these villages, coupled with latrines, immunizations, and evangelism.  This project is somewhat outside the scope of what Partners Worldwide typically does, but the goal is to bring this area to the point where business development can take place.  To date, 235 wells have been drilled and seven evangelists are working in these communities.  The community members report a decrease of 50% of childhood deaths because of the work of Water Wins.

1st community visited
As I was doing the training all week, I did not have a chance to visit these villages.  However, Dana was able to and she shared with me what she saw.  She went to see two villages - about a half mile apart from each other, both a little ways off the main road.  The first village greeted her, along with Isaac, the Water Wins staff person, warmly and enthusiastically.  Dana reported that the adults and children looked healthy and happy.  The parents told Dana that their children aren't dying anymore because of the clean water.  The second village did not have the same story.  Dana reported that the difference was startling.  The children looked malnourished, with large stomachs and rust colored hair; the adults had a number of obvious health issues as well.  The children were terrified to see Dana.  It was a much more uncomfortable visit.  As they left the place, Dana asked Isaac how it could be that two villages, so close together, both with wells, could have such a different look and feel?  Isaac responded by telling Dana that it was because the first village gave their life to Christ - the second refused.  That made us scratch our head.  How could faith alone account for such a contrast?  The villages both had access to the same food, water, weather.
2nd Community

In discussing this later with Jeremiah, he told us about the long history in that area.  This area had been subjected to Muslim slave traders over one hundred years ago.  The particular tribe in the second community had resisted converting to Islam at that time, and fought hard to maintain their independence and safety.  That resistance and insecurity led them to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, to the point that the children in that village, though living just 1/4 of a mile from the main road, had never been to the main road up to this day.  Additionally, animist beliefs create a victim mentality as it relates to health, sickness, death, etc. - it is a result of spirits - so the adults tend to be less intentional or willing to explore proactive health choices.  And the same resistance to becoming Muslim is now being applied to becoming Christian, therefore the freedom that Christ brings is not available to them, keeping them feeling continually subjected to the will of the spirits.

PCEN Mkar Affiliate leaders
The Training of Trainers that I conducted with ten persons was enjoyable.  I had three representatives from three affiliates in three different cities:  Jos, Takum, and Mkar; in addition, Steven, the PCEN staff and leader of this group was also in attendance, making the group ten.  It was a great group, with invigorating and stimulating discussions.  These leaders are deep in the work in the field, looking for ways to build business capacity in their community and church.  It was a comfortable setting with much dialogue, and everyone remained invested in the conversation - especially about Business as Mission, but they also engaged Cost Analysis, Income Statement, and Balance Sheets!
Jos Affiliate leaders

PCEN Takum Affiliate leaders
As I write this, I am now in Liberia, hoping to be able to get to Côte d'Ivoire this week.  The border between the two countries is currently closed due to conflicts, so I'm not sure if they will let me across.  I'll let you know next week!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On the Road Week 2 Ghana: Unanticipated Outcomes

VSL group Adom
It's 7 am on a Thursday morning, and the third Village Savings and Loan group called Adom (meaning Grace) is preparing to meet.  That's right, the third group already and it's only 7 am.  They gather their chairs, all engraved with the name of their group, and sit themselves in their preassigned numerical order. Kate, the chairperson for the group of 25 women and men, calls the meeting to order and they quickly get to their business:  recalling the balance in the box, payments of social fund, new savings added, payments of loans.  As the meeting is in progress, Kate frequently glances over to her left, where her water business is in full progress:  water delivery truck after water delivery truck roll up to load water from her water storage, for delivery to various residents in need of water.  It's a good business and remains noisily steady during the meeting.

This VSL (which you've heard me address numerous times in my blog; go here for more info) is on their third round.  Each round takes 9-12 months: the first three months are for savings, the next six months they loan out their savings to each other, with all interest and dividends held by the group; the last three months, no new loans given; and the final week is the share-out, where everyone gets their savings back, all dividends are divided, and there is usually a big celebration.   This particular group has grown from a share value of one Ghana cedi (about $0.50 US) per share, to five Ghana cedi (about $2.50 US) per share.  That is pretty remarkable growth.  The total savings accumulated from their first share out was 6800 Gh, the second was 10,400 Gh, and the third looks like it will be over 15,000 Gh.

Nesto (right) speaking to a VSL group
The Field Relationship Officer for this group, Nesto, has seen tremendous growth in their individual relationships, in their businesses, and in the community over the three years.  "It's amazing how these groups encourage each other to save and to grow their business." said Nesto.  "As one member watches another member bring savings, week after week, it challenges them to try harder to save.  As one member watches other members get loans, pay them back, and the business grows right before their eyes, it challenges all to try harder to grow their own business."  The unexpected outcome here is positive peer pressure to save, to work hard, and to grow a business.  In a region where community is valued over individual, this is a very positive outcome. 

Because of the growth of these businesses, Hopeline Institute has had to be creative on how to lend their support to these groups.  With over 235 VSLs scattered over many villages and communities, this has not been easy.  The VSLs pay nothing to Hopeline for the service that is rendered; in fact, the funding for this program ended this past July.  But Hopeline loves these groups and sees the impacts that they are making so they are determined to carry on.

One of the repeated requests of the VSLs is to have their savings "topped up" by Hopeline, in order to be able to make more loans and bigger loans to their business owners.  So this past June, Hopeline began to do this, as a result of some generous investors with the Solomon Funds who have invested some money for a year, with an expected return of 5%.  The groups are required to save 20% toward the loan amount, which is then matched times three.  This VSL group, Adom, receive a "top up" of 3000 Gh cedis after their first three months; they paid it off, and then received an additional 5000 Gh cedis, which will be paid off at the end of this cycle.  The risk is very small for Hopeline, as the loan is paid before savings are returned.  The group pays a small interest rate to Hopeline for the use of their funds, which helps to pay some of the overhead for Hopeline's staff who run this program.

Another of the unanticipated outcomes of this program has been chair businesses.  Each group is required to save toward a social fund (often just 20 or 30 cents per week, per person).  The constitution created by each group guides how this social fund can be used (most often for emergencies in the group), but surprisingly, most social funds remain untouched until the share out time, at the end of the cycle.  By this time, often 200-300 Gh cedis have been accumulated.  Most groups decided to buy chairs for the group for the future meetings.  In one larger community, Nesto shared, there are seven VSLs, all of whom have purchased chairs.  The seven groups together have 270 chairs!  This community is now working together to start a chair rental business for weddings, funerals, etc, and the profits will go to the VSLs!  Who would have thought that VSLs would produce chair businesses?!

Nesto is the head of the VSL program and supervisor of all seven of the Field Relationship Officers of Hopeline.  He also oversees 67 of the 235 VSL groups that are in the system, keeping him very busy.  I asked him if he enjoys his job.  He said, "I love it.  It keeps me very busy, and I am out on the field from sun-up to sun-down.  But I get to interact with so many people and see their lives, families, businesses, and communities change with this program.  When people look at me, I want them to see someone who helped their business grow!"  Amen, Nesto.  We thank God for you!
Mr. Darko with his mushrooms.

In other news, I also had a chance to meet with Mr. Darko, a pastor who does mushroom farming, whom I have had the privilege of mentoring since about February of this year.  Mr. Darko came through the Hopeline program last year and his mushroom business is really taking off.  He recently completed building a mushroom building that can hold 9000 bags of mushrooms!  Mushroom farmers are usually in three groups:  the baggers (who prepare the compost and seed for growing), the croppers (those who grow the mushrooms, which Mr. Darko is pictured doing above), and the marketers (those who bag, label and sell the mushrooms to consumers).

Being the true entrepreneur that he is, Mr. Darko is frustrated by the delay in filling his crop house with mushrooms, and so has started to become a bagger in addition to a cropper.  He just secured a loan from Hopeline to be able to bag 10,000 bags, which will allow him to fill his crop house, as well as produce some for sale in the market.  There is a lot of demand currently for baggers and they are not able to keep up, so the market looks good for Mr. Darko!  Hopeline also just completed a training specifically for mushroom growers and has given loans to 14 mushroom farmers, in the categories listed above. 
Mr. Boateng is one of the members who recently received a loan from the Global Funds of Partners Worldwide.  As shown in the picture, he produces dish soap, skin lotion, and hair pomade.  He used this loan to change the label on his products, make some changes to the products themselves to make them more competitive (i.e. changed the color of the dishsoap from blue to green in order to compete with SunLight), as well as move more from the bulk sales that he typically does to the individual consumer sizes.

Early Monday morning I will be on my way to Nigeria and report on that visit next week.

And now for some pictures of some of my favorite people in Ghana:
Juliet's son, Nhyi - what a smile!! (I showed pictures of his naming ceremony a year ago.)   Love that kid!  Love that mom! He celebrated his first birthday this week. Soon they will both be in Chicago for the PW conference! 
Doesn't matter where you are in the world, even at the age of one, kids know how to talk on a cell phone!
No, not Miss Ghana but our own Beatrice Buxton, now Beatrice Tawiah, the head of the Micro-finance Department at Hopeline. Beatrice was married on September 8. Congratulations!
The fun wedding party...if you look closely you will see Fanny and her two boys, our two interns (Emily and Kim), and a number of Hopeline staff and members!

Monday, October 1, 2012

On the Road Week One: Karibu!

Karibu (Welcome) to ATS!
Sitting at 6400 feet above sea level, at the base of Mt. Elgon, Kitale is a beautiful city.  The internet says that the population is 250,000, although I am told by residents that no-one actually knows the real population, as the results of the census taken ten years ago has not yet been released; to them the number is much lower.  It has a small town feel to it, with the mixture of nicely developed areas, densely populated sections, and also a rural area, with cows on the road, dirt roads, and room to breathe.  In short, after living in Accra (metropolitan population of 5 million) and close to Monrovia (population of 1.3 million), it feels just perfect for me. 

A portion of the breadbasket
This portion of the country is also known as the breadbasket of Kenya, due to the concentration of agricultural work going on here that provides much of the food for the country.   The weather is cool…at least to me.  It would reach approximately 75 F by noon, but rained every day by about 2 pm, dropping the temperature ten degrees.  The temperature rose again some days in the 70s again by evening, or would stay in the 60s, depending on how long the rains lasted.  They say that these rains are normally over by the beginning of September, so it is unusual to still have rain this late in the year.  [The team found it continually amusing that I was so cold.  I don’t know how long it will take this West African blood in me to adjust to cooler weather!  The good news is that I will be fine if I pack my winter clothes.]  Bob would have absolutely loved this weather. 

The Africa Theological Seminary (ATS) is on the outskirts of Kitale, on approximately ten acres of land, with an additional ten acres adjacent for future development; the land is currently being leased by farmers and used for growing maize and bananas.  ATS hosts approximately 300 students, all of whom are in ministry at the same time as working on their various degrees. 
Part of the ATS campus, including the house where I will stay.

The ATS (ICM-Kenya) team, along with Sheryl 
from the ICM-USA team.
The International Christian Ministry team was delightful.  There were actually two teams that I met – the ICM-USA team and the ICM-Kenya team.   I met some very kindred spirits on the ICM-USA team.  This is a very gifted group of leaders, deeply grounded in serving the Lord with their lives.  I know that I will learn a lot from them.

Part of the beautiful campus of ATS
The ICM-Kenya team was very welcoming and affirming of seeing the need to add Business as Mission as a course for their church leaders.  This is a young team of very educated and capable leaders, working with church leaders who are making a difference in the many villages and cities around Kenya and beyond.  While I was there, they hosted a two day alumni conference, focused on teaching Orality and the art of teaching the Bible through story-telling.  I had a chance to meet a number of pastors and church leaders, all of whom acknowledged that they are not doing anything to empower and equip their business members for the Marketplace, all of whom acknowledged that they tend to see their business members only in terms of donors, and all of whom extended an invitation for me to start the pilot project at their church!  There was great excitement about this concept, with many church leaders mentioning that they had never even considered this as a concept. I thank God for this affirmation.

The only disappointment in the whole trip to Kitale was learning that they don’t eat their food very spicy and plantains are not part of the regular diet, even though bananas are grown here.  However, I think I can deal with that!  Hot sauce will remedy the one, and I can definitely learn to live without plantains!

Road in front of the ATS Seminary...look familiar?
I plan to move to Kitale in mid-January and will start teaching at the beginning of February.  By mid-to-late February, I will travel out to start the pilot project.  At this time it looks like it may be to Busia, which is right on the Kenya/Uganda border, although it is very early to tell.  The Bishop of the Church in Busia, who is an alumni of ATS, is the head of sixteen churches, and is recommended highly by the ICM-Kenya team as a church leader who knows how to mobilize and support his people.  

Masai Mara
When I left Kitale, I was informed that our plane was late and that we would have to make a detour, delaying our arrival in Nairobi by about four hours.  I was delighted to then hear that our detour was to the Masai Mara, the large game reserve in south-western Kenya!  We flew in a small ten seat plane, and stopped twice in the Masai Mara, allowing me to see elephant, giraffe, ostrich, zebra, wildebeest (migrating to Tanzania), baboons, and impala!  What a treat!  Being able to fly low over the game reserve allowed me to see so much and I thank God for the free, albeit brief, safari experience!
As you receive this blog, I have left Kenya and am in Ghana.  I hope to report on week two next week. 
The beautiful countryside of Kenya