August 12, 2009

Listening to people in one of the world's poorest nations

In a world of inequality, suffering and early death, what can be done?

Supporting the Simultaneous Policy is something tangible and straightforward to achieve the structural change we need.

But we can also do something more immediate to help those whose lives are not so fortunate as the majority of those who have access to the internet to read this blog.

The most important thing is to first listen and to learn. For example, what is it that people in a village in Malawi want to improve their lives? A maize mill. See:

I have tried to listen while returning to Malawi, one of the world's poorest nations, where I worked for four years in the 1990s. Since leaving I have been doing what I can do support some of the friends I made at Mbewa Village at the foot of Mulanje Mountain, the highest in Central Africa.

I've kept contact since those days with Francis Atiya, a mountain guide, who organised the first Mulanje Mountain Porters' Race with me in 1996, just before I left. There were 33 participants, mainly porters and guides, but me and a friend from the Mountain Club of Malawi, which sponsored the event, also took part. The route I chose covers 25 kms up one side of the Likhabula valley and down the other. The winner, Hamilton Makhalila, completed the course in 2 hours 39 minutes. After the prize giving (first prize - walkman, second prize - hurricane lamp) we had a slap up meal to celebrate and as a thank you to the porters' service over the past year.

I billed it as the First Mulanje Mountain Race, in the hope there would be more. And some dedicated people have kept it going. Last month, I was able to attend the 13th event and gave a speech as the founder of the race.

Amazingly, there were about 300 participants, including from outside Malawi, and the winning time was 2 hours 5 minutes. The event is now being promoted by the Ministry of Tourism to try to draw more people to Mulanje Massif. (The mountain has gained some unwanted publicity since then as a tourist attempted to climb the highest peak without a guide and died after becoming lost.)

While some people gain employment as porters and guides or carving the unique Mulanje cedar, the majority are subsistence farmers. Priorities are producing enough food to live through the year and finding a way to earn a little cash.

With the help of donations from family and friends, we set up a chicken raising project, profits from which have been used to help pay school fees for some of the village's orphans.

These small donations have also enabled the village of about 3,000 people to employ an agricultural advisor. One of his own innovations has been to implement an irrigation system for growing maize in the dry season as a cash crop. Water is routed from nearby streams through channels to the maize fields as shown in the clip below:

This scheme started with 7 farmers and proved so successful that many more have joined this year. My friends and family have been making loans for the fertilizer needed for the maize. Members of the farmers' club will pay for this when they sell the maize and those lending money will receive their repayment by 30 November. A little extra is raised at the same time to build up a fund for fertilizer for the next time.

I discussed many ideas for other schemes with the Project Committee, which has been elected by the village and we have a list to develop over the next three years of so. Their priority is to set up a maize mill for grinding maize into flour.

We've investigated the economics of this and put together a project to proceed in a phased way.

The Committee has identified suitable land, which the owner has donated. They were then to produce the bricks for the house for the mill, but another villager quickly donated a stock of bricks.

So they are ready to start as soon as I can raise the loans for the cement, roofing sheets and other materials.

While building proceeds, I will also be seeking funds for buying the milling equipment. Hopefully this money will be available to transfer to the manufacturer in Malawi once the house is ready, so the mill can immediately go into operation and generate income.

All the self-help projects aim to repay the investment and be self-sustaining. Income from the maize mill will be used to repay loans over the following 18 months. Additional income after running costs will contribute to a maintenance fund, other projects and for support for orphans and other vulnerable people in the village.

If you want to help by contributing a sum of money, be it large or small, then you can contact me or make a pledge via the website I've set up for the project. See:

This has information on other projects under way and some of those in development and lots of great photos.

Here's one of a mother working her irrigated field.