Monday, May 17, 2010


My friend Duncan has started a photo project called Perspectives of Poverty. The project pairs two images: the first image shows one of his friends looking stereotypically 'poor' (the more common type of image coming out of Africa), and second one shows the person dressed to impress. He wants to change people's perceptions of Africa. I thought that it was a great project, and I inadvertently (and with much less photographic skill) conducted my own photo experiment.

Last time I was visiting Tchale village I was happy to see that Regina had learned to walk since my last visit. (She's a niece and neighbor of the Tchale family.) As she was toddling around I took a few quick pictures. As soon as I'd taken the photos her mom swooped in and it was bath time (beloved by all children). Then, Regina returned clean and dressed in her best (I've printed many of the photos I've taken in the village and given them to their subjects - so now I may have a reputation that I'll have to continue to fulfill). I obliged and took a few pictures of Regina. The differences are quite striking. Bear in mind it's the same child in the same place, only ten minutes apart.

Check out Duncan's project at:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rollins Chitika

Next in my short series on inspiring, and capable Malawian leaders: Rollins! Rollins used to work alongside me in the M&E department (and he was invited to EWB’s National Conference in Canada). Now, he’s moved on to bigger and better things and he’s using his knowledge and skills to run an output-marketing project for VSO. Rollins is also very well educated. He has a Bachelors degree in Agricultural Science and a Masters in Agricultural Economics.

Rollins research project for his Masters degree involved working with and learning about the dairy sector in Malawi. Dairy farmers in Malawi are not very well compensated for their work because milk can be imported at lower prices and milk wholesalers have even been known to reconstitute milk powder for resale because it’s cheaper than buying and processing local milk. Rollins has had two articles published in Malawi’s national newspapers about the difficulties facing the sector.

Now, Rollins and Mathias are working together (along with a few others) set up a charity to help send children in Malawi’s rural areas to school. Their plan is to find high performing children whose parents cannot afford to send them to school. Then, they want to pay the school fees for these children and provide extra support for these children in theirs homes. They both believe in making a difference in Malawi and they both believe in the power of education to provide people with opportunity.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mathias Mbendela

Mathias works for the same NGO as I do in Lilongwe. He is a good friend and a great guy to discuss development with. He loves to read and usually has a book under his arm. His more recent books include Sachs the 'The End of Poverty', and Colliers 'The Bottom Billion'. (He was very much looking forward to meeting Robert Chambers at our recent conference, but sadly Mr. Chambers visit was prevented by pesky volcanic ash).

Mathias began his life in a village. His parents were not wealthy and they struggled to raise the money to send their four sons to school. However, they did impart a strong belief in the importance of education in all their sons. As a dedicated student Mathias won a place at one of Malawi's universities to study Agricultural Economics and after he graduated he found work with our current employer. But, he wasn't content to rest with a Bachelors degree and he applied to do a Masters of Development Studies.

When he was accepted to do his Master he founded out that he wouldn't be funded and that he would need to pay his own tuition. Despite this, he decided to leave the security of his job and to head back to school. The second year of his program required him to write a thesis based on original research. Mathias borrowed a bicycle from a friend and headed out into the villages in the south of the country to collect the information that he needed.

Mathias is a man of many dreams. I'm not sure where he'll be in the future (he wants to run his own business, do a Ph.D., write a book, and work for the UN as a program head), but whatever he does I know it will be inspiring!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dorothy Nthala

Dorothy is the wife of Village Headman Tchale. She is a very hardworking woman with ambition. Besides doing all of the chores that African women do on a daily basis (making three meals, fetching water, keeping the house and the yard tidy, and working in the fields) Dorothy has her sights set on running her own small business.

When a local micro-finance institution came to visit Tchale village Dorothy signed up, along with 13 other women, to get a small loan of $71 each (at 30% interest!). This loan allowed Dorothy and the other women to buy seed and fertilizer to plant more land. Unfortunately, the term of the loan was shorter than the maturing time for maize. So, Dorothy set about making the loan payments by baking a local bread (chikonda moyo) every morning and selling this bread in the village. She (and the rest of the group) succeeded in paying back the loan in full on time. Because of their success in repaying the loan the micro-loan foundation has granted them a second loan of $142 each (again at 30% interest).

This time Dorothy decided to invest her money in something different. During last year's growing season, in addition to working in the family's fields Dorothy planted a field all her own. She planted 1 acre with Malawi's main cash crop - tobacco. She has just harvested the tobacco and she is planning to send it to be sold on Lilongwe's tobacco auction floor soon. With the proceeds she wants to get into business. She is planning to buy and sell tobacco (there is money to be made if you can buy tobacco just after it is is harvested and wait to sell it at the end of tobacco trading season).

This captures some of Dorothy's drive and determination, but it doesn't capture her modest and joyful spirit. She's a truly wonderful woman.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Village Headman Tchale

To lead off my week of strong Malawian leaders I decided to choose Village Headman Tchale.

When I visited his village just over a week ago to catch up with him and his family he had just returned from a week in Lilongwe at Bunda College. He had been called to attend a conference for lead farmers in Malawi (lead farmers are those that work directly with government agricultural extension works to disseminate the latest in agricultural knowledge). At the conference, he had been taught about the use of organic manure (in addition to fertilizer). When I visited he had already created pits near his field which he will use to make manure. He was also planning how he is going to take this message to all of the other farmers in his village, and in the surrounding district. This is just one example of his tireless efforts as village headman. When I spent time in the village at the end of last year we planted hundred of trees as part of a tree nursery program that he was masterminding after hearing from the government about deforestation and climate change.

On top of all this he is an extremely warm, patient man. When I visited he was building a maize grainery (nkhokwe), which is traditionally men's work. But, Mr. Nthala (his title is Village Headman of Tchale Village) showed me how to do the work and let me try tying the grass to the structure using string made from a plant. (This process adds stability to the structure).

This year his harvests have been very good. He is hoping to finish the new house that he is building, and to put iron sheets on it. His big dream is to bring electricity to his home.

Friday, April 30, 2010

More on Leadership

The leadership conference gave me an interesting opportunity to reflect on the work that I've been doing in Malawi and also the way in which I communicate it. People doing development work often have a vested interest in communicating one side of a complicated story. They often share stories of people struggling in a difficult environment. And, there's no doubt that there are many people struggling in a difficult environment in Malawi, but there are also many incredibly smart, educated, capable people working to develop their country. The one sided reporting does attract funding to development projects, however, I believe it often reduces people's expectations for what is achievable and it often reduces the value that is placed on the people who are working in-country to implement these projects. Development funding is (rightly) targeted at the poor. However, this fact coupled with low expectations of field level implementers often seems to correlate with a lack of investment in the professional development of these staff.

If the messaging begins to change, if people see countries like Malawi as places of beauty and substantial future growth, then perhaps the valued placed on developing people within its systems will be increased. People will see young Malawians capable of changing their world. They will begin to see that the investment of building the skills, energy, and confidence of young Malawians will have significant impact on Malawi's future (think of many of the successful companies of the world and the way that they invest in their staff - for example Google).

I will try to focus on some of the most positive sides of Malawi and some if it's most high potential people in my next few posts. I look forward to hearing what you think.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Leadership Conference

I've been missing in action for the last few weeks! I've been working with three others on EWB's first leadership conference in Malawi. I think working with others to help them develop themselves is where my passion lies, so it's been a fun and extremely rewarding (but exhausting) month or so.

We brought together 36 people from many of the organizations that we work with across Malawi and Zambia. We took them all to the stunningly beautiful Cape Maclear (on the shores of Lake Malawi), and we worked intensively for two and half days. We talked and learned about project management, computers skills, managing people, setting goals, dreaming big, and much, much more. We had a speaker from a Malawian capacity development organization, and another speaker who was the former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi and who is currently Group Chief Executive for a group of companies that account for 47% of Malawi’s formal economic production.

People left inspired. I left inspired.

Traditional development tends to tell its recipients what needs to be done and how to do it (without pausing to consider what people actually need and want). As a result, donors can spend a great deal of money with very little impact. My hope is that by inspiring, networking, and building the confidence of an already remarkable group of Malawians and Zambians these leaders will get what they need to become the managers, thoughtful field staff, politicians, and business people that are needed to shape the futures of Malawi and Zambia.