Meheba Refugee Settlement in Zambia

I recently received this email from Damon Luloff, a grad student at Boston University who has worked on multiple book drives through FORGE (www.forgeprogram.org) at BU. The BU book drives over the past two years have brought in over 7,000 qualifying books for Books for Africa!

Damon has worked in the Meheba refugee settlement in Zambia; he’s been managing a project called PACE (Project for African Community Empowerment). You can read more about Damon’s work on his fascinating blog: http://www.pacenow.blogspot.com/

Hamjambo! It’s been over a month since the last update, and a lot has happened. So this may be a long update. But it’s exciting and will be worth your time to read. I promise.

Both the men’s and women’s projects have quickly transformed from vague ideas to real projects that are being implemented. After deciding on what problems they want to address, both groups have accelerated into the implementation phase, meeting with me five times a week and often meeting for hours at a time on their own, even as their work load has increased due to cultivation. Let me fill you in on the development of each project over the past month. Ladies first…

The women are aiming to help people improve their harvest, the primary source of food and income for almost everyone in the community. They decided the most effective way to help people improve their harvests in the short- and long-term is by providing them with fertilizer and hiring a professional agricultural extension worker to give free workshops for anyone interested in the community. Most farmers are simply too poor to purchase fertilizer which, if used properly, can triple their yields. The workshops will educate people on the most effective modern farming techniques and help them to understand the science behind farming, enabling them to manage their farms more effectively instead of blindly doing whatever others are doing in hopes that it will work.

The women immediately realized that if they wanted to help farmers improve their harvest this year they would have to work hard and fast. People would be planting soon, and one of the two types of fertilizer needs to be applied at the same time that the seeds are planted. The women needed to hurry, but could not proceed hastily. They were facing a serious challenge–determining what price they would need to charge people in return for the loans of fertilizer. Instead of charging people up-front, the women are loaning people fertilizer in return for corn in May, after people have harvested their crops. The market rate for a fifty kilogram bag of fertilizer is about $32. The government subsidizes fertilizer for registered cooperatives which only have to pay $12 for the same bag of fertilizer. Unfortunately, it takes six months to register as a cooperative, meaning that we had to purchase the fertilizer at the market rate. People in Meheba are not accustomed to having to pay the market rate. They expected to pay no more than one hundred kilograms of corn per bag of fertilizer. We eventually calculated that we could make a slim but adequate profit if we charged people one hundred forty kilograms of corn per bag of fertilizer. When we conducted a last-minute feasibility analysis to see if people would be willing to pay that much per bag of fertilizer, only a handful of people said yes. We had cut the expenses a much as possible and reduced the profit margin substantially. There was nothing else we could do. We had to either go for it or wait until next year. But quite a few people in the community were expecting to receive loans and had prepared their fields in anticipation of applying fertilizer. (Apparently, how one prepares his field depends on whether he is planning on using fertilizer or not.) Those people would be very disappointed if the fertilizer was not distributed.

So we went for it. The women commissioned my translator and me to go to Solwezi and buy three and a half tons of fertilizer. Two days later we rode back on top of a huge truck carrying seventy bags of fertilizer. The women had been taking applications for the fertilizer loans while we were gone. They had received eighteen. The day they scheduled to distribute the fertilizer an additional thirty people showed up asking to receive the loans too. So it turned out that people were just bluffing when they said they wouldn’t pay one hundred forty kilograms of maize per bag of fertilizer. Since distributing those seventy bags, rumors have circulated that we will be loaning out more and dozens of people have asked the women participants if they can still get some.

I asked a couple of the women why so few people seemed interested in the beginning and it was only after the fertilizer showed up that they started coming out of the woodwork to request loans. They told me that very few people had taken the project seriously until they saw the fertilizer being passed out with their own eyes. They said that many NGOs have come to the community with big ideas in the past, gotten people excited, and then not delivered. It has turned the people of Zone F into skeptics. Understandably. I was happy to have the opportunity to show them that there are still organizations like FORGE who honor their word and deliver on their promises.

At the same time as all this was happening, the women found a highly qualified extension worker who lives in the camp to give two workshops a week. He is a tall, quiet man with a huge smile who is always on time, which is very unusual and unfortunate since most of the attendees of the workshops show up over an hour late. I have attended two of the workshops so far and am glad to report that not only does he know what he is talking about, he is also an excellent and patient teacher. It’s not often that you find someone who is an expert in his field and an excellent teacher as well. Community members listen attentively and ask dozens of questions that they have probably had for years. After the extension worker answers them thoughtfully and clearly, everyone nods and smiles at each other. I smile too. Funny how knowledge can make you so happy.

The women’s next challenge is to build the storehouse where they will keep all the corn they will be receiving in May. In order to make a profit, they will need to keep it in storage until next September or January, when the prices for corn will be about three times higher than they are in May, when the supply is high and the demand low. In order to build the storehouse, they need $1,000. I have encouraged them to seek investors in their business to pay for the construction expenses. They think it will be difficult to find investors. Very few people in the community have ever invested in anything before. No one has witnessed how the business is run because it has just started. And in a poor community, people are very risk-averse with the little money they have. Still, the women believe they can attract $500 of investment capital from among people in the community. I told them that I would commit to matching every dollar (or kwacha) that they raise through my own fundraising efforts. In addition to that $500, I would also like to raise an additional $2,500 for their project.

According to the current plan, they will be forced to sell their corn in September so that they have cash to purchase more fertilizer in October to be distributed in November. The market for corn in September is good, but it peaks in January. If they were able to sell the corn in January instead of September they could more than double their profits of $350 to almost $1,000. In following years the profits would be even greater because they would be buying the fertilizer at the discounted price as a registered cooperative organization. Having an extra $2,500 would enable them to buy the fertilizer in October and still keep the corn until January. Increased profits will be good for three reasons. First, it will allow them to purchase more fertilizer each year, helping more and more farmers every year. Second, it will give the people who invested in the business a better pay-off for their investment, making them and others more willing to invest in the future. Third, PACE is by far the biggest investor in the business.

A large majority of the profits will belong to PACE. I have stipulated that those profits may only be used either for reinvestment in the business of for other PACE-authorized social projects or enterprises that they come up with. That means that if the women start a scholarship program for children in the community to go to high school with the profits from this business, bigger profits will allow more children to be sent to high school from Zone F each year. The additional $2,500 will pay off in a big way in the long-term.

Just thirty donations of $100 will multiply the benefits of this project several times over. Please consider giving $100 (or whatever you are able to give, more or less) for the women’s project. It may be the biggest bang you ever get out of $100 holiday gift. Please make checks out to “FORGE” and send them to:
Damon Luloff
312 NE Eaglewood Dr.
Ankeny, IA 50021

Now, onto the men’s project…

The men’s project is a bit simpler in many ways. They aim to provide transportation to Zone F, which has not had access to transportation in years. Currently if anyone wants to travel out of the camp, they have to walk about ninety minutes to the nearest bus stop (and as my translator says, “that’s ninety minutes if one is a strong walker”). If they buy anything in the city they have to carry it back that same distance once the bus drops them off, usually after dusk. The men originally wanted to buy a five ton truck to transport people and goods all over the camp, to the nearest big town Solwezi, to the border of Congo (one of the best markets in the region), and anywhere else people want to go. However, after seeing that the budget would be $12,000 and that they’d have to raise $9,500 of that on their own, they changed their strategy. They decided to buy a minibus instead, which they are hoping to buy for about $4,000. PACE invested $2,500 in the project, meaning that they had to come up with the rest of the $1,500. After seeing results with the women’s project, people in the community with the means to contribute that kind of capital were no longer skeptical about PACE and FORGE. In just two days the men were able to raise the remaining $1,500 they needed to start the business.

They brought this money to me so that I could physically see it to show that they weren’t joking… They weren’t joking. I was impressed. They said that people in the community wanted the project to start as soon as possible. People had gone long enough without transportation. They also told me that they wanted to get started before I left so that I could take pictures and video to show PACE donors and supporters (you) that the project had really started–so you could see it with your own eyes. As my translator often says about the men: “They are very serious.” According to their calculations, the minibus should bring in at least $300 a week in pure profit. They plan on saving all the profits so that in May they can put a down payment on the five ton vehicle they originally wanted to buy and start operating it once people harvest their crops and need to start transporting them. Usually, vehicle operators come into Zone F from outside Meheba and charge exorbitant rates. People have no option but to accept. Not this year! According to the men’s calculations, they will be able to charge 25% less than other operators and still make the $300 a week profit. Now that’s community empowerment!

I still wish I could stay an extra month or two to see the projects through their initial stages. But when I leave in one week, I will leave confident that they will succeed. I hope you are confident too.

This will be my last update from Zambia. I want to express my gratitude to all of you who have supported PACE over the past year, helping to bring what was once just an idea into fruition. It’s come a long way and has turned into everything I hoped it would be. It truly would not have been possible without you. I wish you could see the impact your support and contributions have made here. As much as I try to express and describe the change you’ve made possible here in this lengthy email, I’m sure I don’t do justice to the actual impact you have had. I hope that you can see what a difference you have made as an individual supporting a community you have never met. The people of Zone F thank you daily. I wish you could hear the things they say and hear the genuineness in the way they say them.

If PACE proves to be half as successful as it looks like it will be in Zone F, I will be compelled to implement it in other communities in Africa. With your support, I’m sure that it will be possible.

Aksanti sana! (Thank you SO much!)
Damon

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