An Answer

For the past eight years, we’ve been working to build a different kind of organisation. One without big money, buildings and bureaucracy, One run on the energy of the volunteering spirit and one with faith in the ability of the poorest to have a solution to their own problems. It’s wonderful, now, to be able say that IT WORKS.

When we first went to Malawi at Easter 2005, we got a glimpse of what the water crisis really meant. We looked with great sadness, amazement and dismay, at broken pumps, pumps not fit for purpose, expensive pumps, beautiful pumps and then women and girls carrying filthy water, long distances on their heads. I suppose we scratched our heads and wondered where all the millions of aid was going, when this most crucial of steps in the development process seemed to have no solution.

We figured that solving this problem must be so difficult, since no one appeared to have cracked it. We had two options, go home, forget about and pray that some expert would solve it, or do something about it. Being stubborn and obstinate the second option looked like the way to go!!

I emailed hundreds of organizations (and there are thousands) who said give us your money, we do pumps, but since I had seen their puny, short lived solutions, I figured that back to the drawing board may be the way to go.

We knew that access to clean water changes things, but we had no idea just how much. The rewards now, after our eight year of struggles, are immeasurable. All we have done is voluntary, were we, M+J, pay all the organizations running expenses and are full time Malawi! We decided, from the start, to follow a path less travelled, the scenic, volunteering route, where people regularly advised us to leave it to the experts with the support of small donors and even a few bigger ones. We are so grateful to those people who have invested their money in a system less tried and tested, living with the poorest, listening to their stories, dreams and plans and always there to support with advice and training. Their country, their lives, their future, our inspiration, has been most rewarding: a wonderful period of common discovery, among equals.

 

So what have we learned…?

 

We were very happy arriving in Malawi with a most amazing and unique pumps. We installed them with and for the people. They dug wells, made bricks and did all the work, while we brought the pumps. BUT we soon found that they wanted to work with us on other issues. The accepted clean water as the beginning of a whole new life, but now that they knew us, they knew that we could work together and do more. They had, in fact, got dreams and plans, mainly short-term. Their plans included preschools, farming adult education, business. In locations, where they had not become disenfranchised by Aid and bureaucrats they were prepared to think, plan and dream dreams. Very soon it looked like pumps were forgotten and life could begin in earnest, and now, since the women can maintain their pumps with ease, the lives of village women and girls will never be the same. If you want to measure the cost of changing a life, just imagine that it costs just €1 to give a person clean water, in Northern Malawi, where we work.

 

Of course it’s a team effort, but our team is very small yet. We need more advocates, ambassadors and vocal volunteers, not principally for money but to change the way people look at development. Our message is simple, at a human scale and inexpensive. We don’ worry too much about numbers and statistics, we consider each individual as the most valuable We work with, and believe in Malawian people, mainly women, moving them to empower themselves. We don’t look at poverty or depravation; we look at situations and solutions. We look at connectivity, which is now so easy nowadays. We need to be neighbours and good friends, and then the tiniest of help can work wonders, but it has to be a bottom-up approach. Micro solutions really work.

 

We realize that partnership is important. Away from Malawi we are in awe of all the people in schools, churches, offices and homes who show they care and work tirelessly for the cause. We’re humbled by it all.

 

We never planned for growth and expansion, but it has come through the efforts of others, particularly in Malawi, where we have installed, repaired and replaced over 2000 pumps, thus bringing clean, safe drinking water to over a quarter of a million of the poorest  

We hadn’t planned farming, training, research, seed and seedling production, but its all there to be seen and run by bright, intelligent and hard working Malawians, many of whom have little formal education but who are so eager to learn.

We never thought of preschools, yet we have 22, run by the most willing Malawian rural women, who care for the little ones under trees, in cowsheds, schools and deserted buildings. We work on training and they get on with it. Buildings will come later.

We never dreamed of Adult Education but our women have dreams. Dreams of beginning at Standard One and learning to read with their children, technicolour dreams of going to Secondary schools and even more do-able plans to be able to feed, educate and support their families. If I could write, there a hundreds of individual stories of bravery and courage persistence and prayers.

And we had no idea how fast anything would happen. In reality a few hundred people with clean water was what we wished for back in 2005. So if someone mentioned an education project impacting 16 schools and over 25,000 primary school students, I might have inquired about their state of mind, and a birthing centre in the bush, and a pump factory and Malawian employees who run the show on their own, and sending girls to Secondary school, and building and supporting primary schools and libraries. And I’m breathless

But this is where Wells for Zoë, You and us and them, the Universe has certainly colluded!

 

Today…

We have maybe 100 regular donors

Most donate less than €100

Our biggest supporter(s) is a Our Lady’s School, Terenure, Dublin 16, where everyone appears to be involved, and where the feeling of goodwill is electric.

Our investment in buildings in Malawi will soon pay all our wages

We work with 5 Government Ministries at local level, where all are committed to progress without hand-outs

Our water project is expanding in 3 countries, working with partner organizations who share a similar philosophy

We have no paid staff, except our Malawian employees.

Our future will hopefully see more Malawian staff employed and retained if they can fit-in:

More training and up-skilling for our current staff; more involvement in the project by all employees; more setting up and handing over of commercial co-operative women’s farms like the one in Doroba, enabling people to empower themselves.

But who knows?

We have learned a lot in 8 years. Our employees, volunteers, villagers and partners have made seismic and sustainable strides, with our approach of inspiration, education and challenge and they are not for turning back now.

 

On Sunday night two DIT students: Tommy Flavin and Claire Cunningham who volunteered with us at Easter 2012 and are finalizing a documentary, interviewed us for about two hours on video. Their final question was:

Why would anyone want to leave the comfort of Lucan and travel 8000 miles to poverty, hardship and hard work; we thought it over guys and our final answer is: We can’t imagine anything more exciting?

Teacher mentoring

Malawi: Progress on a Shoe String, November 25, 2012

Anything is possible if you have clean, safe drinking water

Anything is possible if you have clean, safe drinking water

A new variety apple budded on to a local rootstock

A new variety apple budded on to a local rootstock

Duncan going on his bike to fit a new pump

Duncan going on his bike to fit a new pump

A happy woman

Mary: Creating an interest in books, everywhere she goes

Picture2

Carrying water

IMG_0418

Pumping is so easy with the Canzee pump. Ask any 4 year old!

Ecaiweni Conference on Micro Credit

Language barrier: What’s that.
Mary working with a women’s Self Help group, in their village on their plans

 

I had two contrasting contacts that made an impact on me last week. The first was an email wondering whether we had finished with Malawi, or were we still in business and the other was a contact regarding our gathering for volunteers from the past seven years in Malawi.

I suppose it’s not surprising that someone may think of our early demise, because many small organisations like us do what they can, and leave. We now spend a little less than half our lives in Mzuzu, we make no great fuss about what we do when we are at home, and our fundraising is low key and almost underground.

Early this year we revamped our board with a more formal structure and now we have Dr Ann Burnell, Professor Emeritus in Biology NUIM, as Chair, Pierce Maher, Dr Maria Corrigan, Ciarán O’Leary, acting head of the School of Computing, DIT, Kevin St, Liam Stuart, Caitriona Coyne, John Waters, Irish Times, Elaine Bolger, Roseanne Curtin, Mary and myself. Since we are a 100% voluntary organisation we have found that this arrangement lightens the load on us a bit. Voluntary, in W4Z always means no remuneration; everyone pays for travel, accommodation and all the costs of their involvement. There are no expenses of any kind or allowances paid by the charity, to anyone except the wages of our Malawi employees. We, as the founders, also pay all other expenses so that 100% of all public donations get all the way to our projects in Malawi and Zambia.

You could say that the gathering last Friday night last was our seventh Birthday, since it is seven years since we headed into the unknown, to a dot in the hills of Northern Malawi to meet a unique and amazing man: Br Aidan Clohessy, Head of St John of God Services in Mzuzu, to stay with him for two weeks and now 25 visits later we have the hospitality, wisdom, experience, advice and sound solid good sense of a Tipperary man who started from scratch, about 19 years ago, and has built up a first World Service, including a Health Science University. In typical fashion, he attributes it all to the Grace of God. In his interview with John Waters, on the night, he related; that success in Malawi began by his piggybacking on the Diocese of Mzuzu and St John’s Hospital and that W4Z have succeeded as a result of doing the same with SJOG. “It’s a good way to ensure success” he said. When asked to elaborate, he said that you must have determination and heart and W4Z is built on those virtues.

We are so happy that he came, with Provincial Br Lawrence, to cut the birthday cake (Donated by our local Superquinn). Of course he got a great welcome from all our volunteers who know him and all he has achieved in Malawi.

The various displays showed some of what we are now doing in Malawi and generated much surprise and delight, particularly for those who came to volunteer in the earlier years.

News for 2012 to date:

 

WATER: Our factory has manufactured over 450 pumps, this year and between Malawi and Zambia, we estimate that well over 100,000 villagers will have clean, safe drinking water, by year’s end. We also have a more formal training programme, in pump maintenance, for village women, who are burdened with the task of locating and hauling water on their heads, often from long distances. We are also doing trials on a new pump, a modifies version of our current one, for pumping up-hill and for filling tanks

 

PRIMARY EDUCATION: In our fourth year of teacher mentoring. Our programme now impacts over 25,000 students in two zones in the Northern region, working with the District Education Manager (DEM) and the inspectorate. It is designed and implemented by excellent practitioners from Ireland using the Malawi Curriculum and is set for rapid expansion as some top Malawian teachers have been trained to be trainers. They’ve got a little lift and they are ON-IT. For the future, the DEM and some excellent school heads are of retirement age and coming to work for us.

 

PRESCHOOLS We now support 21 rural schools, mainly by training caregivers, and showing them how to make and use locally-made teaching aids. In terms of building schools, the community must make and build bricks and do all the labour, and when the reach roof level, W4Z supply only the roofing material and 3 bags of cement for the floor. This arrangement ensures community ownership.

 

FARMING

We now have four farms.

Farm 1: Here we do research and demonstration with about 100 plants, using OP seeds, No artificial fertilizer or chemical pesticides. We save seeds and have greenhouses to produce over 10,000 fruit tree seedlings each year, and a multitude of other trees.

Farm 2: This we use to produce seeds of four tree types, all nitrogen fixing, one for nutrient extraction (Musango), one used for pest control (Tephrosia), and two fast growing for forage (Sespania and Glicidia).

This will enable us to supply these seeds to about 250 local farmers and also to a Seed Company in Lilongwe

Farm 3: This is a 3 hectare, citrus grove but it is also used for herb growing and researching forgotten African plants.

Farm 4: This is a depleted wilderness for research. A 20 year old man, Kondwani, with his wife and child will live here, improve the soil with agro-forestry, green manure, pigs, a cow, long crop rotation and conservation tillage in a planned eight year ad(venture) to see what can be achieved without  Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and the rest. We hope that this will be a model for the future

OTHER

We also have a rural birthing centre, which doubles as a health centre and a location for many and varied meetings

We support clubs for grandparents rearing grandchildren and home based care for HIV/AIDS sufferers, in the areas where we work

We have a fund for hospital medicines and baby clothes for maternity wards, in Mzuzu Central Hospital and Mzuzu Clinic. We also supply transport for the medics for their monthly clinics.

We work with secondary schools and the two third level institutions.

We have a project enabling girls to go to Secondary Schools, a few school libraries and even one on the farm.

We have Adult education programmes and one for school gardens.

We work with women’s Self Help clusters and also have a 23 acre

co-operative, commercial, model farm for women, where we work with the Ministry for Agriculture, Agroforestry and the Traditional Authorities. Here Wells for Zoë bought the land and will resell it to the women over a four year period. We bought it in April, 2012 and already 25% has been repaid ahead of schedule. This is a very new concept (shares and women’s ownership) to rural Malawi and has created much interest from many sectors.

We have a bee keeping project with almost 100 hives and a market for honey

We supported a young nursing student, who will graduate in December and come to work with us.

We have a charity shop in Smithfield run by volunteers

All this happens without taxpayers’ money or any assistance from Irish Aid, but with great help from family, friends, supporters and volunteers, always with passion and a second hand shoestring budget.

Lusangazi Sustainable farm - Velvet Bean

A Simple Fix for Farming

October 19, 2012, 1:05 pm
A Simple Fix for Farming
By MARK BITTMAN (New York Times)

I will always remember when I first read the following article. We were flying in to Kharthoum Airport while the pilot was pointing out fires and explosion of tanks on our first choice glide path!!. The explosions were all in my head though as we had just began our first steps on conservation/sustainable tillage a few days earlier, and we had a little affirmation that we were exactly on the right path.

Since we began farming in Malawi, I was convinced of a better way and so we have used no artificial fertilizer or chemical pesticides on our farms for the past six years, while promoting green manures, rotation, ground cover and retaining residues, with minimum disturbance of the soil. All around us they burned everything, built up depleted acid soils and were generally seduced by the (dubious) science of the foreign “experts”. While the gurus of foreign nations and the onslaught of the foreign NGO brigade peddled genetically modified seed and noxious chemicals, we plodded along and tried to research what grew and how to match the pests!

On this last trip we find that our neighbours are copying what we do and even the Ministry people are advising farmers to grow and use “our” plants for pest control!!!!

Anyway, this articles excites me, but I certainly realise that the farming world has little notion of turning. Only the general public can decide how the future of farming will look by making their choices.

READ ON

IT’S becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I’m not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn’t reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside – and no downside at all – associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it’s a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsanto about agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.).  In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, “See? We have to remain with conventional.”

The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it’s moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors – who represent the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country’s leading agricultural universities – are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other non-chemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming – more thoughtful and less reflexive – requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, “There’s no cost assigned to environmental externalities” – the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the “cheap” standard American diet – “and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned.”

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to “environmental externalities” can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us – or at least those whose well-being doesn’t rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn’t a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.

For a year now we have a new 6 hectare farm, managed by a young couple, with this same plan. Its a 10 year plan and we’ll see how it goes. We have added agroforestry and a wood lot and of course wells and pumps, for our particular circumstances in Malawi.