President in the warm heart of Africa

  When her Excellency President Banda from Malawi returns to her country after a visit to Nigeria, this doesn’t pass unnoticed. Along the road to the airport, police officers are frequent. At the airport itself, there is a large line of ‘guards of honour’ (no idea how to call them, you see them at the picture in red). Apart from luxury cars, at least seven Hummers are waiting and ten motorpolice officers, as well as a great bunch of army officials.
And then there is the public, dressed in her political colour orange, singing and blowing the vuvuzela and dancing for this President they love. President Banda, once she arrives, only walks on the red carpet, not on the cold and hard airport cement. The ceremony takes maybe 20 minutes, not too long to become boring, not too short as if it were just a necessity.
It must be fun to be welcomed like this after a journey abroad! Malawi is called ‘the warm heart of Africa’ and makes that name true in many aspects 🙂

What people in Zimbabwe learned (and will Malawi follow?)



One of the Stephanos managers told me this, that in Zimbabwe people have learned something during the last years that people in Malawi haven’t learned yet. The situation in Zimbabwe has been dramatic due to political circumstances. Donors refused to give any more money to the country. The food production was very low. It ended up in a situation where there was nothing to be had for ordinary people. Even the crime rate went down, because it was no use stealing anything from others; because others wouldn’t have anything either so there was nothing to be stolen…And since the donors gave no money, the people felt completely without help. This has brought a major change in their mentality: they started to help themselves. If there was any land not being used for agriculture, it would now be developed by ordinary people at their own initiative. Teenagers were looking for possibilities to contribute after school. People have become more independant, more active and proud.
In Malawi, everybody is still relying on donors. People forget about following their own values and ideas and focus on donor satisfaction because the big fear of any Malawian is: what if the donor will stop giving money! This is a general mentality that children also learn at a very young age. Remember: 40% of Malawi’s national budget comes from donors! So the withdrawal of donors would have dramatic effects. However, anybody can predict that such a donor-situation will not last forever. Does Malawi need a crisis like Zimbabwe to create a turning point?
Personally I am surprised to see Malawi this poor, 1 of the 5 poorest countries in the world, I am still puzzled by it. Malawi has strong assets with a beautiful lake, mountain, wild parcs and lots of land that is not being exploited for agriculture yet. And: the customers for agricultural products (think of India, China) are already there, they don’t even need to look for them. There is a lot of unused potential. I have seen countries with ‘less potential’ and better results. Yet it is normal in Malawi to ask white people for money all the time also individually (if you’re white, try a walk on the street and you will notice). What could create the shock effect for Malawians to take their destiny more in one hand (and for donors to let them do it) – preferably without the dramatic situation Zimbabwians have suffered from.

When inclusiveness met apartheid…


In our last workshop at Stephanos Foundation today, participants looked for role models in change and innovation. They came up with a list that is different from what European groups would make, except for Mandela: he is always everywhere present in the list of role models participants come up with.
Afterwards one of the managers told me that Malawi did not deal with South Africa in the apartheid period the same way other African countries did. The first president of Malawi Mr. Banda was in favour of dialogue, much in line with the inclusiveness that I experienced in Malawi during the last ten days. While other countries boycotted South Africa, Mr. Banda refused to stop his contacts and met with the president of South Africa. But when he did that, he made a statement. He helt a black child on one hand, a white child on the other hand and like that he showed that all humans are equal and that that would be the way forward also for South Africa. Mr. Banda got political ennemies in several African countries because of his vision, my manager told me, but he had a vision that suited Malawian culture and did not give it up. Later, he might have become more like a dictator, but for this attitude towards South Africa he can be considered as a role model.
I think I learned at least as much as the managers of Stephanos Foundation who followed my workshops. For me, it was like presenting familiar themes and practices in a completely unfamiliar context. Maybe it could have been better if I had known more about the local context – on the other hand, this might have been the key for interaction and participation of the managers, as I asked explicitly for their help at the beginning.
One thing is for sure, themes like culture, diversity, change, innovation and even project planning don’t differ per country: only the context differs – and the language was not an easy step to take. The workshops were highly appreciated and I highly appreciated to be given this opportunity that was really ‘out of the box’ for me. Not easy, but very rewarding!

Aid for orphans in Malawi

  In Malawi plenty of NGO’s have started an orphanage. The amount of orphans here is incredibly high, partly because of HIV/AIDS related deaths. Precise figures can be found in this Unicef publication: Unicef is not in favor of orphanages. Guiding principles for Unicef are (amongst others) that the family is the first line of defence for the protection of children and that community child protection practices are the heart of any child protection system.
The Malawian government is also not happy with orphanages and wants to abolish them if possible. Arguments in favour of that are for example:
– children are taken away from their family and community context, and thus derooted and alienated from their origins, relatives, values and traditions; it harms the children’s development
– for the price of 1 child in an orphanage, 8 children can receive help in a community
– most of the children living in institutions have a surviving parent or close relative, and they most commonly entered orphanages because of poverty, not because the parents or relatives do not want to take care of them
– research has shown that cash given directly to families is more effective than subsidies given to orphanages
– creating orphanages serves the donors more than the children
See also:
The last argument is exactly why the change of policy to abolish orphanages and work directly with communities is difficult to accept for NGO’s. It is more easy to find donors for a single child support than for a community. And it is more easy to work with children only and not with entire communities. Also, an orphanage gives NGO’s and donors the possibility to control the complete situation of a child, to offer the education the NGO thinks is important and eventually ignore their background.
In an orphanage like Kondanani – where Madonna recently got her children from – children are obliged to speak English only . They get a very good education in a merely western environment; a good kick-off in life, is the thought. Kondanani has been led thoroughly during many years and lots of donors contributed to create a world in its own, with fences around it to protect it. After primary education, various kinds of secondary education are offered and now even a Kondanani university might start on the premises. Is this kind of closed and safe environment for children, from baby until student, good or bad? One thing is sure, now that a (donor/NGO)dream that started almost 20 years ago is coming to its completion, the idea of ‘offering aid for orphans within their community only’ will not be received with a warm and open mind… This is just one example out of many. The Stephanos Foundation that also runs an orphanage in a compound is the first to be willing to cooperate for change – Unicef considers to make a pilot out of it.
Intriguing is the fact that donors/NGO’s do not automatically see the government of Malawi as leading when it comes to policies for Malawi children; they do not seem to consider their own position as supportive or additional to Malawi policies. Do they have the right to resist the government (and UN), for example by the experience and expertise they have about what works in practice, or by the money they raise, or because of the responsibility they feel for the children they are caring for in their orphanage already? Or can their attitude be considered as arrogant and postcolonial, as an ‘addiction to help’ like Dambisa Moyo describes in her book Dead Aid?
Nothing is easy here in Malawi. Yesterday’s newspaper mentioned the opening of a new road made by China and a new bridge made by Japan. It is difficult to take a government serious when it does not even make its own roads and bridges or when the members of parliament are on strike (really!) for a 137% increase of wages. However, by not taking the government serious for sure there will be no structural, sustainable change and orphanages will be needed forever (which, of course, is good news for the addicted-to-aid part of the donors/NGO’s).

Mulanje Massif in Malawi: again unknown beauty

My book, the Bradt Guide on Malawi (excellent book by the way), was giving high expectations from the Mulanje Massif – a 650 km2 granite mountainblock ‘dumped’ into a landscape of tea plantations at the southeast of Blantyre. The highest top is about 3000 meter but since we had only one day, I knew already that the top was not for us. However, I was curious to see the place as the book spoke about quite some touristic facilities. So I seriously looked around to find out about them.
The conclusion is that from the point of view ‘heavy hiker’ the basic needs are there. In the mountain good huts can be found (however, you have to bring your own food for all the days that you want to spend in the mountain) and the guides are well organized. There is even a rescue team that came into action yesterday when a Swiss tourist broke her leg high in the mountain. The rescue team walks by the way: no helicopters here like in Switzerland, the poor tourist might have wished she would have stayed home in her own mountains…. There are more shops than average in Mulanje town and even several hotels and a single restaurant that look well equiped. All together, facilities are a lot less than in the Alps or Pyrenees, but a lot better than in the Georgian Caucasian mountains where I spent ten days a few years ago. If ever time will be abundant, I’d love to do the ‘several days’ tour within the Mulanje Massif: except from guides asking for money all the time, it is really an attractive place.
We also spent some time at the wood market at the Likhubula Forestry Station. There is time to look at products in the stands without being hasseled which is very nice and not like everywhere in Malawi. Also prices are reasonable so negotiating is a more friendly activity than average. At the picture above, you see negociations about a big order from the Stephanos Foundation’s general manager who bought beautiful things to be sold later in the Netherlands for the benefit of Stephanos. The complete text on the shopside shown at the picture is ‘no food for a lazy shopkeeper’. Overall I noticed Malawians have a nice sense of humour 🙂
Was the place crowded by tourists? No, it was even less busy than the wildparcs we visited but the visitors were not locals this time, they came from different countries. The Mulanje Information Office keeps a record of the tourists passing by: English, Dutch, Canadian and Israelian tourists seem to dominate. So here is another good place where you can help strengthen the Malawian economy while having a great time yourself!

All managers are alike!

Today I worked with the management team of Stephanos on several principles for strategic planning. Interesting was the drawings they came up with after making a stakeholder analysis (see above). I will not explain them to you here but if you have been in sessions like this, you can certainly see what I mean.
Another remarkable aspect is that people will stay in a session without a break if this is what is expected from them. In The Netherlands, people usually start to ask about the break within 45 minutes time – it is not just important to have the break, it is also very important to know when exactly it will be. Here it isn’t.
Furthermore you can see from the pictures that spending money in expensive places is not for managers here. We sat in a basic room, normally used for the vocational training of Stephanos students and: without coffee or tea. Nobody was eating or drinking during the session. That did not positively or negatively influence the results I think. People just perform under the circumstances that they are used to perform. In a country like Malawi with an average yearly income of 250 euro, people do not eat and drink all the time: forget about the bag with candies and sweets that finds its way over the training tables while the workshop is going on. No such thing here.
But, miraculously, looking at your cell phone during the workshop is a favorite activity both here and in Western Europe. When it comes to that kind of communication, all managers are alike 🙂 The same goes for content: managers are managers, and they want to get things done. Give them ideas for that, and you have their interest.

What do you see? (2)


The Malawian Fever Tree was during some time suspected to be the cause of malaria, as this tree was found particularly in areas where malarial fever often occured. It is a very beautiful tree with a shiny, almost glowing bright green-yellow bark but of course nobody can like it when it is supposed to bring disease.

Later on, people found out that the malaria mosquito who is the real cause of malaria likes the same swampy areas as the Fever Tree does. So the Fever Tree was blamed not for what it was, but for what it looked like…

Ever heard or maybe even been the victim of this kind of mechanism?Ever drawn conclusions yourself just on the basis of that first impression?

Fortunately this particular situation was resolved and we can now enjoy the Fever Tree for what it is: an special and unique kind of Acacia!

Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi: unknown beauty


In Majete Wildlife Reserve an enthusiast and very friendly staff works hard to turn this unique spot into a place more frequented by tourists. Malawi has many beautiful places but tourists are few. In Majete, only several thousands of visitors pass by in a year time: many of them locals, or staff of international projects in Malawi. It is good that these people spend time here, and it will be better if also tourists discover this place.
Wildlife is abundant. Among the animals to be seen in this reserve are elephants, buffalos, gudus, impalas, nyalas, warthogs, hippos, crocodiles. Rhinos and leopards also live here but usually don’t show themselves. Moreover the reserve is great for birdlovers and treelovers and from tomorrow lions will be re-introduced. Like some other animals, poachers hunted lions in the ’90s until extinction. But the balance is coming back and will be well protected by dedicated guards.
A visit to this reserve costs you now (maybe more in the future) 14,29 euro! Combine it with the nearby Nyala parc (entrance fee 1,86 euro) to see a great bunch of giraffes, many more nyalas and monkeys and unique ‘fever trees’ and you lived a great special day. One of the best  ways to help a country is to spend your money to things you like to do there and enjoy them. So far, extra facilities like transport to the parcs or restaurants are scarce but with the venue of more tourists, development will be strongly encouraged…

Pigs, kids, and why it works in Malawi


On the south side of Blantyre, the Stephanos Foundation runs a project that is based on participation of villagers and their empowerment. Many people work in the tea plantations that cover the hills in the area: in good days, the wages can be 600 kwacha(= 1,70 euro) per day. Workers of Stephanos sat together with the community to find out how to improve their situation and this is how the pig-project took shape. Isn’t that a great way of working?! This is what the community wanted and so this is what they were going to do. So different from projects that start from the idea of the donors, and what donors think should be done and paid for…
9 female and 2 male pigs were given to the community as a start. The female pigs are given to a child that has to take care of it; when the child is at school there is a watchman (usually woman). The male pigs go around to do their favorite thing and this is how young pigs are created. In general, a pig gets 6 young ones. 2 young ones are given away to other children to make the project grow, the rest can stay at the house where they were born. Now in a few years time, already 300 children are participating in this program. A committee that has a real constitution and a serious chair is overviewing the project and making decisions.
The value of a pig is 5 times more than a goat, between 42 and 57 euro. Compare that to the income the tea plantations offer…! So now children can fund their school fee for secondary education because of the pigs. And their surroundings are profiting too. There is already more money than necessary, so the committee decided to invest in agriculture. It was their idea, not the idea of Stephanos.
Stephanos offers the encouragement and the knowledge input for what the committee wants. And they offered a pump for water that can be handled by feet (so no need for electricity, oil or whatever that will make the pump stop when there is no cash money – very practical). The villagers have made a beautiful field where over 10.000 oignons are growing now. One oignon can be sold at a price of 30-40 kwacha (say 10 eurocents). So next October they expect a big profit… and it might be invested again.
This project is not a Millennium Village: there was no ‘integrated total approach’ of things, no fancy barn, no mechanical work on the fields, no manager. But it has a very good chance to be sustainable because all of it is run by the community itself in the first place – and it is affordable without donor because the people run their own business and don’t rely on the donor’s money.
I like to add one thing, and that is that I found the villages we passed very clean. The reason could be that this is a different area, with even a different tribe, but it was striking the eye (also when I went ‘at random’ to the toilet in one of the houses) and I do think it matters. Consciousness of health and hygiene, even in poverty, is a great asset for self-esteem and development. The sheds for the pigs were well made and looked after. Animals can stink and reduce the pleasure of living at a place, but this was not at all the case because the cages were also well maintained.
Photographs above: the pigs in their cage, and a girl who is the happy owner of a pig, with her watch(wo)man (green shirt) on her side, and the field with the oignons.


Seba culture and diversity workshops in Malawi


By now I have given 2 workshops on culture and diversity for the management team of the Stephanos Foundation. Beforehand I was wondering whether it would be possible to be of any benefit, as my knowledge about Malawi and Africa in general seemed to be low. Wasn’t it a risk to be too western in my approach, far from ‘the way we do things here’ in Malawi? But after my 2 first workshops here I can say (with some relief) that it worked out very well, also in the context of Malawi.
The awareness about culture and diversity is much bigger here than average in Europe. Most of the management team has the Malawi nationality, but they come from different tribes and have team members from various backgrounds. In workshops in for example The Netherlands, participants sometimes feel compelled to discuss the notion of culture itself: does it really matter? Aren’t we all different so what’s the point? When this occurs, it is always a participant from the ‘dominant’ group and never a member of a minority group who brings up the discussion. There is little awareness of the very existence and influence of culture and diversity – regardless whether dominant individuals find it necessary or not…
Here in Malawi I meet with strong curiosity to learn more and know how it works and what a manager can do to make it work so that diverse talents are used for the job. Exercises from The Champagne Pool (see passed without any problem: be it informal rules of the organisation, what is my culture or the five dimensions of culture from Hofstede – it all suited Malawi and Stephanos reality. Also the Makeda game gave a lot of food for thought.
The fact that the Makeda game bears the name of the Ethiopean Queen of Sheba however did not seem to interest anyone. People are very practical here and not too nationalistic. Does training material come from America, Europe, Asia or Africa? No point as long as it works in the local context. In terms of Hofstede, there is a low uncertainty avoidance (low on ‘what is different is dangerous’, difference did not scare these managers off). And there is a good sense of humour, which is always nice to have. This makes me look forward to the other 2 workshops to come.


Creative use of waterpipes in Zomba

  Waterpipes were sent to Zomba by a donor in order to help create a better draining system. Part of those waterpipes – that by the way are a very good quality and quite expensive – found another destination as you can see on the picture above, they will never serve a draining system. Well, at least the water pipes were not just thrown away…
Some people suggest that systems like Western Europe has, cannot work here in Malawi anyway. For example something will get broken halfway the draining system and there will be no one or no money to repair it. So then all of the street or maybe even all of the village will stay without a good draining system. A more individual or ‘serial’ approach would do better than a community system. Could be true.
A thought that comes to my mind all the time is how creative people are here in Malawi. They might not use the products the way the ‘western world’ does, but they find new ways to use them for things that apparently matter to them and that are also lacking. If that creativity would be combined with a (long term) business attitude, what would we see happening in Malawi!

Millennium Village Southern Malawi

The UN is building Millennium Villages to accelerate development and the achievement of the millennium goals that were set. In many countries in Africa an integrated approach of agriculture, health care, education etc. is brought into practice. The MillenniumVillage in the Zomba region of Malawi contains a vaste area with a lot of very small villages and 35.000 people. What jumps in the eye at first sight is the larger scale of agriculture that is applied here, with the use of mechanics and new kinds of crops that are richer than the former ones (like the pieces of orange patatoes at the picture above). The project works with partners rather than donors (like the electricity company of Malawi), although visitors see a big sign of US Aid when they arrive.
The success formula to make this work was to have villagers involved from the beginning in the cooperation they formed, and also to give village chiefs a role in it. An increasing amount of farmers are now self supporting, getting crops from the cooperation and giving back a few bags of crops after harvesting – thus they guarantee the continuity of the project. See the picture of the barn above. They have some extra money now so that they can pay education fees for their children and have a little luxury at home.
The best breakthrough was when they started to talk business. In the beginning, ‘food security’ was in the center of the program. But when there was food security and they started to think of markets to sell their harvest to, that is when general interest and participation really grew. An important lesson learned in the MillenniumVillage is: start from the needs the people have (which can be different from the needs others tell them they have!).
Yet there is a lot of work to be done. It is clear that this is another project in Malawi that got a lot of outside / donor money put into. Managing the cooperation, building barns or other materials are not included in the ‘self-support’ so far. Health care has improved considerably in general, and specifically for pregnant women, but nobody pays a dime for health care. How sustainable can that model be? Well, they have some more years to go. The good news is that many visitors pass by to learn about the Millennium Village model and return to their own region full of ideas and inspiration.