AIDS Widows Put Faith in Web

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Linking donors, entrepreneurs next step in aid

By Melanie Brooks
The Ottawa Citizen (August 19, 2002) — Mary Kasanda, a 55-year-old widow in one of the world's poorest countries, has never used the Internet. But she's betting on it to get her out of poverty.

In an urban slum of crumbling shacks, where people buy dirty water in dirty buckets, Ms. Kasanda and 499 other widows of AIDS victims are involved in one of the most innovative programs to hit the foreign aid scene in years. Their project, a mushroom farm just outside of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's largest city, is posted online at DevelopmentSpace. com, a new site that connects aid groups and entrepreneurs in developing countries with donors around the world.

No governments, no applications; just develop the idea, post it online, and wait. Funding might come from a banker in New York, or a church group in Winnipeg, or a child doing a good deed in Japan.

"This is a next step in foreign aid," says DevelopmentSpace president Mari Kuraishi. "People who have been giving money through charity organizations, but want to give directly to a project, this would be one way of doing that. Individuals can pick which projects they want to fund."

Ms. Kuraishi developed the site with Dennis Whittle. They are former World Bank analysts who quit the organization two years ago. They had organized a venture fair for the World Bank in 1999, inviting groups around the world to propose ideas in a bid for grant money.

"In six weeks, we had over 1,100 proposals," said Ms. Kuraishi, whose company is based in Washington, D.C. "We realized there was a pent-up supply of people who had good ideas, but not the resources to implement them."

"It became clear to us that the World Bank didn't have a monopoly on good ideas."

After a year and a half of planning, the site launched in February, and there are already more than 150 projects listed worldwide. Depending on the size of the project, it can take as little as four months to post the idea and raise the money. One of them, a plan to install toilets in a school in rural India, has reached its financing goal of $5,250 and is set to begin construction.

In Dar es Salaam, the AIDS widows greet this news with excitement.

"When we hear other projects are starting, we get very anxious," says Ms. Kasanda, to the murmured agreement of the women seated behind her. "We are ready to work."

More than 40 widows sit on the floor and crammed into tiny wooden desks meant for children in a small preschool. ABCs and smiley faces are painted in cheerful colors on the walls. The owner of the school has contributed to the fund, and lets the women use the classroom for meetings.

One by one, the women rise to tell their stories. They range in age from their early 20s to late 60s, some of them pale and thin, showing the signs of illness, some of them slow and frail, the signs of age.

Most of their husbands have died within the past 15 years of AIDS, leaving them to raise their children. In the Tanzanian tradition, a man's family takes all the property and possessions after his death, leaving his widow nothing. Most widows return to their families, or rent small apartments.

quot;We try to sell things, pancakes on the street, vegetables. But with large extended families, we live hand-to-mouth. Sometimes, we don't make anything. But we don't have any choice. As widows, we have nothing," says Hadija Pazi, the mother of six.

The spectre of AIDS makes things worse. When a man dies, there is immediate suspicion of the disease. An unforeseen side effect of AIDS education is that most people here now know how the disease is spread; they know if a husband dies of the disease, his wife is likely infected. So they ostracize her.

"I felt great loneliness," says Talaka Nyanja, whose husband died in 1993, leaving her with five children. "You think in the world you are the only unfortunate one."

Not anymore, they say. Now, they have the promise of work, and income, and each other for support.

The women are part of the Community Development Venture Fund, a DevelopmentSpace project that will, when funded, provide money to more than 20 programs in Tanzania. Stanley Bash, the head of a small Tanzanian non-governmental organization with the ambitious name "Save the World Fund," organized the project with the help of another NGO in the United States , Washington Interactive Labor Market Access.

Save the World Fund had tried to get government funding -- Mr. Bash applied to the Canadian International Development Agency -- but was denied because the project was too small.

But even a small farm can make a lot of mushrooms, says Li Zhiguo, a small, smiling, Chinese mushroom expert determined to make the AIDS widows the largest mushroom producers in Africa. (And that might not be hard; there aren't very many mushroom farms in Africa.)

"I have grown mushrooms here for five years, and there is a great demand from hotels and grocery stores," says Mr. Li, standing in he 3.2-hectare field outside the city that is being prepared for the mushroom huts. "It is very expensive to import them, so we can grow them cheaper. Eventually, we could even export them to Europe , or the United States."

Mushrooms need to be grown in the dark, so Mr. Li, a civil engineer, is designing low-cost buildings out of easily available materials: coconut-tree leaves for the roofs and walls, small trees for the beams, clay and dirt for the foundations.

Once the mushroom farm is underway, Mr. Li expects the yield to be 100 to 200 kilograms a day; by the second year, that should be up to 500 kilograms. At market prices, that means each of the women will make $1.80 a day in the first year; by the second, they will make $4.50 a day.

The average Tanzanian makes only $1.50 a day.

"This is a lot of money for these women," says Mr. Bash. "Most Tanzanians never achieve this amount of money."

The mushroom farm is still in the "Create a Plan" stage on the DevelopmentSpace Web site, even though some of the construction has begun. Mr. Li says it will cost about $50,000 to start, and production should begin in September.

"So by Christmas, there will be a lot of mushrooms in Dar," says Mr. Li.

Despite the enthusiasm, Mr. Bash and Mr. Li know their workforce will be difficult to maintain; many of them will die of AIDS. The women work in groups of five, so if one fal ls ill, the others can continue and the ailing woman will still get a share of the profits.

"Life is tough. It is tough now, it will be still tough. But it will be better," says Adegiza Kasisi, whose husband died three years ago. She has seven children. "We know some of the women have AIDS. We know some will die. But we know we can work. We know we have hope."

The women are prepared to pay a return to anyone who sponsors their project, but for now, DevelopmentSpace is set up to only accept donations.

"Eventually, we would like to make it so people can offer low-interest loans to groups, or make investments in projects that would create a financial return," says Ms. Kuraishi. DevelopmentSpace is a business, and a seven-percent fee is charged, which is included in the funding cost of each project.

The mushroom farm project has until Aug. 27 to complete the "Create a Plan" stage; from there, Mr. Bash will work with the DevelopmentSpace workers to refine it, and then it opens up to funding.

Ms. Kasanda has never used the Internet, but some of her 10 children have, and they have told her about it.

"The Internet is everywhere. People can read about us anywhere. And they can help us," she says confidently. "With all the world to draw from, we know we will raise the money."