A dedicated micro credit fund for rural Madagascar

 
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$12,308
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Oct 8, 2014

Potatoes - a failure story with a happy end

Agricultural Workshop Participants - Women
Agricultural Workshop Participants - Women's Group

The invitation by GlobalGiving to post fail forward stories was an interesting challenge for us. It gave us a chance to look at our work from an outside perspective, and at the same time provides us with a venue to write a thought piece or a critical reflection that does not focus directly on achievements or goals like other project reports.

2007 was a great year for Zahana. First of all, we raised the funds needed to launch our project. Rooted in our participatory development approach, we successfully built a clean water system (still running today in its 8th year) and, once again together with the community, their school. (This is explained in more detail on our website). Because of this success we had a very good standing in the community, as we had built the trust that our joint projects deliver what we set out to accomplish.

We were ready to tackle the third priority of the development goals the community set: crop improvement.

Based on our philosophy that local problems require local solutions, we hired an agricultural expert who lived in the community nearby. As it so happened, he was the father of one of our teachers, which assured us that he knew the people, social networks, taboos, climate and agricultural conditions in our rural village. We paid him at the time a fair consultant wage, which was quite a hefty sum (much more than a teacher's monthly salary) and asked him to conduct a hands-on workshop. He showed up on a motorbike, which for the local context is a very impressive status symbol (comparable to a fundraising advisor for a small nonprofit in the US showing up in a Maserati.)

We assembled the women's group and all the interested farmers for a workshop. Our water system had been completed the year before. A water faucet located right next to the school gave easy unlimited access to watering needs. He selected a piece of land right next to the school. It was very flat and had not been farmed before. He recommended growing a variety of crops (see website report), last but not least potatoes as the main new crop. Nobody in the village had planted potatoes before. He assured us that this was the ideal location and that with some judicious watering, a completely new crop could be introduced in the village overnight, one that could be grown outside of the rice growing cycle. The women's group dug up the land (by hand of course) and planted potatoes under his supervision.

To make a long story short: the potato crop was an utter failure. Exposed to the blazing sun on top of the mountain, the newly planted potatoes grew very well in the beginning and later withered away in the heat. Not a single potato was harvested.

The worst unanticipated consequence for us was that we lost all credibility with the community. They equated Zahana with the agricultural expert. It took us quite a while to gain the community's trust again. Not only did we spend a sizable amount of our scarce donations at the time on a local agricultural expert, the much higher price was the community's trust.

Now to the solution. We want to tell the reader in advance: this is a story within stories, but rest assured, we will return to potatoes.

One of the saving graces in this entire fiasco was: one of the farmers ignored to the agricultural experts advice.  He planted his potatoes down by the creek and former water hole next to the shade of a mango tree. His potato harvest was phenomenal. Two years in a row. At the same time it showed that growing a new crop was indeed feasible –with the right conditions. In addition, potatoes are highly sought-after in the market and the bigger village nearby.

In talking with the villagers we found out that the agricultural expert had also overlooked teaching the villagers that you can only eat the tubers in the ground, the actual potatoes, but not the fruit that grows on the green plant looking surprisingly like tomatoes (both nightshades). These are toxic. When potatoes were introduced in Prussia in the 17th century farmers ate the fruits on top by mistake. Rumor has it that quite a few died. King Frederick II of Prussia had to eat potatoes in public to prove to his subjects that humans can indeed eat potatoes. The villagers were amazed when we told them this story. While most likely nobody knows who the King of Prussia was, it had a great impact that a King needed to publically eat eating something to prove that it's edible. But since this fact comes with a story that everybody will re-tell, everybody, not only in our village, will know very soon not to eat the poisonous fruits on top of the potato plant, should they ever plant it. Educational message accomplished, failure to mention a dangerous fact was remedied.

But now to the real solution: In our second village of Fiarenana Jean was a well-trained master gardener. Years back he had been sent for an extensive agricultural training far away from his village. But that project failed because the NGO’s funding ran out and all his expertise went untapped. He approached us with the proposal to hire him. Again, with microcredit in mind, we thought we pay him for the initial 6 to 12 month and after he's established he can sell his seedlings in his village and the neighboring communities and earn a living this way. In addition, we thought that while he was on Zahana’s payroll, he should spend half of his time teaching gardening at our school. Basically a two-for-one deal for us.

Results where phenomenal. He has an incredible green thumb and he provided the community with seedlings and training. With the help of the parents and students, he grew a huge variety of vegetables in the school gardens (photos on our website).

After twelve months came the moment of truth: it was time to cut the ties and let the budding entrepreneur walk on his own. Little did we know that the next failure was lurking. Very politely Jean, our master gardener, explained to us that he was not inclined to go on his own. He felt uncomfortable charging his friends and neighbors for seeds, seedlings and expertise. He explained he’d rather return to rice farming, not his first choice, than working with the insecurity of a self-employed gardener in the community and potentially be faced with no income and starvation. The dilemma: microcredit philosophy requires that projects become sustainable by supporting themselves. We could either lose a brilliant gardener and schoolteacher, or reconsider our own assumptions and continue to employ him. After much deliberation and discussion, we chose the latter. Paying the salary for by now two master gardeners, has become an integral part of our annual microcredit budget. The payoff of this small investment, employing truly local community advisors, has paid back our investment tenfold ever since (just think reforestation).

In 2009 our master gardener Jean approached us with the idea of planting potatoes. Based on the prior fiasco, we thought: “not potatoes again”. But this time it was different. Different, first and foremost because the request came from the community; not for the community from an outside expert advisor. In participatory development requests from the community have priority, or it would not be participatory.

To make this long story short, since it is documented on our website (link): we provided Jean with 100 kg of potatoes. They were bought locally in a market in Madagascar's prime potato growing region. He distributed 2 kilos to every family in the village. Over 2 tons of potatoes were harvested only a few months later, making this a 20-fold return on our investment. But if you want to find out why this story also has a mini failure built-in, since no potatoes were sold for much needed cash, you need to go to our website and read the story in full. Just a hint: with 2 tons of potatoes harvested nobody went hungry during the season that is called ‘époque dure’ or ‘hard times’, with is a nice euphemism for ‘going hungry’. What is fit for Kings, is fit for our villagers anytime.

Best regards,

Markus Faigle

Agricultural Expert (with shoes) teaching planting
Agricultural Expert (with shoes) teaching planting
Ignoring expert advice: Growing potatoes successfu
Ignoring expert advice: Growing potatoes successfu
Potato vendor in a market in Madagasscar
Potato vendor in a market in Madagasscar
Jean - our master gardener from Fiarenana
Jean - our master gardener from Fiarenana
Distributing 2kg of potatoes each to the community
Distributing 2kg of potatoes each to the community

Links:

Oct 3, 2014

Artemisia a success story (not a Greek Goddess)

Artemisia annua grown in Madagascar Sept. 28,
Artemisia annua grown in Madagascar Sept. 28, '14

Atemesia or sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) is one of the most promising herbal medicines to treat Malaria. Having been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries, and with no cure or preventative drug for Malaria in sight, Artemisia has sparked interest in the last few years. It needs to be harvested within a few months of planting (as an annual crop). A few years ago we met a small NGO promoting Artemisia and an income-generating project at a small development fair in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo.

We stayed in touch and we had our first official cooperation this year. A company in Madagascar processes the dried plants and produces a drug based on artemisinin, the desired compound. Since Artemesia is in short supply in Madagascar they contract with farmers all over the country to grow it for and with them.

The approach how they work with farmers is different, making a partnership with Zahana attractive for us. Not only do they provide the seeds and the training necessary in growing, harvesting and drying it. They also come to the farmers to pick up their harvest from the villages, a very important factor in a country where transportation is challenging, putting it politely. They also pay the farmers a guaranteed price, agreed upon prior to planting, giving farmers the security of a prospective income without post harvest market fluctuations.

As it turned out this year, growing Artemisia in the climate of our villages is ideal. It is growing well, beyond expectations. It will be ready for harvest within the next two to three weeks.

Some of you may remember that we had talked about the “époque dure” or the “hard times” the dry, rainless period facing Malagasy farmers before the new rice-planting season, when people all too often run out of food (September to December, depending on the year’s season). It turns out that the climate during the ‘époque dure’ is very well suited for Artemisia cultivation, when very few other crops grow. The opportunity to grow something that can not only be planted but also harvested and sold for cash in the ‘hard times’, is a godsend for our villagers.

So far our partners, the buyers of Artemisia, had been growing it some 300 miles 500 km (or a two days drive) further south in the country. It is the first time they have worked with farmers in our climate, since Zahana provided access a self-organized strong community.

With more and more farmers interested in growing Artemisia, now that they see the initial success of their neighbors, we are exploring options for building a small scale processing facility, where some of the steps of refinement can be done on location. It would increase the price paid for the product and reduce the amount of bulk needed to be shipped, or transported, (think carbon footprint fueling income generation).

Artemisis plant close up
Artemisis plant close up
Artemisia annua grown in Madagascar Sept. 28,
Artemisia annua grown in Madagascar Sept. 28, '14
Master gardener Jean in his Artemisia field
Master gardener Jean in his Artemisia field
Artemisia farmers
Artemisia farmers
Artemisia with a family of farmers
Artemisia with a family of farmers
Jul 5, 2014

Health Center Inauguration

Medical supplies for the new health center
Medical supplies for the new health center

This is a project report that is a great pleasure to post. It affects every facet of our work as it impacts everybody living in our villages.

It is our great privilege and honor to announce that the Health Center in our village of Fiadanana has been officially inaugurated at the end of May 2014!

Now, after an official ribbon cutting ceremony, the healthcare center is ready to see patients. One of our proudest achievements is that the new health center will host the community’s own traditional healer Raleva to work side-by-side with a Ministry of Health certified trained midwife. To have such a true healing center in our village has been a dream for the community and Zahana since our very first community meeting over a decade ago. (See health center’s groundbreaking 2013.)

Raleva is one of the most respected and revered traditional healers in this part of the country. People travel far to see him and solicit his treatment advice. To honor him, and to pay him the respect that is due by providing him with a modern building where he can practice his healing art, is a very joyous occasion for Zahana. Zahana’s founder, Dr. Ihanta, told us laughingly, in a Skype conversation: “most people assume that a traditional healer is there to assist the Western trained midwife. I'm quite sure, in our case this will be the other way around and the Western trained person will work with or may be under the guidance off our highly respected traditional healer. We really like the English expression hand-in-hand to describe this relationship. Yes, we will, for instance, vaccinate all of our children with the help of the paramedic, or use antibiotics where this is the best treatment option, as part of integrating Western medicine in our Health Center. ‘Do no harm’ is our guiding principal in all of this”.

This health center inauguration gives us again a great opportunity to showcase to everybody visiting our village the importance of access to clean and safe water. There are thousands of communities in Madagascar that desperately need access to basic healthcare, but the fact that our village does indeed already have access to clean and safe drinking water made the French NGO decided to build the health center in our village.

Clean and safe drinking water remains the most effective public health measure for Zahana. It was priority #1 for the community, when we started with our participatory development in 2005. This is again illustrated in the fact, as Dr. Ihanta, Zahana's founder and a physician herself, said: "We don't need diarrhea medication or prevention, because we don't have diarrhea anymore, since the village has clean drinking water. For me as a medical doctor the most rewarding result is that no child, or adult for that matter, has died of water borne diseases, since we have clean water. It could well be that the villagers themselves are not aware of that, but for me as a physician and a parent, this is the most important and significant indicator I can think of. We determined this very important finding already over two years ago, and I am very happy this has not changed since.” Later in the conversation she added: “It is also a great savings for the Ministry of Health if we don’t have to spend money on medication or treatment of preventable diseases.  This may not be too familiar for a Western audience, but in a country with scares resources this is an important factor”.

As you can see in the photos, dignitaries and representatives from different branches of government attended our health center opening. The actual ribbon cutting was by a representative of the Ministry of Water. We thought it was very important to show them firsthand by having them come into our village, that a community built water system is not only feasible, but also working very well. (See water story.)   It is a great honor for us and the community he was joined (in the photo) by the brother of the President of Madagascar and his wife.

In some of the other pictures you see that Zahana was able to show to the visiting dignitaries the solar water pasteurization in action. The school of our sister village Fiarenana has been using solar water pasteurization successfully for over two years for all of the drinking water needs for their students. Since solar water pasteurization only works if the sun is shining, they have to resort to boiling water on cloudy or rainy days. Again, at Zahana we believe that seeing the results of our work might have bigger impact than just hearing about an abstract concept of solar water pasteurization.

We have posted more photos on our website, since it is hard to choose only six from so many. It is especially wonderful to see all the students proudly welcoming the visitors to their village.  

Ihanta and Markus

Dignitaries arriving for the inauguration
Dignitaries arriving for the inauguration
Students welcoming the guests
Students welcoming the guests
The health center building
The health center building
Solar water pasteurizer models
Solar water pasteurizer models
Children waiting for the guest and visitors
Children waiting for the guest and visitors
Apr 1, 2014

Rice seed fund is at the core of all activities

Children pounding rice in Madagascar
Children pounding rice in Madagascar

We implement two different mechanisms of microcredit on rice production: One for the community at large, where they can borrow seeds from Zahana from October to December and pay it back (in seeds) after the harvest.

The second project is for groups to use the community rice storage building to store rice after harvest to be sold later when the price is good.

Schools in both villages are involved in the second rice project. They are cosidered a 'group', similar toa women's group of a parents group. Their goal is to make money for their everyday needs (chalk, soap, seeds, school supplies and school food) and to save money for the future when they may have to support their own school.

As an added benefit students learn early on, that saving and not seeling right away a part of the harvest until the price goes up has direct financial rewards for the farmer. The initial funds to buy the rice for the school project (from our own farmers), were provided from Zahana’s microcredit fund. As we see this as an investment in the future, the entire amount, plus the profits from selling the rice at a later date become part of the schools own microcredit fund, to be used over and over again.

Rice stored in the communal grainary
Rice stored in the communal grainary
Dec 24, 2013

Update to our December Microcredit report

Seed packages for vegetables
Seed packages for vegetables

In our world of constant Twitter, Facebook and YouTube feeds, it is an important reminder, that not everything works everywhere all the time seamlessly. Dropbox is a marvelous invention. A few years back it made burning a CD and walk to the post office in Madagascar. Prior to that may be four weeks later the CD might drop in our PO Box at some time, if it didn't get lost en route.

But all this modern of technology only work, if you have a constant power supply and a constant Internet connection. With blackouts, or roving brownouts in Madagascar, it is difficult to send large files with e.g. dropbox, if your Wi-Fi connection gets interrupted all the time. Hence, due to the lack of a constant power supply, the pictures that should have complemented the December project reports only made it across the oceans a few days later and are included in this update.

The pictures are from the gardens that are currently planted and growing around the houses in Fiadanana. These pictures are from Dec 17, 2013 and as up-to-date as possible.  The seeds, proudly displayed by our master gardener Bary are part of Zahana’s “seed fund”, where new crops are introduced by giving the seeds to the community. Although it is hard sometimes hard to imagine, it is important to keep in mind, that culturally growing vegetables is not the norm for farmers Madagascar. Most of these farmers are proud rice farmers, and growing every anything else but rice and corn, is not looked upon favorably. The fact, that people are growing vegetables in Fiadanana at all is another indication, that our activities has been successful. You can learn about more about these challenges on our website, e.g. school gardens or seed fund.

Here is our past report for a few days ago:

The community of Fiarenana is well in control of their micro credit projects and it is running well. As a new approach this year the school was given money to buy rice in March after the harvest and after they sold it at a higher price later in the year they returned the initial loan on time by the beginning of December.

Despite past experiences, we wanted to give the women’s group in Fiadanana another chance, after all not everybody is a born businessperson. Unfortunately it didn`t work so well this season either; once again they used the money for another purpose than initially agreed on, but promised to reimburse Zahana by March.

Digging a new veggy garden
Digging a new veggy garden
Growing Vegetables Dec 2013
Growing Vegetables Dec 2013
Vegetabole garden in Fiadanana
Vegetabole garden in Fiadanana
Growing food next the the home
Growing food next the the home

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Organization

Zahana

Antananarivo, Capital, Madagascar
http://zahana.org

Project Leader

Markus Faigle

Volunteer
Honolulu, HI United States

Where is this project located?

Map of A dedicated micro credit fund for rural Madagascar