Potatoes - A failure story with a happy ending

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.

What...Failure is a Feat?

By Roberta Ward Smiley - CEO and Founder

Kiki Biological Corridor - Planting DayFailure is a feat. It’s so true; we’ve learned this at La Reserva Forest Foundation and we’re proud to share our story, especially if it can help another non-profit realize what a valuable experience it is to “fail”. 

Our first reforestation projects were informal affairs. We would collect funding to implement the projects by holding a local annual fundraiser. Our first project was a one-kilometer long biological corridor adjacent to La Reserva forest preserve in northern Costa Rica. We were able to plant the project in June 2008 because we collected the funds by throwing a party featuring live music, a silent auction and Mexican cuisine. That was the Kiki Corridor project.

In 2009, we had a big barbecue that included rides on a sailboat in the local port on Lake Arenal with live music and dancing. This time our goal was to fund a project that included three separate areas owned by the same man, a foreign resident here in the lake area. Two of the properties were local inSabalito and Rio Piedras, while the other was in the Pacific coast community of Paraiso near Playa Junquillal in Guanacaste. We reached our fundraising goal and planted all three properties between June and October 2009, a total of six hectares and 6,000 trees.

One thing should be added here for the purpose of this “failure” story…up until now, we didn’t have any formal agreement or contract with the landowner. We didn’t see any reason for it since the people we were working with were personal friends or neighbors.

As with all of our projects, we maintain the trees for two years after the initial planting to keep them free of vines and grasses. After two years, they’ve usually developed enough to shade out the surrounding vegetation and be left on their own. We completed this maintenance on all three properties from 2009 to 2011, investing substantial amounts of time and funding in the travel, maintenance and wages paid to the crew. One day in 2011 the landowner called us to say he’d brought a “forest engineer” to look at the properties and the “engineer” was horrified with the native species we’d planted. He told the landowner that there was no timber there of any financial value, and that he’d be better off removing the “useless” trees and replacing them with more valuable timber tree species. And you know what? That’s exactly what he did. He cut down the beautiful, native trees we worked so hard to find, raise, and plant in order to establish a diverse forest restoration project – the kind that LRFF is so famous for today.

As difficult as this experience was, we’re grateful because this “failure” led to an airtight contract that we now enter into with all landowners. We sign the contract with them on the same day we pay them for the trees in their nursery and before we begin the planting. The most important clause makes the landowner responsible for the safety of the baby trees, e.g., no spraying of agro-chemicals, no damage to the trees due to broken fencing, livestock, etc., or the landowner is required to reimburse LRFF for the damages. This contract has been tested and proven valid with law enforcement officials and in the courts these past 3 years. You can read all about it in this recent post from May 2014, “Continuing Care for Communities and Forests”.

So you see failure can equal success. Always remember that the crises in our lives are actually the opportunities the universe is bestowing upon us to learn and improve. We’ve planted over 70,000 trees since this story took place, and we continue onward and upward daily.  

Fundraiser Barbecue in Costa Rica for project

Generating positive lessons from our weaknesses and failures

By James Waruiru - Project Manager

Soni from our team taking views of a beneficiary

Soni from our team taking views of a beneficiary

We are sending our greetings and some updates with great excitement and gratitude to you friend for your donations towards our project and yet again to global giving for connecting us to you and many peers across the globe where we have continued to learn from one another and draw inspiration. That said, more specifically it is your kind giving heart that despite this economically tough current period you have continued to believe in our vision. Thank you!

Here is our most recent report. Uniquely in this report we want to share some mistakes or failures we did that has hampered us from reaching our desired outcome. We seek your mercies but it is actually these failures that we are learning from and we are very positive the failures will shape our project for the best. To be precise we are embracing our failures and learning from them and we are making great strides from lessons learnt from the same weaknesses.

(i) First as you know we have been giving the girls reusable, washable sanitary towels that are donated to us from foreign friends and we use your cash donation to buy panties for girls and logistics. Little did we care much to spare some cash to buy some disposable sanitary towels for a few girls who have issues with reusable sanitary towels. When we took a survey from beneficiaries some girls (about 10%) complained the the reusable ones are heavy, not good on them etc, we were quick to dismiss them as unappreciative instead of wanting to find out why their sentiments were different from the rest. So recently one of our team member, Grace,  who is also an elderly woman called the few girls who had issues to her home and she spoke to them in a small group. Here these girls told her their problems, some found the reusable kits heavy, and others were ok with the reusable but were too poor to get soap for cleaning while a few others got skin rashes on their private parts when they use reusable towels.

All these have led us to learn so much and made some resolutions that will enable us serve these girls better. First we resolved we must set aside some funds to buy disposable sanitary towels for those who can’t use reusable towels. For those who complained lack of soap for cleaning we have made resolution to provide the girls with soap more regularly. For those who complains about skin rashes we consulted some medical practitioners for  best opinion and they think the towels we give are good enough but when it comes to cleaning it is not well done, either it is not washed well with soap or it does not dry well. To address this we have resolved to give the girls a bottle of antiseptic like dettol to put a few drop in cleaning water to kill any germs and to let the towels dry properly. The preliminary reports suggest we are gaining ground and eliminating these problems.  Also our team resolved there will be at all times disposable pads for those with issues with reusable towels, no one will be coerced to use reusable kits. That said it is good to note still reusable kits works best for about 85% of the beneficiaries and are very friendly to our environment.

(ii) Our second failure or challenge is this, from our last report we noted to you our gain in provoking an open discussion and open mindedness on issue of menstruation, breaking the stigma surrounding the menstruation issue and involve the fathers (men) in the discussion and in providing for menstruation needs as an obligation. While this is true we realized we continued to use more women to address men on this issue, only one man from our team was actively involved, James our project leader and himself being a young man it is still a tall order culturally to address older men on such issue.

While we are still treating this as a challenge we have to admit we have not yet completely delt with this challenge but to speak the least we have a plan in place to recruit a few older men whom we will train and then they can address the issue. We think the best persons will be pastors or spiritual leaders who already command some respect from the community and have men’s audience in daily encounter either through the church or other social gatherings. So far we have one pastor we are training and we hope to recruit more men.  We will be keeping you very informed on development on this issue and we as well ask and welcome your thoughts or advice. Please feel free to engage with us.

(iii) As we are in the mood of confession of our weaknesses we want to note this, from our past reports we told you our future plan that will enable us benefit more girls and women will be to set up a sewing center that will make reusable, washable towels and kits. Yet we did not give you more information why this viable and timely. We never mentioned to you our own contribution to this project and many pledges of support from many county governments that have committed to buy kits from our project once we begin producing them so as to supplement what we will be giving out as charity. This will also ensure sustainability of the project. Please find attached one page executive summary that summarizes why we must undertake this project and how much it will impact more lives. Also find attached a one page budget to give an idea of funds we seek to bring this project to life. We also kindly seek your help to fund-raise for this cause, feel free to share this with your circles and dont hessitate to write to us incase you require more information. We will also gladly send you the full proposal upon request.

Thank you and may God bless you.

Naina's Story

By Neelu Khanna - Project Leader

Naina - 1st meeting

Naina, 13, had walked into our lives in jeans, gaudy multi coloured shirt and the disdainful attitude of a thousand, strutting peacocks writ large on her face, at the inaugural Street Smart meeting, averring, “Mein sab bachon ke leader hoon. Mujse baat karo”, “I am the leader for all children, talk to me.”

Almost everyone’s jaws had dropped!!

Naina, along with Raj & Sunita, was our 1st street child. Bold, unafraid, intelligent, Naina was a natural leader.  She   would help marshal our small group of street kids when we were still working from the pavements, she was part of Street Smart for the following 2 years, accompanying us for outreach, learning the alphabet and math, vocational training in the afternoon and returning to her family every evening.

Naina suddenly disappeared and then we heard she was getting married. She had been sold off to the highest bidder by her family.   She was 15, but the family said she was 18 and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it !. Naina was also a battered child who had been sent off to beg at Astley hall as a young child and beaten if she did not return home with enough money. Her father is an abusive drunk who had threatened to sell her off to the highest bidder, which he did. Her mother is no better.

Hoping for a better future Naina ran away from her groom within a day into the waiting arms of Monty, who she imagined loved her. Within a week, Monty put her to work on the streets as a sex worker. We called in the police, Childline for counseling, admitted Naina into ‘ashrams’, but to no avail. It is now over 2 years that she left Street Smart.


COUNSELLING  - Battered and  abused children need persistent counseling alone and with the families. The family exerts enormous pressure on the child and cannot be ignored. Counselling is now a major part of our work.

STREET SHELTER – There is a tremendous need for a shelter for the most vulnerable. If we had started a shelter 4 years ago, Naina may not have been sold into marriage or become a sex worker. We have 2 separate hostels for girls and boys started in 2013.

CATCHING THEM YOUNG - From the time we took our nascent steps & started interacting with the children on the street, we 'gently' resisted dealing with the kids below the age of 6. Our reasons were compelling - we were not a crèche/'anganwadi' equipped to deal with the wilful, crying tantrums of tots who lunched at their mother's breasts & used any available space as their private loo!

After dealing with the persistent drunken bouts of Rajkumar, his self-inflicted knife wounds, his loneliness.....; Sunita's self-doubts & addiction to 'gutka', Naina's tragic entry into adolescence, we have realised the wisdom of the saying, 'it's easier to build strong children, than to repair broken spirits.'

At the recently started outreach at Kanwali Road, where we get about 80 children every day, at least 35 are between the ages of 3-6. They come charging in at 10am hooting with the very joy of being alive!

We hope to encircle their young lives with love, so that they learn to love & trust, to praise, so that they don't view the world with cynical contemptuousness, to be honest, patient and tolerant & thereby reaffirm their faith in life!

Naina brings to mind Mark Twain’s saying “A hundred fly bites, cannot keep down a spirited horse”.   We sincerely hope Naina does not have to endure those hundred fly bites, we pray each night for her safety, physical and emotional. Because Naina is not only our most ‘spirited horse’, a natural leader, a go getter, she is first and foremost our child, whom we have loved and nurtured for over a year.

We have faith and we believe, sooner or later, Naina will be back. And we are now better equipped and  more experienced to deal with abused, battered children.

Initial Days on the Pavement

Lessons learned-Teenage Mothers

By Titus Mwangi - Team Leader

My report this time around is on the challenges we faced in the establishment of the teenage mother’s programme and the learning lessons gained from it. This has been brought forth by the GlobalGiving newest initiative where projects are asked to share their experiences in a project called #FailFoward Stories.

Like we mentioned before in our reports, one and a half years ago, we started a teenage mother’s programme where we targeted girls below 18 years with children below five years. This was informed from a baseline survey on children below five years who loiter within the slums during the day.

The initial recruitment was done during the electioneering period in Kenya after the post-election violence of 2007. During this period, a lot of international and local NGO’s had lots of seminars/workshops and activities that were on- going especially on peace initiatives. These NGOs would provide money for those who attended and there was the first mistake. 4 weeks after recruitment, it dawn on us that the girls were not really attending the vocational training as agreed, the reason; we were not paying them! We had to go back and review our recruitment policy once again that would come up with some guidelines on how we engage the teenage mothers.

The second batch of teenage mother’s that we recruited were mostly sourced from partner organizations that we work with. We got a total of 25 girls of whom half had been referred to us by Community Health Workers (CHWs) who live and work amongst the Mathare slum community. Basically we trusted the CHWs to genuinely refer clients who met the criteria we were looking for but alas, it was not the case. 13 teenage mothers referred to us ended up being not really teenage mothers but women/wives/girlfriends/relatives of the CHWs that had been coached on what to say when we made enquiries. Our capacity then was limited in regard to human resource but luckily we got DKA (an Austrian NGO) that agreed to support the programme and we were able to get an extra social worker to handle the programme. We have been able to find the truth about some of the teenage mothers we recruited. Out of the 13, five have remained while the rest dropped out in the training processes because they had joined for various reasons; because either they had been coerced to do so or because it was free and yet it was not something they were interested in. Of the 5 remaining we agreed they would finish their vocational training although they did not meet the criteria.

Lessons learned
Recruitment process; It was realised when recruiting of the previous group of teenage mothers that certain processes were not keenly followed. This has been rectified with the introduction of a recruitment process after brainstorming that involved both MCFp staff and the teenage mothers themselves.

Counselling; Counselling is the key to success of the program and special attention should be given to any issues raised. Failure to provide time and space to listen to issues raised by the teenage mothers may lead to drop – out. To reduce this, MCFp will embark on provision of counselling, one on one and group counselling every two weeks while the office has an open door policy and teenage mothers can come in anytime for any issue to be addressed.

Family Planning Services; Within the last 6 months, some of the teenage mothers have gone ahead and become pregnant again although they still have young ones below 3 years. To avoid this kind of situations, MCFp has embarked on providing these services through a network of government dispensaries, German Doctors in Mathare and one of MCFp staff members is currently training on reproductive health and family planning issues. The staff member will provide insights to the teenage mothers on ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies amongst the teenage mothers through workshops or seminars.

Refferals; Although we appreciate our networks and partner organizations, there is great need to follow-up the cases and ensure that whatever information we have is factual before the potential client is admitted in the programme.

The teenage mother’s programme continues and we are in the process of recruiting new teenage mother’s for next year phase but this time around. Our experiences will inform the process. Lets see how 2015 will go with the new group of teen mums.

Asante sana for being there for us.

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