Resilient Rwandan Women Inspire Me!

Here, girls train to make traditional banana leaf fiber art

It has been a little over 10 years since I first heard from Béatrice of Mbwira Ndumva in Kigali, Rwanda. I, like many of you, had seen the horrific and saddening images of Rwanda during the genocide in 1994.  Like most people, I wondered how life could ever return to normal for those who survived such large-scale devastation. Many of us also asked how in the world those who were lucky enough to survive would be able to find the courage to go on, much less to rebuild a nation.

But one thing is true of the Rwandan people: they did not lose hope! They almost immediately began working to move forward and build new lives. Mothers who lost their children in the genocide decided to become caretakers to orphans who lost their parents in the same tragic way. Sisters, aunts and grandmothers began taking in their young relatives. Many others showed an act of love by doing the same selfless gesture with strangers’ children. The already poor offered to make even greater sacrifices to welcome those who were in need.

For over 10 years now, the Mbwira Ndumva Initiative has been working with women day in and day out to: teach them marketable skills, help them heal both physically and psychologically, and to find the hope and the means to start rebuilding the social fabric which was torn apart during the months of mayhem and killing: the family. The women who make up the initiative are loving and hard-working women who are doing their best to ensure a better future for Rwanda’s women and children.

As the years went by, they offered hope to women and children who had lost everything. Eventually, they implemented a program (now suspended due to a lack of donors), which provided microloans to women for a period of one year. This $25 allowed beneficiaries to start new lives for themselves through training and the purchase of the necessary items to start their own businesses. Mama Afrika joins Mbwira Ndumva in praying that it is able to be launched again someday soon.

When Mama first started buying cards and donating funds to this incredible organization, their focus was on women and orphans of the 1994 genocide. Today, in addition to the 700 members that they work to support; there are now an additional 500 women with HIV or AIDS, over 40 young orphan girls and 40 very poor children who also depend on this organization for things such as education, professional training and counseling. They would love your help in caring for some of Rwanda’s women and children.

Your donation to their efforts will allow them to continue to serve the greatest number of people possible. And you can feel good about purchases made at MamaAfrika.com because Mama is going to stay with this great group of women until there are no more Rwandan women and children in need. We look forward to the day when the word “Rwanda” makes people think of prosperity, peace and an example of how empowered women make all of the difference between poverty and prosperity. In all honesty, I can imagine that day clearly and I’m sure that with your help; we’ll get there. After all, the Rwandan women we know are such hard working, creative women that with a little help… it’s inevitable!

If you make a monetary donation, you can select Mbwira Ndumva and Mama will get 100% of your donation to them so that they can continue the incredible work that they are doing!
We sell their Christmas cards  Now, we hope that, with your help, we’ll have a “Sold Out” soon!

Love,

Mama

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The Root Causes of Famine

Regularly, there they are… those same images.  Sure the faces change and occasionally, so do the names of the countries affected.  But at the end of the day, it’s the same story: millions of people starving to death.  As someone who has been working to alleviate poverty for years now; I can tell you that many of the root causes are the same.

This is the first time that the international community has used the term “famine” since almost a million Ethiopians died of starvation in 1984.  And, as with that situation, we could see the lead-up and it was clearly predictable.

One issue is rarely discussed during the “panic stage” of the immediate crisis is bad land policy and goodness knows there is enough to talk about where that subject is concerned!  With better land policy, many governments could avoid facing the cyclical problem of starvation, food aid, starvation…  Instead, so many are content to defend the redistribution (forcibly) of the land of small family-owned farms giving millions of acres to foreign governments instead of investing in local farmers who will produce food not only for their own families; but for the nation at large.

The biggest losers in this continually bad decision making process are women and children.  Women produce 80% to 90% of Africa’s food and that means that no one eats if African women aren’t given the tools that they need to be successful.  Land is the most basic of those needs.  Unfortunately, only 5% of all titled land belongs to women in Africa and the same percentage applies to women in training and extended services.  So, the numbers are simply turned on their heads: 90% of food production by women; yet more than 90% of the time, they are not who governments look to help.  This is bad math, plain and simple.

So, understanding that women are the backbone of domestic food production, one wonders why there is little or no technical support for these women farmers.  It is even more worrisome once you learn that in places where women are targeted through even small pilot programs which encourage (and train) women to have small plots of land called “city gardens”; food production increases.  This is a huge benefit for their children who then have access to more nutrition.  Many of us who work in development in Africa can tell you that investing in women produces real and lasting results.  It is a sad shame that so many international organizations and government don’t seem to get the point!

I’m certainly not an expert on the subject; but I think that the most important things to address if we really want to solve the problem in the long-term are these:

  • Women must have independent access to land if we want to eradicate poverty.  With ownership, they will gain the ability to make decisions and get loans among other things.
  • Lack of human rights, women’s rights among them, is an issue that might not come to mind immediately when thinking about famine; but it is certainly a relevant topic.  Consider the following:
    • Currently, even amid one of the worst famines in decades, the Islamist group, Al-Shabaab of Somalia is refusing to allow food to be delivered to the starving, considering aid agencies as “infidels”.  Many governmental organizations (in the U.S. and elsewhere) are concerned (legitimately, in my view)
    • Flashback to the past:  This problem isn’t anything new or original.  Using the poor as a weapon is done more often than you may know.  During the terrible famine in the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian government refused to allow aid through to Eritrea (before Eritrea got independence.) arguing that it could fall into the hands of “the enemy”.
    • Acts such as burning trees, crops, etc. in order to prevent people from supporting rebel or government forces is an all too common “weapon” used during conflicts.  Act such as these can even cause or exacerbate famine, even more so if there is a drought.
  • It is simply not possible to have food security without general security.  How can we expect crop returns to matter in areas where people are fleeing from conflict or being chased out of their homes and villages? The lists of countries is a long one; but one need look no further than the Horn of Africa for starters.  But the same has been true in many parts of the continent.
  • The lack of long-term planning creates strong, powerful “aid” agencies.  But, who is ultimately being aided?  It seems a fair assessment to state that the creation of hundreds of high-paying jobs in the humanitarian sector is not what will aid the development of Africa and improve the lives of women or their families.
  • Rural credit access must be available to women as well as training and information concerning markets, etc.
  • High global food prices are making (and will continue to make) buying food aid even more difficult.  We keep hearing about this; but isn’t it even more important to ask ourselves why on earth food aid is being brought in from countries like the United States when there are African countries able to export food instead?  It seems like a pretty common sense solution after all: Let the women of one African nation provide food for others who need it.  Even in urgent situations where food aid is needed; why aren’t international organizations supporting regional African farmers so that they can further prevent poverty for Africans?
  • Development policies which consider the specific needs of women (versus men).  Policies crafted around men’s needs are not always the most efficient or helpful for women; so why aren’t women being consulted at local, national and international levels when policy is being developed?

 

This is an old problem and we are in need of new thinking.  We must stop repeating the errors of the past and expected new results.  That is after all, the very definition of insanity, right?

OK, so now is the most important part: Tell me YOUR viewpoint!  As I always say: “Everyone has something to add to the discussion! Let us talk, then, get to work on the long-term solutions”
Love,

Mama

Mama’s Round Table: Nigel Mugamu (Part 2)

Hello again everyone, and welcome back to Mama’s Round Table! I hope that you enjoyed yesterday’s portion of my interview with Zimbabwean, Nigel Mugamu.  Let’s just jump right in where we left off, shall we Nigel?

6. Here is an easy one: freedom or food?

Give me freedom any day

 

7. You are a well-educated, successful man who is doing well for himself in the West.  What has made you decide to contribute to the reversal of “brain drain” from Africa and return home to Zimbabwe?  Would you recommend the same move to other Africans living abroad?

 

Firstly home is home and I always intended on returning. Without getting too sentimental, returning home had to make sense both financially and otherwise period! Let’s be realistic here. This is very important for anyone thinking of this. It made sense for me to return home given my work experience, exposure and the direction of my own life. I have been away from home for several years now. I was fortunate enough to spend a year in Zimbabwe 5/6 years ago so I’m not jumping into the deep end without experience. Economically things were bad then – shortages and so forth. This is no longer the case. I have been home twice in the last 10 months and I am currently involved in a startup which we hope to launch once I am on the ground. So you see it makes sense to go home for me.

 

People need to realize that this plan has been in the works for 2 years now. It takes time and proper planning and even then things don’t always go according to plan. Reversing the brain drain in my opinion is a direct by-product of my decision to go home. We need to be realistic and less emotional about returning home. I recently wrote about this issue here. I asked the question of others and many people I know personally have real concerns about moving back home. I believe that Zimbabwe or Africa is not for everyone for a variety of reasons. Some are simply accustomed to certain things or a certain life. Some have children to consider and the list goes on. I completed my MBA a few years ago now, and I have to admit that it (MBA) definitely has a direct impact on the way I think and live now. I have always been very entrepreneurial in the way I think but this program pushed me over the edge and now that’s how I live. I see a challenge and opportunity to overcome and I move forward. Others might see a roadblock and simply stop. It’s all relative. Staying here for me meant employment and going home (in my head) meant employing others. So you can see why returning home made sense for someone like me. Like I said, everyone is different and our journeys are certainly not similar.

 

8. From your experiences living in the U.K., what would you like to take home as a lesson for Africans?

I am a proud African as you know. Proud of our heritage, our ability to ‘make a plan’ and move forward. One of the things I want to take home (in any unorthodox way) is to remind myself and others like me that our way of doing things in Africa isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s an African way of doing things and we should be proud in some cases. We often need to find middle ground. We also need to learn from others if we are to achieve our potential; for example learn about how some businesses in UK operate and the benefits of some strategic relationships they have whilst remembering the context. It is imperative that we acknowledge that UK businesses operate a certain way but we must, for fear of a better phrase ‘Africanize’ or localize certain business practices when I return. I firmly believe that humility on my part is key. Humility is critical in working out that something that works a certain way in the UK won’t necessarily work in Zimbabwe. Humility is important to realize that one shouldn’t force or expect employees or various stakeholders to adopt completely foreign and unnecessary business practices simply because ‘this is how the British do things’. It’s not right to patronize others – we must encourage cohesion and sharing of ideas. So to answer your question, humility is what I intend to take home with me.

 

9. The United States is often called the “land of opportunity” because it has become a place that people from all over the world go to live out “The American Dream”.  Do you envision an “African Dream”?  If so, what is it and how does it include foreigners coming to Africa as their “land of opportunity”?

I’m not too sure about the ‘The American Dream’ and I certainly don’t believe in Africa being viewed as just the ‘land of opportunity’ by foreigners. I want to discourage such practices – this is not the gold rush era. Like I mentioned earlier I believe in Africa first. Africans must be empowered both economically and otherwise. Inward investment is good and in fact encouraged but not at the expense of the local people and their livelihood. Wealth and opportunities must be distributed so that people are involved in the economic process. I would like to see a situation where certain sections of society are not marginalized. Let people become empowered to go out, work hard and achieve prosperity whatever that means to them.

From an investment destination, I see Africa as a place where partnerships via joint ventures and so forth should be sought and in fact encouraged. We need to diversify our partners. Traditionally we have partnered with Europe and the Americas but we need to look east as well. India is an interesting partner with similar challenges and population. I envisage a situation and you know this already, where our African governments are aid-free. Africa has sufficient mineral, land and other such resources to sustain ourselves. We already know that aid doesn’t work and those that push for it have other agendas.  I envisage a situation where we increase our intra-trade within Africa from its current levels of approximately 10%. Why shouldn’t we trade more with each other? We definitely need to. I envisage a situation where we borrow and work closely together in terms of resolving various challenges like electricity and so forth.

 

10. Finally, I couldn’t let you leave our Round Table without asking you what has become my signature question; so here it is.  If you could wave a magic wand over Africa and change one thing; what would it be?

 

One thing only huh? What it means to be a true leadership with respect to governance related issues.

 

Thank you so much for your time Nigel!  I am sure that many will be inspired by your journey.  I wish you the very best on your ventures as you return home to our mother, Africa. May God bless and keep you on your road to success.  Since I am a mama at heart, I ask you to always keep our people in your hearts as you walk toward the realization of your own dreams; so that you can take many others with you.  Even if you never run for political office, this is what will make you part of the leadership change you said you’d be inspired to change in Africa.

Now, friends, please join the discussion via Mama’s comments section because the most important portion of our Round Table discussions isn’t our guest or me… it’s you!

Mama’s Round Table Guest: Nigel Mugamu (Part 1)

Today, I am pleased to welcome a man who is Zimbabwean; but also unmistakably African.  He doesn’t just love his nation; but his whole continent.  You’ll find out what I mean if you take a look at his blog.   We agree on some issues and disagree on others; but I always enjoy his company and am honored to have him with us at Mama’s Round Table today.  He has an entrepreneurial spirit and a real passion for open dialog concerning issues facing Africa and her people. Please welcome, Nigel Mugamu.  OK, Nigel, let’s dive right in:

 

1. Please tell us, who are you?

I am a son, a brother, a Zimbabwean, an African in short. I often laugh but I consider myself a ‘retired idealist’ who has been smacked around a few times by the reality of life to accept that I am now a full-time realist. However I tend to be optimist about things in general. I am very passionate about my continent and her development. I work as an accountant for a US based company by day and with my MBA head screwed on, I continue to work on this online travel project with my business partner by night. I blog so therefore I consider myself an aspiring columnist. Not sure about this yet, but I have recently started having dreams of pursuing a PhD. I tweet, read plenty of literature, love travel and attempt to call my sister at least once a week.

 

2.       As an African currently living in the Diaspora, what frustrates you most and what inspires you most?

The thing that frustrates me the most is probably fellow Africans who speak so negatively about Africa or indeed their own countries without proper facts or taking into account ‘context’. Context is often overlooked yet so important in conversation. I believe we need to focus on rebranding and re-educating people about what Africa is really all about. Like anywhere else we face various challenges, for example electricity in the case of Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe and yet the fellow Africans I am referring to tend to focus on the actual challenge and not on the solutions. This I find both sad and extremely frustrating. They are sharing, in my opinion 25% of the situation.

The thing I am inspired by is our resilience as Africans. Despite the challenges I just spoke about we still find some way of ‘making a plan’ (Zimbabwean saying and trait).I read a great deal especially about African entrepreneurship, development and travel. I am inspired by stories like when you consider where Rwanda is now given what happened in 1994. I am inspired by Kenya’s current political and economic journey. I could go on really. There are so many African stories to tell that inspire me.

3. I’m sure you suspected it was coming; so let’s get it out of the way.  How much do your views on development, the economy and Africa in general have to do with your (or your family’s) political affiliations in Zimbabwe?

My parents are realists who encourage us to debate and find our own answers for many of life’s interesting questions. I couldn’t honestly tell you who they voted for in the last election but we debate (heated at times) the political, historic and economic situation in Zimbabwe and indeed Africa. Thinking about Africa now, as a family we had many family road trips that usually covered South Africa and Botswana. I was always aware that Africa was massive and I always wanted to see more of this beautiful continent – I still do! This online travel project I’m working on is testament to that. I’m hoping to travel across Africa and finally see the pyramids, Lagos and spend time in Tunisia for example. Interestingly enough, I left home to attend university and it was then that I started to appreciate and discuss Africa in more depth. I met other Africans at university and gained a proper insight into what was happening in Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique or Mauritius through my new friendships. Essentially it took me leaving the continent to look back and truly appreciate what I have and what we need to work on.

I moved home 6 years ago for about a year. I continued to work and started my MBA at that point. I had studied and worked in Australia for some time by then. Going back home for a year was probably one of the most important decisions I’ve made thus far. I still call it my ‘character building year’. I bonded with my family especially with my parents whom I am very close to. We continued to exchange stories of the Zimbabwe then and I gained another insight into the country and its history. So yes my relationship with my family has had a direct impact on the way I feel and think about Africa.  I had the opportunity to assess Zimbabwe and indeed Africa having spent many years away. I fell in love with the continent all over again to be honest. We are resilient as I mentioned before and our proper story needs to be told in full.  As I prepare to return home, I now read or research more about development and what we as Africans can do for ourselves more importantly.

 

4. We are being blessed with an insider’s view through your presence at Mama’s Round Table today; so please tell me what you think of Zimbabwe’s current leadership?

 

Coalition governments in general are never easy for a number of reasons. Decisions are difficult to make due to the agreements made to form the actual government and of course individual party agendas are also at play. The leadership in Zimbabwe is only a transitional government in my opinion. Therefore it makes it extremely difficult to assess them in the truest sense. With elections supposedly in 2011, I hope to see an elected Zimbabwean government with a full mandate to govern going forward. I believe that at this junction we will be able to see how far the leadership in Zimbabwe has come.

 

5.       Despite my sincerest affection for my African fathers, brothers and sons, I feel that Africa’s future lies in the opportunities granted to African women.  Where do you, as a young man looking to build a future for himself in Zimbabwe, stand on the issue?

 

I believe it is fundamental that women are empowered in general. When you listen to statistics used in the recent Clinton Global Initiative 2010 event, Melinda Gates shared an interesting one – 70% of farming in Africa is done by women. Initially I thought this was an extremely high percentage but then I looked at my own family and really thought about it. I can now see why that percentage would make some sense now. This tells me something positive i.e. women are already involved – more than I thought perhaps? My next question is whether the same 70% are then the recipients of the revenue at harvest time. This is my main concern right now. If not, this needs to be rectified. In the same token I also hope that access to capital for women in the farming sector and others is made much easier. However, I don’t share your sentiments i.e. ‘Africa’s future lies in the opportunities granted to African women’. I’m thinking it’s broader than that. I believe that Africa’s future will be determined by a variety of factors depending on the country and their individual economic growth stage. We cannot directly compare Egypt with say Namibia.  I firmly believe that one of those important factors in determining Africa’s future lies in the informal sector as I discussed here. Some economists believe that 60% of Zimbabwe’s economy is the informal sector and we also know that this sector is a prominent feature across the continent as a whole. I also believe another aspect of Africa’s future lies in what Vijay Mahajan’s describes as ‘Africa Two’ in his book Africa Rising. This is the African middle class who are spending and sending their children to school and in return raising the new generation of cheetahs. In Zimbabwe, the finance minister broke the country into 3 economic brackets: –

  • 3% top
  • 12% middle
  • 85% bottom

 

I believe that unlocking and empowering that 85% is critical to Zimbabwe’s economic success for example. So you see, there are a variety of avenues that Africa can take going forward. Ultimately we need to recognize that the informal sector plays a crucial role in the various economies and that it is also imperative that we as Africans are empowered and participate in the economic process irrespective of gender, race and so forth. Simply put – Africa first!

 

Alright, this wraps up Part One of our interview.   We’ll see you all again tomorrow for the second and final portion of this interview with our guest, Nigel.  Thanks Nige, I look forward to continuing this discussion tomorrow.  And, I of course look forward to reading your comments in the interim everyone!

See you again very soon!

Love,

Mama

Question and Answer with Mama: I want to help, now what?

I recently received this question from a young man who visited MamaAfrika.com I am sharing it for two reasons. Firstly, it is an essential question: What do I do now that I want to help? For some, it’s because they saw a news story, saw a documentary or read an article. They are aware of a situation in Africa which has touched them deeply… so now what? Secondly, I know that this blog has some of the smartest readers I know. I’m sure that some of you will have excellent comments for J. Please feel free to share them.

Hello Mama,

My name is J… and I am just a regular person and trying to make a difference. Its an ironic introduction, but there it is. In the sea of modern civil and uncivil social lobbying and social activism, one kid’s perception must seem irresolute against the gale of cries for awareness, action and justice. I am traveling to Ghana and my family is helping me spend this coming year studying and volunteering there. The orphanage I hope to volunteer with is dedicated to ending child slavery in Ghana, and indeed the founder escaped child bondage, went to college and started this movement. He asked me to help raise awareness of the real danger of child bondage in the Ghanaian countryside, and to stimulate income generation with the families of freed children and of those at risk of human trafficking. The avenue that this project as followed has become the empowerment of woman by selling small hand made goods through the premise of fair trade to the United States. It seems like a long shot. I choice to be the mediator between the United States and the folks in Ghana.

The most descriptive method to describe my role in Ghana is to follow the lead of this organization and go beyond a superficial realm, resolving of the most difficult of issues facing children at risk of human trafficking. The risk for those children is the endemic cycle of poverty, disrupting education and family stability. Without those chains broken these communities threatened by slavery cannot be reached. The cycle is viscous; while poverty inhibits education and education is the key to elevate poverty. The complex will stop only when these youth are inspired with an education that provides empowerment and independence. Ghana is celebrated as a shinning example of democracy, yet underneath the hopeful outward vision, the entrapment of poverty has become profuse for many Ghanaians.

Honestly, my efforts have fallen into an overwhelm daze of fool hearty plans, and my ability to help is not materializing. It is a harsh realization that chills me to the bone. My imagery for this project has deviated far from the reality I have found. There just seems to be no doors open to help these children. It is not right for me to let these kids down. I am letting this orphanage down! I cannot afford to go to Ghana till the beginning of this coming month. I have been looking for a way to help them till I can go, and my searching came across your website.

My journey begins at the bottom of the mountain heart breaking failures. The bottom line is that there is no representation for these children in the world or even in Ghana. While, the potential is slight, my efforts are devoted to changing the livelihood and education of for this community. I have volunteered to attempt to mediate access the United States and facilitate trade for this community. My plans and dialog with my friends in Ghana are only very minimal now. Yet, still I hoped to learn about your organization and if you might have any advice. I sent this e-mail in the hopes to learn about Africa and how my efforts could be best used to help.

Thanks for your time

_____________________________________________________

Dear J,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your care and concern for Africa’s children. For, be they in Ghana or elsewhere, they are Africa’s children… therefore in some way, they are my children. I sincerely appreciate your deep desire to help them.

I have read your email a couple of times now and I am left thinking that you do have a genuine desire to help; but have made an error that I have seen many times in my years of working with Africa: a lack of planning. Unless you have left out some of the details; it seems to me that you (and perhaps even your friends or associates in Ghana) have left out the most important step in wanting to help (other than the desire to do so of course!): and that thing is very good planning.

If your family is indeed interested in helping you with your travel expenses and wants to see that money go to good use; I am sure that you also want to ensure that their money is well-spent and doesn’t go to waste. If you rush too quickly into Ghana without a concrete plan in place to help, you will soon find that your financial (and other) resources will be used up. Then, if you do come across a sincere opportunity to improve lives in a concrete way; it may no longer be possible to do so.

I tell all people (from my own children, to leaders of organizations, clubs and churches) who want to make a real change in the lives of Africans to do two things: RESEARCH and PLAN! I simply cannot overemphasize the importance of these two steps. The failure to properly do these two steps leads to countless examples of failed attempts by individuals, church missions and yes, even major non-profit organizations to make any real change in the long-term.

Make a short list of things that you would like to accomplish and make those concrete, measurable things. Do not list “make kids lives better”. List instead something like: “provide funding so that children can purchase school uniforms”. I hope that makes sense the way I am explaining it.

Additionally, please ask your friends in Africa (perhaps one way that you can help them is doing it yourself or finding someone you know who has experience in the arena) to write a business plan. It might sound overwhelming; but it is imperative.

Most of the disastrous plans and programs I have come into contact with in Africa over the years are caused by the lack of understanding of local cultures, resources, and yes even local desires. It is easy to say: everyone wants to go to school or get education. But it is not necessarily desired (or appropriate) for an organization to have the aim of all African children in a village or town to attend university either. Perhaps if you sat down and talked to the people they would tell you that it is in their tradition to farm, or herd and they simply need tools to do so. Then, your aim could instead be to ensure that children receive basic education with the option of advancing to college if they so choose; but also plan on providing agriculture-based training for those who want to farm. This is just an example from the top of my head. I hope it makes my point clearly.

I’m sure that you have heard the term “African solutions for African problems.” This isn’t said to tell Westerners (be they American, European or Australian) to get their nose out of Africa’s business. It also means, more importantly, that we must ALWAYS consult people to know what their specific needs are and then strive to help them to address those needs.

I therefore urge you to do something before deciding to go to Ghana or to move forward with your plans to help: listen, plan and pray. Listen to the “real” needs on the ground. Plan diligently before you start any program to solve them. Then pray that you’ve done the right thing and follow your intuition (which is often God’s way of speaking to us to ensure we follow the right path for ourselves and others).

If there is anything else you would like to ask or if you need assistance looking over your plans as you start to formulate them more concretely; please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Blessings,
Mama

Mama’s guest Joseph Scarantino Talks Tech in Africa

Allow me to introduce Joseph Scarantino, whom I have a lot of respect for. I’ve spent the past few months reading his tweets on Twitter (@jscarantino) and learning a lot in the process. He’s clearly passionate about Africa and technology. I’ve invited him to answer a few questions about where his passions meet each other.  Now, onto the questions:

Welcome and thanks for taking the time from your really busy schedule to answer some questions. Let’s dive right in.

1. I read on your website (JosephScarantino.com), that your passion for Africa began when you were a teen. Can you tell us more about the role that young people can play in the future of Africa? Young people are at a pivotal point in their lives where they interact with other young people on a very local and viral sense much different than adults. This gives them an advantage of getting involved in causes on a completely different level. One of the ways they can play a role in the future of Africa is by volunteering in local community or nonprofit efforts that are already making a difference in Africa. There are many groups out there doing great work that need a volunteer for an hour or two every week. Even better, young people can tell their peers about activities they are doing and open up many other people to dialogue about things that are happening in Africa. Many of the greatest efforts I’ve seen from young people happen right in their own schools when they make an effort to focus some of their school projects on Africa. This has a double impact by helping to break the cycle of misinformation about Africa that is so prevalent. Having said that, I think the burden ultimately lies on the nonprofits to get creative with young people and figure out new ways to keep them engaged.

2. Traditionally the high tech sector has been led by North America, Asia and Europe. Do you see Africa’s influence gaining ground anytime soon? I definitely do and we are already seeing signs of Africa’s influence increasing, particularly in the realm of mobile banking and the rise of technology incubators and co-working spaces such as the new iHub in Nairobi and Limbe Labs in Cameroon, among others. Technological progress in Africa is everywhere we look, but is often happening on a much more micro-level than what we are accustomed to (i.e. the Microsoft’s and Apple’s of the West) until the big breakthrough happens. An example of progress would be the number of mobile users currently using mobile banking as their primary way of trading money. In many ways Africa is leapfrogging developed countries in technology use and the innovation is everywhere on that continent from mobile to Web. Without a doubt, we will see a true technological revolution in Africa this decade.

3. In your opinion, what countries show the most promise and why? Well, the obvious technology leaders of today are often distinguished as Nigeria, Kenya & South Africa, but many smaller countries are poised to rise up and become technology leaders in the next 5-10 years such as Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi and many others. My forecast is that many of these smaller countries are going to excel in technology much faster due to the very nature of their size and scale of economies. Rwanda in particular has a great opportunity pending their government’s willingness to keep the economy open and operating on a free-market. I have my eye on Rwanda but don’t let the size of these smaller countries fool you.

4. Some disagree with the view that high tech is what we should invest in. They say that it is more important to put resources into basic infrastructure such as roads, education and access to food and clean water. What is your response to their views? This argument isn’t anything new. I certainly don’t disagree that money needs to be allocated to infrastructure needs first and foremost. However, having said that, technology is undoubtedly now a part of those infrastructure needs and must be considered equally, particularly in regards to education and communication. I believe the right approach is to analyze what the needs are and go from there. It is impossible to make a generic assessment of Africa as a whole when each country has a separate set of obstacles they are facing and are at different economic crossroads. Some need technology more than others, but all can use it in areas that will benefit the bottom line. It’s more of a matter of timing and necessity. People are quickly finding out that Africa is a continent of great economic diversity, so there are a lot of things to take into consideration when facing this question. It’s not so easy to disagree with technology when it is quickly becoming the solution to many of these problems.

5. Do you think that tech (i.e.: Access to, cybercafés, cell phones, wireless internet, etc.) is a “plus” or is it an essential component in Africa’s basic development? Even if I did not work in the technology field, I would most definitely say it is a necessity to have in Africa. We need to change the mindset to think in terms of access to information, education, and human rights. Whether people are examining the human rights benefit of technology or the economic benefit of technology, having access to information through technology empowers people on multiple levels. Technology connects people, it empowers people, it increases access to information, it does all of these things and more to everyone’s benefit. Once we put information in its proper context, then we can begin to make choices that have lasting effects on society.

6. As I’m sure you know, one of my passions is women and children in Africa. I understand the role that fair trade plays in improving their lives. Would you tell me what role high tech can play in making the average rural mother’s life better? The first example that springs to mind comes from the fact that African women make up over 60 percent of the agricultural workforce. Yet there is very little data out there about their agricultural practices in regards to gender and how that yield (big or small) affects the family from a community level to a national production level. Technology is helping these women learn from each other to improve their agricultural practices as well as form farming co-ops. It is also technology that helps feed this data to entities ranging from local governments to international NGO’s so they know where the need exists and what has worked versus what has not worked. All of this can be done from a simple cell phone. More recently, the UN launched an innovative program called the Agri-Gender Statistics Toolkit that does exactly that and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples to follow. Another agriculture-related example is how mobile technology is helping women check prices of their produce throughout the region before heading to market. In the information age, data rules and the person with the most up-to-date and accurate data has the advantage. Technology is helping women all over the continent, and often in areas where we least suspect it. I’m still being surprised by how new technology is helping people in rural areas.

7. What projects are you currently working on (or hearing about) that have you most excited? I am currently pouring all of my time into the African Tech Network, a for-profit initiative to help bring benefits to Africans working in technology. The idea behind ATN is to build community among technologists, create tangible opportunities for economic benefit, and to contribute to their continuing education. It’s a three-pronged approach that is already having some positive results with members from 10 countries so far. One of my partners, Simeon Oriko, is a bright young man from Kenya who has given me much inspiration to move forward with this initiative. So far, the rest of the tech community has been very supportive and I believe some really great things are ahead of us. On a side note, I do have to say that there is never a dull moment working on tech in Africa. Constant progress is being made and the people you get to work with are truly inspiring. I wouldn’t pick any other industry to work in.

8. Finally, what is Africa Gathering and how can it improve the life of a mother or child in the poorest regions of Africa today?
Africa Gathering is an informal meet-up about people from all walks of life coming together to share innovative ideas that have Africa at the center of their focus. What I believe Africa Gathering can do is offer a forum for anyone who might have an idea that could directly benefit African mothers and their children. Whether the idea is based in technology or not, Africa Gathering is a great place to tell others about something you are doing that is having a positive impact. It doesn’t even have to be an idea, but can be a functioning nonprofit or business that you would like to share with the world. Also, the relationships you will build from any Africa Gathering meeting are priceless. I left the Washington DC Africa Gathering feeling energized and very encouraged. Many of the people I met there I had only met online, so it was much like a reunion of sorts.

I know you are a really busy guy and your willingness to come by Mama’s Round Table to chat is greatly appreciated! So, again, thanks so much for your time and most of all for sharing your viewpoint with my readers! It really means a lot to me and to them.

Q&A: What is a good NGO to donate relief money for Haiti to?

Here is an excerpt from an email I received this morning. I thought I’d share my response in the hope that it would help others as well
“… told me to ask you if you knew of a good NGO to donate relief money for Haiti. Do you have any suggestions?

– HR”

Dear HR,
Thanks for your confidence! As you already know, Mama Afrika doesn’t have any connections personally in Haiti. We hope one day to be able to trade with and assist women in the African Diaspora such as Haiti; but that is a future endeavor. Let’s talk about today.

As is always the case, when major disasters strike like the horrible 7.0 earthquake that hit the island nation of Haiti, it seems that every organization sounds the battle cry and asks for donations. Don’t get me wrong, this is important and necessary in order to get help to those who need it! But, as someone who has worked in the non-profit sector for years before starting Mama Afrika, I feel compelled to warn people of one thing: Big names don’t mean honesty.

It would be my greatest pleasure to tell you that all of the largest non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross had their “clients” at heart when they made decisions. It is sadly, often not the case though. So, please be wary when choosing who to donate to.

I highly recommend that when donating to organizations you look before you leap. Here is a great website which can assist you with that: http://tinyurl.com/yeu83s2 . They and some other organizations like them, rate large non-profits based on their responsible usage of donations. (My personal opinion is that I wouldn’t donate to anyone with less than a 4-star rating. Financial responsibility counts!) We all want our donations’ recipients to be those on the ground, not some well-paid member of management in Washington DC, or New York, right?

We all know about the outrage after so much money was raised by the Red Cross who led people to believe that their donations would be used to help victims and their families after the terrorist bombings on September 11th or hurricane Katrina. History showed us though that there was deception at the very least and outright fraud in the worst case. We’ve also all heard horrible stories of how monies collected for victims of tsunamis, floods, wars, famines, etc. is filtered off by employees or wasted in other ways.

Even the United Nations hasn’t had clean hands in the past. Those of us working with and in Africa know about the disgusting wide-spread scandals where UN humanitarian workers required young girls come to pick up their families food rations so that they could sexually abuse them before handing out their rations.
The world of humanitarian organizations is full of such tales. And although I would love to only focus on the good that they do; it is important that we as donors are responsible to those we are trying to help.

These abuses, both financial and human are the reason that I left the non-profit sector. The large, corporate mentality where people jockey to move up the corporate ladder at all costs was just not for me. I’m called to help the poorest in the world; not to earn a 6-figure salary and treat my job like I would treat any other job in any other industry.

I recommend asking yourself the following questions before donating:
1. Does this organization already do work “on the ground” in the country where the disaster occurred? This will tell you how well networked they are, what kind of contacts and relationships they have on the ground and how your money will be used if they meet their financial need where the specific relief project is concerned. In this case, for example, if the organization raises 2 million dollars more than it needs to provide emergency relief for Haiti; will it be able to use the money leftover in Haiti, or will it go to a general fund for disasters elsewhere… or even worse, to pay for raises for its employees in the US?

2. If the organization already works in Haiti (in this case), what is their “regular work”? Is that something you would fund otherwise? Are they usually in the adoption field and simply fund their orphanages with money they usually raise? Or, do they usually empower the poor through sustainable living projects like fair trade?

3. Do they have clearly defined goals or are they just saying “Help us”? This should give you some idea of how well they are able to meet the needs on the ground.

Sometimes, if you don’t feel completely confident giving during a particular disaster because you see that there is a large outpouring of assistance (relative to the size of the disaster, naturally); you might be just as well to wait.

I know that this is an unorthodox comment and that many will not appreciate it because we are all flooded by the emotions that naturally come with this magnitude of disaster. The photos pull us in and the stories are so heart-wrenching. But, intelligent giving is important. You might want to give to another region of the world, give your time to help in your own community or plan a fund-raising campaign for a cause that is important to you. That is OK too. Giving is what matters: giving of your time, your energy, your prayers and your resources.

Haiti is one of the few places on earth that has it so much harder than even many places in Africa. They might be the oldest Black democracy in the Western Hemisphere; but they haven’t reaped the benefits one might expect from it. Sabotage from the US from their earliest history as well as corruption within Haiti in more recent times has made it one of the most ill prepared places to deal with this tragedy.

You will, therefore have a chance to wait a few months until the dust has settled to find out who was responsible with their donations, what new projects are emerging due to the increased focus on the country and which of those new (or older) projects you want to fund.

I honestly cringe each time I think about the potential that times like this have to cause people to get burned and decide not to give again later. I know how much harder it makes it for those of us who have honestly and sincerely dedicated ourselves to the poor, even when the lights aren’t shining and the news cameras aren’t around.

I just ask that we all take the time to reflect on what our money will really be used for on the ground… instead of giving only to regret it when we hear in 6 months or a year that the money was used in a way we wouldn’t approve of. Again, I would begin by digging deeper and investigating what organizations are translating your dollars to good works, which are going to remain on the ground to help after the immediate emergency situation is helped and which are doing the most to include ordinary Haitians in the process as opposed to sending employees in. I’ve found two through the site I gave you which are listed as 4-star with financial accountability and I’ve noticed that they have long histories in Haiti, employ Haitians for the clean-up (providing at least temporary employment) and have long-term sustainable development programs. I, personally, would donate to either gladly—and have. You can learn more at: http://www.foodforthepoor.org or http://www.hopeforhaiti.com

And, of course, in a few months when the world is calm again: remember those in the world who most need your help and support those who are trying to assist them in living better lives.
Blessings, Mama

Mama Afrika’s first ever Black Friday (After Thanksgiving) Sale!

Mama’s THANKSGIVING WEEKEND SALE
Those of you who have been clients for a while know that Mama Afrika doesn’t really believe in “sale prices”, “deep discounts” and “drastic reductions”… “Why not?” You ask yourself.

Well, the idea is simple: Mama Afrika doesn’t have sky high mark ups on products. She believes that the reason for selling fair trade African products is to feed African families; not become a billionaire and drive a fancy sports car.

So, we only mark our products up as much as is necessary to help the business branch out to include new cooperatives in new countries. As you’ve probably noticed: offering the best price possible is part of our plan. We know that if our prices are great; then so are sales. If we were able to discount items to 50% off a few times a year; then you would know that the rest of the year… we were charging you 50% too much! Easy to understand right?

Well, Mama’s making an exception this year. And she’d like you to know why: This economic crisis is tough for everyone. Its probably affected your family in some way too, directly or indirectly. Unfortunately, African families are having a really tough time too. The crisis has meant fewer sales locally and globally for them; thus less income for many who were making it day to day as it is.

So, this Friday through Monday only, Mama Afrika is discounting prices in the hope that it will encourage you to reach out and help these families make it. Many items will be sold at almost no mark-up. But, if that allows us to re-order products from our cooperatives, that is enough for now.

God has blessed us many times over the past 9 years and we are hoping that this gesture shows you how dedicated Mama is to the women she has grown so fond of.

And, this year Mama will be sending the 10% donation to help our cooperative members children celebrate Christmas this year. We will be donating toys, art supplies and sending donations to help those most in need make it through the holiday season.

Come by Mama’s Open Market this weekend after you have eaten your turkey, and given thanks for all that you have… and help us give our cooperative members reasons to be thankful too.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving. May it offer you the opportunity to be surrounded by your family and friends.

Blessings, from our family to yours,

Mama

Sending goods not always the best solution

I was talking to a really nice woman today on the phone and our conversation brought something to mind that I would like to share with you. It is something I briefly touched on during a talk I gave in Vienna a few months ago and I’m happy today’s conversation reminded me to post a note to all of you here: Donations. I’m sure that some of you have been approached at some time or another by someone at work or church or maybe your child’s school asking for donations of clothing or other items which would be sent to Africa. Despite the generous gesture; next time say no and offer this bit of advice instead: “Send money and stimulate the local economy instead.”

It isn’t the idea of sending tennis shoes or dolls that bothers me, far from it! But what I think many people are either unaware of or perhaps just don’t give any thought to is that Africa is a continent where most things can be found and almost always cheaper than they can be purchased in the West. Let’s think about this logically shall we? Let’s take a fictional scenario as our example of responsible donating:

Jane wants to help poor children in Rwanda and figures a good way to do so would be to ask the members of her local church to donate used children’s clothing at next Sunday’s service so that she can mail them to a church that they are affiliated with in Kigali, Rwanda. Sounds like a lovely idea doesn’t it? Yes it is; but there is a more socially responsible way of accomplishing the same task:

Instead of paying the shipping (and often bogging the receiver down with import taxes in addition… why not raise some money and send it to someone at the church in Rwanda to ask them to purchase clothing directly. After all, there is a local economy which probably includes women who make their living selling used clothing from market stalls.

By taking this approach, Jane has 1) saved in shipping charges– thus having extra money which could be helping Africans instead of the postal service 2) avoided often heavy import taxes which many African countries levy on imports 3) still provided the children she wanted to assist with clothing to wear and 4) supported the local economy by purchasing the goods from local businesses in Rwanda.

Think about Jane the next time you consider a fundraiser for the poor. Or, the next time you hear someone talking about gathering items for donation to Africa; let them know that you are sure they have the best intentions. But remind them that unless it is a donation of items that really can’t be found in the area they are donating them to… there might be a more responsible way of accomplishing their mission.

Blessings,
Mama

 

And if we paid our taxes TWICE…

How would you answer the following question: “Many people leave Africa to live in Europe or North America each year. What do those people owe to their nations once they leave?”
 
Some countries, like Eritrea require that duel citizens pay income tax. Yes, this means that an Eritrean who moves to London would be required to pay taxes on their income twice, once to the English government and again to the Eritrean government. Recently, the government representatives in Germany decided to require an additional 300, 150 or 50 Euros from all Eritrean-German citizens depending on if they are employed, unemployed or students.

What do you think? Should African people be required to pay to keep their citizenship even if it means paying income tax to two different governments? I ask primarily because almost all Africans who leave “home” send money home regularly to support those family members that they left behind. Tell us, what do YOU think?

 Blessings, 

Mama