Building Bridges for Children – Part 4 by Barry Childs

Children who live in households experiencing extreme poverty survive on one
meal a day, receive little education, and have virtually no access to healthcare. It
does not have to be this way.

Africa Bridge combines a volunteer psychosocial support initiative with a unique
form of income generating co-operative that increases family incomes up to five-
fold giving the heads of households choices to transform the wellbeing of the
children in their care.
What makes the Africa Bridge model sustainable and unique are the following
critical elements:
I Creating and maintaining an unwavering focus on the most vulnerable
II A contractual transfer of activities to local leaders within 5 years.
III Building on the inherent strengths and characteristics of small rural
IV The sustainable and generative nature of the co-ops.

The Cooperatives

The Most Vulnerable Children’s Committees, in consultation with the local
community, recommend which villagers qualify to become members of the
agricultural co-op. This is based on aptitude and ability, as well as the needs of
children. Africa Bridge staff and the Ward Steering Committee assess the types
of livestock or crop that would be suitable for the village. Obviously, local weather
conditions, soil quality and terrain are dominant considerations. Tanzania has a
tropical climate, but the highlands have a cool season in July-August. The
temperature varies depending on the altitude. Chilly nights are not unknown. In
the hotter zones, avocados, for example, does not thrive. Some potential crops,
such as cocoa, are not suitable because of the slow growing time; there would
not be a return within the five years of an Africa Bridge project. Typically, there
are between one to two agricultural co-operatives for each village.

Prior to starting the coop there is an intensive training program. This begins with
education on governance, fiscal management, and administration, -such as
running meetings, decision making, and taking minutes. The next unit is technical
agricultural advice related to the crop or animal that the co-op selects. Africa
Bridge staff work closely with co-operative members to coach, and embed the
training and the values of the co-op.

Co-ops initially receive a grant from the Africa Bridge organization. In the case of
a dairy co-op, Africa Bridge may buy, for example, 12 cows and one bull. The
first calf born is donated by each farmer back to the co-op; the second calf is
sold, and part of the proceeds go to the Most Vulnerable Children’s Committee.
Every calf born after that belongs to the owner of the cow, and they are
responsible for taking care of her. But this process always happens within the
context of co-op membership. We have found that that assigning an individual to
each cow fosters a direct sense of responsibility and is more effective in practice.
In the case of a co-op with livestock, one or two of the co-op members are
trained as “nurse practitioners”. These local experts monitor the health of the
animals and know when to call for specialist intervention from a vet. The breed of
cow selected is high-yield and valuable, with registered lineage. There is a
market for the calves in Tanzania, and a farmer may receive up to $300 dollars
for a healthy calf. The manure from the cows is converted into compost to
enhance crop yields for arable produce.

Control of disease is a major issue for animal projects. For this reason, all
animals are housed in shelters, preventing the acquisition or spread of diseases.
Co-op members are trained in maintaining good animal hygiene, disease
prevention and use of critical vaccinations.

With avocados, the capital pay-out works differently. Paying back into the co-op
the initial loan of 50 seedlings is done in the form of cash, enough to buy 50
seedlings. In addition to the seedlings, members receive funds for insecticides
and fertilizer. As with the dairy co-op, they contribute to the MVCC. As it takes
time for an avocado tree to mature and yield fruit, there is a tapered, three-year program for repaying the contractually agreed loan and payments into the MVCC. In the first year, the avocado harvest is small and the trees only reach their prime after 15-20 years.
Agricultural produce of the co-ops has included maize, pigs and chickens as well
as dairy cows and avocado. Any profits on agricultural assets are reinvested, and
new members are encouraged to join, so the project is growing and regenerative.
Each co-op creates a savings fund, to provide loans for emergency needs – for
example, taking a child to hospital, or veterinary treatment for a cow, and co-op
members receive training on financial accounting and governance.

The general principle is maintained: co-operative members pay back into the co-
op so that new members receive agricultural assets. The co-operative grows in
membership and collective wealth, and becomes financially generative and self-
sufficient. It can grow without further grants from Africa Bridge. It is a profitable
local co-operative enterprise that funds humanitarian work and creates
opportunities for children. It is not dependent upon distant donors.

Each farmer within the co-op is an individual entrepreneur. We find that this
approach encourages a deep engagement with the project, and creates an
incentive for economic growth and development, including diversification. So,
while they are part of a co-op, the co-operative element is limited to a savings
fund with loan facilities and contributions to help vulnerable children. Once an
individual has repaid their loans and made their contractual payments to the
MVCC, they are free to retain profits, improve quality of life for their families, and
reinvest as they judge appropriate.

Development and growth
The Africa Bridge approach encourages a mindset of entrepreneurialism and
growth. The co-ops add members and scale during the five years of establishing
the programs and subsequently. The concept is one of sustainable growth and
supporting the children and the community, not scaling up as an end goal.
While there is a co-operative element, the individual farmer is free to retain profits
and reinvest, should they choose. Some co-op members have expanded their
businesses, often with remarkable success. For example, some avocado farmers
from Africa Bridge co-operatives formed an association, including non-Africa
Bridge farmers, and identified four buyers for the UK market. They expanded
their sales, including exports, with the achieved a price rising from 390 Shillings
per kilo to 1,250 Shillings within a few years, transforming their business’s
fortunes and the quality of life for their families. In a similar initiative, Africa Bridge
dairy farmers pooled resources for storage and refrigeration facilities and
negotiated to become suppliers for a yogurt company. I was on a flight between
Tanzania and South Africa and my breakfast tray included a yogurt produced with milk from yogurt enterprise. It was the most memorable airline meal I have ever received!

Other examples of diversification include setting up retail and hospitality outlets,
a corn-milling service, a community bank, and a rental service of a commercial
rotavator to farmers. Through setting up and running their own small business,
individuals have developed skills, confidence, and entrepreneurial flair, that
enable both diversification and resilience. In the early days of Africa Bridge three
pig co-ops were affected by swine flu. The stock had to be destroyed, but within a short space of time some co-operative members had established different businesses. For example, Granny Mary opened a pub and built two successful shops. All the children in her care were healthy and attending school.

%d bloggers like this: