Friday, April 15, 2016

Seeings Little Rock through children's eyes!

As we told you in previous posts, Carol Falk took her family to Little Rock. Following are the impressions of two of her grandchildren and what they have to say about their visit.

First there is Alex's story:

Alex Falk with Little Rock preschooler
My name is Alex Falk.  I am nine years old and I live in the U.S.  I recently visited the Little Rock School.  I think it is amazing how this school can bring education to their students of any age.
For example I visited a class with eighth graders.  For some of them they’re here because of a physical disability.  They are here because other schools may have rejected them because of their disabilities.  But Little Rock is open to everyone!

Alex with cousin, Heather and Little Rock student
I also think it’s amazing how the school makes sure nobody feels mistreated because of their looks or how they interact with other people.
Seeing this school has changed my life because seeing all these kids who have barely anything at home have so much at this school.

Then there is Patrick who had this to say:

Patrick with Little Rock  friend, Lulu 
My name is Patrick Falk. I’m 14, and somehow I got lucky enough at this age to take a trip to Kenya with my family. On the second day of the trip, we went to the Little Rock School just outside of Kibera in Nairobi. Being in an environment with these children, some of which wouldn’t have been accepted into other schools, was just incredible. The students were all bright and happy, and so excited to share their education with us. They loved to take photos and exchange stories, and they were all so open and kind. My cousins, my sister, and I made quite a few friends, from toddlers to students in our age groups. 

Lulu likes Patrick's glasses
Little Rock welcomes children with open arms, regardless of family situations or disabilities. Seeing these kids come out of poverty at home, eager to learn and discover, was so inspiring. It is so, so important to help children around the world get the education they deserve, and Little Rock is taking a big step for Kibera. This experience has been life changing, and I am so thankful that I got to visit the school.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beth Falk's Impressions of Little Rock!

Beth Falk with Little Rock pre-schooler

Our family's visit to the Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Centre in Nairobi was, without question, life-changing.  I think we all had a year's worth of life lessons in a single day.

I'm not certain I even have the words to describe Lilly Oyare and what she's accomplished. I'm in awe of what she has created for the Little Rock children in the midst of what could be impossible obstacles. Little Rock is such a beautiful respite for families who live in a kind of poverty that's difficult for most of us to fully comprehend.  The school is bright, clean, colorful and safe. It's clear that the children are loved and respected, and that they've learned to love and respect each other in turn. As a parent, I was deeply impressed by Lilly and her staff's recognition of all of the components of a good education, from nutrition to giving the kids opportunities for simple play and movement before asking them to concentrate on academics. The occupational therapists on staff spoke with real passion about their work, and it's clear that the team understands how critical that work is to the children who need OT. I wish some of the schools in the U.S. showed that depth of understanding of child development, and that kind of commitment to the value of education.

Kids in Kibera

Of course, we loved all the children, and our kids did, too. It was very difficult to get them to leave after so many hugs and so much laughter and shared play. The fact that children from different sides of the world could sit on the ground together and play “Duck, Duck, Goose” or color and play with stickers together made us all feel good. Our 14-year old was deeply affected by our home visit in Kibera. I think we're all experiencing a complicated mix of feelings from sadness to great hope after what we saw. 

I understand better now, John and Judy, why you've been compelled to continue this work, and I hope we'll be able to do more to support it. Our kids had lots to share with their classmates at home, and still talk about the friends they made at Little Rock. I hope that sense of connection and friendship will stay with them, and that they'll find some ways to support the community there.

Beth Falk

Friday, April 8, 2016

What a life altering experience!

Carol with Little Rock mom and her daughter

This February, I wanted to celebrate my 70th birthday by taking my family on an extraordinary trip.  For me, Africa became a magical place when I visited with my brother for the first time last year.  For John, this was primarily an EPN business trip with one of the important destinations being the Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.  I had met its founder, Lilly Oyare, when she visited the US the year before, and was anxious to see the school.  For me, the rest is history; I was hooked on Little Rock.

Little Rock kids

Eleven of us, ages 7 to 80, shared the most amazing experiences, but I think it was our day at Little Rock that set the tone for the rest of our African adventure.  My four grandchildren were enthralled with the kids, hundreds and hundreds of smiling, laughing, running and jumping kids who greeted them with open arms. On our way to Little Rock, we had driven through the main street of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, and my grandchildren were aware that this slum was home to most of the Little Rock students.  In the afternoon, when we had planned a walk through Kibera, the three girls refused to join us protesting they were having just too much fun at the school.  Somehow, a day at Little Rock infuses one with joy, and hope, and happiness.

Carol's grandkids with Little Rock friends 

My grandchildren were no exception.  They talked about that day for the rest of the trip, and always with love and affection.  The rest of our time in Kenya was fabulous, but as we were waiting at the Nairobi airport to start our homeward journey, I asked what was the highlight of their vacation.  Almost in unison, they replied, “the Little Rock School”.   Today, we still talk about the Little Rock School and how they might be able to raise money to help their new friends.
For me, returning to Little Rock strengthened my commitment to EPN, to the Little Rock School, to the EPN sponsored Little Rock Scholars Program, and to my wonderful brother John who is really making a difference. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Off to Africa!

Hi All --

This is John with a quick note.  I'm headed off to Africa for 2 weeks -- 5 days in Benin with the Songhai Centre and 8 days in Niger with Dov Pasternak and the Farmers of the Future project.  You'll remember Father Godfrey Nzamujo, founder of the Songhai Centre, and Dov, father of Farmers of the Future, from our EPN Hero series.  I'm delighted that Peter Wentworth, our newest EPN board member, is joining me in Niger.  With all his international experience and keen insight, Peter added real value on last year's trip to Rwanda and Kenya and I look forward to his contributions in Niger.

EPN's key project in Benin is the Songhai Women's Capital Fund. The fund provides low interest loans to women graduates of the Songhai Centre to start their own agricultural ventures. Currently 25 women participate in the program.  Results of their ventures have been mixed so we're anxious to identify ways to improve their success rate.  We'll be combining site visits with internal discussions to hammer out a specific plan of action.

Father Godfrey, John and Judy Craig with Songhai Women

In Niger the focus is Farmers of the Future. We're wrapping up the pilot phase of the project. Our original pilot villages are at a critical stage. After three years of training and technical support we are withdrawing backing from the women's garden associations to determine if they are ready to truly be independent and self-sustaining. At the same time we're finalizing plans to open a 5th site.

          FOF Woman Farmer in the Tree Nursery

It will incorporate all the learnings and best practices gained from years of testing to create a showcase for Farmers of the Future and demonstrate what it can achieve. Finally, we'll be meeting with several organizations to explore potential partnerships to begin scaling the program.

Should be a great trip!!  I'll provide updates from the field, internet connections permitting. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Niger: A great place for EPN to work

As I mentioned in the previous post, John will be traveling to Niger in the upcoming weeks to visit the site of the Farmers of the Future. Niger is one of the world's most challenging places to live, economically speaking. But when it comes to reducing extreme poverty, Niger is a great place for EPN to work. Here’s why.

Niger: Quick Facts

Population: 19,113,728 (2014 census)

Capital: Niamey

Bordered by: Nigeria, Chad, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Libya (a pretty neighborhood these days)

The Great Mosque in Agadez, Niger

  • Aïr mountains (a cooler region with altitudes over 1800 meters)
  •  Ténéré desert (where temperatures often exceed 122 F)
  •  The W National Park (home to buffalo, hippo, lions, antelope, and elephants) 
  • The Great Mosque in Agadez (mud-architecture with 27-meter minaret)
  •  Neolithic rock engravings – some in museums, others left in remote areas

Ténéré desert - sand dune between Fachi and Bilma, Niger

Languages: French (official government language), and 5 main local languages: Hausa, Songhai, Fula/Fulbe, Kanuri/Beri-Beri, Tamasheq/Tamajaq 

Motto: “Fraternité, Travail, Progrès” which means “Brotherhood, Work, Progress.”  

Geography & Climate
Niger is the largest country in West Africa; to give you a sense of its size, its area is just under two times that of Texas. It has one of the hottest climates in the world, and as such has been nicknamed “the frying pan of the world.” Over 80% of its land is covered by the Sahara Desert, and only 0.02% of its area is covered by water. 

People & Culture
Over 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim. Some of the people are nomadic or semi-nomadic, following ancient grazing routes.

Subsistence Farming
The vast majority of the population of Niger survives by subsistence farming, which means that they only raise enough animals and grow enough crops to meet the family's needs. Women are often left for long periods of time while their husbands look for work in town centers or graze the herds. In their absence, the women farm the land and care for children and elderly relatives.

Cattle, sheep, and goats are the main herds that graze the land, and millet, sorghum, and cow peas are important agriculturally. But when the rains are poor, people really struggle. Rainfall has been decreasing over the last 50 years and severe droughts have led to pronounced food shortages as recently as in 2005 and 2009. Agricultural experts are engineering crops that will grow quickly to take advantage of what rains do fall.

The more fertile land in southern Niger, near the Niger River
While most of the land is too dry to grow crops, Niger’s southeast and southwest corners have more fertile soil. In the southwest lies the Niger River Basin, which Niger shares with eight other countries. The Niger River supports farmers, cattle grazers, and fishermen from all these neighboring countries, and it is thus a very fragile region. In order to preserve it, they have developed one of the world’s most progressive river management systems: The Niger River Basin Authority, whose responsibility it is to ensure that the Niger River’s resources are used judiciously and that it benefits the local communities.  

Farmers of the Future
Perhaps you remember reading about our EPN Hero, Dov Pasternak?  Dov lived in Niger for 10 years and has worked with thousands of rural farmers in the country.  For all the challenges they face, Dov describes Nigeriens as some of the most kind-hearted people he has met anywhere in the world.  And Dov has seen a lot of the world!

Farmers of the Future nurseries - Niger
Dov is the father of the Farmers of the Future project, and has developed a range of techniques to grow hardy vegetables even on severely degraded land. He’s helping Nigeriens rethink agriculture, to view it as a business and not just a means of survival. Using irrigation to grow and sell high value vegetables, farmers generate significant profits which they can use to purchase essentials and raise their standard of living. John will be visiting Niger in March along with Dov and reporting back on the progress with the Farmers of the Future program. 

The need is great in Niger, and EPN is making great gains there. Stay tuned for more!

For more about Niger, check out these articles and websites: 

The World Bank: In the Niger River Basin, Countries Collaborate on Hydropower, Irrigation, and Improved Water Resource Management (March 2015)

Our Africa: Niger (SOS Children's Villages)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Niger: the worst place to live. The best place to work.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2015, when life expectancy, education, and standard of living are taken into account, Niger is pretty much the worst place to live. These dimensions are used to calculate the Human Development Index (HDI), and last year, Niger ranked dead last: 188 out of 188.1

HDI was developed in 1990 by Mahbub ul Haq, a Pakistani economist, and his team of developmental economists. At that time, monetary measures like GDP were being used to evaluate a country’s development, but many people, including these economists, found that the human element was missing from these calculations.

HDI attempts to measure the richness of human life. It gauges human opportunities and choices using calculations across three dimensions. The first is health, based on life expectancy at birth. The education dimension measures the schooling obtained by adults aged 25 years and more and expected years of schooling for children. Finally, the standard of living dimension is measured by gross national income per capita. 
To put this all in perspective, consider that the 2015 report ranks the United States at number 8 and Canada at number 9.  Niger has been ranked last for 3 consecutive years, and has always been among the lowest-ranking countries in the report.

Farmers of the Future - Niger
While Niger may be the worst place to live when it comes to HDI, it is most certainly one of the best places to work when it comes to eliminating poverty. John is planning a trip to West Africa in March, where he’ll be splitting his time between Niger and Benin. In Niger, he’ll work on Farmers of the Future, and in Benin, on the Songhai Women’s Capital Fund. You can read more about these projects by following this link, and also find notes and photos from John’s travels in upcoming blog posts.

Farmers of the Future nurseries - Niger

In an upcoming post we’ll look beyond Niger’s dismal HDI to explore the features of this country and point to opportunities EPN is creating there. John says it’s nicknamed “the frying pan of the Sahel” – and there’s got to be a good story behind that!

1Interested in reading the full report? Click here: 2015 Human Development Report

Monday, January 4, 2016

Signing in!

Hi EPN blog readers! I’m Jen, the newest member of EPN’s communications team. I’ll be bringing you EPN updates and stories, and continuing on in Jonathan & Dexter’s fine work. I especially loved reading their EPN Heroes series – they really captured the ingenuity, compassion, and hard work of these amazing Heroes. Thanks for the engaging reads, Jonathan & Dexter!

Posting great blog content was only part of what these guys did, though – Jonathan & Dexter also gave EPN’s website a major overhaul. It’s visually appealing, navigable, and full of great information about EPN – but don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself if you haven’t already!  Hats off to you, Jonathan & Dexter!

Anna (right) and me (second from the right) with our
 fellow graduate assistants, Rachel and Lori, at VCFA 
And so now, a little about me: I am from Ottawa, Ontario, and I discovered EPN’s work when I met Anna Drury during my studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).

I have a background in psychology and environmental sciences (BSc), education (BEd), and creative writing (MFA). I’ve worked as a chemistry lab technician, elementary school teacher, and college professor. Today, in addition to my job with EPN, I work for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and write children’s book reviews for a number of Canadian publications. Children, literacy, innovation, and education are my soft spots, and that’s why the work EPN does resonates so much with me.

I’m very excited to work with EPN and look forward to engaging with you online, too! Never hesitate to leave a question or comment – I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Signing Off

This is a personal post from the two most recent "Social Media Ninjas", Dexter and Jonathan. We haven't done one of these in a while, and today it is a bit bittersweet. We have been working with EPN for the past year and a half as the resident bloggers and social media experts, with a little tech savvy to boot. But with new work and personal responsibilities for both of us, we must unfortunately announce that Dexter and I are signing off with EPN.

It has truly been a great run and we definitely enjoyed it.

We were happy and proud to develop the new EPN website and share it with the world.

We loved the opportunity to meet and talk to magnificent human beings in Dov Pasternak, Lilly Oyare, and Father Godfrey during the EPN Heroes series.

We enjoyed meeting and introducing two new board members in Peter Wentworth and Kaveh Naficy, and sharing numerous updates from campaigns, trips, and articles.

We are deeply thankful to John, Judy, and Helen for the opportunity to partner with them over the past 2 years to help Eliminate Poverty NOW! It has been a great journey, and it will continue to be a journey beyond our direct work with EPN.  We truly appreciate the chance to work with the team towards such an important mission.

And last, but not least, thank you all, the readers of EPN Live, for your continual support. You have made our work worthwhile, and the readership means a ton. Please continue to share and comment on our posts! Our dear new friend, Jen, will be taking over as the new "Social Media Ninja", and has a bunch of great ideas and a beautiful writing voice! We will continue to support her and share her posts as well.

So thank you all for the time. It's really been a blast, and we look forward to the time when our paths will cross again. All the best, and please continue your support as we strive to Eliminate Poverty NOW!

Friday, December 18, 2015

EPN Heroes Father Godfrey: What's Next for Songhai?

This is the last post in our EPN heroes series. We've been highlighting Father Godfrey Nzamujo , the founder and director of the Songhai Centre. He and his army of "barefoot engineers" are using sustainable agriculture to create pathways towards prosperity for some of Africa's most disenfranchised. 

In our earlier posts on Father Godfrey we've shared how he has uprooted the logic of poverty at work in Africa and managed to turn 2.4 acres of barren land into one of Africa's premiere research and technical school networks.

What Father Godfrey has accomplished is remarkable. Today there are thirteen Songhai Centres in four African nations. He has educated thousands, helped to provide communities with nutritious food, and impacted countless lives. What more could Father Godfrey possibly accomplish? We are glad you asked!

Father Godfrey is a world renowned agriculturist, and his work has caught the attention of some of the world's most important influencers. Starting next year, graduates of the Songhai Centre will be given opportunities to pursue degrees at any French University they qualify for, on full scholarship. There is only one condition: every scholarship recipient must agree to return to the Songhai Centre, and join the teaching or research staff.

Why all the sudden attention? Father Godfrey and his staff may be on the brink of something remarkable. They are on the verge of innovating self-sustaining agricultural ecologies. That's a mouthful! Here's a simple way to think about it.  Imagine a farm where absolutely nothing gets wasted, that requires only minimal human involvement, and never uses agricultural techniques harmful to the environment. That's what Father Godfrey, with the help of his faculty and students, is creating.

They have closely studied how organic energy is used and transferred between bioforms. What they have in mind combines agriculture, livestock, and seasonal weather patterns into a closed, self-contained system. This system is driven by the natural and mutually beneficial relationships between plants, animals, and the earth. This could be a game-changer not only for Songhai but also for the world! As mankind becomes more mindful of the dangers associated with climate change and genetically modified foods, these sorts of innovations will be essential to our lives.

What Father Godfrey has accomplished through the Songhai Centre is amazing. What's more amazing is he's not done yet. Everyday he wakes up motivated to "help people who thought themselves beyond help and prove that every person has something to give society." The future looks bright for Songhai. Father Godfrey, his staff, and students are pushing the boundaries of agricultural practice. The world's next major agricultural development may well be the byproduct of their heroic work.

Are you inspired by Father Godfrey's continuing work? What did you think about the next steps for the Songhai Centre? Comment and share your thoughts and questions below!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Mission Accomplished on Giving Tuesday!!

You did it!  We wanted to send 2 more remarkable students from the slums of Nairobi, Kenya to secondary school. And thanks to you that's exactly what we'll do. Our goal was $8,000, but you sent in donations and pledges of over $10,000! Added to the money raised earlier in the year, we now have funding for 10 full scholarships. And with the match from Eliminate Poverty NOW we have an excellent start on funding more scholarships next year.

On behalf of the 26 students currently on scholarship and our 10 new recipients, our sincere thanks.  Your caring and generosity changes their lives and provides them the opportunity for a bright future.  Well done!!

Monday, December 14, 2015

What A Year It Has Been!

As 2015 comes to a close, we’d like to thank you for your generous support of EPN and your enthusiastic engagement with us online. With your help, our work is making a difference for the extreme poor in Africa on so many fronts. Here are some highlights from this year:

Farmers of the Future:

After 4 years of testing we are nearing completion of the pilot phase in four villages and preparing to launch the optimized model in a fifth.   Over 70 women like Hamsa Kindo participate in the program along with hundreds of primary school students who learn that farming can be a good business.  Our videos of local Nigerien successes in agriculture are a huge hit and plans are under way to share them broadly around the country.

Little Rock Scholars Program:

In 2015, the number of students on EPN-funded scholarship expanded to 26.  The extra tutoring and mentoring program introduced last year is paying big dividends.  Eighty-five percent of our scholars are in the top half of their class; 25% are in the top 5% and one is in the top 1% of her class.  Not bad for a bunch of kids from the slums!!  And capped by a successful Giving Tuesday campaign, we will be sending another 10 students to secondary school in 2016.

Little Rock After School Tutoring:

This is our sixth year of funding after school tutoring at the Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Centre.  Currently, over 100 primary school students take advantage of the program.  We foster a love of learning and reinforce that education is the surest path out of the slums.  As students prepare for the national entrance exam to secondary school, tutors work with them intensively to maximize their odds of qualifying for an EPN scholarship.   This year’s 8th grade cohort increased by 50%.

Songhai Women’s Capital Fund:

The Songhai Women’s Capital Fund provides low interest loans to Songhai graduates to start their own agricultural ventures.  To date we have awarded 15 loans with 10 more to be extended in Q4 2015.  Several women are struggling to make their new ventures a success.  While it is unrealistic to expect a 100% success rate with startups, we are increasing emphasis on technical support and mentoring in these first critical years to maximize commercial success for these women pioneers.

Lead Farmers Program:

We completed Year 2 of a 3-year test to provide affordable technical support to rural farmers in Africa.  The test is being conducted with 5,000 farmers in Myange, Rwanda.  Farmers learn best agricultural practices and ways to maximum farm revenue.  Valuable learnings are being implemented to improve program effectiveness and farmers are seeing meaningful improvements in crop yields and income.

Thinking of donating still this year? There's still time - take a look at our Annual Appeal. At Eliminate Poverty NOW we are proud of how hard your contribution dollars work. With your support we can touch even more lives in 2016.

Have a wonderful holiday season - see you next year!

Monday, November 23, 2015

EPN Heroes: The Humble Beginnings of the Songhai Centre

 In our last post, we discussed how Father Godfrey Nzamujo is reversing the logic of poverty at work in Africa by tapping into what he describes as "5 Core Capitals." In this piece, we'll take a closer look at how those "5 Core Capitals" came to fruition in the form of the Songhai Centre.  

After visiting one of the thirteen Songhai Centre technical schools, one might assume that such an expansive and innovative program had massive amounts of initial funding, and a great platform to start from.  Well the surprising truth is that Father Godfrey turned 2.4 acres of infertile land into one of Africa's most impactful agricultural education centers with barely any resources at all.  

The program started in the mid-1980's. West and Central Africa had just experienced the worst famine in recent memory. When Father Godfrey returned to his home country of Nigeria to pitch his idea for an agricultural training and research facility, government officials scoffed at him. "They seemed far more concerned with securing foreign aid and lobbying for charity,"  said Father Godfrey, "than in doing the hard work of empowering people in poverty to be productive." 

Undeterred, he traveled to the neighboring country of Benin to try his luck. The national officials there were more impressed with the potential benefits of hosting Father Godfrey's revolutionary Songhai Centre.  Nonetheless, they too seemed more interested in securing international aid than in financing grassroots efforts.    

They gave Father Godfrey one hectare of land (roughly 2.4 acres) to begin the first Songhai Centre. The land was thought to be infertile and worthless. He was not granted any staff so he recruited local workers. With a makeshift team of seven high school dropouts, and much of his own savings, Father Godfrey converted a desolate strip of wasteland into a thriving, self-sustaining agricultural system. People from all over Africa took notice.  

Word reached Europe that an African scientist and his small team were transforming the way agriculture was done in West Africa. France sent a small delegation to provide Father Godfrey with additional expertise and funding. Unfortunately, they also brought a competing vision of what current and future Songhai Centres should be. 

The European scientists assumed their job was to take over day-to-day operations of the Centre. They envisioned a research facility primarily operated by scientists, not local farmers. Against the wishes of the Benin government, Father Godfrey respectfully dismissed them.  To him the Songhai Centre had to be a place where local people learned skills to transform the lives of their families and communities. And the Songhai Centre has thrived. 

Now people from all over the globe come to learn from Father Godfrey and his team of locally trained agriculturalists. And when foreign countries help fund his programs it's because he has proven time and again that his intuitive understanding of African agriculture and the economy are second to none. Father Godfrey's heroic determination and unmatched expertise are transforming thousands of lives and proving his favorite saying:  "Agriculture can be a weapon of mass construction."