Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two Ways You Can Make A Difference Right Now

On this trip, we have shown you several places where we can work together to eliminate poverty. Some are just in the planning phase. But yesterday we kicked off two programs at Little Rock Early Childhood Development Centre that we have been working on for three years. These programs are ready for your help today.

Little Rock is an extraordinary preschool, where children from one of the world’s worst slums are given love, support and a great educational foundation on which to build.

As soon as it opened in 2003, founder and director Lilly Oyare realized the community had unserved needs that extended well beyond pre-school. Today, Little Rock has grown to include a day care center so that teenage moms can finish school, after-school tutoring for older siblings, a sewing center where parents can earn income, and deaf and handicapped units for children who are precluded from attending public school. Read more about this amazing place at

Now for the two programs we kicked off today:

The first graduates of Little Rock nursery school are about to finish 8th grade, and take the national exam. For children who score below a certain cutoff their academic career is over. How far they score above the cutoff determines whether they qualify for admittance to local, regional or national schools. Only the best students qualify for the national schools and get the very best teachers and training. While these schools are public they are not free, and most Little Rock parents could never afford the $700 annual cost. So each year Eliminate Poverty Now will award a full 4-year scholarship to the top scoring girl and boy. But there are ten Little Rock graduates who are doing so well in primary school they are likely to qualify for national schools!

We announced the program yesterday. Today, Lilly told us that mothers were already coming to find out more about the scholarships. With your donations we can give them a chance to escape the extreme poverty of the slums.

Click here and help build a bright future for another Little Rock Scholar.

Pads for Peace. Here in Kibera, people are well aware of the challenges that girls face in finishing secondary school, including lack of access to sanitary pads. Through our Pads for Peace program, the Little Rock sewing center is beginning to manufacture RockPads, high quality reusable pads in vibrant, fun colors. Today, we met with 60 women – Little Rock mothers and tailors, and representatives from two girls’ groups (Carolina for Kibera and Miale CSP). They had seen our prototype pads, and were overwhelmingly excited about them. These women prefer reusable pads because they last 5-10 years, and are much less expensive in the long run than disposable pads.

Each RockPads kit will provide enough pads for a monthly cycle and cost about $25. We’ll distribute them free of charge through girls’ groups which will provide the pads in conjunction with reproductive education and empowerment training. Additionally, Little Rock parents will earn income by manufacturing the pads and also by selling them to women in the community.

Through Pads for Peace, girls will have the chance to finish school. Women won’t miss a day of work. And their children won’t miss a day of food. Join us to make this happen.

Click here to donate. For $25 you can give a girl a future.

Meet Romain Migan - A Remarkable Success Inspired by Queen Esther

Following our day at the Songhai Center we visited some of the Songhai graduates to see what degree of success they had achieved in starting up their own businesses. The highlight was our visit with Romain Migan, a truly impressive young man with a remarkable and inspirational story to tell.

Romain is 30 years old, handsome, personable, and well spoken. He is humble, but with a quiet confidence that stems from his talent and the high level of success he has enjoyed in just a few years time. As he talks you can tell this is a sincere, kind-hearted young man with great passion and perseverance. At his young age, he is already a role model within his community with a widespread reputation. We have a half hour of video of Romain telling his story which we plan to edit down and post on YouTube. (As soon as we figure out how to edit video and post on YouTube!) We’ll let you know when it’s available. It’s well worth seeing.

Like most, Romain started with virtually nothing. Neither of his parents had any experience with farming. His father abandoned his mother and their children early on. His mother wanted Romain to become a driver or mechanic. They make a decent living. In her experience, only poor people farm.

One day on TV, Romain saw a show about a successful American farmer who was making a fine living and felt he could do the same. He had no money to attend the local agricultural school. But he heard that the Songhai Center provided scholarships to local Beninians and applied. He was only 17 at the time, too young for Songhai, and was turned down.

Undaunted, Romain waited a year, took the oral exam again, and was finally admitted. His mother was certain he was headed for a life of poverty. But Romain told us, “Even though I had never held a hoe, I believed God will be with me. I will learn to farm, and with my farm I will take care of my mother and my siblings.” He was determined to show the world that he could be a success.

At 18 years of age, Romain was one of the youngest to ever attend Songhai and at 19 one of the youngest to ever graduate. He’s also a relatively short guy with a modest build, not the ideal make-up for the demanding physical work of farming. “Nobody believed I would complete the training.” But none of that mattered to Romain.

During his 18 months at Songhai, Romain was particularly drawn to animal husbandry. The business plan he prepared for final graduation was for growing cassava, cowpeas and corn, because he knew he wouldn’t have the money required to set up an animal feeding operation. Unfortunately, he did not win one of the few Songhai startup grants.

Eventually, Romain found a job working for a veterinary service, doing vaccinations, anesthesia, etc. He was quite good at it and word quickly spread. In a year or two he had saved enough money to start raising pigs on his own and was beginning to do quite well. But one day a farmer sold him a sick pig, and before he realized what was happening, the disease spread through his entire herd. All his pigs died. He was devastated. He decided animal husbandry was too risky and refocused on crop production.

His city, Seme, has sandy, unproductive land which it rents to farmers. Romain applied to lease a plot and was approved. But it took 6 months to raise the necessary funds, and when he returned, the plot had been leased to someone else and no more plots were available. His mother gave up on him. His fiancée left him.

At this point, Romain thought, “I will be like Esther before she went to the king. I will pray to God and he will take care of me. I have nobody but I still have God.” He prayed three days, meditating on Esther’s story. When he returned to city hall, a miracle happened. A plot was now available!

From this small plot, Romain has now expanded to 10 acres. Even though it is still poor land, he grows tomatoes, peppers, carrots and other vegetables, and is so successful that he has become famous in the region. Farmers, local agricultural experts, and agricultural engineers from Iran and China come to ask advice. He makes presentations to farmers associations and at Songhai Centre. He works hard, expects his 15 employees to work hard, and helps them to become independent farmers as well.

Romain understands well the concept of supply and demand. He looks to grow what will be in limited supply to maximize the value of his crop. Benin is a small country, so Romain studies what is NOT being grown in the surrounding countries – Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo – and plants those crops. He is so successful that he can sell everything he grows right from his farm gate. He is a rich man now – he earns $2000 a year, and has already started saving for his retirement.

What does he say the keys to his success are? Not money, physical stature, university education, or an army of employees. First, Romain tell visitors, it’s hard work and intelligence. And then, “Know yourself; know what you are worth. On my own, I could have done nothing. Like Esther, I could not have succeeded without God’s help.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

At the Songhai Centre, Cotonou, Benin – February 18, 2011 – A Most Auspicious Day

At the urging of Dov Pasternak, John spent a lot of time researching the Songhai Centre (, and really wanted to visit it this year. I am so glad we did. It is an extraordinary place, and we know we want to become involved in what they are doing here.

Songhai was founded in 1985 by Father Godfrey Nzamujo, one of those remarkable people who makes amazing things happen. He has created a powerful vision of what is possible with grassroots agricultural development and inspired the best and the brightest to join him. He has created a center of excellence by finding the best people, the best technology and the right markets for local agricultural products.

The Songhai Centre is a showcase. It is a totally integrated system, combining crop production, aquaculture and raising of livestock. The “output” of each one (e.g., chicken manure), becomes the input for another.

Maximum recycling of water and waste into biogas, fertilizer, etc. creates a system with minimum environmental impact and almost zero waste.

The system requires substantial upfront investment but lowers operating costs (fertilizer, feed and energy) and labor (e.g. waste water flows from where it is produced to where it is processed to where it is needed – all by gravity). Low input production means higher profit, and low environmental impact means the place is pristine. At Songhai, they are raising thousands of animals (chickens, turkeys, quail, ducks, guinea fowl,pigs, rabbits and enormous guinea pigs called “grass cutters”) and yet there isn’t a hint of the smell of manure. Compare that to most U.S. livestock facilities.

The farm products are of the highest quality, thanks to research done there or adopted from elsewhere. Tilapia and cows are bred using artificial insemination. Songhai scientists have developed a rice variety which excels in lower moisture climates. The center recycles waste metal and fabricates its own farm equipment.

To maximize value, they process many finished products (soap, baked goods, juices, jams, syrups, animal feed, etc.), while other farm products are sold in Songhai stores and to wholesalers and retailers. Songhai Centre also earns revenue through the lodging and restaurant on the grounds, all built with bricks made there, and featuring Songhai products. Their imprimatur of quality allows them – and their graduates – to attract customers. And Songhai provides a market for its graduates, often buying their produce.

The students at Songhai Centre are the best and the brightest. Men and women aged 18-35 take an oral exam. The usual program is an 18 month internship combining class study with hands-on practical experience. (Sounds like a full-time 18 month intensive Farmers of the Future but for adults.) At the end of the program, each student submits a detailed business plan; the best plans receive startup grants. Others continue to work at one of the 4 Songhai Centres in Benin or for other businesses. Only the best ones are funded. Grants range from $6000 to $20000, but there is only a limited pool of funds with which to make these grants.

Does it work? Emphatically YES! Not only has the center itself turned a profit every year since 1988, but many of its graduates – Father Godfrey’s “agricultural entrepreneurs” – have become excellent agribusinesspeople (is that a word?) – transforming their lives, the lives of their families and of their communities through their new-found expertise. Of the 1500 graduates to date, some 300 have started their own businesses, some with Songhai grants, some with help from their families, some totally on their own. In my next post I’ll introduce you to Romain Migan, a remarkable young man with an extraordinary story.

Furthermore, Songhai Centre is being backed by the UN to expand the program to 15 countries - and possibly more - all across Africa.

We believe wholeheartedly in the Songai Centre. Their goals are completely consistent with those of Eliminate Poverty Now - economic opportunity and education, with a focus on agriculture and a concern for gender equity. We think it is important to begin to develop a strong relationship with the center, because they could be a wonderful partner through which we can invest in the kind of projects we want to promote. Towards that end, we made an initial contribution of $1,000 to be used for Songhai's startup grants. We hope to do much more.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Farmers of the Future - Building the Curriculum (Feb. 15-16, Days 7-8)

If you read Judy's last post (and if you didn't you missed out on a good laugh), you know we devoted Tuesday and Wednesday to launching the development of the curriculum for the Farmers of the Future program.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the program, here's a bit of background. One of the four major strategies of Eliminate Poverty Now is to promote economic development through agriculture, to encourage farmers to make the leap from subsistence farming to agribusiness. It requires changing what they grow, how they grow it and how they sell it. There's a more detailed description at our website if you're interested.

Problem is, many adults resist the change. They've raised the same crops in the same way for generations and they're often set in their ways. But children are open and receptive to new ideas.

The concept of Farmers of the Future is to teach children new approaches to farming through a combination of classroom teaching and first-hand experience in a mini-farm right outside their door. Think of it as one part classwork, one part 4-H club and one part Junior Achievement.

The first pilot site is already up and running. Judy described our visit to the Gueriguinde school last Monday. There, Pencils for Kids has installed a garden and a tree nursery, and the school already has plans for how to use the money they'll make from selling their crops.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we held a meeting with 18 people to kick off development of the classroom curriculum. We had representatives from the National Ministry of Education; from ICRISAT (the research stations where research on new crops and technologies is headed by Dov Pasternak, the Israeli agricultural scientist who conceived Farmers of the Future); from FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN; and from partner NGOs, including VIE, Eliminate Poverty Now and Pencils for Kids.

Over the course of 2 days we reviewed overall goals and strategies, sharpened our thinking on such critical issues as the topics to include, who should teach the material and how best to train them and provide technical support. We also hammered out a detailed budget and timetable to produce the material and complete teacher training by the start of the next school year in October.

I had the fun of leading the meeting. Given the size of the group, their diverse backgrounds, and their various agendas, it was no small feat to keep us on time and on track over two days of active discussion. And to deal with the language issues, we were all wearing headphones. We looked like a scene from the UN General Assembly. But we made it through and all felt pretty satisfied with what we accomplished.

Of course, the $64,000 question is whether a program like this will actually work. Can we effectively teach children new methods of farming? More importantly, will they put those new methods into practice as adults?

The honest answer is "Maybe." We have a pretty good chance of getting kids to absorb the ideas. Did you know that 4-H clubs in the States were formed 100 years ago to do exactly the same thing - work around adults and introduce modern agricultural practice to their children? And it worked!

As for getting kids to actually use their techniques as adults, the outlook is less rosy. Many attempts have been made to transfer modern technology to developing countries with less than stellar results. Often the problem is cost. What's affordable in one part of the world is too expensive in another. We'll have to be mindful of these challenges.

Nonetheless, we're all eager to move ahead with the pilot program. On the downside, we risk losing some time and money over the next few years. But if successful, we may have a transformative idea that helps thousands of young people make the leap from subsistence farming to agribusiness. It's worth a shot!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lost in Translation (Tues/Wed Feb 15-16 - Days 7-8)

The last two days were devoted to a meeting to formulate the curriculum for the first Farmers of the Future pilot sites. In our next post, John will share his beautiful explanation of the program, but first I have two funny stories to tell dealing with French/English communication.

There were about 20 participants in the meeting - from the National Ministry of Education; from ICRISAT (the plant research station headed by Dov Pasternak, the Israeli agricultural scientist who conceived Farmers of the Future); from FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN; and from partner NGOs, including Eliminate Poverty Now and Pencils for Kids.

Of the group, only three of us (John, Robin Mednick and me) were not fluent in French. So we had arranged for simultaneous translation. For the most part, this was helpful, although it was hard for the translator to keep up when a speaker was particularly excited or upset, and speaking quickly. And it was hard for a speaker to slow down when he was particularly excited or upset. (Meanwhile, I was trying to take complete notes of the meeting for later distribution. I typed for two full days - my fingers are an inch shorter.)

It was also difficult for the translator to deal with metaphors. He tended to translate them literally - probably because he was not familiar with some of the English expressions John used. But the funniest time was yesterday, as John was describing the qualities we should look for in the ideal champion of the Farmers of the Future program: he should be passionate about the project, articulate, a strong motivator, work effectively with people, be able to access and influence key stakeholders, able to tap good local talent, and someone who has time to monitor progress on project implementation.

John wrapped up this list, joking that it would be great if that person also "walks on water."

No one laughed. That wasn't really a surprise - they were waiting for the translation. But when it came, it seemed that the translator (no doubt Muslim, along with most everybody else in the room) had understood John's "walks" to be "works" - and he had John saying that it would be great if the person also "travaille dans l'industrie hydroelectrique" - "works in the hydroelectric industry." It was hysterical!

And last night, I found a way to provide additional comic relief. (People who know me know that embarrassing myself in a foreign language is a favorite activity. Right Ruth, Liz and now Claire?) I was telling Fati Madougou, wife of the former mayor - and an elegant lady - that I wasn't worried about getting malaria because I had "mangé les médecins". I should have said I had "pris les médicaments" (taken the medicine). What I actually said was that I had eaten the doctors!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Monday, February 14, 2011 – Day 6 – Great first day in Niger

We have been going pretty much non-stop since we got to Niger. I'm writing this at the end of our stay here - day 8 of the trip - but I only just finished the blog post from the first day! More to come...

We had a terrific – and exhausting – first day in Niger. At this point, we are traveling with Robin Mednick, founder and president of Pencils for Kids, which has adopted the cluster of villages centered around Libore, Niger. Here’s Robin with one of the girls Pencils for Kids has helped.

Libore, Niger - 2.14.11

Robin has been successful here in large part because she has developed relationships with a group of amazing local people, including the former mayor of the cluster, Amadou Madougou; Amadou’s daughter, Ramatou (at left below), who works for UNICEF; Fatouma (below, between Judy and John) the former vice mayor of the cluster;

and Hamani Djibo (below with his daughter), whose NGO Libo is the implementing agency for the work Pencils for Kids does. We anticipate working through this fine group of people to expand on this work, especially in projects which generate economic opportunity.

We visited the center of the Libore cluster. The center is better off than the rest of the villages in the cluster (and better off than many of the villages we see in the Millennium Villages Project) because it is a short drive on a paved road to Niamey, the capital city, giving Libore’s residents access to the Niamey market – both to purchase necessities and to market their own goods. And Libore treasures its relationship with Pencils for Kids, which has built 3 schools, 1 school library, provides school supplies for children, microcredit for women, secondary school scholarships for girls, and more. Check them out at

At the school library (built by Pencils for Kids) about 12 girls who are receiving scholarships greeted Robin warmly. They are all in the last two years of high school. The two in their final year expect to attend university, and all the girls want to be doctors! Their lovely uniforms were created by the sewing center, our next stop. Pencils for Kids started the sewing center in 2008. In our very first grant, Eliminate Poverty Now purchased 6 sewing machines to expand the sewing center.

The sewing girls, some of whom are this year graduating from the 3 year training program, are doing very good work which they are able to sell locally. Nine girls (4 second year students and 5 third year students) had requested and received microcredit to enable each of them to purchase a sewing machine. We attended a ceremony celebrating the graduates and watched them take their new assets (non-electrified foot treadle machines) home on donkey carts. Each girl will pay off her loan over a year at about $12 monthly. Even while paying off the machine, a girl will be able to earn significant income.

This was one of the real high points of the day. The sewing center model that Pencils for Kids has worked out is very successful, and we intend to replicate that model in another village in the cluster. We need to find one that is close enough to Niamey to enjoy the benefits of this proximity, but not too close to the existing sewing center to compete with the newly empowered sewing girls.

As you know, we had planned to begin working with the sewing center to produce reusable sanitary pads for donation to local girls’ groups. We met with a wonderful group of women from all over the area (one came on motorbike from about 45 minutes away), and discussed issues relating to girls finishing secondary school. Surprisingly, for them lack of sanitary pads is NOT the problem. For them, the problems are distance, hunger and poverty, and women’s empowerment.

· Distance

o Roads are not safe for girls walking 8-10 km (5-6 miles) to school (girls walk, boys bike)

o Providing bicycles would not help because parents would give bikes to boys

o Many schools close sporadically during periods when the government doesn’t pay teachers and the teachers strike

· Hunger and Poverty

o Overpopulation is an enormous problem. Many families have 12 children, sometimes also caring for relatives’ children if they are orphaned. They cannot afford the cost of education (books, notebooks, pencils, uniforms, lunch)

o There are no school feeding programs here. If children go to school at all, they go to school hungry. Even preschoolers.

o The villagers had thought of offering a school feeding program for girls (to encourage attendance) but knew they would not be able to maintain it, and did not want to start if it could not be maintained

Clearly, they did not believe that access to sanitary pads would make the difference for their girls in attending school.

The conversation turned to THEIR ideas for alleviating the problems of hunger and poverty. All of them revolved around increasing economic opportunity for women, empowering them to feed their families and educate their children.

The women in the meeting were impressive. They are smart and outspoken. Fatouma, the former vice mayor, is one of the acknowledged leaders in the group. She spoke of the opportunity to organize a grain warehouse to store the harvest until it can be sold at a higher price. Others were interested in accessing land to create a women’s cooperative garden. We shared with them the stories of the grain warehouse Eliminate Poverty Now has funded in Uganda, and our women’s cooperative garden in Mali. We talked about the Farmers of the Future program, which Pencils for Kids has begun piloting at two local sites, and for which we are in Niger to begin creating the curriculum. Towards the end of the meeting, three of the women proposed the idea of sewing and selling reusable sanitary pads locally.

We are eager to help these women improve their lives. We asked Fatouma to work up a proposal for how the grain warehouse would work, and we hope to be able to help the women make this a reality. And we agreed that Eliminate Poverty Now will help them test whether reusable pads is a viable business opportunity.

All this was very exciting, but the high point was yet to come. We visited the Farmers of the Future pilot that Robin began at the Gueriguinde school. The project is already a huge success. We saw beautiful rows of tomatoes interplanted with lettuces, and mango trees the children had grafted. The tomatoes have set fruit, the lettuces and mango trees are ready to be sold. People had already asked to buy the produce, but the children wanted to be able to show us what they were achieving.

The kids LOVE working in the garden and are very proud of it. Each child works one hour/week, and they even come in on weekends voluntarily.

The initial income from garden will be used to bring in electricity to power a flour mill donated by a French NGO. As with the flour mill we funded in Ethopia (our very first investment in economic opportunity in Africa), villagers will then be able to have their flour ground locally –and the money they pay for grinding will stay local. Income from the flour mill will go back into the school and the garden.

Our last stop was the large Libore central market. We visited fabric stores to check out local textiles for Elizabeth Yates, who is thinking about selling these fantastic fabrics in Colorado. Wouldn’t it be great if this trip led to increased international trade!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lyon and Paris, Days 1-3, February 9-11, 2011

Dear Friends,

When you fly to Niger from the east coast of the U.S., you need to build some flexibility into your schedule. There are no direct flights, so John routed us through Paris. But the flights from Paris don't fly every day. If we had been delayed by weather in Newark and missed our connection in Paris, we might have missed several days in Niger. That would have been a disaster, because there is a very important Farmers of the Future meeting scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. So we decided to stay a few days in France, visiting with our niece Claire and celebrating my 60th.

It's been very good to be here recuperating from jet lag, and getting to spend time with Claire and see where she lives. Her friend Lara is studying here also, and we're enjoying spending time with her, too. Claire's French is amazing, and she's been an enormous help running interference for me in the restaurants. Which means that I'm eating way too much, but enjoying it.

Poor Claire, though. She wants to help by translating everything for me. Unfortunately, she's not able to save me from embarrassing myself, since I enjoy making a fool of myself in a foreign language. Come to think of it, she's probably trying to protect the locals from me, but I like to think I provide comic relief.

It seems that John alerted all of France that I was turning 60. So in Lyon we were "guests of the day" at the hotel, which meant: being upgraded to a beautiful suite overlooking the river, a sweets platter, a bag of candy-coated almonds, two free cocktails, and an invitation to a big celebration of a peculiar French holiday honoring the crepe. We were able to partake of everything except the cocktails. In Paris they have offered us free champagne, so hopefully we'll be able to enjoy that today.

You might have gleaned from my last post that the two areas we know we'll be working on over the next three weeks are Farmers of the Future and Pads for Peace.

As we travel, I'll be giving you the background for these initiatives. Let's start with Pads for Peace.

You know the basics. One of our top priorities is secondary education for girls. Here's why:

The payoffs of educating a girl are enormous.

There are various reason girls in sub-Saharan Africa don’t finish secondary school. But one challenge is that many girls are not able to keep themselves clean when they menstruate. Many if not most girls in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to quality feminine hygiene products. Girls resort to castoff blue jeans, mud, cow dung – and sometimes just squatting over a hole. The humiliation of their situation leads many to miss school a week every month. A girl who is absent 25% of the time often becomes a dropout.

There are essentially three current models of delivering sanitary pads:

  • donations of (typically) imported disposable pads
  • donations of (usually) locally produced reusable cloth pads with some associated sale
  • development of a market for locally produced, biodegradable disposable pads

Eliminate Poverty Now is engaged in all three models. We want to support whatever helps girls and women gain access to sanitary pads.

In 2009, our Pads for Peace initiative helped facilitate Procter & Gamble's gift of 850,000 Always pads to the girls of the Sauri Millennium Village cluster.

On this trip, we anticipate beginning to manufacture reusable sanitary pads in two of the three women’s sewing centers we support. Initially, this too will be a donor-funded project; our hope is that there will be some associated sales with this project.

Finally, we are exploring ways to partner with people who are developing disposable sanitary pads that will be attractive, effective and at a price people can afford. Before we left the U.S., we met with Elizabeth Scharpf, who is developing banana fiber pads in Rwanda - be sure to check out Sustainable Health Enterprises ( In Uganda, we'll meet with Moses Musaazi, whose Makapads of papyrus and paper are being distributed by the UN Refugee Agency there. You can learn more about him at And in Kenya we'll meet with Megan White Mukuria (, and learn more about the pads she is developing.

As we move forward, we're very excited that a team of executive MBAs from St. Mary's College ( will be helping us develop a business plan.

With so much welcome attention being focused on the importance of secondary education for girls, it seems like good things are bound to happen.