S4S’ President and CEO Visits Malawi

From the blog of our president and CEO, Buddy Teaster

The flight from Sierra Leone to Malawi is a long one…about 22 hours door to door. We flew from Freetown to Accra to Nairobi to Nampula to Lilongwe. The Accra to Nairobi leg was overnight, but a raft of screaming children kept me awake while David managed to sleep some. It was the opposite the night before so karmic balance was maintained!

We arrive in Lilongwe, Malawi in the afternoon and were at the hotel in relatively short order. We didn’t have any meetings that day, so we sat outside at a beautiful hotel in a beautiful setting and just bobbed along. It was an early night but with our potential partners meeting us at 7:30 the next morning, a good thing to not fight it.

I managed to get in a run the next morning. There were several other folks putting in some miles and, with surprisingly cool temps and little traffic, I felt like I could have run for hours. Toward the end of my run, a Malawian guy came by, moving fast. He turned ahead of me, the same direction I was headed, and I caught him going up a hill. As we pulled even, he looked over and said, “good; now I rest” We both laughed at his unintentional slam and ran together chatting for a few minutes before we headed our separate ways.

We then connected with Dan Shulters, Wendy Elerick and Edwin. Wendy is an American who was born in Malawi to missionary parents who then went to South Africa. She returned to the United States at age 10. Then in 2014, she moved back to the village where was born. In every way imaginable, she’s in with both feet (much more on that later). 

Dan first reached out to David several years ago. He learned about us through the shoe industry, and last year he made the trip to Wadley, so David could meet him and share more details of how micro could work in Malawi. With Sierra Leone going so well, thanks to the Hart Family Foundation providing critical seed funding to open two new markets in sub-Saharan Africa, David definitely had his eye on Malawi.

Edwin Thera, one of the most interesting cats we’ve met on this trip so far, is many things. He worked at the Malawi National Bank for 15 years, spent a year in the US trying to further his eduction…which didn’t work out in part because of 9/11. Then, he moved to the UK where he went to a bible college part-time while working two jobs to pay for school. Now he’s a pastor (like most here, unpaid) and has a variety of ways to make a living for his family. That included being our driver this time. He’s direct, smart and is pretty connected in the capital city of Lilongwe. We like that! Plus, he has a great sense of humor and just seems like the type of guy you’d want in your corner.

We were joined by Edwin’s brother Francis and another pastor, Stanley Phiri, who were going to be our shoe buyers. If Americans walked through the market asking shoe prices, there’s not much chance we’d get an accurate read on prices. We would walk through, but not till we got some market intelligence.

David knew exactly what he wanted and gave them each 12,000 kwacha, about $17 US, to buy men’s fashion, men’s casual, athletic, women’s fashion and sandals/flats. They were to get the best shoe they could for the price as negotiation is definitely part of the process. The extra incentive is that they got to keep the shoes (for themselves or their wives). They came back with encouraging news about the prices, pretty strong for the quality, and we explained to Dan what this could mean for his project. We repeated the process at several other markets in and around Lilongwe and finished that part of the day feeling good about the opportunity there.

We had seen a few times guys selling things along the road. Looked like a bunch of black things on a stick. David finally guessed right…field mice.

Edwin and I had talked earlier that day about the typical Malawian diet. First, there’s just not enough food. They rely almost exclusively on maize and soybeans. The maize has almost no nutritional value, but it’s filling so at least you don’t feel hungry. He said that most people eat meat (goat and chicken primarily) a few times a month at best. More likely every month or two. So, especially in the dry season, when they’re burning the fields, and the maize supply is getting low, people catch the field mice and eat them. Slightly cooked but with fur, tail and head intact. He said you start with the tail. This stick full, which was several days old judging by the smell and flies, sold for 1000 kwacha or about $1.50 US. I won’t say I’d never eat it, but let’s leave it at I have never been that hungry.

We got back to the hotel at about 5 pm and spent an hour or so recapping the day, talking logistics (Malawi is land locked, so the cost and complexity definitely goes up), business strategies, how international wires/transfers work (surprisingly smooth according to our banker!) and what the risks were. A super productive day! Plus we got laundry done, which felt fantastic.

The next day was an early start again, off to the airport at 6:30a. We were headed to Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi. Though it was only a 40 min flight, the drive would have taken six hours plus, so it was an easy call. We were met by a local pastor, Jasten Kalebe, who be our driver (they have to really hustle to make a living because preaching is almost never a paid job).

Our first task was to take Dan’s six giant suitcases to Wendy’s village. It was about 2.5 hours and was mostly good road until we got to the last few miles, which turned into a dirt road that dang near bounced our teeth of our heads. Finally, we made one more turn up to the collection of houses that made up the community Wendy was focused on. In the last few weeks, three young men from the village had undertaken a huge task of making a road usable by a truck or van. They break up these huge rocks by hand, digging underneath them, burning a tire to heat the rock and then pouring water on it to crack it into smaller pieces. Then they just keep at with a hammer until it’s turned into a size they can work with, all the way down to gravel.

Wendy and Dan were blown away at the progress, which seemed odd to us because she said when she was a kid, they could drive up there. And that led to a strange story that’s worth a quick detour.

This village is at the base of a gorgeous mountain, Michese, that dominates the view west while Wendy’s tent has a great view to the east and Mozambique, less than three miles away. The entire hillside is strewn with rocks, some as big as a VW bus, which has made farming almost impossible. In 1991 there was some event, they call it “the disaster” that involved incredible floods but also these giant rocks. Some said it was a flood; others said it came from inside the mountain, but the water was very cold so not like a volcano. One of the local guys said that several other mountains around the area also had this kind of event on the same day. Dan has asked friends in the US Geological Survey, but nothing in their records. Weird to have such a major milestone in this community be so vaguely remembered but my guess is there’s an attitude of dealing with what is, not what they wish would be, that makes the “why” just not that important.

One other story worth sharing. Alcoholism and HIV/AIDS are both major problems that are both symptoms of a lack of opportunity. One family in Chidubah village in the Phalombe district (where Wendy lives) is a microcosm of that world. There are five children (age 2-11), and the mother has “lots of husbands.” She drinks heavily and will often be gone for days at a time. She occasionally takes the kids with her but just as often leaves the children alone. The littlest one, Efero, will sometimes make her way up to Wendy’s tent for something to eat. The place where we then spent the rest of the day visiting different rural markets, much different than what we saw in Lilongwe. Shoes and clothing make up a huge part of this trading center Chirlinga. That’s encouraging for us as it’s clear there is demand. David and I were both very aware of the type of product there. Lots and lots of cheaply made shoes and C-grade shoes that were, mostly, not in very good condition.

That might make up 75% of what we saw. In talking with local vendors and Dan/Wendy, there’s a strong sense that even though money is VERY tight for most families, they want quality shoes but there’s not much available.

We took the long way back to drive under the amazing Mt. Mulunje and the tea plantations. It was 20 miles of bad road, and we were all caked in red dust, but the views were stunning. By the time they dropped us off back in Blantyre around 6:30, I don’t think we could have had a much better day.

Friday was an easier day. We met two of Wendy’s very good friends, Les and Kathy Craske, who run a children’s home outside of Blantyre. They take care of 15 or so children and have three of their “graduates” who have lived with them from when they were quite young to now in their late teens and early 20s. Two of the current children joined us for the day and we started by visiting a few more markets, including the giant Limbe market. No new intel really, just more confirmation that there are some price differences between urban and rural areas but the same issues of quality and strong demand seem consistent.

On our way to see Les and Kathy’s organization, Dzanja La Chifundo, which means Hand of Mercy, we stopped at a small game park for lunch. It’s actually a country club of sorts, but anyone can eat there. Animals like elands, giraffes and buffalo just roam around, no fences, and if you’re a golfer, I guess it’s up to you pay attention to them!

We then had a chance to learn much more about the children’s home by visiting and touring the property, about 10 acres. It’s too complicated to relate the whole story here but another example of people who are both feet into doing the work. They have sold everything, except their house which they rent out back in England, and have lived at the children’s home for almost seven years. They obviously care deeply about this community and these kids. They have built/repaired/maintained a safe place for these kids to live, learn and be loved. The sponsorship they receive covers about 50% of the actual cost of the food, etc. they provide. Again, our hope is that they are part of the micro program in Blantyre while also creating job opportunities for the older kids in their home. It would make a huge difference in their ability to make commitments for the future of their kids.

There are lots of things to work through (our first shipment won’t likely be till after the first of the year), but I feel comfortable speaking for David when I say we left Malawi stunned by the beauty of the country, the commitment of the people and the profound need.

Saying goodbye to Dan that evening, our vision of “disrupting the cycle of poverty” didn’t feel like some theoretical concept. It felt real. It felt right. It felt good.

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