The Beginning of a Business

apologies for the lack of posts last week. The internet was down in Korogwe due to rain, so I couldn’t get these up.

written 4/09

Yesterday was our first meeting as a business group and it really cemented for me the fact that the project that we’re starting has a lot of potential and the women in our group are really going to make the most of working with 2Seeds.
In other words: I’m really excited. Our project is awesome. The women we are working with are awesome. There is a very genuine possibility that these women will become full-fledged business women that are running this food processing business, making all of the decisions, and generating a substantial income in the next year and a half. I know that things never go as planned, but I really think that my wildest dreams for this project are attainable and that our women can make them happen.

Ashley and I had some trouble putting this meeting together and I thought that it was going to be a meeting with a number of awkward moments in which we weren’t understood. In Tanzania, all learning is done by rote memorization and our women have constantly been excited about the idea of us bringing in experts to train them. Ashley and I decided we should learn cooking by muddling through together instead of learning from an expert, in a large part to prove to the women that they can learn new skills on their own and that there is no perfect recipe, so it is up to us to figure out how to make the best food to sell. Because we wanted to have them learn in a style they’re not used to, I thought that the women would be a bit uncomfortable and quiet. All in all, I wasn’t expecting this meeting to be that great. Fortunately, I was completely wrong.

This does not mean it went as planned however. Short side note about life here:

Almost everyone in Tabora plants corn as their main source of food. Because there is no irrigation here, all of the corn is rain-fed and so Taboran’s lives are heavily dictated by the weather. They need to hand-hoe all of their land before the rains come, plant as soon as they have started, and occasionally weed during the rainy season while the corn is growing. This process works the best when the rains are consistent and spread out (5 days of some rain is better than one day of very heavy rain). This means that as soon as people believe the rains are going to start falling consistently they need to go plant. However, it is not guaranteed that the rain will fall in this pattern so sometimes people plant, the corn starts to grow, and then it is dry for a few weeks and the corn dies and must be planted again the next time it rains.

Many people have planted the majority of their corn already, but we haven’t had rain for a while, so it’s starting to die. Thankfully more rain came just in time this weekend. It continued to rain yesterday, so people needed to be at their farms to finish their planting or, if they were unlucky, re-plant. When you schedule a meeting there’s no way to know what the weather will be like. Because it was raining and people had to go to their farms, we thought we might have low turnout.

The meeting was scheduled for 3:30. I showed up around 4 (still getting things together right up until the moment the meeting was supposed to start). The first woman showed up around 4:15. Many other PCs have been really distressed when their meetings don’t start on time, but because I knew our women would have shown up had it been sunny, I wasn’t that upset. Making sure you do everything you need to do to have food for the year takes precedence over our meeting. As Ashley was walking over with loads of supplies, it started pouring again and she showed up looking a bit like a wet dog, but very cheerful about it. After the rain stopped two more of the women came and Ashley and I began talking about our contingency plan. Should we cancel the meeting because we had less than half of the women? Should we continue to wait for others? Meanwhile, the women were asking us- Where are we going to cook? We had planned to cook outside, but the women were skeptical we could cook on the wet ground (using firewood). Ashley and I decided to scrap all of the talking points we had planned and use them in the next meeting and just do the cooking. Two more women showed up, and the women told us it would be better to cook at someone’s house.

We lugged all of the supplies to Mama Tabia’s house and began cooking. I showed them how to make popcorn and burned half of it. Mama Tabia tried and the popcorn turned out really well. We pulled out our potatoes and began peeling and slicing. We showed them how to use veggie peelers from America and Adidyah showed us up by being able to make equally thin slices just using a knife. I was moving through the steps I think are important and Mama Asha stopped me, asked Mama Tabia for some water, and told me I must place the potatoes in water after peeling and after slicing them. It made me so happy to see that they saw me as a source of information and help but not an expert, because I absolutely am not an expert at cooking potato chips. If yesterday was any indication, our relationship with the women has gotten to exactly where I want it to be- we are a great resource for them, but we are not ordering them around. We are partners, working together and bringing our different and individual skills to the table to create something together.

Ashley helped the women begin to fry to potato slices in oil and I began showing them how the packaging works. The standard packaging here for products like these is a tube of easily meltable plastic. You cut off some of the tube, hold the end close to a candle and the two sides will melt together. Then you fill the bag and melt together the other side for close it. Ashley tried to do this earlier in the day and produced nothing usable. I figured it out a little better, but went into the meeting having no confidence that we could teach anyone how to package things. I thought we might have to bring in a teacher from outside to help us learn to package goods.

However, once I showed them a little bit, Adidyah sat down and tried and did it perfectly. A few of the freshly cooked chips came out (warm homemade potato chips are delicious- try it someday) and she placed them in the bag and sealed it up. There was something incredibly magical about that moment for me. The group of women, that we brought together only a few months ago without a great vision or idea of where we were headed, is now a group with an identity, a dream, and the skills to produce sellable goods. We can sell packages like this in Tabora today. Our dream of running a food processing business became tangible and something that I have absolute confidence that we can achieve. Ashley said that she kind of wants to keep that first package forever, much in the same way that people save the first dollar bill they ever earned.

We rotated tasks and had different women try cooking and packaging. Halfway through a comment was made that Mama Asha cooks and packages good to sell on her own and so has lots of experience using this packaging material. I felt a bit silly for not having realized what a resource we had right in front of us, but I asked her to show everyone how she does it. It was really nice to have someone within the group be able to show their expertise; this group of women is rapidly turning into a group of people that trust each other and are coming to see each other as resources and partners. One of our group members, Mama Kitojo, showed up at about this point, having just returned from planting. The women filled her in on the details of the meeting and what they had been learning, further showing me how well they are starting to work together. Later in the day Mama Aggie (who was also planting during the meeting) came to me and asked me to show her what had happened during the meeting. The excitement of these women is palpable, which is something that is so essential, but hard to cultivate if it is missing.

The atmosphere of the whole meeting was really enjoyable. The women sat around the stove and the candle we were using for sealing packaging. When the fresh chips came out we sat and munched and chatted. Outside the sky was grey and cloudy, so it felt warm and cozy to be inside, like on a winter’s day. If these houses had windows and a movie was being made about our time here, the camera would have panned from the dreary weather to the window to peer into the warm, happy camaraderie that existed inside.

During the whole meeting the women were constantly thinking about the future and what they need to do to get this business up and running. It made me really proud that, not only did they ask how much they could sell the packages for, but they asked how much it costs to buy the potatoes that went into the package. They are thinking about how to talk to buyers, where they can sell these, what makes the chips better or worse, how much money they can make, and how to organize themselves to produce and sell the goods. There are questions they are not thinking about currently that we have to push them on, such as how they are going to transport the chips to the buyers, and how to keep track of and divide up the money, but I am so pleased that they are already thinking about so many aspects of running a business. This level of engagement and business sense was more than I could have hoped for and it makes me so proud of them. I’m blown away by their competence, intelligence, and willingness to rise to the challenges we are setting before them.

We closed the meeting and each woman took home a package of the chips that we had made. Our business group has officially begun, and it is going to be amazing.

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One Response to The Beginning of a Business

  1. Bea Siegel says:

    Congratulations, Jamie! You and Ashley did it!
    Love, Grandmq

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