Friday, July 20, 2012

Shingiro Adult: Iyiringiro

This is Emily, one of Spark’s summer interns, with some news about the adult project started over a year ago in Shingiro, a community in the Northern Province of Rwanda!

The first of the two groups initially came together as a cooperative of HIV+ men and women called Iyiringiro, which means “hope”. They wanted to create a group that would allow them to work together to fight against the difficulties they face with having the disease. Iyiringiro Cooperative started the microgrant process one year ago, when they worked with Spark to implement a sheep-rearing project. They used their grant money to purchase 32 sheep, so that everyone in the group would have their own. 

We got an update on their progress after visiting during a community meeting on July 11th. The community has followed through with their initial plan to use the sheep manure as fertilizer to make the land they farm on much more productive. They also have sold some of the manure for money to overcome some of their most immediate needs, such as paying for their children to attend school and buying clothes, food, and soap. This adult group has demonstrated amazing strength to the rest of their community. Before coming together as a cooperative, the HIV+ members were looked down upon and seen as incapable of working. After implementing their sheep-rearing project, this group has demonstrated self-sufficiency to the Shingiro community and has decreased the stigma associated with the disease.

Unfortunately the worst epidemic Spark has seen spread over 18 out of the 32 sheep and caused them to pass away. The group however, has made long-term plans to try to overcome this challenge. They have already rented land as a cooperative that they will fertilize with the remaining sheep manure. They plan to grow potatoes, both to eat and to sell in a local market. 

The group is particularly keen to grow food due to the level of food insecurity that threatens the cooperative. This is a major health issue because the antiretroviral medication that they take is very strong and causes a person to feel extremely weak if taken without adequate food. Most of the members of this group don’t have enough to eat or drink, so they either don’t take their pills or they become very fatigued and at times collapse. The group hopes that their future potato project plan will help them overcome their food insecurity in addition to their other immediate needs.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Shingiro Youth Group Educates Their Fellow Youth About HIV/AIDS

Hi all - It’s Sarah with some news from the Shingiro Youth project!

Wednesday July 11th Natasha, Emily, and I were able to speak with some of the 50 youth group members in Shingiro who came together in 2010 to teach and spread HIV/AIDS awareness to their fellow youth. They came together with help and support from the HIV+ adult cooperative in community called Icyiringiro, meaning hope. In addition to their HIV education work, this youth group chose to use their grant money to implement a sheep-rearing project, in an effort to increase their crop yields to reduce food insecurity and to generate additional income. Since receiving the sheep, the youth group members have been able to use their sheep’s manure to fertilize their fields, and some have even been able to sell some manure and use the extra income to pay school fees and health insurance.

After receiving four days of training and education about HIV/AIDS prevention as part of their microgrant, the youth wanted to spread their knowledge to other young adults in their community. They have held meetings and provided counseling for their fellow peers to educate and make them aware of the risks of unprotected sex. This group has also encouraged many people to go to the local clinic to get tested.

HIV/AIDS education among youth is a huge step towards reducing the number of HIV+ men and women in Rwanda. As UNAIDS reported, “Young people are at the center of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Their behavior, the extent to which their rights are protected, and the services and information they receive can help determine the quality of life of millions of people.” 

This group is a great example of youth empowering other youth to get tested for HIV/AIDS, practice safe sex, and to spread their knowledge.

One member of the Shingiro youth group, Niyigena Garet, told an amazing story about how much being part of the youth group has helped her learn the skills to teach her peers the behavior changes needed to avoid HIV/AIDS. She was also able to “mobilize [her] entire family to be tested.” 

“It is young people who offer the greatest hope for changing the course of the epidemic.”
— Children and Young People in a World of AIDS (UNAIDS, 2001b)

Not only has this group been able to teach other youth about the dangers of HIV, but it has also helped many overcome the HIV/AIDS stigma in their community. Before coming together, members of the group said that they looked down on HIV+ people. As one group member Mugjawimaha said, “when I saw someone HIV+, I felt they were no longer a human being.” After learning more about HIV, this group has shown incredible strength and leadership to lead the fight against HIV/AIDS and the stigma cast against HIV+ people in their community!

 It is amazing to see the progress this group has made!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Gisagara gets visited by Where There Be Dragons student group.

Hi everyone! It’s Sarah and Emily, two of Spark’s summer interns with a really unique update on the project in Gisagara.
Spark started working with the Gisagara community one year ago. Claude, the Spark facilitator for this project, worked with community members to help them come up with a project proposal to tackle a self-identified need. After many meetings and discussions, the community decided to focus their project on the issue of poverty. They came up with the idea to grow and sell the cassava as a source of income. This allowed each family to use their money in any way that they chose, as not all families had the same exact problems. For example, one of the major issues among mostly the poorest members of Gisagara is a health problem called chiggers, that results from unsanitary housing conditions and non-cemented floors. The people that were affected by chiggers would be able to use the money to buy mattresses as a solution.
This past Saturday July 7th we visited this community with Sasha, Natasha, and Claude to check in with their progress. Before the project began, there was a history of tension between the Batwa, or the indigenous potters, and the rest of the community. We were amazed by the beautiful story that Nakabonye, a mother in the community, told of how this cassava project helped create a more positive relationship between the two groups. They were able to come together despite their differences to tackle a problem they had in common. Others in the community, including the association President, explained that “It was the first time the group started working together.” 

Along with the Spark team, a group of 13 students (17-20 years old) and instructors from the Where There Be Dragons program came to visit the community. The theme of this particular trip was development, so they were all very eager to learn about the Spark model. After the community meeting, where we got an update on the project, we all had the opportunity to ask questions. 

This eventually led to a provoking discussion about aid and development, where the Where There Be Dragons students asked questions about the Spark model. They asked great questions about the the importance of having the community self-identify a problem and create a solution. Sasha explained how the communities have a much better sense of their needs that may not be obvious to the people trying to help them. As Claude said to the group, Spark MicroGrant “catches the (community’s) ideas,” in order to promote responsibility, sustainability, and leadership for the project. 
The students also delved into the difference between micro-grants and micro-loans. While micro-loans are very beneficial on an individual level, it is also important to look at a community as a whole. Micro-grants tackle structural issues that benefit the whole community, such as providing bathhouses to improve sanitation, a well for clean water, or planting cassava to generate income. 
After the meeting, the potters offered to show us how they make their pots. It was great seeing how effortlessly these beautiful clay pots were created. Eventually, we all started getting our hands dirty with clay. One of the Where There Be Dragons students even worked with a community member to make his own pot. It was great to see everyone having fun and connecting with each other! 

At the end of our visit we joined in with the community as they sent us off with song and dance. This was a great way to end our visit after getting an update on the project, learning from the community, and having a stimulating discussion about aid and development. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Spark's Summer Plans!

With summer in full swing, we here at Spark MicroGrants have been busy planning for an action packed summer filled with new projects, new staff and interns, and the opening of our Musanze, Rwanda office. Recently, our team has grown to include 4 full time facilitators and 6 summer interns! With all this man power we have some exciting projects planned for the summer! A few weeks ago, Spark opened our Musanze house/office, which will serve as our main base for operations. Musanze is located in the Northwest corner of Rwanda, about a two hour bus ride from the capital city of Kigali. With many of our existing and new communities located around Musanze, we will now be located closer to our projects, allowing us to spend more time in the communities.

The facilitator corps, which is also now based in Musanze, will focus this summer on working with several new communities (be sure to like us on Facebook to find out more about them in the next few weeks). In addition, the facilitators will continue to facilitate the existing microgrants and work on follow-up with communities that have already implemented projects. This summer, we are also welcoming 6 interns to Spark MicroGrants who have hit the ground running! Dennis and Kate are heading up team M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation), where they are focusing on developing individual surveys for the facilitators to administer to communities at the beginning of the microgrant process and then after implementation. The goal is that from these surveys, we will be able to collect important data on the impact of our microgrant projects in the communities where projects have been implemented. 

Sophia will be working on designing a community monitoring plan, that with the individual surveys will provide a well rounded view of Spark's impact in communities. She will also be conducting research on public health in Rwanda, providing valuable information as Spark looks to expand into public health based microgrants. In addition, Sophia also plans to meet with several Spark communities to discuss public health and health related problems that they face.

 Natasha, Emily, and Sarah will be working on compiling a narrative based annual report. They will visit communities, and collect project updates along with photos and videos. During their community meetings, they will collect stories from individual community members about how the microgrant project in their community has affected their lives. By the end of the summer they will compile the research and stories they have collected into an annual report.

This summer looks to be a busy and productive one here at Spark! We hope that you will follow along on our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter where our interns, facilitators, and staff will post regular updates about our summer projects.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Local Is Better

It’s no secret that the world has lots of problems.  There’s the shaky global economy, climate change, overpopulation, widespread poverty, clean water shortages, limited access to education (especially for girls), etc.  It’s a long list.  Many people, myself included, have wondered how billions of people cannot meet basic needs despite billions of dollars being spent to aid them.

Despite all the bad news we read and hear about every day, there are some innovative and low-cost initiatives that are imbuing a sense of real accomplishment and change on the grassroots level in places where the need is greatest.  So, as a change of pace from the same-old, same-old stories about the often less-than-successful and controversial efforts of foreign aid, the UN, World Bank, IMF, microfinance institutions, etc., I’d like to take a brief diversion in the opposite direction and bring your perspective down to the local community level where a little bit of money and a lot of common sense are making a big difference.

Many people directly involved in development aid will tell you that local is better.  In other words, utilizing the knowledge, imagination and participation of communities in need can help address problems faster and more effectively than traditional, top-down approaches that involve government and other bureaucratic institutions.  And this “local” approach is driving a wave of successful development efforts, notably microgrants, that takes some of the best features of traditional development aid – like intellectual capital, funding, and measurement tools – and combines them into something collaborative, sustainable, and, most importantly, effective.

Microgrant programs, in particular, have been generating some impressive results recently in countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.  It’s helpful to think of them like traditional grants, but with a few key differences.  In a typical case, an NGO or similar organization works directly with local facilitators (often university students or NGO leaders) with connections to under-resourced communities.  The facilitator organizes a series of meetings where the local community discusses its most pressing problems and comes up with proposals for addressing them.  Comments are taken on each proposal from field advisers.  When proposals are well developed the community votes to select the one it wants to implement, creates a plan, and then does the actual work required to make it a reality.  The microgrant provider funds them with grants that usually range from $1,000 to $5,000, and each project has its own metric for success, timeframe, and sustainability plan.
In a way, it’s just common sense.  Who better to solve a local problem than the people being affected?  Rather than coming up with ideas to help a specific community from the outside as most development aid organizations have traditionally done, microgrant providers have developed a streamlined approach for stimulating innovative community-led projects and their realization.

Each microgrant impacts communities in two ways: it directly alleviates a pressing social problem through the funded project, and it empowers community members to design and implement their own solutions. Since the community controls planning and spending, the projects are locally appropriate, effective and highly efficient.

Microgrant programs are often confused with their distant financial cousin microfinance.  The key difference is that microgrants fund social sector projects for which a loan could not be repaid, like a vocational training center, animal-rearing project or a canal to prevent flooding.  With microfinance, the borrower takes out an actual loan and is required to pay interest on it.  Microfinance has shown a lot of promise and delivered some impressive results – primarily in low-income countries in Southeast Asia – but it has come under fire of late mainly due to the issue of some borrowers not being able to pay off their loans and falling into a spiral of increasing debt.  That’s not to say microfinance should be completely discounted as a solution, only that other solutions like microgrants might be a better option in many circumstances.

While community involvement coupled with microgrants is often an excellent and effective solution to a wide range of development issues, not every problem can be solved at the local level with local resources.  Some problems are massive and intractable.  But you have to start somewhere.  If you think of every development problem as a journey that needs to be undertaken, then the well-known aphorism by Confucius is an apt summary: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Or around $1,000.

Mick Emmett is a volunteer with Spark MicroGrants.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spark MicroGrants partners with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. to bring microgrants to 16 coffee growing communities in eastern Uganda

In March 2012 Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) and Spark MicroGrants initiated a new partnership to bring Spark’s innovative process of proactive microgranting to villages where GMCR sources coffee. The partnership seeks to address hardships that coffee farmers face on Mount Elgon, Uganda including seasonal poverty that leads to acute food and financial insecurity. Farmers have reported a host of additional challenges including access to clean water, technical skills building and financial planning. Concerned by these challenges GMCR sought to support farmers with locally appropriate solutions. GMCR and Spark’s partnership will be an investment into the livelihoods of farmers in the region, utilizing innovative methods of catalyzing locally-led solutions.

Spark will engage with 16 coffee growing communities in Uganda, through its novel microgranting process. Spark will enroll two Ugandan university graduates already familiar with the region and issues at hand in a facilitator fellowship program. Each facilitator will guide communities through a three to six month process where they will identify a regional issue, develop their own solution, and implement their own project. They will receive trainings, develop leadership skills, and build their organizational capacity through the process. Through Spark’s work, coffee farmers will become local agents of change.

The partnership between GMCR and Spark MicroGrants is a milestone for Spark’s work in East Africa. It is increasing Spark’s efforts in Uganda by threefold.

As the program unfolds, you can track progress on our website:

About GMCR:
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc. (GMCR) was founded in 1981 as a small café in Waitsfield, Vermont. Today, GMCR is recognized as a leader in specialty coffee and coffeemakers, and acknowledged for its award-winning coffees, innovative brewing technology, and environmentally and socially responsible business practices.

GMCR’s business success enables them to invest in a more just and sustainable future — whether through sales of Fair Trade Certified™ coffee, energy and waste reduction programs, awareness building campaigns, new product development, employee benefits, projects in supply-chain communities, volunteerism, grants, or product donations. GMCR has been recognized consistently by Forbes, Fortune, and CR Magazine as an innovative, high-growth, socially responsible company.

Learn more here:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spark MicroGrants Selected as a Semi-Finalist for the 2012 Buckminster Fuller Challenge

March 21, 2012 – Spark MicroGrants has been named a 2012 Semi-Finalist in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the prestigious annual design science competition named "Socially-Responsible Design's Highest Award" by Metropolis Magazine. The Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

After an initial rigorous vetting process by BFI’s multi-disciplinary review team, which included an in-depth interview, our project was chosen from a pool of hundreds of entries from around the world, to be one of 18 Semi-Finalists this year. It will now be featured as a top tier project in BFI’s Idea Index and featured on their website for the remainder of the program cycle.

Semi-finalists will be reviewed and discussed by a board of 8 distinguished jurors, which includes Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons, founders of Bioneers; John Fullerton, Founder of the Capital Institute; Helen and Newton Harrison, leading pioneers of the eco-art movement and Alice Rawsthorn, design critic for the International Herald Tribune.

The Buckminster Fuller Institute wrote a glowing review of the Spark MicroGrants approach and team.

"The micro-loan model, once touted as a panacea, has recently been revealed to have serious potential pitfalls, and many aid initiatives have high administrative costs and ultimately fail to pull communities out of poverty. The innovative approach to development offered by Spark MicroGrants, a highly efficient model that achieves a lot with very small amounts of money, could be very timely and have a significant global impact on grassroots development models."

Finalists will be announced in May and the winner, runner up, and honorable mention will be announced at the conferring ceremony in New York on June 6th. Read the complete BFI review here.