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Alleviating poverty through micro business

March 28, 2013
Bachelor of Commerce alumni Sarah Proctor and Jen Vagg worked with the Mwika Mushroom Group to support Mama Laya, pictured between them, to expand her oyster mushroom business as part of a farming collective.

Near the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a contract was written and signed in pen, and the money transferred in cash to help Mama Laya. The simple transaction was the catalyst for a life-changing expansion of her oyster mushroom growing business.

The exchange was a world away from the Royal Roads classroom, but deeply linked nonetheless.

Four alumni, Jen Vagg, Sarah Proctor, Sywlia Knapczyk and Shannan Brown, spent November 2012 to January 2013 in and around Moshi, Tanzania continuing the work of the Micro Business Catalyst Fund for East Africa. The program, started four years ago from a private donation to Royal Roads’ Eric C. Douglass Centre and supported annually by other donors, has sent alumni to Moshi each year to share their business expertise, help local entrepreneurs launch their own ventures and provide funding where needed through micro business loans. Those efforts have helped launch numerous businesses, including tailors, small-scale chicken and pig farms, beauty shops and notably the mushroom farms.

“It was a chance to use the knowledge we gained at Royal Roads and apply it in an entrepreneurial context within a developing country,” Proctor says. “We were able to see first-hand how small-scale businesses operate in a different part of the world.”

“Genuine conversations and advice helped many of the individuals I connected with, far more than any sum of money,” Vagg adds. “Talking with some of the locals about their businesses made them either more confident in their current approach or willing to change their processes to be more sustainable.”

Proctor and Vagg, both Bachelor of Commerce graduates, worked closely with the Mwika Mushroom Group, of which Mama Laya is one of seven current farmer members. Through loans of roughly $400 per person, more than 17 farmers have doubled their disposable income and improved the quality of life for their families.

The farmers work as a mini co-operative, pooling their resources and profits from their mushroom farming operations into a group bank account. This year, the group decided to support the expansion at Mama Laya’s remote farm for an investment of $1,200. With the help of her children, she will now be able to grow oyster mushrooms in up to 200 bags at one time.

“There is a strong sense of community for these rural villagers so by helping one individual farmer, you are actually directly helping at least seven or eight other people through their support system,” Proctor adds.

The original donation for the program came with a request that Royal Roads find a way to help alleviate poverty in Tanzania. To that end, on a small scale the program has been a success. These are families that can now send their children to school, put more food on the table and generate a sustainable income, says Lois Fearon, director of Royal Roads’ School of Business, who also travelled to Tanzania.

“The significance of such an impact cannot be underestimated,” Fearon says.

For Vagg and Proctor, it was a fantastic opportunity to hone their business negotiation and management skills at the start-up level while helping people. Cultural and language challenges really tested their communication skills, they say, noting there were personal rewards as well.

“Sometimes in Western culture we get caught up in the small things, and forget to take a breath and enjoy the present moment,” Vagg says. “In Tanzania, the term ‘pole, pole’ means ‘slow, slow’ and this philosophy of not rushing through the day is a cultural norm that I learned to respect.”

The women developed a case study from their experience so that others can learn from what alumni have helped build in Tanzania. That work garnered them an honourable mention in the NextBillion's Case Writing Contest.

The micro business program was originally designed as a four-year program, however Royal Roads is looking for ways to stay connected to the community, Fearon says, whether that be through a field school, a partnership with a local university or some other venture.

The networks and relationships which have been formed in Tanzania hold significant opportunity for the community there and for the Royal Roads community here, she says.

“The project is a perfect example of the Royal Roads’ vision being put into practice – connecting people, ideas and experiences to change lives and the world,” she says. “The micro business project is doing that in a pretty profound way.”

Read more about Jen Vagg and Sarah Proctor's experiences in their featured alumni blog.