Friday, April 16, 2010

Malawian Hodgepodge

I usually try to write posts that have some underlying theme which require a lot of thinking (kinda shows how empty-headed I am), but there's just too many things to think about as I dive headfirst into Malawi for 4 full days (count 'em).

Why am I here? Well, as my study is on soy food products, one such product is called corn-soya blend (commonly known as CSB). It's basically a - you guessed it - blend of corn and soy flour and nutrients that can be made into a porridge when water is added. It was invented in Likuni, Malawi, and has since been adopted world-wide by UNICEF, WFP, and other NGOs as a crucial tool against malnutrition. In fact, the porridge is known as Likuni Phala (phala=porridge). From what I understand, it's commonly consumed in Malawaian homes, so why not Mozambique? Right now it's only used in feeding program in most places, especially Mozambique, but I want to also look at the potential for commercialization. In addition to touring the factories and meeting with the directors of CSB companies, I'm also checking out other soy foods producers and soybean suppliers. Oh, and my one month Mozambique visa expires soon, so that's just another reason to go out and re-enter.

Outside of my work, which has been a whirlwind and consumed most of my time, I've been blown away by the green space here and the civility of the cities. I've been in the largest city, Blantyre, and the capital city, Lilongwe. What has struck me are the tree-covered (and smooth) roads, shaded pathways, and progressive feel of the cities. Maybe I've been in Mozambique too long, but there is a sense that the infrastructure here is being looked after. In Nampula, Mozambique, some of the potholes are getting so deep that after rains you could probably go fishing. In Mozambique, the attitude is to cut down the trees - often it seems for no good reason. What has resulted is dust, in the wind, and everywhere. It's a rarity to see roads in Mozambique that don't look like the beach. There's even an exchange that Mozambicans have: Someone will say, "How's it going?", and the other will say "Poeira", which means "dust"...kind of like the conventional (and pointless, in my opinion) greeting response of complaining about the weather.

There's also the English speaking population (former British colony) and cool weather that are really making it a pleasant stay. It's amazing the different perspective you get of a country when you're not miserable from heat and unable to have meaningful conversations with anyone.

They also figured out bread here. They put Mozambique to shame, which is ridiculous considering it seems that bread makes up about 1/3 of the urban diet in Moz. They do bread and they do it big. I bought a bagel-like bread about the size of my head. Oh dear it was wonderful to dig into that. Other than that their fare is pretty uninspiring - the usual xima, chips (or who are we kidding, they're French Fries), or rice is paired with chicken, beef, or assorted meats that came from parts of an animal you don't want to hear about. That's the cheap stuff at least - that's what I go for.

I'll update you with some more later, but I just wanted to let you in on some of the happenings. (And if you were wondering, it's nice to stay at decent hotels instead of sweating or getting bit up at hostels...just don't try to book a hotel the day before your stay in the capital on the weekend when the president is getting married. Apparently 20 heads of state are here. Stupid.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Crutches for Beggars

I don't like beggars. I don't like seeing them and I don't like dealing with them. In fact, my life would be a whole lot better without them. In economic terms, I'd say that their presence decreases my overall welfare. And, if you live in a big city, I bet you feel the same way.

I don't dislike beggars because I think they're the scum of the earth. Rather, I hate seeing the human race in that sort of condition. Beggars, and poverty for that matter, are something I want to see eradicated not just for their sake, but for mine too.

Interacting with beggars is tough, and I don't know if I've gotten any better at it. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was almost mugged by them. Ten hands would be grabbing my arms as I walked through the more commercial Gulshan area. Eventually, I started walking around that area altogether. In Mozambique, they are more resigned - and maybe because they have resigned to their situation. They will ask you for money, but only if you make eye contact and only if you walk close enough. It's almost as if they are calculating whether or not the potential payoff is worth the effort. As a personal rule, if you're an able-bodied individual (especially if you're a male), don't bother asking me for money. I also rule out children.

I work in the only real office building in Nampula, the Girassol building which houses USAID, TechnoServe, and most of the other development organizations in the city. It is also home to some nice tech shops and one of the fanciest hotels in the city. Thus, it's a prime spot for beggars. Every day I walk past them in my khakis, button-down shirt, and laptop in stow. I usually do this while trying not to look at him (we'll use "him" for brevity's sake), and every time I feel guilty. Generally, when I am confronted by a beggar, I try to acknowledge him, even if I don't offer anything. I don't know if this makes any difference to him, but maybe it does.

The kind of interaction I have in Nampula is different than most I've had with beggars elsewhere. Here it isn't a one-time thing where I can just blow them off and never see them again. I see them every day. What is my responsibility, as someone on a fellowship to research poverty? Should I give more or less than another foreigner here for a different reason? Should I take time to talk to them? Do they even want to talk to me?

Recently I was sitting in a company truck with a couple colleagues and potential partner who operates a yogurt factory. An old man who was missing his hands limped over to my window and asked for money, in more of a sad mumble than actual words. I didn't give him anything. He went around to the other side of the truck. The factory owner handed him some change. I don't know if he did that out of personal nature or in an effort to show off, but it made feel like crap regardless.

Sometimes I wonder what's the point of giving them money. I think to myself that the few coins I offer up will never change their lives. Maybe this is because I'm an all-or-nothing guy. I want to find a solution to problems, not a crutch. But it also might be because I know how hard it is to help even the moderately poor and able-bodied, much less the maimed and mired. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has one partial solution (I don't think there's a such thing as a "full solution" when it comes to alleviation efforts) with the Struggling Members Program, which offers a $9 interest-free loan with payback to be decided by the beggar, and with coaching to come from another one of Grameen's less-poor microfinance members. I'm a little skeptical, but Grameen says it has graduated over 10% of its members.

My flatmate and colleague Andrew tried to help the young man who you see in the picture sitting outside our office building. Andrew went to the market with him and purchased a cart (or the parts needed, I can't remember) for him to get around on. Andrew said he's never seen him on it, and when he asked the young man about it, he said that he leaves it at home so his begging is still effective. Who knows the validity of his claim, but sometimes, maybe all we can hope to offer is a crutch.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

CLUSA, Soy Milk, and a Second Helping of Moz

Apparently, even after three months in Mozambique, I still haven't caused enough damage to warrant kicking me out of the country. Back in Maputo after South Africa, I spent St. Patty's Day night at a restaurant/pub catching up with a lot of friends until late late. It was a coincidental going away party, since I probably won't be circling down to Maputo again. The next day I boarded a plane for Nampula, where I spent about a month in December/January doing my chicken research.

I'm a big fan of flying, at least anything less than 8 hours. It usually means the beginning of a new chapter of my life - however short it is - and that's always exciting. It might be a new semester at college, a job interview in Chicago, a weekend at Gasparilla in Tampa with all my high school friends, or, more recently, a new country on my travels. In this case I was flying to Nampula to start a 2-month consultancy position until mid-May.

Normally, I wouldn't be choosing to stay in a country for another two months after already being there for three. On my fellowship I've tried to keep my time in each country to about two months. But this project is way too cool and the organization I'm working for is covering my costs, so it was a no-brainer. For the next month and a half with CLUSA (Cooperative League of the USA), I'll be doing a feasibility study on the potential for soy food businesses in the Nampula area, and whether or not CLUSA should provide assistance and funding to emerging soy food businesses. This is actually very connected to my work with TechnoServe, when I was looking at how soybean farmers have benefited from the emerging poultry industry. In the map overlay that I did for my poultry project, you can see the various soybean projects by CLUSA and TechnoServe in light and dark blue, with their magnitude according to the circle size (red is poultry producers).

Why look into the possibility of starting soy-based food businesses? Here's a few reasons:

  1. All milk products and wheat flour (Mozambicans love bread) are imported here
  2. The byproduct of producing soy milk is okara, which can be used to make breads in proportions up to 20%
  3. Locally-produced soy flour is much cheaper than wheat flour and soy milk would likely be cheaper than imported cow's milk (the key is to get the taste right)
  4. And, of course, soy is extremely nutritious, which is good for a country where 41% of children under 5 have moderate chronic and severe malnutrition
These are just some of the reasons, but needless to say, there are huge obstacles, such as the high startup capital needed to produce milk. To sort out whether these obstacles outweigh the potential, I'm doing things like meeting with potential entrepreneurs to develop their business models, pricing production machinery from South Africa, India, China, and elsewhere, and talking with street kids who sell fried doughnuts to learn about how they operate their "businesses". It's a pretty broad scope. Hopefully by the end of it I'll be able to determine the potential, but I'll certainly be able to tell you everything you might need to know about soy foods, which I know you're dying to know.