Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Chapter Three: "Wait! I Thought You Said Something About Tomatoes"

Sorry about the short (for me) hiatus. Currently, it is the end of the fiscal year for Makotse Women's Club, reports must be written, budgets must be developed, and plans must be planned. And that's not even mentioning the micro-mini (well, compared to the national) housing crisis that I've been attending to via emails back in the States. Or the 2,000 tomato seedlings sitting in plastic bags that required a lot of attention back last week. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the last chapter of this riveting saga, I mentioned the poultry project and the request letter that I had to write for the Department of Agriculture so that we would officially ask for assistance with our food garden and poultry project. After I finished, Mma Legodi asked me to take it to the Department of Agriculture and hand-deliver it. Now, this is not an easy task. Peace Corps does not allow us to drive, so I'd have to take public transport. (Even to this day, I don't know why Peace Corps won't let us drive. Do they think we'll drive on the wrong side of the road--believe me, this only happens once--that we'll get in a horrible crash and our parents will sue? Even though driving opens up a lot of opportunties for the organization. Or that good sites that currently won't work with Peace Corps because of this would be available. Obviously, I've been thinking a lot about this issue. Oh well, that's just a little distracting rant on my part. Back to the story.) To go to the Department of Agriculture (oh, let's just make my life easier and call them DoA), I have to wait around for a taxi or walk to the main road, go to Lebowakgomo Zone F, transfer to a Zone A taxi, which requires walking through a very congested shopping center, wait for that taxi to fill up, and then convince the driver to take me within walking distance to DoA. This make take an hour or two for what would be a 15 minute drive. Not the end of the world but the return trip is even longer and the whole thing could easily eat up an entire day. And then Mma Legodi tells me that there is a big function, so Mr Nkuna probably wouldn't be there, but I should go, just in case. Fortunately, I was able to get a ride from Mma Mello. She's the founder of Makotse Women's Club, if I haven't mentioned that before, and is a force of nature. She drove me down, searched for Mr Nkuna with me, and discovered that, yes indeed, he was at the big event. Then Mma Mello suggested that I CALL him and set up an appointment so there would be a better chance of meeting him. Why neither Mma Legodi nor I had thought of this remains a mystery, but I have a couple of ideas. 1) This is the way things were done before cell phones. Cell phones are fairly new, so waiting around and hoping someone will show up day after day is kind of a habit. 2) Phones aren't known for their reliability, so just because you can't connect with someone doesn't mean they aren't there. And it's better to go, just in case.

However, things are changing and now calling people is a pretty good option, compared to the alternative I described in loving detail above. So that's what I did. And two days and a ride later, I found myself back at DoA. Two hours before my appointment. Still, I was happy with the results and settled down with a good book outside of Mr Nkuna's office.

Waiting around can be the most frustrating part of the day, or the most serendipitous. That day was more about serendipity. I met Francis that day, a manager at DoA, who was also waiting for Mr Nkuna. We had a lovely conversation about development work, the challenges and pitfalls along with the successes. It was a bonding moment. When Mr Nkuna arrived and I handed him my letter, he reads it thoroughly and then decides to call one of his managers to discuss the various options they can provide. Enter Francis. So, waiting around had its pay-off that day...

The three of us talk about what MWC is trying to do, and how the food garden isn't generating income and how the chickens all died, and why this extremely competent and committed organization is struggling with income generation. Actually, this is a common phenomenon in community-based organizations. Running a business is tough, and without support and training, it's even tougher. But it's oh so important here to have a source of income that isn't tied to donors or the government. It gives the agency so much freedom. I really want this for MWC, even though I don't really know what I'm doing either. And this is when Francis mentions hydroponics for the first time.

Now, hydroponics isn't new, but I hadn't heard of it before. Later, I found out that it's a very popular technique to grow pot, especially since it can be grown indoors, thus easy to hide. But, it also works well for tomatoes (finally with the tomatoes!). In fact, a 1/4 hectare of hydroponically-grown tomatoes yield the same amount as on 6 hectares. They can be grown year round, which opens up the possibility of being a distributor for a big chain. And distributing for a big chain can mean lots and lots of income. Perfect!

This conversation goes on for a couple of weeks. They come to our site. Mma Legodi and I go back to their office. We talk about chickens and what we would need to do in order to get our poultry house up to snuff. We do a couple of cost benefit analyses. Basically, the hydroponics project has the potential to cover 50% of our R2,000,000 budget. This is more than I've ever heard an income generation project making. I allow myself to dream big. This could turn into a job training center, teaching community members how to create and run hydroponics projects. We could start a co-op where everyone in Makotse would wanted to grow tomatoes could also sell to the same distributors that we do. Makotse Village could lessen its dependence on social grants and mining jobs, increasing opportunities, and giving youth jobs, which is a powerful HIV prevention technique. HIV is correlated with poverty, low self-esteem, and apathy about the future. Having a job can address all of these issues. But first, we had to find the money to build the thing.

OK, we're getting closer to real time hydroponics building. I don't know when I'll write again, but soon you'll be able to read about the difference between dreams and reality. Just in case you thought that every good idea effortlessly came into being.