Shiny Bits & Struggles Too: An AVF Learning Visit to Malawi
by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor
What is small, mighty, and serves up a secret sauce that is unique in the philanthropy world? The answer is Segal Family Foundation, of course. A main ingredient of this secret sauce is what we call Active Partnership: on an ongoing basis, from when they come on board to when they graduate, we support our grantee partners with resources beyond funding. One of these resources is a stipend to help our grantee partners visit one another for the purposes of learning, collaboration, and fostering community. Last month, a cohort of our African Visionary Fellows went on a learning visit to Malawi — the first such coordinated trip amongst AVFers (as we fondly call them). From 19th to 25th February, seven heads of local organizations from Uganda and Kenya were hosted by eight Malawian local organizations in what turned out to be a rich knowledge exchange.
There is a hunger among the leaders of local African organizations for connection with one another. Within any organization, the captain’s seat is often the most solitary; visionaries need to interface with other far-seers who understand what it’s like to carry the weight of leadership. In the African context, this solidarity is that much more vital given the unique challenges of raising and sustaining an organization in what is often a climate rife with financial, political, and sociocultural obstacles. The depth of this hunger was evident in the sentiments shared by the traveling contingent upon conclusion of the learning visit.
The overwhelming sentiment from the visiting group was gratitude at having the space and time away from daily responsibilities to allow for holistic connection with fellow leaders. Creating protected time for interpersonal connection can be difficult as African founders’ energies are largely devoted to fundraising and organizational survival. This leaves little time for contemporaries to interact in a non-strategic manner. While some of the learning visit participants had crossed paths before at SFF events and other convenings like Opportunity Collaboration, they had not had the chance to delve into those connections because founders’ priority at larger conferences is usually to network with funders. As one participant described it, interaction at such conventions often begins with a quick triage: “Hello, nice to meet you, are you a funder?” If the answer is no, the conversation ends there as each party moves on to continue scouting out potential donors.
For Village HopeCore operations director Naomi Nyanchama, the plan for this trip was to visit other health-centric organizations (the majority of the Ugandan delegates lead community health organizations) but with the open mind that there was more to be learnt from other work areas as well. The highlight for Nyanchama was the visiting contingent getting to meet and know one another well through traveling and sharing lessons from their work. She felt a special connection with the Malawian hosts not just as guests but as fellow AVFers, to the degree that feedback could be comfortably given to one another without fear of offending. Having seen at Wandikweza a more efficient health worker transport model and better monitoring/evaluation systems from ACADES, Nyanchama voiced that she has returned to Kenya with a wealth of information: “If I implement even 50% of what I learnt, we as Village HopeCore will not be the same.”
Pauline Picho, too, had initially set out keen to visit only healthcare organizations but ended up visiting all the others as well and realized that she could still borrow ideas even from different focus areas. As the executive director of Nama Wellness whose work is centered on systems strengthening in Mukono, Uganda, such cross-pollination is helpful in thinking about how to address community needs beyond health. For Picho, this learning visit fostered a togetherness born of personal conversations; it was also a chance to meet an admired fellow visionary, Dr. Robert Kalyesubula of ACCESS Uganda, who had always seemed beyond reach. “I even got to take pictures with him!” she exclaimed. Among those organizations with shared issue areas, the learning visit was a chance to see how things are being done in a different setting and suggest improvements for one another. St. Francis Health Care Services programs director Joseph Nkurunziza was eager to get out into the field, particularly interested in finding out how Wandikweza has been able to sustain the motivation of their volunteer community health workers and how they kept their operations together at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also eager to glean economic empowerment and education ideas from Rays of Hope. To Nkurunziza, the highlight of this learning visit was the conversations that ordinarily never get to be had — about family, personal issues, and life post leadership. He appreciated having the chance “to meet in person, in one place, for hours” to talk and reflect, which for the Ugandan contingent was also an opportunity to discuss the revival of a national coalition of healthcare organizations that has been dormant for a while.
For grassroots African organizations whose age or budget all too often precludes them from larger grants, information about potential viable funders is precious. This learning visit gave the participating leaders room to talk money with one another; to hear who has funded who, and trade tips for the various application processes. It was also a time to get intimate about critical organizational challenges, a topic that was easy to share since all the learning visit participants were at the same executive level in their respective organizations. As Wendo Aszed (founder and executive director of Dandelion Africa) stated, it was good to be around people who understood these issues. She described the trip as “transformational,” having seen up close how communications, monitoring and evaluation, and staffing can all translate into impact — areas that Susan Babirye, deputy executive director of Kabubbu Development Project, was also interested in. Both Aszed and Kalyesubula came away from the learning visit with a greater appreciation for harnessing the power of youth in various social enterprises.
Meanwhile, the community program at Mukisa Foundation is only a year old, hence founder and director Florence Namaganda partook in the visit looking to learn how to strengthen their approach. In her view, the brightest highlight was the warmth of their reception by the host organizations and the unity between the partners: most had never met in person but found themselves in sync from the get-go. One of the site visits was to a center that supports struggling mothers looking to start an income-generating activity. En route, the host organization was wondering how to raise funds; immediately, the visitors offered to contribute and began pooling money. By the time they arrived at the center there was over $200 cash in hand, enough to start a soapmaking project for the mothers. “That kind of spirit is rare,” Namaganda remarked, “I have never experienced this before.” She particularly appreciated the Malawian organizations’ openness and willingness to share, saying, “The hosts did not only show us their shiny bits but also their struggles as well.” Namaganda had also been keen to forge a stronger relationship with Mukisa’s counterparts in Malawi, in light of the Disability Connection — a network of disability organizations from Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda that formed at the 2022 Opportunity Collaboration gathering. Later this month, all the members will be paying a learning visit to Uganda (after which Fount for Nations will remain a bit longer for mentoring on income-generating activities including soapmaking). Currently, the travel stipend SFF provides is $500 per organization per grant period; the hope is for that figure to increase, to enable more of our grantee partners to undertake such learning exchanges and to a more extensive degree.