Note: Please read Isabel’s last post before reading this one.
The first day we visited the orphanage, something was mentioned by the supporting leaders about finding a source of revenue. Currently the teachers are all volunteers. Nick, the principal, stated several times that the quality of teachers could be “improved” if they were paid, quite bluntly in front of the current teachers. Also they don’t like having to repeatedly beg for individual donations.
Instead they would like a business. There are several supporting village members who are willing to provide their time but currently don’t have many ways of providing assistance. Nick first mentioned that they were considering having the women make baskets, which I assumed was for sale at the local market. Of course, this would mean that their maximum profit margin would be about equal to that which the other local basket makers are willing to accept. This business seems so saturated that it seems to be practically a PCM (perfectly competitive market), which seemed like quite a difficult source for significant revenue. After we left for the hotel we pondered about other business ideas, but couldn’t come up with much. It’s quite a challenge coming up with valid products to market to a culture completely different from your own.
The next day we had some time to prepare for soccer and I began a conversation with Nick. He spent a while asking me about American politics and I struggled to remember enough to give him decent answers. For all the complaining we do about our own government, it’s still seen by many as a model of excellence. This went on for about forty minutes until he started explaining his own situation. Nick is a veterinarian who is able to sustain himself by leaving to do jobs a few times a week. Then he comes to class midday, teaches until the end of school time, and assists the kids until late in the night. I’m pretty sure there’s no time left in his schedule to sleep or eat meals or anything luxurious.
This is Nick.
Just joking, but the pictures of me talking with Nick are not as interesting.
This discussion transitioned into business. His main idea isn’t baskets; it’s poultry. Nick feels comfortable with the field and already has some experience. He has a plan: Create a 58,000 shilling structure that is 500 square feet large, fit it with 500 chickens bought at 72 shillings each, and feed them all for 1200 shillings a day. After five months the chickens should produce about 300 eggs per day, which sell at 10 shillings each. A year later their laying cycle will be over, so they will be sold off and replaced. Note that around 80 shillings are equal to a dollar.
The problem as I see it is the cost of feed per day. While future students may be able to help construct the structure and many chickens are already available by donation, it seems like a stretch to find an American donor willing to pay for five months of chicken feed. Even if the scheme succeeds it would only make about $23 per day (for 12 months after paying $15 a day for 5 months); a solid amount but a tough call for an entire orphanage.
I brought up the idea of opening an internet cafe. Nick was very receptive, recommending that internet cafes were very profitable, especially when they include printing services. We discussed the idea of charging for computer lessons, which could even be done before any internet connection is established. While I tried pushing it a little, Nick seemed very much against getting the children involved in the business, arguing that it would sacrifice from the schooling. About 20 minutes in he mentioned that the idea was actually discussed before with some of the orphanage’s sponsors. I then asked about setting up a small business charging cell phones. Again Nick was incredibly receptive, saying that he expects they would be able to get 20 customers a day paying 10 shillings. However, this seemed to me to be a fairly obvious idea and I’m sure Nick had considered it before. I wonder if in both cases Nick waited for me to state the obvious so that I would gain ownership of each idea. If so, it kind of worked.
Finally I introduced my final two ideas and they didn’t go as well. The first was to have a computer repairing service, which was quickly dismissed because there weren’t enough people locally who owned computers. Second was the idea to make dairy products. Nick said that in the region there is one producer who all the locals sell their milk to. However, it didn’t seem like many dairy products would sell outside of milk; yogurt and cheeses are both far from popular. These “failures” did make me satisfied with the knowledge that at least Nick did seem to be taking me seriously. I’ve read about Americans who proposed ideas to poor foreigners, who would praise each one no matter how impractical it would be. Those poor people weren’t used to expressing their own thoughts and would simply bow and praise the Westerners. Nick was much more confident than that; in fact, after seeing him give a math lecture I’d say that he was one of the most competent teachers and leaders I’ve ever met.
Soon the soccer game ended, which I was originally supposed to be in but had instead missed completely. After a while of some minor talk, we were brought to a final meeting with the elders. The main leaders thanked us, prayed for us, and thanked us some more; partially for coming to spend two days watching them do work and partially to convince us to come back with aid. The head expressed that the financially wealthy folks near by have never paid them any attention, while foreigners from the other side of the planet have come to stay and assist. He gave us responsibility over the establishment, and asked us many times to return. Eventually one of the mothers in charge handed us “all that she could afford to give”, which was a few bags with Obama pictures on them. They made clear that in addition to excitement and the possibility of aid, one of the main things we were providing was encouragement. Many of the volunteers, like Nick, had been contributing their best efforts for years into this project, and a little encouragement and blessing apparently provided a huge benefit.
While it is delightful to be happy and play games and complement hard working establishments, ultimately we do want to work on projects for long term progress. For this one orphanage in particular, students from Harvey Mudd (or any other place) could be a huge help in helping to establish whatever businesses they ultimately decide on. On their business; hopefully the adults at the school will continue to think of new ideas outside the three mentioned to them. I’d like for them to begin with a list of at least ten before choosing. If you have any ideas, please post them to the comments of this blog, or email one of us.
Businesses aren’t the only thing to be worked on; the school also needs more buildings. Right now the few students who do live at the school stay on the property of the elderly couple who are lending it to them. The lack of space means that many of the other students have to live far away with distant relatives. The lack of a distinct residence makes it impossible to convince the government that the orphanage is legitimate, disqualifying them from getting government aid. The school community is already trying to establish materials for the new residence houses, but they could definitely use donations and assistance to complete the process.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty for us is finding things that we could write into grants. Most of the ones we would apply to would require for us (or other excited students) to do engineering work. These funds aren’t to be donated in mass, but instead used to complete a project that we would work on. For example, if we asked for $3,000 to purchase a freezer for a school it may be a challenge because it’s a one-time cost. However, if we asked for $3,000 to construct a cooling structure of some type it would be more reasonable because then it could provide us engineering experience.
I ask you, the reader, to think about ideas and keep this in mind. We need business ideas, and we need engineering ideas. Of course, if you are interested in donating a large sum for something in specific, we wouldn’t mind that either.