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In the Heart of Tanzania

Herieth's cafe

Doorway in Mpunguzi

Family and friends
by Melissa Cicci

[From Fall 2008] On the outskirts of Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania, microenterprise is making a difference in the lives of rural villagers. Since 1987, Village Enterprise Fund (VEF), a non-profit based in San Carlos, California, has helped start over 16,000 small businesses in East Africa (grants typically range from $100-$150). Recently, I traveled to the heart of Tanzania to visit some of the grant recipients. Central Tanzania reminded me of the American southwest, where I live: red clay earth, simple mud-brick dwellings, dry riverbeds and a deep blue sky. Also like parts of the American southwest, there is a real need among the local people to find alternatives to subsistence farming and to pull themselves out of the cycle of poverty.

In the village of Mpunguzi, Herieth and her partners run a small café (VEF grants are awarded to five-person partnerships). Chapati is baked on a griddle over hot coals while chai is brewed and mixed with raw sugar and hot milk. The café is a 10x10 foot room with a hard-packed floor and a lace curtain at the door. A single table, a bench and a few stools are available for customers. Delicate china cups and saucers are handled lovingly. Villagers patronize the café, and Herieth and her partners buy local tomatoes and other produce from neighboring farmers. When I met Herieth and one of her partners, I was struck by their beauty. In much of the developed world, for better or worse, beauty is often a stepping-stone. Here, hard work and success set these young women apart.

Under the shade of a wide acacia tree the synchronized swing of mallets on hot metal is a pas de deux by strong and graceful men. John and his partners manufacture farm tools. Beginning at 6am, a fire is lit and stoked with hand-powered bellows. Scrap metal from old car parts is melted and pounded into tool heads. Each day, the group produces by hand more than 40 machetes and scythes, which are transported to the local market for sale.

An entrepreneurial spirit is on view at a small sunflower farm in the nearby village of Chibelela. From the first pig that Christian and her partners bought with their grant, the group bred piglets. The sale of the piglets led to the purchase of work cows, and then to the purchase of sunflower seeds. Now, the growing business raises sunflowers and sells the seeds to a local processor, who in turn converts the seeds into oil, a staple in Tanzania.

And there are others like Herieth and John: Augusta, whose tailoring business supplies uniforms for local schoolchildren; Adiani’s tiny general store, offering everything from grain to gum; and David’s small vineyard, where the purchase of a simple foot-pump now efficiently brings much-needed water to the vines.

I had little idea what to expect, or what I would take away from the visits to these developing businesses. Perhaps the memory of the quiet dignity and pride on Christian’s face as she led us to her immaculate seed storeroom, is enough.

to learn more about VEF's work in East Africa.

Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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