Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Income generation

Since donors are leaving in droves, the shelter is looking to fund itself through income-generating projects. A good idea, one might say - well, yes, in theory. Being able to fund oneself without the need for donor support is a great idea, but in a country where government spending on the NGO sector lies at about 0.1%, it's not easy to generate enough and ensure it's sustainable - where are the human resources to come from? How to get the start-up capital?

Friendly Haven has three income generation projects: the food van, the garden and the sewing project. The food van involves the caretakers baking bread, popcorn, meat and make juice to sell at the Women and Child Protection Unit every day. Mary would drive Martha up to the Unit each morning where she would stand in the baking sun all day selling these items - bread for $2 each, a cup of juice for $1 each, popcorn for $1 a bag. The money would barely cover the costs of buying the ingredients and the petrol, let alone the electricity bill for baking (which had increased by $1,000 last quarter since the food van had begun production) and the fact that the caretakers had spent more time baking than looking after the clients and the shelter. In addition, Mary is the only woman apart from myself, Jacky and Eveline at the shelter who has a driving licence. Mary is going back to Kenya at the end of October, and so the question remained - who would do the driving after her departure? As Jacky is the Shelter Manager and incredibly busy, I ended up doing the driving one day when Mary was on leave: it took all morning and some of the afternoon as they ran out of food, forgot to take items, or left the key with someone else, which meant I was behind the wheel instead of my deadlines. It was subsequently indicated to me that since I'd done such a good job I should take over the duty of driving when Mary left. I called a meeting and said that I wasn't prepared to do the driving on a regular basis as it would seriously impact on my ability to do my own work and VSO hadn't flown me over from the UK to be the shelter driver. I was, of course, more than happy to help out occasionally if the driver was sick, for example. Martha has since quit her job and without someone to sell the products, and with no money to hire a driver, the food van has dropped.

The garden faced similar problems. The food that comes out of it is amazing - I've bought a big bag of spinach for $5, and two lettuces for $5 each and they taste fantastic, having just come out of the ground that morning. However, gardening on this scale isn't making them money when you factor in the salary of the gardener, the cost of the water and the lease of the land. Competing against giant chain supermarkets like Spa and Shoprite was never going to work as you have to sell the products at a very low price to be competitive, which wipes out your profit margin if you're working small-scale.

The project with the most potential seems to be the sewing project. Johanna makes beautiful items and is branching out into clothing too. Whilst production is not a problem, selling is: no-one at the shelter is prepared to spend every Saturday at the markets selling the sewing items. Which means still no income.

When we arrived, the volunteers were briefed by VSO not to take on 'gap-filling' activities, as we are here to capacity build and not take a job that could be filled by a local person. Essentially, we are here to enhance the work already being done, not to fill a role. If we fill a gap, then what will happen when we leave? The same problem re-emerges and the organisation does not move any further on. In essence, by 'filling gaps', you don't contribute to solving the problem, you just defer it until later. So there is no point saying 'we'll do the selling' or 'we'll do the driving' because when we leave the same structural problems will occur. Of course, sometimes it's hard to sit back when you're normally pro-active and genuinely want an organisation to succeed. Organisations have to find their own solutions to problems. I wonder if VSO considered this angle before they decided to close the Namibian office, especially since VSO Namibia consistently delivered on targets and budgets, and had the largest number of external donors.

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