Originally published in The Nation | May 8, 2020
by Isabel Kumwembe

At Segal Family Foundation, we believe in a world where development is steered by grassroots leaders, and power is shifted into the hands of communities. What this means in practice can be seen in our flagship program in Malawi, the Social Impact Incubator (SII). We work with local entrepreneurs to amplify and grow their impact. Amidst the aid work carried out by bilateral donors and international NGOs, we have found working with local non-profits to be the most sustainable, most just, and most impactful way forward.

We make a point to support local organizations because we know that the lion’s share of international giving doesn’t usually trickle down to where programs are implemented. For instance, in 2017, local and national NGOs received just 0.4 percent directly of all international humanitarian assistance (source). In the past weeks as coronavirus spread around the world, we have seen many countries’ international staff evacuating—either by choice or requirement. And we have also seen local entrepreneurs in Malawi stepping up to provide awareness, develop technology, and employ solutions to keep their communities safe.

For instance, our grantee partner Tingathe normally works to equip unemployed youth with marketable skills so that they can start enterprises or find employment. Tingathe runs its programming in peri-urban Lilongwe and is deeply connected to the community it serves. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tingathe adapted by installing hand-washing stations while classes were still on and informing the students of best practices. When a State of Disaster was announced, Tingathe immediately complied with the directive of closing the school. However, their strong community bonds provide them with immense staying power. They actively transitioned to an advocacy role, using their robust community networks to inform and educate those within their reach, in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Executive director Sarah Lindeire notes, “To effectively enact any and all potential measures in a time of crisis, local leadership cannot be bypassed. The people know what works and what doesn’t, and the people follow their leaders who live among and with them.” Lindeire saw to it that her organization shares information only from official channels, such as the Ministry of Health, to ensure that correct information is disseminated to the public while combating the flood of misinformation about the virus.

In the agriculture sector, our partner Associated Center for Agro-based Development (ACADES) opened a new service to address coronavirus. ACADES already promotes economic empowerment by offering agribusiness skills training, as well as providing access to microloans and profitable markets. In order to make sure that their market and food supply chain is not disrupted during this period, they introduced a new market platform called “Shop From Home,” enabling consumers to buy their products online and have the food delivered to their homes. This allows customers to maintain social distancing and reduce the spread of the virus. Hastings Nhlane, chief executive officer at ACADES, notes, “Local leaders are the ones present and living in the communities in such a difficult time. They’re the ones facing the risk and problems together with their community. Local leaders have no choice but to fight and find local solutions to this outbreak.” This has made it possible for such organizations to see the most pressing needs and innovate as needed.

Wandikweza (Uplift Health) is an early-stage public health organization that provides high-quality training and sustainable income-earning strategies to community health workers in Dowa district. The COVID-19 crisis has allowed Wandikweza’s community health workers to raise awareness in the villages of the virus prevention guidelines. “Stakeholder coordination and mapping is important in order to have knowledge of the structures, systems, and actors that can support the entire communication effort during an outbreak,” says founder Mercy Chikhosi. “Coordination favours information sharing, harmonises messages and actions, and helps capitalize on existing structures to minimize the duplicate efforts and support sustainability.”

At Dzaleka Refugee Camp, our partner Kibébé Malawi designs beautiful, handmade products to provide employment for refugee artisans. Now they’re shifting into mass production of face masks. “We’ve spaced out twenty machines normally used for teaching, and we’ll have 12 artisans plus eight graduates operating them on pedal,” explains Florisa Magambi, creative director. “Seven more artisans will be pre-cutting all the parts. We hope to be able to produce around 800 masks a day.”

As locally-led organizations continue to learn how the pandemic is being handled in other countries, they are mobilising. They are knocking on the doors of larger global health organizations to develop appropriate and tailor-made solutions that will not only work during this pandemic, yet set a precedent for how development work should be approached in general. Locally-led organizations can even combine and utilize their distribution lines and networks to have joint strategies and awareness campaigns, in order to have greater impact.

Across our portfolio, we have been impressed by these visionaries moving mountains in places where there are limited resources. We could not be more proud to see them rise up again together, connecting initiatives, sharing resources, and building on each other’s strengths. As Dedo Baranshamaje, Segal Family Foundation’s Director of Innovation, puts it, “Crises like this remind us just how much we need the type of deep, relational, community-led work our partners do, in the service of building a more just and resilient world.”