‘One of the first things I noticed was the toughness in the faces of many of the people I was meeting.’

Kasulu is situated on the border between of Tanzania, Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is remote by any standards and to get there we would fly for three hours in a light plan and land on a dusty air strip.

We were originally working on a project to get the traditional healers to refer children with malaria to a local clinic that we were helping to fund. The idea was to reduce the death rate for young children who contracted malaria by giving them the appropriate drugs. This was not as simple as it may seem. The traditional healers believed in herbs and incantations to ward off or remove evil spirts which many thought was the cause of malaria.

But what struck me while I was there was the poverty. It was amongst the worst rural poverty that I have seen. This then resulted in a large agricultural program to try and alleviate the poor nutrition. The outcome of which would shape my future approach to much of the work we did.

What I realised from this was the systemic nature of many of the problems we were trying to solve and the difficulty of doing this. I also learnt how bright, well-motivated people can achieve excellent outcomes with small amounts of cash and that they know what best to do.

One of the first things I noticed was the toughness in the faces of many of the people I was meeting.

We noticed that there were many boys, not girls, with hernias extending out of their stomachs. This was because of the malnutrition. Evidently the girls had first access to the food because they were the ones that cooked. We looked at providing a program to fix the hernias, but they would have popped back out again because of the lack of nutrients to create strong stomach muscles. We didn’t proceed as it would have been useless.

After seeing the misery, we decided to launch a large scale farming project to improve the nutritional value of the crops they were planting.  The problem was two-fold – poor soil and the reliance on a few crops which were nutritionally poor. The solution seemed simple. We would introduce highly nutritional crops, and then train them on how to cultivate and tend to the new crops.

We spent $2 million over five years and saw no improvement in the conditions.

I can remember towards the end of the project speaking to a woman for about half an hour, her child was sucking on her breast the whole time, but there was no milk. You could see the anguish in the child’s face. It was then I realised the project had failed.

Although there were many reasons for the failure there was one that stood out for me. We introduced crops with much higher nutrients but they were not foods that they were used to eating and simply didn’t like the taste. What we should have done was work out what local crops had the better nutrition and pushed them. It’s systemic we should have understood the local system first, and had better engagement with the community around what they wanted and work from there.

One day we were driving down a dusty dirt road, it was a 30-minute drive from the village we came from and another 40 minutes to get to the next village. I spotted a man pushing a pedal bike loaded up with some form of grain. It then struck me that this man must would be pushing his bike for hours to get a couple of bags of grain to the next village to sell. Some people’s lives are steeped in difficulties, we in the west can’t even imagine.

One of the more satisfying experiences was meeting Utopia. She was a woman who was HIV positive and had been shunned by her village. As AIDS became better known she was accepted back into the village, but she was a highly intelligent woman and soon became an informal councillor on the subject. After meeting and talking with her on a couple of trips I found out that she really wanted to open up a shop, so I gave her $400. When I came back again 18 months later the shop was fully stocked and functional, she was now supporting her sister’s education in a Catholic boarding school, had built a small modest house for herself and was in the process of doing the same for her father. I was struck with how much she had achieved with a small amount of money and how many people really do know what is best for themselves.