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In her talk at the recent NYU Development Research Institute conference on What Would the Poor Say: Debates in Aid Evaluation in New York City, June Arungo, Director of Corporate Affairs at BSL,  said that the aid industry is responsible for human resource diversion in Africa. She further pointed out that it is very easy to start an NGO in Africa; all you need to do is to know how to write a proposal. I entirely agree with June on this issue. In addition, most NGOs founded in this way do not really have the interest of the poor people at heart. They serve as an easy way for the founders to enrich themselves. They go for quick fix solutions which do not equip the people for long term self sufficiency. One wonders why donors continue to give such NGOs more money.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” — Lao Tsu

I am fascinated by NGOs which are not founded based on buzzwords of the day, but rather based on passion for the poor. Such NGOs will always strive to equip Africans with lifelong skills that will lead to their financial independence long after the work of the NGOs is over. I encourage donors to pour more money into such NGOs. Africa Bags, which was started by Todd and Holly Petitt in 2007, quintessentially belongs to this category. Instead of giving poor people charity, Africa Bags gives them a chance to help themselves.

Africa Bags entered into the villages of Kamweko, Viweme, and Nkhata Bay in Malawi and introduced the production of reusable cloth shopping bags.  The villages were provided with foot powered treadle sewing machines, cloth and all other items needed to make the bags.  They trained small groups from each village to operate the treadle sewing machines. Each bag is signed by the village that created it. These bags are being sold in the US with 100 percent of the proceeds returning to the people in Malawi who made them.

Two years later,  the project is having a great impact on the villages involved, with more than 4,000 bags sold in the United States last year. In the five villages that currently participating in the the program, many have used the proceeds from the bags to create community funds that help sustain the village. Some of these projects include raising chickens and selling the eggs, starting a garden to feed orphans and offering micro-loans so others can start businesses. Apart from bags, Africa Bags is also selling numerous wood carvings, paintings and jewelry that have been hand made in Malawi, thereby further diversifying the income sources for the people.

By promoting the use of reusable cloth bags, Africa Bags is literally killing two birds with one stone. Increased use of the cloth bags will reduce the use of plastic bags which are characterized by a wide range of environmental problems.

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This must stop!

So by buying an Africa Bag, you will help to economically empower the poor people in Malawi while at the same time helping to reduce environmental degradation. If you are in USA, you can buy these bags from retailers.

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One of the bags

Apart from bags, you can also buy handmade art works,  and promotional materials such as Africa Bag  bumper stickers, calendars, shirts and hats. You can also make a contribution towards the following developments:

  • The building of a second Community Development Centre at Viweme Village: The first one was built at Kaweko village.The new center will be constructed by the members of the Viweme village.  The bricks will be hand made.  This building will not only be used as a center for the production of Africa Bags, but also for other important community development programs including a preschool to help local orphans prepare for primary school.  This will be a location for school children to study, community members to have meetings, educational seminars on subjects such as AIDS awareness.
  • Sponsoring a new village startup: Donations will provide a new village with a treadle sewing machine, cloth for the first 200 bags, training of the new village, and a sewing kit.
  • Buying a roll of cloth: A roll will make approximately 130 bags.  By buying this cloth, higher profits will be returned to the villages.
  • Giving scholarships: Primary school in Malawi is free.  Secondary school is not and is many times the end of education for children.  This is especially true for girls.  If a girl cannot afford to go to school she is expected to find a husband and to start a family.  By donating a scholarship you can put a girl through secondary school for a year.
  • Buying a treadle powered sewing machine: By adding another treadle to a village, it will increase the number of bags that can be made each month.