Zawadisha: Creating Change, Inspiring Action in Kenya

Zawadisha

By Shauna Potocky

What if one of the best solutions to social and environmental change came in the form of empowerment? What if that empowerment was gifted to the most disenfranchised members of society? What if, in their empowerment, family units, communities and whole economies began to change? What if with that change, came the benefits of education, stable family economics, clean water, clean air, and entrepreneurial businesses operated from the heart while also based on sustainability? In such a paradigm, how might lives, economies, and ecosystems change?

The answers to such an empowerment paradigm are known and the non-profit organization, Zawadisha knows first-hand how profound the changes can be.

Zawadisha, (which meaning “to give a gift”), is focused on empowering women in Kenya with the means, training, mentorship and supportive structure needed to not just lift themselves up but to thrive as an emerging economic force in their home communities. Through an innovative and well informed micro-lending program, designed to set its members up for success, the program also requires the women it engages to create sustainable businesses. In doing so, it transforms women from not only being the backbone of their family structure but also empowering them with the tools needed to become an active part of the local economy. As women emerge into this new role, it shifts and shapes the economic and environmental stability of their community.

Group Meeting Zawadisha 2

Group leaders participating in a leadership development workshop held in 2014. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

In particular, by employing a culturally relevant and safe micro-lending program, Zawadisha has honed in on a successful focus, one that Jennifer Gurecki, the Chief Innovation Officer describes as, “pro-poor, pro-women and pro-environment.”

Specifically, Zawadisha leverages several critical factors into its successful program model; the first is that it fully engages the participants it serves by completely integrating them into the management of the program. Participants are engaged as members and actively participate in the fiscal and business management of the micro-lending program. This active participation and engagement translates into a partnership that members feel passionate about, resulting in a high degree of personal investment in the program outcomes. This empowerment results in an impressive success rate in the repayment of loans while supporting the much needed disbursement of products and services into communities with significant need.

Zawadisha meeting

Zawadisha’s Opportunity and Empowerment Director, Cindy Mayanka, facilitating a workshop with the Neema Women’s Group. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

There are two other elements that make Zawadisha’s program outstanding. Once the loans are dispersed and the members are engaged by a peer chair-lady, who organizes monthly meetings, the members also benefit through access to both leadership and business training opportunities. These opportunities further advance the women’s potential for success, ensuring that beyond financial investment in their business, they also have the additional tools needed to be successful in their endeavor.

Solar Light and Bright Smile Zawadisha

A solar lighting system and an opportunity for a brighter future. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

In addition, Zawadisha is taking a clear environmental approach to empowering its members. Current members are being “grandfathered” into a new vision, one that will offer training on sustainable business practices. The vision for future members, is that as requirement for obtaining a micro-loan, the women entrepreneurs must demonstrate that they are developing an environmentally sustainable business. It is clear that in communities where businesses are grown based on environmental degradation—future problems arise. Although there may be a short-term economic gain for the community—in the long-term, jeopardizing water, soil or air resources are not a good investment—for anyone. In recognition of this, Zawadisha will only invest in projects that build on sustainable practices or services—most of which are related to solar power lights, rain water catchment tanks and soon-to-be launched, eco-stoves for cooking, which will reduce dependence on coal.

How transformational can solar lighting, a rain water catchment tank or eco-stove be in a women’s life? Subsequently, what can the effects be on her community? Consider these remarkable examples that come directly from the women served in the environmentally impacted community of Maungu, located five hours south of Nairobi. Of note, Maungu is a community situated in a landscape that has suffered from desertification. The women of the community report that, “thirty years ago the area was covered in trees.” Today, the trees have been removed and the landscape suffers from a lack of water and is characterized by dry red dirt and low-lying shrubs. In such a scenario, here is how transformative an investment in what the women say they need, can be.

Maungu landscape Zawadisha

Maungu landscape and the future site of the Neema Women’s Group native tree nursery. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

When a woman receives a loan for a solar light, she directly changes two key aspects within her home—she eliminates the greatest health risk to people within their living quarters related to the use of paraffin burning lamps, which is known for its toxicity. Paraffin is directly related to elevated respiratory issues and significantly impacts the young and the elderly. Beyond elimination of this health hazard, she increases the productivity hours within the home, allowing her to focus her efforts on beneficial aspects of household management and significantly shift household expenses. Paraffin is costly to the household and can be offset by the use of solar lighting. One solar light loan is equal to the cost of a one month supply of paraffin, thus, the solar light can pay for itself within one month of use.

In addition, an unexpected benefit of the new household investment has emerged. Women who have received the lamps have indicated that they have been treated with more respect and support from family members as a result of their contribution to the household.

Rain water catchment tank Zawadisha

A rain water catchment tank can provide increased food security and help transform the landscape. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

For a woman who has received a rainwater catchment tank; her daily life is significantly changed—she no longer is required to spend six hours each day, walking to obtain water. This allows her to focus her daily efforts on activities that can continue to transform her living situation. In addition, with water catchment located at home, many women have started kitchen gardens that are able to supply food to the household and provide food for market, which translates directly into increased food security. These women have also indicated that they too have benefited by increased respect and support for their efforts in transforming and significantly contributing to their households.

JG and Group Zawadisha

Pictured here: Jennifer Gurecki, Chief Innovation Officer and group leaders; together they distribute or manage micro-loans on a financial scale that for $100, can provide a loan for either one rain water catchment tank, four solar lights, or new in 2015, four eco-stoves. Photo Courtesy of Zawadisha.

New for 2015, Zawadisha is excited to begin providing loans for eco-stoves. These stoves will provide a positive alternative to high coal consuming stoves, which have significant impacts on people and the environment. One significant difference in the roll out of the stove program as compared to other microfinance institutions (MFI) is that Zawadisha spent a significant amount of time listening to the women of the community to find out what the women needed and what type of stove will truly work for them. This is critically important because it has been observed that some MFI’s have provided products to communities without investigating the needs of the people and the products to be provided, in order to assure a beneficial match to the end user. This has translated into products being delivered into communities that subsequently were not utilized, as it did not meet the need of the people they were meant to serve. Zawadisha has been very mindful of this and has diligently inquired into the true need of the people regarding cooking alternatives. As a result of the investment in knowing what the women will truly benefit from, the new stove loans will become available to Zawadisha members in 2015.

Garden Zawadisha

An example of landscape transformation, this garden was the result of a rain water catchment tank. Photo courtesy of Zawadisha.

The coming year also offers another exciting development. Zawadisha will also assist the women of Maungu in establishing a native tree nursery. This nursery will supply seedling trees to the restoration market that is generated by local national parks and through the nongovernmental organization, Wildlife Works.

The women of Maungu represent many of the women of Africa, they are strong, family-minded, and community building. They are not defined by the demographic statistics reported to us and throughout the world. They are the smiling faces, the jovial laughs, the cultural shepherds and entrepreneurial spirit of their communities. They are also the game changers—when provided with the opportunity to empower themselves, without jeopardizing everything in unsafe loans; when they are given a truly supportive opportunity to change the economic expenses of their household, shift the environmental impacts of traditional supply chains, what emerges is a shift in health benefits, the obtainment of food security, and positive impacts on the environment and the local ecosystem.

The women of Maungu represent a deeper hope for all of us. They prove that impacted areas of Africa can be transformed and healed through the vision of its own women. They demonstrate for the world that many of the issues facing communities today can be addressed by engaging and empowering the members of society who may frequently be overlooked—a lesson we can all learn from.

Elephant and Rhino Conservation: Three Encouraging Events in One Year

Forest elephants.  Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Forest elephants. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In September, 2013, conservation groups announced a three-year $80 million Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Commitment to Action to bring together NGOs, governments, and concerned citizens to stop the slaughter of Africa’s elephants. Funding has been provided by the governments of the United States, Europe, and Africa and multiple other organizations, institutions, foundations, and individuals.

Nations joining the coalition include Botswana, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Kenya, South Sudan, Malawi, and Uganda. Commitment partners include African Parks Network, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Freeland Foundation, Howard Buffett Foundation, International Conservation Caucus Foundation, National Geographic, Save the Elephants, TRAFFIC, WildAid and WildLifeDirect. Commitment Makers include Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, Conservation International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and World Wildlife Fund.

Funds are being used to support national governments to scale up anti-poaching enforcement at the 50 priority elephant sites including hiring and supporting an additional 3,100 park guards. Anti-trafficking efforts are being increased by strengthening intelligence networks and increasing penalties for violations and adding training and sniffer dog teams. In addition, leaders from African nations have called for other countries to adopt trade moratoria on all commercial ivory imports, exports and domestic sales of ivory products until African elephant populations are no longer threatened by poaching.

The commitment runs through 2016 and addresses the problem on three fronts: stop the killing; stop the trafficking; and stop the demand.

So much of the burden of this commitment falls on the shoulders of wildlife rangers.  It just so happens that World Ranger Day is this week. World Ranger Day is observed annually on the 31st of July, and is promoted by the 54 member associations of the International Ranger Federation, by their partner the Thin Green Line Foundation, and by individuals who support the work of Rangers and the IRFs natural and cultural treasures.

More than 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide over the past 10 years, with many more injured in the line of duty.  Rangers in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda have been directly responsible for an increase in the number of Mountain Gorillas, risking their lives to ensure the survival of this Critically Endangered species.  In Virunga National Park alone, 140 rangers have been killed in the last 15 years.  In Thailand, there are 20,490 rangers working in 411 protected areas. In the last five years, more than 40 park rangers have been murdered, with many more injured or left in a critical condition. Community Maasai Rangers in Kenya have helped increase the local lion population on their community lands from just 6 individuals to over 70.  So it is easy to see why the Partnership to Save Elephants and other similar initiatives are so important.

You can watch Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton announce the commitment Partnership to Save the Elephants at the 2013 CGI Annual Meeting in the following video. They were joined on stage by participating heads of state and leaders of groups partnering on the effort.

The second event relates to a topic I blogged about last week, the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) annual Bowling for Rhinos event. Each year the AAZK sponsors a fund raising bowl-a-thon in which more than 60 AAZK chapters participate throughout the U.S. and Canada and typically raise between $200,000- $300,000 annually. However in 2013, $481,489 dollars were raised and a goal has been set to raise $500,000 in 2014!

Since 1990, the annual AAZK Bowling for Rhinos fundraiser has raised a total of $4,994,153. One-hundred percent of all funds raised goes directly to in situ conservation projects, conserving four species of rhino, their habitats, and hundreds of other endangered plants and animals. BFR helps preserve the black and white rhino in Africa and the Javan and Sumatran rhino in Indonesia.

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

Image courtesy of the American Association of Zoo Keepers

The third event happened just last week. A South African court sentenced a rhino poacher to 77 years in jail, the heaviest penalty ever imposed. Mandla Chauke was convicted of shooting three rhinos, as well as murder and possession of illegal firearms, after he and two other poachers cut through wire fencing and illegally entered Kruger National Park in 2011. The murder charge was added because one of Chauke’s accomplices was killed in a shootout with park rangers. The third poacher escaped. “Our wish is to see a significant increase in such convictions,” South African National Parks chief executive Abe Sibiya said.

Stiff sentencing is needed to stamp out the medicinal demand for rhino horn, which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and actually has no medicinal qualities. It is made entirely of keratin. The consumption of rhino horn is no different than the consumption of human toenails, in both futility and repulsiveness.

Unfortunately, poaching and poaching wars go on. In fact, I worry that there will be a surge in poaching activity in rebellion to a changing world as a painful but telling affirmation that new attitudes, bigger penalties and more effective protection of wildlife is actually having an effect. Old beliefs die hard and opportunities to earn a living are very challenging in many parts of the world where poaching bears the greatest threats to native wildlife. With so many partners in the fight to save wildlife and wild places, one can only remain hopeful that solutions will continue to be created that consider the balance of both man and beast. Call me a naïve optimist, but I believe the human spirit is capable of accomplishing anything.

You can be part of the fight by taking the pledge to help extinguish the demand for ivory.

Champions for Cheetahs

 

Image courtesy of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Image courtesy of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

When humans use analogies of strength and courage, they often conjure up images of large, predatory cats.  Lions are king of the jungle.  The eye of the tiger indicates a sharp and determined mind that misses no detail.  There is even a brand of athletic shoes named Puma, a less than subtle suggestion of how one might expect to perform athletically if wearing that brand.  But times are actually quite tough for big cats everywhere, paradoxically including the one with the title of fastest land mammal, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus).

Cheetahs endure many of the same threats as other large cats: habitat loss and fragmentation, killing and capture as livestock predators and trade on the black market for body parts and the exotic pet trade.  There has been an estimated 30 percent loss in the wild cheetah population during the last 18 years, which is not difficult to believe given that 50-75 percent of cheetah cubs die within months.

There is another threat to cheetahs that is uniquely their own, known as low genetic variation. About 10,000 years ago, there were different species of cheetahs living in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.  But something cataclysmic happened and severely reduced cheetah populations worldwide.  In order for the species to survive, related cheetahs had to breed.  Today, all cheetahs share 99 percent of the same DNA.  To give you reference, related individuals in other species usually only share approximately 80 percent of their DNA.  In theory, this low genetic variation significantly increases vulnerability to a single disease destroying the entire cheetah population because their immune systems are identical. With estimates of only 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs in the wild, this is a valid concern.

Cheetahs have many champions, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an organization that combines research, education, conservation and international collaboration to prevent cheetah extinction.  CCF also sponsors International Cheetah Day, which is this Wednesday, December 4.  The Founder and Executive Director, Dr. Laurie Marker will be providing a “State of the Cheetah” address as part of the events to take place.  Dr. Marker helped develop the U.S. and international captive cheetah program over 16 years (1974-1988) while at Oregon’s Wildlife Safari in the USA. Dr. Marker also helped identify the cheetah’s lack of genetic variation while working with the National Zoo and National Cancer Institute (USA).

Since 1974, the Saint Louis Zoo has been dedicated to saving cheetahs and other species in what is now known as the Center for Conservation of Large Carnivores in Africa.  In addition to coordinating the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP), the Saint Louis Zoo has partnered with multiple African NGOs and governmental organizations to aid in working with humans who reside in wild cheetah range.  The Center supports the Global Cheetah Action Plan & Global Cheetah Forum, South Africa, through workshops that educate people living near cheetahs about its importance as a species in the ecosystem along with livestock and game management.

While Saint Louis Zoo coordinates the Cheetah SSP, the support within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums does not end there.  According to the AZA, the AZA Felid Taxon Advisory Group and Cheetah SSP manage over 250 cheetahs in 54 AZA-accredited zoos.  Cheetahs are difficult to breed in captivity, yet the ex situ cheetah population within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have developed reproduction techniques that resulted in over ten litters of cubs.  It is possible that these techniques will be used to support and/or supplement the in situ cheetah population.

The AZA Conservation Endowment Fund, and one of its sub-funds, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, has provided over $90,000 in support of cheetah conservation projects including Cheetah Conservation Botswana for community outreach programs for predator conservation near game ranches, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for a field workshop on cheetah censoring techniques to study their population dynamics, the Cheetah Conservation Fund to develop a Visitor Education Center in Namibia, Africa which emphasizes the values of cheetahs within the ecosystem and to expand their educational program and to evaluate conservation strategies for the long-term survival of the cheetah.  In addition, AZA funds go to Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the San Diego Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and Oklahoma City Zoological Park for their cooperative effort in correlating the reproductive success and management styles of ex situ cheetahs.

Cheetahs are important simply because they are.  They have their own niche in the ecosystem and have persevered in the face of incredible odds stacked against them.  That alone is sufficient reason to support cheetah conservation efforts. And we must be careful in how we protect them.  Indeed, this may be a species better left out of ecotourism as much as possible.  While it is thrilling to visit exotic locations and observe wild behaviors, ecotourism can disrupt the balance.  Cheetahs are often followed by tourists who inadvertently interfere with attempts to stalk and kill prey, as a recently popularized video demonstrates.

The cheetah story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.

How will you honor International Cheetah Day?

Image courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Image courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.