The fellowship experience

Last week I returned from my ESMT Responsbile Leaders Fellowship (RLF) in Cape Town. Time flew. Driving to the airport, it felt like yesterday when I drove on the same road exactly five months ago, in the opposite direction. As I was wrapping up in Cape Town, someone asked me why I chose ESMT for my MBA. This made me go over my ESMT application and I found this.

ESMT Application

RLF was one of the major reasons why I chose ESMT. I am passionate about empowerment and was certain of seeking RLF even before I joined ESMT. After the program was introduced to us, TSiBA popped up as an interesting option. TSiBA is a non-profit private B-school in Cape Town that offers business degree to the underprivileged, and business training and mentoring to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. After talking to the MBAs from the past year who had done their fellowship at TSiBA, I was convinced that it fits my bill perfectly.

Why TSiBA?
Early in my life, I learnt that when one chooses to focus on problems, one sees only more problems, but the moment focus shifts to possibilities, we see opportunities. This is a paradigm shift in thinking which is very difficult to attain given the nature of circumstances you grow up in such areas. There is a lot of conditioning you go through that you have to undo in order to make that shift. And I believe examples are the best way to demonstrate this possibility. I chose TSiBA because I saw the opportunity to be that example. When I learnt of the circumstances the entrepreneurs and students at TSiBA go through in life, I thought I could share my experiences with them to instill the belief that it is possible. I however don’t think this can happen over a guest lecture or talk. I was convinced that being a part of their learning journey is the best way to make that impact, and I saw RLF providing me that opportunity.

The RLF Experience @ TSiBA
TSiBA is a great organisation and I loved the experience there. There are a lot of things to do, and there is a shortage of skilled people who are willing to support. So when I started there, I got to chose what I wanted to do. TSiBA gave me complete freedom in executing the projects that I had taken up. Staff members are very friendly, supportive and collaborative. They are more like a family than coworkers. There is a lot of friendly banter in the staff room. Interactions with students were energising and humbling. The RLF experience made several indelible impressions on me that I am sure will stay with me for a long time. Here are the most important lessons I learnt.

Planning is good, having an open mind better!
The MBA experience gave me fresh perspective on how things don’t always go as planned, and helped me appreciate how important it is to be temperamentally ready to handle any kind of situation, not only in business but also in life. The RLF @ TSiBA helped me put this to practice. Last October, when I interviewed with TSiBA, we agreed on the areas that I would support TSiBA with. By the time I arrived in Cape Town, more than 3 months had passed, and things had changed a lot. The work that I wanted to do was not possible due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I had a completely different set of projects to choose from. And I chose to manage a brand new program, Juta-TSiBA-EME program, which involved building a small business, ground up, in a tripartite set up.

Juta-TSiBA-EME Program
This program is a concerted effort by two organisations committed to black empowerment in South Africa. The program was conceived of in late 2015 and the execution began in February 2016. The program was sponsored by Juta, a leading publishing house in South Africa. The vision of the program was empowerment of the disadvantaged. The goal was to identify a disadvantaged black entrepreneur and to use donated stock to set up an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME) business. Juta chose TSiBA to do that and I anchored the program execution for TSiBA. My activities involved research of the target market, coming up with a value proposition for the business, building partnerships with potential partners, drafting contracts for the tripartite collaboration, and selection of a previously disadvantaged black entrepreneur as the business partner (to take up the business once I leave South Africa). To provide experiential learning to entrepreneurship students, I anchored the end-to-end execution of the student project of the program as well. Towards this, I created simple processes for stock reporting, pricing, order placement, invoicing, payments, order collection, stock returns, and reporting. I also provided business coaching and mentoring to students. This was a complete start up experience for me. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Student project launch

I went to Cape Town with an open mind about my work. And in retrospect, I think this mindset helped me see the opportunities available rather than getting disappointed by the changed circumstances.

Preparing for failure is an important business skill
The most important lesson I learnt from the Juta program is, how important it is in business to be prepared for failure. My lack of exposure to business landscape in South Africa made the selection of an entrepreneur the more challenging of the work-streams I had to manage. When we announced the program and invited applications, there were quite a few interested in coming onboard as the EME. One of the applicant teams showed the drive and motivation required for our program. We interviewed and found them suitable for the EME. The prospects sounded promising. We were about to confirm their selection, and they pulled out citing workload and alignment issues. In the meantime, the interest of other parties also dwindled and I missed the deadline to select the EME. Within a few weeks, things that seemed very promising faded away one after the other, and I was not prepared for that. This was a major jolt to the program. What I learnt from this experience is that in business even the most promising lead may not materialise and being prepared for that eventuality is very important. This learning came in handy in another project. A few Northeastern University (USA) and TSiBA students collaborated to start a social enterprise and agreed to have me in an advisory role. Drawing from the failure of the Juta program, I was able to make recommendations for strategy that ensured that we were prepared for failures and thereby we could better manage the risks.

You learn a lot more when you teach/coach
At TSiBA, I had a variety of interactions with students. As part of the student project of Juta program, I coached students on setting up businesses and mentored a few of them. I also had an opportunity to be a tutor for entrepreneurship and leadership. There were many brilliant ideas discussed, personal stories and issues shared and discussed, ideas challenged, solutions proposed and debated, agreements and disagreements, viewpoints countered and so on. Those discussions helped me learn a lot about the South African culture, and I also felt I got a good understanding of how the youth think (Not saying that I have grown old!). The element of vicarious learning associated with such interactions is fascinating and it taught me a lot. There were many eureka moments when sharing my experiences and beliefs with students gave me a fresh perspective on my life.

Wrap up
The feedback on my programs has been very positive and the results promising. In a span of three months, the student arm of Juta program sold 1,571 books, resulting in a revenue of ZAR 18,105.30.

Revenue

At the time of my leaving Cape Town, the EME had sold about 140 books and generated about ZAR 12,600 in revenue. The revenue from the student project and a part of the EME revenue will go to TSiBA scholarship fund for future students. Reading through the reflection papers submitted by students at the closure of the student project, I felt the project met its goal of providing experiential learning to the students. Personally for me, what stood out was students giving feedback that my guidance helped them sell to customers, made them think differently about doing business, and that they made real changes to their business approach.

Farewell

Thanks to ESMT and TSiBA for the wonderful opportunity!
santom

Backpacking sans plan in Madagascar

Children

Madagascar is a beautiful and interesting experience. In making this statement I am conscious of the element of novelty which makes any new place appealing to a traveler, but fades away as one gets used to the place. My impression of Madagascar remained beautiful and interesting beyond this element of novelty. If you’ve traveled a bit, you will agree that traveling is a rewarding experience. It opens us to spaces that hitherto didn’t exist in our minds. It’s an amazing feeling when we realize that we travel to discover new places and people and cultures, and in the process we end up discovering ourselves. This is how I felt backpacking in Madagascar.

Boabab look-alikes

Football

Fruit baskets

Pous-pousse stand Antsirabe

My goal was to experience the Malagasy culture, food, people and nature. I asked myself what is the best way to do that, and the idea of backpacking without a plan sounded very exciting. So, I decided to not have a plan, instead play it by the ear, make on-the-spot decisions about what to do, and head wherever my instincts led me to. The three things I was certain of were, (1) I will NOT go North and to the beaches, because they are touristy (2) I will NOT hire a vehicle but travel by the local transport, and (3) I will be detached from the world as I knew it i.e., no phone, no email, and no WhatsApp. A colleague at TSiBA gave me a Lonely Planet book on Madagascar that I carried as a back-up resource, for just-in-case situations.

As a result, I traveled with ducks and chickens along with people squeezed in taxis, discovered tribal villages in hills, experienced Malagasy hospitality, slept in people’s lawns and in stranger’s houses, went to family celebrations in villages, ate heaps of rice with sparse side dish and burnt-rice water, climbed Madagascar’s highest accessible peak, chased taxi on a motorbike, met numerous craftsmen and craftswomen, camped in a rainforest, enjoyed an open-air Jazz music festival, had conversations with strangers with no common languages, saw numerous plant and animal species endemic to Madagascar, was awe-struck with some of nature’s wonders, met ambitious youngsters, watched young men playing different sports, and most importantly saw and felt how happy and helping the Malagasy people are, despite their abject poverty.

Red house

Basketball-3

Drinking water from Antaranoombi river

Rickshaw

Youth

Petanque

Man spreading paddyKickerTyre sportShoe shop in FianarLibrary in RanomafanaBrick kiln

Taxi-Brousse, the lifeline of Malagasy life

Taxi Brousse StationTaxi-brousse is the universal transport in Madagascar and is perhaps the best opportunity for an outsider to get a feel for the Malagasy life. In addition to people, these taxis transport anything and everything except the live big cattle. Grains, Plastic containers, Mats, Steel, Chickens, Vegetables, Clothes, Pigs, Bicycles, Ducks, Water…
Pig on taxi

Cycle on top

Traveling by taxi-brousse is a trade-off between time and money. They are inexpensive but don’t start until they are full, and will stop anywhere and everywhere for passengers. One stretch of 90 kms took me 3.5 hrs to travel. Most landscape is hilly and roads windy, which slows you down. And poor condition of the roads adds to travel time. There are potholes all along the road. On one stretch of the road I saw so many deep and wide craters, I felt a meteor shower had hit that road 🙂

In taxis, people travel in all positions, sitting, standing, bending in all directions, scooching, sitting in spaces between seats balancing on the edges of thighs and bottoms. One of the taxis I traveled by, squeezed 35 people in a 14-seater (inclusive driver) 🙂 But no one complained. At every stop, people welcomed the new comers with a smile and made space.

Scooching in between seats

Squeezed in a taxi

There is music, and if you are lucky, video songs as well. Most numbers are monotonous and cacophonous, and some are close imitations of hit western numbers. The videos are fraught with booty shakes. On one stretch of my taxi travel, a total of about 30 songs were played, and only 3 of them were free of booty shakes 🙂 Initially I felt a tad irritated by the blaring music, but the numbers were surprisingly catchy, and I started enjoying them 🙂

Taxi

Nature and The Landsape

Pano Andring

Terraced fieldsLake AndrinkibaNature is perhaps the biggest draw of the country. Most places are untouched and retain their pristine quality. The land, mostly red soil, seems to be very fertile. There is abundant vegetation. And apparently water resources are adequate as well, evidenced by ubiquitous paddy cultivation. The landscape is mostly hilly, red, and undulating. Red and brown hills laced with green patches, mostly symmetrical, with sparsely distributed red houses on the hills, and red mud roads as the veins and arteries is a common sight. By carving terraced fields, the Malagasy seemed to have coped well with the hilly terrain. Early in the morning, the moisture vaporizing and rising from freshly ploughed fields is a sight to watch.

Red house-2

House of celebration

Village-2

And then there are national parks. I visited two very diverse ones. Andringitra – dry, hilly and mostly granite wilderness. This park is home to the highest accessible peak of Madagascar, Peak Imarivolanitra, or Pic Boby in short. This is an all-in-all-out park, so you have to carry all supplies for the hike, and bring all waste back with you out of the park. With the help of an English-speaking guide and a local guide I was able to hike this peak. The start point of our hike was a good 2-hr drive off the highway, on a dirt road through villages. From there, a 15-km trail, winding through villages and fields, crossing multiple small streams, passing the Antaranoombi river, cutting through a Palm forest, reaches the base camp which is at a height of 2000 meters. From the base camp, the peak is a 3.5 km hike climbing through steep rock faces.

Palm forestLandscape

There were several awe-inspiring moments during the hike. At the door step of a plateau called The Lunar Landscape, we watched the sun setting behind the mountains on the west. In the park, there is a rock that’s named La Chameleon for its uncanny resemblance to a chameleon. A millipede rolled itself into a tough but amazingly beautiful marble when touched. Awesome!

Marble millipede

At the base camp at night, it was pitch black all around, silhouettes of mountains were dwarfed against the backdrop of the sky illuminated by millions of twinkling and steady stars, shooting stars every now and then, away from all sounds of civilization the only sounds I could hear were those of the nature, crickets and other insects, water running downhill somewhere far away, the wind, and that of my own breath. It is one of those moments when my heart wished time stood still because the beauty of that instant is far beyond expression. And then the thought of how hiking makes me sensitive to each breath and how wilderness inspires me to introspection. When I am climbing, and I take a break and turn back to appreciate the beautiful view from that height, it’s then that I can hear and feel my pounding heart and my heavy breath, and my eyes are treated to the beauty of the wilderness around me, and in that moment time freezes and loses meaning.

Mirror Image

Ranomafana – a wet, dense rainforest, best known for the high scope of spotting lemurs. I camped in this rainforest and went on a lemur-spotting tour with three American tourists. It’s amazing that it was raining when we were inside the forest but the rain did not reach us. This forest is so dense! The guide told us some parts of the forest do not receive sunshine ever. Saw four different species of lemurs and some birds.

Lemurs

Both of these parks are home to various species of plant and animal life endemic to Madagascar. Ranomafana is easily accessible. Park entrance is by the highway which is well connected. But not Andringitra. There are two entrances to this park and both are a good 2-hr drive on a rough road off the highway.

Food

Tana market-5Snacks at taxi stopThe Malagasy seem to love beef, called Zebu. It is the most commonly available meat. In addition, there is pork, chicken, duck, vegetables and sea food. Rice is the staple food, and the Malagasy eat rice three times a day. Most of the other items such as snacks are also made of rice flour.

Street side snacksRice Flour

The typical Malagasy meal consists of three parts (1) Rice (2) Side dish, usually meat, and (3) Burnt-rice water. The rice is served first, and is usually served in a troughed-plate, and there is so much rice stuffed into it that it looks like a mountain of rice 🙂 Looking at the quantity of rice, I was expecting huge quantity of side dish to eat it with, but to my surprise the side dish was totally inadequate. I had chicken and duck on different occasions, and both were very bony. So, effectively the side dish was too little. When I mixed the side dish with rice, it was barely visible 🙂 Nevertheless, every meal I had, the rice and the side dishes were very tasty. The most interesting part of the meal for me was the burnt-rice water. After the rice is dished out, water is poured into the vessel and the bottom is raked multiple times until the water almost comes to a boil. The water turns brown due to the rice that stuck to the bottom of the vessel. This hot brown water is then served. The first time I drank it, it tasted weird, primarily because it smelled of burnt rice, but I quickly acquired a taste for it because the next time I had it, I enjoyed it.

Street side eateries

Another important food item is the bread. This foot-long bread seems to be the favorite of many and is available almost everywhere. The peculiar thing I noticed about this bread is that it is fluffy. If you press it, it will crumble into a much thinner mass.

Bread

While most of the meals I had were mild in spice, there was one meal at a street-side eatery (hotely) that burnt my tongue and stomach. I had something called a coutlet, a deep-fried rice-flour dumpling, stuffed with tasty potato curry. I asked for some sauce, and the hotely person brought me something that looked like an Indian pickle. I dipped the dumpling in it and ate. It was tasty. The spice didn’t hit me when I chewed it but only a few minutes after I swallowed. So, by the time I felt the spice I had already eaten 5 coutlets. It was so very spicy that that night I had to drink about 1.5 liters of water to douse my burning stomach. Deadly delicious!

Hotely

Poor but happy!

BreakfastHard child labor The taxis stuffed with people and everything imaginable, huge quantities of rice with little side dish, the burnt-rice water and the fluffy bread are reflections of the poverty of the people. The country is very poor. Most people, including children, are seen in ragged and unwashed clothes and with greasy faces, and there are people begging for food at every taxi stop. But in all the places I visited, even in crowded markets in the capital city, I never saw people fighting or arguing. I never heard a complaining tone. No one seemed to be protective or hoarding.

Man carrying child

People were always smiling, and when I greeted them in Malagasy they greeted back with a big smile. Always helping one another, always adjusting and making way for others. Whenever I bargained, if my offer sounded unreasonable to them, they gave a big smile, waved their palm to signal “not acceptable”, and counteroffered.

Passersby

Woman with child on back

Tana was a surprise!

Royal palace in TanaTana

Narrow laneThe first 11 days of my trip were spent in villages and parks that were characterized by a laid-back, easy-going, rustic and simple life. Coming from this vibe, the capital city of Antananarivo, Tana in short, was a complete surprise. The city has an urban appeal to it, and in rush hours is like any major city in a developing country. The hilly, cobbled streets and the vintage local taxis give it a unique old-world charm.Tana cobbled street

Steps in Tana

Blind musician-2

The markets are huge and crowded. Each market seemed to be a world in itself. Hiking the cobbled streets to the royal palace and watching the sun setting over the city, watching the hustle and bustle in the markets, eating at the hotelys are quite an experience.

Analakeli Market

Pochard market

Analakeli Market-Chickens

People reading newspaper

And a day before my return, about 100 jazz artists had converged in Tana for a music festival. I spent one whole afternoon enjoying the mix of local and international instruments, and artists.

Jazz festival

Culture

Bestilo tribe The Malagasy are polite, hospitable and guest-friendly. Whenever they give something to the other person, they bend down a little, use the right hand to give, and the left hand touches the right elbow underneath. All family events are celebrated with music and dancing and feasting.

There are a lot of beliefs or superstitions that are called Fady. In some places, such as in the Andringitra National Park, it is believed that pork brings bad fortune. My guide narrated one instance. On one of his trekking expeditions, one of his assistants, unknowingly brought pork into the park. Apparently the weather suddenly turned stormy, and the locals were convinced that someone brought pork into the park. There was one other lake I visited, and there too, pork is believed to bring bad luck.

And the thing that impressed me most about the Malagasy is their hospitality. One morning I was exploring villages on a hill, and I heard music coming from a distance. With the help of basic Malagasy phrases I learnt from the receptionist of the hotel, I was able to find my way to the house from where the music originated. No common language, but they invited me in, showed me around, the cooking, the dancing, the music, and served me a meal. And when I left, the head of the family asked one of his boys to accompany me to my destination 🙂

Celebrations-2

On another occasion, I ended up at my guide’s place for a night’s sleep. His wife prepared and served me egg-noodle soup with bread, which I had absolutely not expected, because I had already told my guide that I had food with me.

People

Youth-2

With a craftswoman in AmbositraWhile nature is the biggest draw of Madagascar, people made the biggest and strongest impression on me.Traditional dress

Jean On a taxi ride to Ambositra I befriended Jean, who spoke very little English. When I got down, he started walking with me. Initially I thought, his destination was in the same direction. After a while I asked him if that was so, and he said his place was in the opposite direction. When I asked him why then he was walking with me, he told me just to make sure I don’t get lost as this was my first time in Madagascar and I didn’t speak French or Malagasy. I was in smiles, and showed him my iPhone to reassure him that I can find my way using the GPS. He smiled, shook hands and left.

Youth-3

Onja After receiving the Malagasy hospitality at the village family celebration, when I left, Onja accompanied me. He spoke no English and I spoke no French or Malagasy barring 4-5 basic phrases. It was raining, and the path was steep and totally slippery. He told me caution at every step, taught me how to say many things in Malagasy and asked me how they are called in Indian language. Path, Slippery, Ox, Food, House, Marriage, Wife, School, Cigarette, Cycle, Clothes, Water, Rain, Fields. It felt strange but amusing to have that conversation. We spoke no common language, but kept talking all along the 4 km walk.

Zu He was the English-speaking guide for my Andringitra trip. Almost fluent with English, I found him to be a very friendly, solution-oriented and jovial person. He picked me up from the taxi station in Fianarantsoa, had his student drive me to the hotel, and when the hotel said they don’t allow camping when rooms are free, offered me his courtyard to camp, but when we reached his place, he offered me his bed to sleep for the night 🙂 When I told him I can’t afford his tour package, he worked with me to adapt it to suit my needs and had his student drive us to the park to bring the costs down.

Alexander My local guide on the Andringitra trip, a soft-spoken, unassuming, caring person. He learnt a little bit of English for his profession, but is very poor and lives in the village. We trekked 15 kms on day 1, and 22 kms on day 2. He was on flip-flops, but no complaints. At the base camp, I was eating plain rice since the side dish was beef. He noticed it and without me asking for it, he asked and brought vegetables from the other group of hikers for me. He moved me so much that before parting I gave him some money, my trousers and t-shirts. It meant I had to spend the next 8 days of my trip with one pair of trousers and 3 t-shirts but I was convinced that those clothes were more valuable to him than to me.

Eating rice with Alexander

Nantenaina (Naina) was the receptionist at the Ranomafana Park Office and Roland her husband. When I arrived in Ranomafana, after talking to Naina about the fee details, I wanted to pay for the campsite and that’s when I realized my jacket was not with me. My wallet, with my credit and debit cards, and all my cash, was in the jacket. I had taken it off during the lunch break and forgot to take it when I alighted the taxi. I was in total shock, it was already about 15 mins since the taxi left and there were not many villages ahead for the taxi to stop. I asked Naina if there is someone who can help me chase the taxi on a motorbike. She understood and asked Roland to drive me. Roland spoke no English, but once we were on the road he said, “Don’t panic.” We chased the taxi through the winding roads and hairpin bends of the forest. He showed presence of mind to fill up the tank and to carry an extra bottle of fuel, just in case. After about 25 kms we found the taxi. It had stopped in a village for some check on the tyres. I found my jacket. I stayed in the forest for 2.5 days, and during that time Naina helped me with information about many things and translation when required.

Receptionist and Night Watchman at the campsite in Antsirabe
No showers for campers, but the receptionist told me she can give me hot water in a bucket, and that I can use a small bathroom used by the workers on-site to take a bath. It was three days since I last had a shower, so I said I’ll take it. The next morning when I asked for hot water, the receptionist showed me to one of the vacant rooms and let me use the shower there 🙂

It got very cold during the nights. I managed one night in the tent somehow, but on the second night it got colder, and so I asked the night watchman if I could bring my sleeping bag and sleep by the couch in the reception area. He spoke no English, so all communication was in signs. He took out a thick rug from the cupboard, gave it to me and made signs which I interpreted as “Use this to sleep in the tent, and bring it back tomorrow morning.” I gladly accepted the offer. The rug was so warm, I had a sound sleep in my tent 🙂

Worth one more visit
On a stretch of about 500 kms, all my time was spent in the central highlands, at least 200 kms from the beach in any direction. This part of Madagascar is charming, beautiful and interesting, and with the diversity of people and places I experienced, I am convinced that traveling to other parts of the country would be a different experience and worth another visit.

Doing thatched roof

Person carrying sticks on bridge

Backpacking without plan, worth it!
My decision to have no plan and to be not connected helped me gain some invaluable experience in dealing with uncertainty. Enquiry at the check-in counter in Johannesburg airport revealed that ZAR is not accepted in Madagascar, not even at the airport foreign exchange offices. This meant I had to carry EURO/USD in order to change in Madagascar. The first thing that hit me on this trip was some financial regulation in South Africa due to which I, as a volunteer holding an Indian passport, was restricted from changing money at any bank. So, my only option was an expensive one and that limited the ZAR I could change to EURO. I could only get 295€. And in Madagascar ATMs did not accept Maestro cards. So I could not draw any cash. This put me in a position like no other time in my life. I was all by myself in the country, spoke no French and no Malagasy, knew no one in the country, had no internet, and had 295€ to experience Madagascar in 13 days. A moment of reflection, and I knew this was going to be a once-in-a-life-time experience. I smiled!Fishing

Over the next 13 days I explored options that I otherwise would not have, made decisions knowing that I had absolutely no other way to get additional money, bargained using signs and calculator on iPhone, rationed my supplies prudently and stringently, ate very limited food when traveling and resting, purchased only the absolute essentials, took chances and waited at the park office to find tourists who could share guide fee, and despite the limited resources I could donate money and clothes, and buy food for poor people and small children. This experience taught me something about myself, that I can empathize with others’ difficulties even when I am constrained by resources, that I can trust strangers, that I can persist under unfamiliar circumstances, and most importantly that I can explore options to handle uncertainty.

Marbles game

Thank you Madagascar!
santom

Cape Town Chronicles – III: Food For Life

Hunger. A primal need. To me it’s a special idea that brings forth vivid images from my childhood, some of my strongest memories. Growing up in poverty, starving was one of the constants in my life for more than two decades. The physiological and psychological feelings that empty stomach causes are so indelibly etched into my psyche that they have influenced an essential part of my conscious and reflex behaviors. When I see food getting wasted a part of my stomach aches and I feel the burning of an empty stomach. Perhaps this is why, almost unknowingly, I don’t waste food. Seldom, but if I waste food, I get livid on myself. My friends and family tell me that I never criticise the taste of food, and that I don’t waste food. I didn’t notice these about my eating behavior, until many people gave me this feedback. On my 25th birthday, my best friend inspired me to think about the hungry and the homeless people and feed at least one hungry person before I celebrate. I started doing that, and soon it became a regular activity and not associated with any occasion.

According to the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we human beings are driven to satisfy our higher needs of social bonding and self-actualization only after we satisfy our basic level needs. That leads to an interesting observation, that our ability to realize our potential, as an individual, as well as as part of a collective unit, is contingent on how well we are able to meet our basic needs. Hunger being one such basic need implies that malnourishment is an impediment to our individual and collective progress.

Consider these facts*

  1. In 2015, close to 800 million people suffered from chronic malnourishment worldwide. This is more than three times the total number of people affected by HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined (about 37 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, approximately 214 million malaria cases reported, and close to 10 million people fell ill with tuberculosis).*
  2. More people worldwide die of hunger than of AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined.
  3. Every night, one in every nine people, sleeps with an empty stomach.
  4. About 45% of deaths in children under five – 3.1. million each year – are attributed to poor nutrition.

*Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization.

These numbers reveal a grim reality of the state of malnourishment globally. It is sad that the problem of malnourishment does not merit the same level of concern in a majority of us as much as the idea of AIDS or Malaria or any other disease does. But there are a few individuals and organizations that are contributing their mite to fight hunger. During my fellowship here in Cape Town I got an opportunity to add value to one such organization, Food For Life Cape Town.

In Mitchells Plain. A mother with her young toddler after receiving food PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography
In Mitchells Plain. Children waiting in line for food PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography
In Mitchells Plain. Children waiting in line for food
PC: Michelle Sauvage Photography

Food For Life Cape Town (FFL CT)
A colleague at TSiBA introduced me to FFL CT. It’s a non-profit volunteer organization that distributes freshly cooked vegetarian food in townships in Cape Town on Saturdays, and is affiliated to Food For Life South Africa (FFL SA), which is affiliated to Food For Life Global (FFL G).

How FFL came into being, is an inspiring story. It happened in 1974 in India. Srila Prabhupada, a well-respected wise man and founder of ISKCON, once saw a few hungry children fighting with street dogs to scavenge food. This sight shocked and deeply upset him, but more importantly inspired him to his vision that led to FFL, that no one within ten miles of a temple should go hungry. He urged his yoga students to immediately start serving food to the hungry. This became the seed that slowly and steadily grew into a global humanitarian organization, a worldwide network of kitchens, cafes and services, that feeds the hungry, including daily routines in many cities around the world. Today, FFL feeds more people worldwide than the UN. Amazing!

What we at FFL CT do?
FFL CT uses the kitchen at ISKCON Temple in Rondebosch. There is a lot of emphasis on cleanliness, consciousness and compassion when cooking. Those who cook attend their morning nature routines and shower before entering the kitchen. Once they start cooking they don’t go to the restroom. However, if one needs to, then that person should take a head bath before entering the kitchen again.

Every Saturday morning, one or two volunteers cook vegetable biryani (Biryani is an indian rice-based dish). The vegetables for the biryani are prepared on Friday evening. Cooking starts early morning, between 5:30 and 6 am, on Saturday. Alongside biryani, beans are cooked, to be served as a side dish. Once the food is cooked, it is offered to god. After a little while, the offerings are then mixed with the rest of the food. This is believed to sanctify the food, and the food is called Prasadam (sanctified offering). We then transfer the food into plastic containers, garnish them up with mint and coriander, and load them into the mini-truck. While the food gets decanted into the containers, volunteers enjoy the delicious biryani for breakfast.

Volunteers enjoying delicious biryani for breakfast
Volunteers enjoying delicious biryani for breakfast

In addition to the biryani and beans, we also prepare juice and load it up into the truck. The truck and the participating volunteers then leave, usually between 11 am and 12 pm, for the day’s destination where distribution takes place.

Currently we cook 1,800 meals and distribute in Grabouw, Mitchell’s Plain, Nyanga, Phillipi, Overcome Heights, Stellenbosch, Hanover Park, Kensington and a few shelters. We visit a different township every Saturday, and rotate every two months.

In Overcome Heights. People lined up to receive food
In Overcome Heights. People lined up to receive food
In Hanover Park. Volunteers dishing out food
In Hanover Park. Volunteers dishing out food
In Overcome Heights. Volunteers serving food
In Overcome Heights. Volunteers serving food
In Grabouw. Recipients line up to receive dishings
In Grabouw. Recipients line up to receive dishings

The recipients of our food are predominantly young children, with some elderly and other community members.

In Stellenbosch. Thank you!
In Stellenbosch. Thank you!
In Overcome Heights:. Innocence and curiosity
In Overcome Heights:. Innocence and curiosity
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Grabouw. A child receiving food
In Grabouw. A child receiving food
In Mitchells Plain. Food and friends
In Mitchells Plain. Food and friends
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights
In Overcome Heights. A child receiving food from our community anchor Mymoena
In Overcome Heights. A child receiving food from our community anchor Mymoena
In Stellenbosch
In Stellenbosch
In Mitchells Plain. Happy children posing for the lens
In Mitchells Plain. Happy children posing for the lens
In Stellenbosch. Food, juice and camera - all I ask!
In Stellenbosch. Food, juice and camera – all I ask!

Temple devotees also join us for the food distribution. They bring a lot of joy and celebration to the atmosphere by joyously singing and drumming mantras with the children.

Regardless of the location, children rejoicing and celebrating the music, singing and dancing with our volunteers is an inspiring and a beautiful sight. And this embodies the true spirit of service that we at FFL CT strive for. One of the things that has impressed me about this organization is that none of the people involved, volunteers and management likewise, carry the feeling of charity. No one looks at, and feels, what we do, as an act of charity to underprivileged people. The attitude is one of compassion, and selfless service to fellow human beings. And that sets them apart.

In Hanover Park. Children enjoying their chance to play music
In Hanover Park. Children enjoying their chance to play music
In Overcome Heights. Children dance to Perez's tunes
In Overcome Heights. Children dance and sing in tune with our volunteers
In Hanover Park. FFL brings food and .. Superman too!
In Hanover Park. FFL brings food and .. Superman too!
In Mitchells Plain.
In Mitchells Plain.
In Grabouw. Children getting into vibe with our music master
In Grabouw. Children getting into vibe with our music master

My contribution to FFL CT
I volunteered to help FFL CT by joining them on Saturdays for food distribution. Soon came an opportunity to help the organization with strategy and management. As part of the core management team, I am helping the team with strategy for future. Based on my understanding of the activities involved and the vision for the future, near and long-term, I suggested a simple organizational structure to achieve three-fold impact (1) Make sustainability a key strategic focus for the organization (2) Build and strengthen the brand, and (3) Focus on efficiency for the business-as-usual activities/routines.

Core Team meeting
Core Team meeting

I have been fortunate that around the same time I came onboard, some enthusiastic and energetic folks started volunteering for FFL, and agreed to help us with the execution of above strategy. We formed a task force and we meet once a week to explore, discuss and debate different options to achieve our goals. We’ve made good progress on branding, and we are heading in the right direction with fund-raising and operational efficiency. We have big plans for the next few months, and are pursuing multiple threads to grow our network of benefactors.

The path forward
Strategically, we are evaluating the option of turning our weekly program into a daily one to create a stronger and longer-lasting impact on the communities we serve. This is a major strategic shift in the way our organization works. I am convinced that the current volunteer-based organizational structure has to give way to a few salaried office-bearers, part or full-time, in order for us to make and sustain this strategic shift. We also want to bring joy and smiles into the lives of more people and set ourselves the target of increasing our weekly capacity to 5,000 meals in the near-term. And we are launching a literacy project for young children in townships.

We are pursuing three major options on our path forward.

  • Living The Legends: On 23rd of July 2016, FFL CT will celebrate the legacy of two legends, Nelson Mandela and Srila Prabhupada, whose vision led to the efforts of FFL. Living the spirit of service of these two visionaries, 10,000 meals will be cooked and distributed on this day. This will be a flagship event of FFL CT going forward. This year’s event will have about 50 students from Northeastern University (NU) joining us. NU students will conduct free vision tests, and has sourced 2,000 eyeglasses from VisionSpring, an India-based NGO, to distribute to the needy for a nominal-to-zero price. Work is underway to raise funds, and to source volunteers for the event.
  • TSiBA-NU Consulting: We pursued the TSiBA-NU program for Entrepreneur Business Consulting, where business students from these universities will review and consult businesses in Cape Town to address business challenges, and have been shortlisted as one of the finalists on the program. We are excited to be on the program and hope the recommendations from these young business students will give us insights into how we can create more and sustainable sources of revenue and how we can take the brand closer to the young.
  • Read For Life: We are embarking on a literacy project that will be rolled out as a pilot in one township to begin with, and gradually developed into a working model that can be scaled for a wider roll out across townships, with minimum to no changes. I am anchoring this project for FFL CT and I am very excited about the execution of the pilot. The project has already generated keen interest in some of the people, and we look forward to the pilot roll out. More on this project soon.

How you can help
Every Saturday after our food drive in townships, I return home feeling glad that my efforts brought joy to people who are not as fortunate as I am. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you know that I grew up in a slum, and I had faced hardships caused by poverty. I can empathise with the people I see on Saturdays, who are living in abject poverty. Seeing the circumstances they are living in, is a humbling experience for me. And I think everyone of us can do something to make the situation better, directly or indirectly.

The best thing we can do is to not waste food. I urge you to sensitize yourself to food wastage, and make an earnest and consistent effort to not waste food. There are millions who are struggling to find food, and your efforts will make sure the situation doesn’t get any worse.

By supporting FFL CT you can make a difference in the lives of potentially many people. The biggest challenge facing us in pursuing the above mentioned goals is the inadequacy of resources, both financial and human. We are looking for people with the right vision and experience in fund raising, marketing and operations to come onboard and help us. We are also looking for generous donations, especially from overseas, to support our weekly operations. Given the fluctuations in Rand, any funding received from overseas would be a great help. You can also help us by volunteering for cooking and distribution on Saturdays.

If you are in Cape Town, join us on a Saturday to experience what we do, and how we do. Find out more on our website http://www.fflsa.org/branches/cape-town/, Facebook page (Food For Life Cape Town) and Instagram (FoodForLifeCapeTown) about FFL CT’s efforts to bring joy and smiles to different communities.

In Hanover Park. Happy team at the end of distribution
In Hanover Park. Happy team at the end of distribution
In Mitchells Plain. After a happy day's work
In Mitchells Plain. After a happy day’s work

Till next time,
santom!

Cape Town Chronicles – II: When being kind is cruel!

Kindness. Cruelty. Two opposite words. To those who’ve experienced them in one or the other way, these are two different worlds. Where one exists, the other doesn’t. Or at least that’s how I used to think. But this past Monday, I learnt something that gave me a whole new perspective on these two aspects.

A few weeks ago, a student group at TSiBA approached me for some advice on their business. Their idea won an entrepreneurship contest. But the organisers wanted them to turnover a certain level of sales of their product to claim the prize. The product these students have at hand (which I can’t disclose) needs refinement. The prize they won is an equipment that will help them refine the product. Now, without the equipment, they will need to either make or source a raw material that is not environment-friendly. If they have this equipment, they will be able to make the product in a ‘green’ way. And the students want to be green. It is one of their major value propositions. So they were faced with a dilemma: Should we compromise on our values and sell the product in its current state, which is not environment-friendly, or should we give up the prize?

Last Monday, I was a guest at the Rotary Club of Newlands’ weekly meeting. And I had the opportunity to sit and observe their entrepreneurship meeting. This group of business men was looking for opportunities to help budding entrepreneurs. I thought this could be an opportunity for my student group, and so I pitched my students’ business as an opportunity to these entrepreneurs, in case the students do not secure their prize. The group was excited about the green product idea and was open to help the student group. So, I felt very good about it.

On the way back home, I thanked Jenna (my colleague at TSiBA and a Rotarian; I was her guest at the meeting) for letting me go with her to the meeting, and told her this could be a good help to the student group. While talking about this students’ case we wondered why the contest owners wanted the students to sell the environmentally unfriendly product. We considered multiple possibilities and in the context of one of them Jenna shared with me the story of the little boy and his caterpillar.

One day, playing in his garden, a child found a caterpillar. Fascinated, he took it inside, and put it in a clear big jar. He nurtured it every day and took good care of it. A few days later, the caterpillar started building the cocoon. When he showed it to his mother, she told him how the caterpillar would undergo changes to become a butterfly. This fascinated the boy even more. He got very attached to his caterpillar and watched it all the time, eagerly waiting for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly.

Soon, one day, the cocoon broke and the butterfly started emerging from it. The boy was instantly excited, but his excitement was short-lived. The butterfly struggled to come out, and this saddened the boy. It was hard for the butterfly, it desperately struggled to break the cocoon and emerge out, but it couldn’t. It kept trying. The boy became impatient. He couldn’t understand why the butterfly couldn’t come out. He thought it was stuck and just couldn’t make its way out of the little opening in the cocoon. So, he decided to help, ran to his mother, brought a pair of scissors, and very carefully nipped through the hole in the cocoon to enlarge it. The butterfly came out, but it was not what he expected. Its wings were small, and the body swollen. He was sad but hoped that in a few days the body would shrink and wings would grow large enough for it to fly. But that never happened. The butterfly struggled for the rest of its life, crawling with its swollen body and wings that were not strong enough for it to fly. It never flew and eventually died.

The tiny hole in the cocoon is the key to butterfly’s metamorphosis. The struggle that it faces to get through that small opening, forces the fluid from its body into the wings and one day when the wings are strong enough for its body, it breaks free from the cocoon and flies out. But the little boy’s caterpillar never got to that stage. The child’s kindness subverted the natural struggle that the caterpillar needed in order to develop the necessary strength in its wings and break from the cocoon.

We all go through struggles in life and it is just natural for us to feel sympathy when someone we know struggles. And we don’t stop there. We try to help them in whatever ways we can, to alleviate their struggles. That is precisely what I was trying to do for my students. So when I heard this short story from Jenna, it struck me instantly that by doing so, I was, in a metaphorical sense, widening the tiny hole in their cocoon to help them come out, without realising that their wings are not yet strong enough to fly if they come out of their cocoon.

An important lesson learnt about the journey of an entrepreneur. The long term success of an entrepreneur hinges very much on how s/he responds to the struggles. In fact, I wonder now whether an entrepreneur can build a sustainable business if all the resources required are made available to him/her. How s/he finds solutions when the required resources are inadequate/not available is such a big part of her/his learning process. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against the idea of helping entrepreneurs. All I am saying is perhaps we should not offer help before they try. They need to be immensely driven and should have explored on their own to find solutions to their challenges, and any help that is offered should be a result of their dogged determination to seek that help. Being kind before they explore options to find solutions is tantamount to being cruel to them.

I’ve been reflecting over this story all this week, and I realised that this is relevant to the growth of not just an entrepreneur but any person, and I felt I gained an important insight into leadership. Struggles help us discover who we are, what we are capable of. Through struggles we find out what works for us and what not; we realise our potential. As leaders we enable our proteges to realise their potential. I feel convinced that a major part of our job as leaders has to do with kindness. The kinder we are to our proteges, the crueler we will be to their growth. Sounds so ironical, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it is true.

Till next time,
santom!

Time with the Champions

Beautiful Nairobi. Lots of greenery, lovely weather, friendly people, great beer…what’s not to like!

IMG-20160202-00736IMG-20160130-00730

As in many developing countries, income inequality, high unemployment, rural-urban migration and other issues combine to create a large population living in poverty, dwelling in informal settlements ( read: slums) like Mathare. (view from my office)

Views from my office 1Views from my office 2

Unemployment is pretty common, with a correspondingly high crime rate. The HIV prevalence exceeds the national average. Tuberculosis, malnutrition, hypertension and diabetes are also rampant.

Run by German Doctors Nairobi, BARAKA HEALTH CENTER provides quality, accessible and sustainable health services to the vulnerable population in this community of around half a million people.Picture Baraka health center

Rose has worked in Baraka since 2007, and leads the ‘community team’.  I believe it’s more apt to call them the ‘Community Champions’With the community team

The community team delivers one of the core services of this centre. Their job is to go into the dangerous streets, narrow alleys, unmarked houses and unventilated shacks with ‘flying toilets’. They follow up on patients, identify people too sick to come to the clinic, pick out malnourished children and adults, monitor drug adherence, and refer these people to the feeding centre,the health clinic, the HIV/TB care centre or to other appropriate services.

I spent one day with them on the field to help me understand the center’s work, I couldn’t take pictures to avoid undue attention. Only Rose was bold enough to make phone calls on the street, and she told me: “they see me as their mother, and no matter how ‘bad’ these boys become, they’ll still find it hard to attack their mother; but you make sure you keep your phone well”. (I kept my phone very very well!)

In my time here as an ESMT Responsible Leaders’ Fellow, I hope to contribute to keeping the centre open and running sustainably. If I ever run out of motivation….I’ll just spend another day with Rose and her courageous team-  field trip for me, daily work for her.

With Rose