Running For Dear Life… Sponsorship Doubled!

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In August, The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), my employer, wrote an article in their Q3 magazine ‘Outside In’, on my running in the MegaMeter 100 x 10k challenge in the context of my relationship with the Gambia… Running for Dear Life. It marked close to 3 years into my role with the company, and I could not have opened up and shared such a personal story at the beggining, so it felt like a personal milestone.

I have consisntely said that the 100 x 10km running is the easy part, relative to the fundraising which is much harder. In the past I have rode the fundraising wave with amazing support from freinds and family, but I often regreted not being able to move it beyond this to something greater, to have even more of an impact onthe ground in The Gambia.

Throughoout the year I have enjoyed the running. I have loved the running. Getting back into fitness, fighting the sofa deamon, pushing myself,  feeling the satisfactioon of self improvement, striking PBs and achieving goals. It has been great. I set a 2,000 fundraising target that I soon increased to 2,500 when I realised all that needed to be achieved with the community gardens we are looking to support. However, I never really knew where the fundraising was going, who was reading the blogs, or where it may or may not venture.

The fantastic news is that the RBS article has helped boost fundraising considerably. Firstly a few donatioons came into justgiving, and then a kind like-minded soul reached out with a desire to help. Tapping into their network they have been able to fundraise offline totalling a stagging sum cloose too 2,500, doubling my fundraising overnight.

When I first received the news I froze on the spot, and could barely move. In a time when it feels like the world arouond us is close to imploding, the genersity of people never fails to amaze me. Now is a great time to focus more on the community work, and the amazing benefits that I know can be achieved.

Read a cpy of the RBS Outside In Aug 2016

For all those that have suppoorted me on my journey, a big grateful thankyou!

Im 86 x 10km’s done, 14 left to run.

This Sunday is the Manchester Half Marathon… wish me luck!

Paul ūüôā

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Running, Fundraising & Startups…

 

Drink Baotic SuperFruit Drink_2

Part of my efforts to make 2016 my year of running is all about Health and Nutrition. I was keen after at least 3 years of very little to no exercise, having stopped playing football, to get back into it and re-find a level of personal fitness and health. Having raised money for health and nutrition in rural Gambia since 2008, I also saw a fitting opportunity to set myself a stretching challenge to fundraise for a vitally important new project. This would help set up another female co-operative vegetable garden that will improve income, health and nutrition in the local community. To date, along with a heap of support from family and friends, we have raised £1,700 this year and close to £9,700 since 2008.

A huge thank you and a massive well done!

In addition to my personal running and fundraising, Isatou and I have launched a start-up healthy drinks company Drink Baotic (FB: www.facebook.com/drainkbaotic). As an opportunity to build on her studies for an International Business degree, Isatou pitched at Entrepreneurial Spark business accelerator (backed by RBS and Sir Tom Hunter) and was successfully accepted into their chicklet start-up program from February.

Perhaps I will blog more about the drink another time, and how it has been Isatou and I’s motivational dream since 2008. But for now I can tell you, Drink Baotic is high in Vitamin C, Antioxidants, Fibre, Potassium, Calcium and Iron. For me it is a perfect recovery drink. One that will keep me fuller for longer and is also Diary Free and Gluten Free, meaning I can get my preferred intake of important nutrition and stay healthy in the process.

Having had a soft launch at the local farmers markets (West end: Partick Square, and Southside: Queens Park) the business is going from strength to strength, soon to be in a few local stores.

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Running 100 x 10km is the easy part… Putting yourself out there and Fundraising is a far more difficult challenge. Having lived and breathed community life in The Gambia I know how important a little ‘seed money’ can be, and what a huge difference it can make. There have been many times since 2008 that it has been painful to repeatedly beg friends and family for sponsorship (despite their incredible and unnerving efforts to always support!), and my major¬†regret and failing is not finding more sustainable ways to fund work such as social/private business, larger scale grants (UN, Worldbank etc), but I deeply hope that @DrinkBaotic will be able to fund future community health & nutrition development work in The Gambia, and perhaps even at home. Depending on how we are able to scale the business, a minimum of 10% will go towards future community projects, and all of this provides much more motivation to keep on working, and for now to keep on running!

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If you havn’t yet seen it, there is a great video of the Gambia & Virtual Funrun, with some personal messages and thank you’s from the female co-operatives in the Gambia:

https://www.facebook.com/paul.blackler.5

There is still plenty of time for any further donations, support, or suggestions on how to help reach our £2,500 target:

www.justgiving.com/megameterrun

The whole journey has been a pleasure. Having completed #66 of the planned 100 x 10km runs, it has been a busy year but also a very beautiful one. The three areas of running, fundraising and startup have been a perfect way to align to a vision of health and nutrition and to impart further discipline on my own lifestyle, learn an incredible amount myself, and help others on that beautiful journey also.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again, but thank you, thank you, thank you for your support.

Passionate for Health & Nutrition,

Paul ūüôā

 

Two weeks in The Gambia: Green Leaves of Hope

During my year volunteering with VSO 2008-2009 I blogged my personal story and my relationship with the beautiful but tough environment of The Gambia. Throughout the years I have continued to repeat a few statastics (below), and they are really important, but what is life in the country really like?

  • UN Human Development Index ranks The Gambia¬†172 out of 187¬†countries for human development (UK sits 14th)
  • Life Expectancy at birth is¬†58 years¬†(79.3 in UK)
  • UN research shows¬†60% live below the poverty¬†line
    • 70% of whom are rural, 80% are women
The Gambia is sub tropical so you can expect palm trees and sunsets along the Atlantic coast and beautiful golden sandy beaches. This inevitably attracts a tourist industry (40% of GDP), but one that fluctuates with West Africa’s continuous struggle, (Ebola stigma, the west’s financial crisis, etc ). Other than some political instability, it is a country of extremely friendly and peaceful people that I have often felt could be a model of peace and understanding across the world. It truly deserves its nickname “the smiling coast of Africa”, and pays testiment to a continent that despite its financial status, consistnelty scores highest in levels of “happiness”.
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A wise elder once told me “it is important to know where you came from in order to know where you are going” and The Gambia is reaped in history from the ancient ¬†Mali and Songhai¬†empires, to being an old British colony that suffered at the hands of¬†the transatlantic slave trade as the setting for Kunta Kinte ¬†story “roots”, through to Arabic traders that bought religion along with the spice trade to an already spiritual and God fearing people. Today it is a majority Muslim country whose people embrace Christians as their own, continue to welcome travellers, foreigners and strangers with open arms, hospitality and the up most respect regardless of their own struggle or circumstance. When you live with a peaceful people that have deeply inspired you and made you a better person through their own strength in faith, it is a struggle when you are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages in the media and certain ignorant stereotyping politicians who ‘have sat down to write(or spread hate speach), before they have stood up to live themselves’.
As I arrived back in the Gambia in May of this year, after 3 years away, I was looking forward to a break from the unavoidable stress and fatigue of the corporate world and intreagued to have another taste of a slower pace of life. At arrivals I lost my luggage only to find mysteriously it had already gone through security all on its own, and I had to check my anger and relax, and was reminded to slow down and embrace the adventure.
The friendliness of the people was all too evident as we were welcomed with beaming smiles and hugs from Isatou’s family.¬†Over the next few days we eased ourselves back into the way of life.
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A couple of young boys went and collected a big bag of mangos from behind the compound and we cut them up and shared them out, bonding with friends over the sweet juicy refreshing taste, just like old times. We prepared chicket yassa, and ebeh a spicy fish and cassava soup that we have failed to replicate tha well back in the UK. I played bare footed street football with the kids among the free roaming goats, and we made a trip to beach, enjoying familiar tastes, sights and sounds, as they all came flooding back.

Gambia 1: 10km to Lamin and back

One evening I managed to rope a friend of a friend into running with me. He played football but wasn’t a runner. We headed out through the back of the compounds through dusty bushland and onto the coastal highway. We lopped back and followed the road all the way to a town called Lamin passing a cultural hunting ceremony perading on the road. The 36degree heat added extra difficulty but the races and half marathons had prepared me to dig deep and i felt like I could have gone on. It felt great to complete one in the Gambia.
Only some time after I realised I had picked up a few blisters with a stinger on my right ankle.
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A few days in we travelled up country. A new 6 hour direct “super express” bus had replaced the old 12+ hour 3 river crossing journey as a stark sign of development. I could even see operational practice and standard operating procedures, that impressed me more than the air con!
Arriving back in Basse was emotional. It’s difficult to explain the grip a rural African village can hold on you after so many deep bonds and extreme experiences with the places, the people and their lives.

May 21 10km Virtual Funrun

On May 21 I had planned a virtual funrun. Friends and family across 5 countries came together to run and share photos on social media. Problem for me was the fact the president was in town for his annual promotional tour where he throws packets of biscuits from his heavily armed machine gun mounted convoy In order to win the love of the people.
This meant the the village was swamped with the fanfare, and military guard, but I couldn’t let that stop me. So I took on a 10km in 42 degrees, with a shabby blistered ankle, among hundreds of scary military.
 I headed out early in the morning and got some friends to help me kick things off at the starting line
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I continued on and met up with the young gents from “Westside fc” a football team I had coached to an undefeated 12 game winning streak, and continue to dominate their region. We donned our funrun hats and did a few laps around the large football field, which itself was guarded by military, but didn’t seem to bother.
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WestSide FC 2009
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Westside FC 2016

As the guys started to fatigue, I said my farewells and moved on to complete the second 5km keeping my head down passing all the visitors as I ran from Mansajang into Basse, via my old office at the Education department, and down to the river.

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Military Arrest

On the final 500m I made the school boy error and checked the time on my phone as I ran past some military Sat unoticed to one side. A guy in black shiny boots and commando trousers jumped out from nowhere and demanded and snatched my phone straight out of my hand. He lead me into a nearby school compound that the military had commandeered. I was forced to sit as a couple of guards pulled up chairs to interrogate me with the black booted man shouting accusations of filming and they wanted to see the video. I tried to explain I hadn’t but couldnt get a word in over all the accusations. I started to get angry so calmed my temper telling myself it’s all part of their coordinated training to rile me to say something. Just part of ‘security’. The sergeant had come in and he sat up close quietly observing me without saying a word. I could feel his power but at the same time his soft good cop eyes and almost a goodcop nod of assurance, while the bad cop in black boots continued to rant while he demanded to see my “snooping” video. In between every few minutes of shouting I managed to get my phone back into my hands for a few moments and try to explain the funrun and my volunteer history with the region, before it was whipped away and I was silenced back into barated accusations.
After some cat and mouse I managed to land my message. “Fine, so let me see the Facebook messages you have mentioned” he shouted and I had my moment of defence and a light at the end of this dark torturous tunnel in the form of friends in funny hats…
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I loaded up my phone and accessed Facebook, and just as I did my internet credit run out and I was left in silence. Well this went on until they got bored, or their training activity, or game, or preventative scare mongering was over. I found the phone was back in my hand and I was free to go. I ran back and completed my funrun 10km.

Visiting Kamakama Female Co-operative

It had been over three years as I walked under the blistering heat to a nearby village and visited Kabakama female cooperative, and I took a different route in trying to pass through a few different compounds to say hi, and ended up getting lost. The sun was hot, the bushland dry and the way sandy underfoot, it felt like a Laurence of Arabia desert expedition. I managed to find one of the first vegetable gardens I had supported and was amazed to find it incredibly strong, with an iron gate and concrete fence posts. What a relief, but no real surprise, to see it thriving. The community were always hard-working and committed to make any support work.
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However the garden was largely empty so after getting lost a second time a lady appeared and welcomed us with joy and led us past the banana garden (project 3) to the second garden (project 2) where we were imediatley greeted with song and led under a mango tree for a ‘meeting’, and ceremoniously caught up on our lives. I learnt more about the progress and challenges of the Garden. They continued to sing and dance in thanks, sending prayers to all of their supporters (you!).
In 2008 when we starteed to support, 86 women had plots of land for gardening, and we were able to fund a 2 hector expansion to grow that number to 200 to support their wider income, and nutriotional benefit to support their families.  We were able to extend from one harvest a year to 3, and increase the crop variation and yield linking other WASDA supported projects such as water technologies, market research, and local natural pesticide solutions.

Their frst harvest produced Approx. 7290 Kgs vegetables (2776 Kgs Onion, 2282Kgs Okra, 2232Kgs Tomatoes) equating to D207,209 (£5,182).

The garden had now grown to over 400 women as more and more witnessed the success and were attracted to the benefits and impact it can have on their livilhoods. Most importantly the ‘seed money’ and support had demnstrateed success to become a national showcase garden, and the governement had even backed further developments…..

… This is where we want to get Mansajang Garden through the MegaMeterRun fundraising!

 

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Visiting Mansajang Female Co-operative

Visiting Mansjang garden I came to realise they were¬†far more advanced than I expected. Despite problem of fencing, seed and water well issues, ¬†they are led by an ex-ministry of agrigulture technition, and they had made the empowered decision to crack on and attempt a harvest. And the garden was booming…
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During a couple of unannounced visits I walked around the garden admiring the progress whilst chatting to the ladies. Most noticable was how the women were unfazed and how focussed and committed they were to their garden.¬†Several reminded me of how I had helped them over the years (before the garden was fully formed) ¬†buy purchasing seeds, small equiptment and fertiliser and it was humbling to know that some of my small efforts had still been greatly apreciated after all of this time. I haded out some of my funrun themed hats, and we held a ceremony meeting for me to better understand their issues, and to sing prayer and give thanks…
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The garden still has several problems… the water wells are in need of repair. Currently the women have to sit around for an hour or two and wait for the water level to raise (morning and night) because they are clogged from rainy-season damage and they need to be re-dug. Also they have to women-guard a stretch of the parimeter fence throughout the night to fend off cattle, goats and donkey that could destoy the entire garden in one sitting.
There are other issues, such as improving the efficiency of yield (to maximise their hard work), battling pest control, access to quality seed and natural fertiliser, acces to markets, as well as the baselining of production to be able to report progress, attract support and manage a fair and equal community tax/contribution to the self sustaining of the garden. But the shear tenacity of the women, the hard work and grit to turn the garden around, learn from Kabakama’s successes and ¬†make a little something for their familes gives me every confidence that they will get there, and its a privilage to be with them on that journey!
My brother has started to put together a pretty impressive little video (that boys got skills!), and we hope to be able to share this with you shortly.
On behlaf of the Kabakama and Mansajang Women, from the bottom of all of our hearts, thank you for your interest, moticvation and financial support. It is greatly apprecaited, respected and put to great use. The impact is undeniable, and long may it continue!
Cheers,

Paul ūüôā ¬†-xx-

p.s. As for my running. The stinger of a blister didnt heal in the heat and all the walking. My foot swole so much I was put on antibiotics. Following this I suffred a suspected collapsed lung and so took rest for 3 weeks, but I have started to get back into it, and that will be my next blog!

 

#1 Past Gambia Projects: Newbie to Volunteering

Gambia Education

In the week I completed a scorching 10km along the river in just under 41 mins. Today I completed another 10km and joined Tollcross ParkRunUK for their 3rd birthday, and despite underestimating the 10 hills, completed their 5km in 19:49, so was chuffed with sub 20mins. I am happy to be back at a good level of fitness.

Blog: Newbie to Volunteering

As I prepare a visit to the Gambia the excitement builds after a couple of years of being away. I wanted to reflect and share some of the project work I have completed in the past and some lessons I have learnt along the way…

In Aug 2008 I arrived in the Gambia, hungry for adventure, for learning and for working to a greater purpose. I was bright eyed and bushy tailed as a VSO volunteer, working for the ministry of education. VSO is the world’s leading international development organisation that uses volunteers to fight poverty and reduce inequality. The average age of a volunteer was 41, meaning skilled and experienced volunteers in areas such as education, medicine, agriculture, governance and business.

After 6weeks in the capital Banjul, working for the central planning team, I had made a ton of local friends and was already warming to the local culture, hospitality, and friendliness of the country and its people.¬† Having completed in country training, spent time sea fishing, caught and battled Malaria, and made national TV celebrating Gambia’s historic draw with neighbours Senegal in the football, I moved up country to the upper river region. Basse Mansajang would be my home for the next 11 months, volunteering at the regional education office. There I would be building IT capacity, delivering training, supporting infrastructure improvements and rolling out the national education information system (a key strategic data capturing system that would report back into national strategy and partner organisations like UNICEF and the world bank).

Gambia CCM Education

Arriving as an ‘IT expert’ meant I soon had a large queue of people from all across the region arriving with broken hardware and IT issues to fix, train, learn, share or solve. Along with my day job, I helped a military head, the governor‚Äôs secretary, local SOS orphanage staff, doctors, head teachers, multiple schools, agriculturalists, UN volunteers, national security facilitators‚Ķ the list went on.

At times an education officer would arrive at my compound at night by 4×4 or motorbike and whisk me away under the cover of darkness, like a covert operation, just to help complete a spreadsheet for some much needed stats.

Quite often I had some basic knowledge but had to improvise, think on my feet, be creative and find solutions to solve problems that were new to me. At times it was daunting, but I loved the challenge. I couldn’t afford to question it, I just rolled up my sleeves and did what I could. All of this was with limited resources, a high and sometimes desperate expectation, no internet, no Google, (and initially no anti virus!) and quite often no electricity. IT with no electricity.

IT Training Education

I have to admit sometimes the pressure to help weighed heavy on my shoulders, but what I loved the most was the engagement with the people. I made great friendships with the staff in the office and community. In addition to running specific change initiatives and training programs, I noticed early that the first ‘bottle neck’ was with the secretary’s as a great deal of work flowed through them, so instead of setting up office in a separate room like many previous volunteers, I floated between the local staff, but sat predominantly with the secretary‚Äôs where I was able to be at the heart of the activity, see the work coming in, and be at hand to provide on the job training and support in real time. This was helped by the fact the secretaries, and all the staff, were awesome and truly wonderful people.¬†We had mutual love for sharing ‚Äėebeh‚Äô (spicey casava soup) for breakfast, and sardine and onion or egg tapa-lapa for lunch. We worked through many challenges to support the regional staff, the regional clusters and 250 schools through a number of challenges and improvement initiatives.

During this whole time I had been living in the local village community and building great friendships and experiences there too. This started with the local family I lived with and as a newbie to the culture, their children became my mentors. I supported them with their learning, homework and education and they supported me in learning the local ways starting with food, language, song, dance and my first trips to the markets.

As I built friendships and confidence my relationships expanded out to the wider community, and I was keen to get involved and support in new areas.

Gambia School

First of all, with the help of my new brothers and sisters, we set up a small pilot student IT class. I chose a local ‘TV Room‚Äô a Nigerian entrepreneur was attempting to become an internet cafe, as a central point in the community. I paid for the fuel for a generator to be run so that we could run a class once a week, outside of commercial hours (electricity in the village is rationed to certain hours). I never forget visiting with them, the local parents of the selected students to ask permission for their child to attend. It was a beautiful and humbling early opportunity to engage deeply with local families.

They all shared similar thoughts, welcomed me into their homes with open arms, shared peanuts and tea, blessed me for my time and efforts and put emphasis on their child to make the most of the opportunity. The final old man’s response, as we sat on mats outside on the ground sharing stories in the dark, was simply “have you seen my house?”. I had to ask my mentors for a cryptic translation which was‚Ķ he was a poor man with a poor straw thatched, mud brick, round house, why would he not want his child to benefit from the opportunity of education? All the kids laughed and laughed, partly at the old man’s wise, simple and humble response and partly at my stupidity. ‚ÄėHave you seen my house?‚Äô became a catchphrase.

Gambia Tree

IT classes were a fascinating insight and I learnt a huge deal about operating in the environment. Strong momentum began to build as did the excitement, confidence and skill sets. But the ‘Internet cafe’ struggled and it broke my heart when it soon closed down as not commercially profitable, and the owner moved to the city. Rural Development is a minefield.

In #2 I will… explore how I progressed from Education into Agriculture and helped a nearby village‚Äôs female co-operative to build up a national show garden, and later expand their production to twice the land size, 3 harvests in a single year, as well as establishing a Bana plantation to reduce the need to import from across the border.

I hope you found that interesting, and my future insights will be more insightful.

 

Seek and you shall find. Life’s an adventure, if you will make it one.

Have a great weekend, and keep smiling!

 

Paul ūüôā

…………………

Running 100 x 10km for health and nutrition in rural Gambia.

www.justgiving.com/megameterrun 

Charity – Development

Afruitica_vibrant_africa2

International Rural Development

In August 2008 I sat in a remote village hospital in The Gambia, West Africa, watching my brother lay in the hospital bed twitching at a medicine induced sleep whilst recovering from an unfortunate food poisoning. At the same time a beautiful young 5 year old girl named Kadijatou Konteh was admitted due to dehydration and malnutrition. My brother recovered fine due to the fortunate access of medication and the skilful education and training of the local doctor and his support staff. Unfortunately, Kadijatou’s illness was more serious. Her health deteriorated in front of our eyes and we watched helplessly as she sadly passed away. Seven years ago I felt very strongly that a young child passing away from dehydration and malnutrition was criminal, and I still do.

I was in the Gambia in 2008-2009 as a Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) volunteer building regional IT Capacity for the ministry of education ‚Äď running change projects in international development. This experience motivated me to set up and manage a number of Agricultural projects supporting local communities and female co-operatives to apply technology, business intelligence and creative entrepreneurial thinking to reduce poverty, increase income and nutrition, and better improve lives.

I was lucky enough to directly support some fantastic community projects, watching enterprising and entrepreneurial people pull together in the face of adversity to build a better future for themselves, their families and communities. There is just too much I could say here, so I will give an overview below and try to update on further insight through future blogs.


The Gambia:

  • Gambia sits 172 out of 187*¬†countries for development (UK sits 14th)
  • Life Expectancy at birth is 58 years (79.3 in UK)
  • UN research shows 60% live below the poverty line
    • 70% of whom are rural, 80% are women

*The¬†UN Human Development Index (HDI)¬†– A measure of¬†Life Expectancy, Mean Years of Schooling, and GNI Per Capita, making it a ‘low developed’ country – see stats.


Afruitica Development Sekuta School Garden2 Sekuta School РRegion 5

Since 2008 I set up, fundraised, and lead a number of projects working with local partners to support community development goals in the areas of poverty alleviation, revenue generation, improved nutrition and improved standards of living. This was not without its challenges, however it has been extremely rewarding and I have learnt a huge amount along the way.

Past Projects:

Here is a quick summary of the main projects that evolved….

  • Village Youth IT Training ‚Äď Mansajang Village
  • Water Access for Cattle Herds & Village Protection
  • Sekuta School Fence / School Kitchen
  • Kabakama Female Co-Operative Vegetable Garden
  • St Josephs All girls School – Vegetable Garden
  • West Side FC – Youth Football Coaching
  • Launch New Agricultural Vegetable Farm
  • Kabakama –¬†Banana Plantation

Afruitica Development St Jospehs School GardenSt Joseph School Vegetable Garden

KabaKama Example (2009-2010):

A great deal of collaborative work goes in to make this projects have an impact that is sustainable in the long term. They are community driven and owned initiates. The organisation and maturity of ‘the team’ is important. Local partners, NGO’s and government¬†are pulled on for support to offer the right expertise at the right time. Business and agricultural training is provided. Baseline and Benefit data is tracked. The community invest (even if it is just in kind – time, local resources, ¬†timber, and sometimes financially). The final part is the ‘seed money’, the financial injection that can kick start the project into gear….

A small £1000 donation produced the following results:

  1. 1 Hector of land was developed for agricultural production.
  2. An additional 67 female’s included (up from an initial 82)
  3. Income Generation supporting  communit Health and Education.
  4. 7290 Kgs Vegetables – First Harvest Yield
    • (2776 Kgs Onion, 2282 Kgs Okra, 2232Kgs Tomatoes)
  5. ¬†D207,209 (¬£5,182) –¬†Total value of first harvest

Afruitica Development kabakama garden¬†Kamakama Women’s Group – Agricultural Garden (Onion Harvest)

MegaMeter Challenge Beneficiary:

2016 Target: £2,000 (to hit £10,000 since 2008)

Community:  Mansajang Female Co-Operative

Purpose:  To further develop a similar Agricultural program.

Over the last couple of years the community group have made several developments to be in a stronger position for a sustainable project, including re-forming of the organisation, linking with partners, developing agricultural practice, and preparation of land.

Thanks for reading, I hope that was insightful – I shall try my best to update further throughout the year.

“Boto kensengo buka lo no” – An Empty Bag Doesn’t Stand (Gambian Proverb, Mandinka)

Your Support is greatly appreciated,

Paul