Volunteering at COCO

Ex-volunteer Hannah Chalmers shares her experience of volunteering with COCO for #VolunteersWeek

When I first started volunteering for COCO, I must admit the sheer number and variety of projects COCO is involved in overwhelmed me. For such a small NGO, COCO certainly seemed to have its fingers in lots of pies! I was also a little confused. I knew that COCO’s mission was to provide quality education, so why was it involved in providing training in sustainable agriculture and giving out small loans? The answer lies in one word that runs throughout COCO’s work: sustainability.

Sustainability is crucial for every single stakeholder in COCO’s work and means that programmes and projects today will continue to benefit more people into the future.

COCO works in some of the most remote and impoverished areas of East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya). Daily life here is a struggle and many parents just cannot afford to pay the fees to send their children to school. What money they do have is needed to feed the family. Without an education, children will become trapped in the same cycle of poverty.

COCO has worked closely with partners in East Africa for the past 17 years and learnt that if their mission of providing a quality education to children was to be realised, they had to help parents develop sources of income too. It would be useless to build a nice shiny new school if parents couldn’t pay school fees to maintain it, buy textbooks, and pay teachers. This led to the development of COCO’s three programmes: Schools for Life, Sustainable Agriculture Training (SAT) and Small Loans.

Schools for Life

In 2007, COCO began working with a local Tanzanian NGO called Hoja Project to set up a secondary school, which has since become self-sustainable and one of the best performing schools in the region. It became the model for other Schools for Life in Tanzania and Kenya. The programme has now expanded to include primary schools, as well as a training centre to take students from school into teacher training college the schools are currently serving 1,500 students across the region.

What I find unique about the Schools for Life programme is the holistic approach it takes to delivering quality education centered around six key elements – shelter, power, water and sanitation, food, recreation and sport and entrepreneurship. I love the pragmatism and innovation used to overcome the challenges of setting up schools in such remote and inhospitable areas. In Songea in southern Tanzania for example, Augustino used to have to walk for an hour and a half each way to get to school and arrived tired and unable to concentrate on his studies. The solution at Hoja Secondary was to bring students closer to the school by building dormitories so that students and teachers could stay on-site, giving them valuable extra time to study and rest at night and more energy to concentrate during the day.

Another challenge is power. In rural Africa, less than 10% of the population has access to power and many families use dangerous kerosene lamps, which are bad for health and the environment and costly to use. COCO’s solution is the installation of solar panels, a clean and sustainable source of energy. At Hoja Secondary, solar panels provide lights and charge mobile phones, increasing study time and providing the potential to generate income. At Mshangano Secondary, there are now plans to install a bio-gas digester to generate energy for cooking.

Access to safe drinking water is something that we take for granted in the UK. Imagine having to walk for miles to collect water each day or drinking contaminated water that makes you sick and unable to go to school. COCO is working to ensure that all Schools for Life have a supply of clean water to keep students and staff healthy and in school. At FOCUSSA Primary on the Kenya-Uganda border, COCO has installed rainwater harvesting as well as composting toilets to improve sanitation. Alongside the obvious health benefits, toilets are crucial for keeping girls in school.

If you have ever skipped lunch you'll know how concentration levels dip by mid-afternoon. Imagine being hungry and trying to study, and having a diet lacking in key vitamins and minerals that aid growth and mental development. The Schools for Life solution is to set up food farms to help feed students. Kindimba Secondary, for example, grows beans that not only feed pupils but also generate income for the school. At FOCUSSA Primary in Kenya, 10-year-old Elizabeth gets breakfast and lunch at school and loves coming to school. “I am completely happy at school because I can meet friends, get food and study!”