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!”

COCO understands that education is not just about academic success. Children need to develop skills outside the classroom as well in order to become balanced, confident adults. That’s why Schools for Life invest in sports and recreation facilities like the football goals at Mshangano Secondary. 

While some Schools for Life students have ambitions to study further at university, others need to find work to support their families. However, with high unemployment in rural areas, it’s important that students graduate with the skills required to find employment or to set up a small business. This is why COCO encourages entrepreneurship and vocational training in areas such as tailoring. From an early age, Schools for Life promote group debate to encourage curiosity and student participation to ensure equality. This is only possible through the commitment of excellent teachers and smaller class sizes. Adam Singogo is the physics teacher at Mshangano Secondary and was recently named best teacher in the region. He attributes the success of his students to determination and small class size, which allows him to not only foster debate but also offer individual support. 

Sustainable Agriculture Training (SAT) 

The more you learn about COCO’s work, the more you understand how every programme is based on COCO’s motto: listen, learn, sustain. Listen in order to understand the needs of a community; learn from successes and failures to continuously improve; sustain in order to empower a community to control its own future and free up funds and time for other projects. 

It is by listening to communities that COCO and its partners understood the importance of sustainable agriculture to ensure food security and generate income. In rural areas of East Africa, agriculture is the main industry, and many people depend on seasonal work on large-scale farms as their only source of income. What little money they earn goes on buying food, leaving little left over for education or healthcare, so the cycle of poverty continues. But what if families could grow enough of their own food? Imagine the benefits. No more hunger, and the possibility to use income from excess crops to invest in the future.  

In 2011, COCO began a pilot scheme with partner Hoja Project to develop training in sustainable agricultural practices. The programme wanted to avoid investing in expensive and potentially harmful pesticides and fertilizers, which would only be short-term. Instead, the focus was on using affordable or free, naturally available resources and environmentally friendly techniques to improve the yield of crops. For example, with climate change resulting in increasing periods of drought followed by intense heavy rainfall, it was essential to teach farmers to become more resilient to drought. One simple method is to dig long troughs (“swales”) in the soil, which trap water when it rains, allowing it to be absorbed into the soil instead of evaporating as soon as the sun comes out. With more water, the plants grow better, and hey presto, produce a better crop! 

What I really love about this programme is its reach. By training just 272 farmers, a further 2,688 farmers have benefitted as knowledge is passed on. That means that on average 10 people benefit for every person trained, and then there are neighbours and children who are also gaining new knowledge. Take 16-year-old Steven Moyo, his parents received sustainable agriculture training (SAT) in 2013 and taught him how to grow rice according to the square method, where rice is planted in single seedlings in squares to encourage better root production. With the money earned from his harvest, Steven, who is the youngest of seven, has been able to pay to go to secondary school. He now hopes to finance his university studies so that he can become a lawyer and to help his siblings’ children attend school.  “SAT has allowed me to attend school and I will make sure that SAT will allow my brothers’ and sisters’ children to go to school. Soon after my exams, I will go to my siblings and train them practically in their farms.”  

The training has also clearly transformed 26-year-old Frank Gama’s life. He and his wife earn enough money from growing vegetables and rearing chickens that they can afford to pay for hospital care for his sick father and to help Frank’s siblings. The training has given Frank a thirst for new knowledge and he has become a SAT ambassador, determined to encourage other young Tanzanians to attend training sessions to change their lives too. “Many people of my age assume that agriculture is not a decent activity. I saw many people benefitting from SAT so I applied and got the chance and now I am leading a better life.” 

Research has shown that on average, income increases by 284% because of increased crop yields following training. This extra money means that more children can attend school, and many communities are using the money to invest in pre-schools. In Tanzania, Mlaseo Nursery now has 28 students and has established its own vegetable garden to help ensure sustainability and to feed the children a nutritious breakfast and lunch. 

When I was young, we had a school garden to teach students the basics of growing plants. There is nothing quite like hands-on experience for learning practical skills. That’s another reason why Schools for Life are creating food forests and farms. They provide food to feed students, extra income to support the school, and at the same time teach students marketable skills for the future. 

Small Loans 

Another means of empowering communities is through the provision of small loans. I first heard about microfinance at school during a class on inequality. I learnt how hard it is to access capital if you don’t have any collateral, and how lenders take advantage of the poor to charge exorbitant interest rates that keep the borrowers trapped in debt. COCO’s small loans range from £20-175 and are repaid over six months. They enable the receiver to set up a small business such as a shop or restaurant, or to invest in livestock. 

Since it began in 2007, the small loans programme has distributed 10,514 loans in Tanzania and 145 in Kenya. The success of the scheme can be seen in the 50% increase in income after only six months. It’s hard to believe that a loan of just £20 can transform a family’s prospects! 

Most of the loans are given to women, and it’s exciting to see their growth in confidence and independence as a result. Single mother Editha used her loan to set up a tailoring shop to make women and men’s clothes. The business is doing so well that she hopes to expand it and buy more sewing machines to set up needlework classes. Some communities remain deeply patriarchal: women work in the home or in agriculture, rather than in the formal sector, and with limited education and no access to collateral, there are few opportunities to set up a small business. Through her small loan, Editha feels empowered and wants to spread the message to her community: “Women are not weak. Trust us because we can!”   

Another single mother, Grace, used her loan to purchase dry foods to sell and has now doubled her monthly income. As a result, she can afford to send all three children to Mercy Primary School. Research has shown that when women increase their income, they use it to invest in their children’s futures. Grace is clearly proud of what she has achieved “After my loan, I am able to provide for my family as a single parent. I take sole responsibility. I am a role model for other women in the community.” 

Of course, it’s not easy to become an entrepreneur overnight, and that’s why COCO’s partners invest time in training applicants on how to prepare business proposals. Children and parents at Schools for Life are also learning valuable entrepreneurial skills through involvement in income-generating activities such as food forests, tuck shops and maize-grinding mills. Giving children early experience in such activities teaches valuable business skills and the importance of sustainability. 

Once again, the focus on sustainability is key. Thanks to the full repayment rate of 99.99%, COCO small loans are available for more families to borrow, empowering more communities to lift themselves out of poverty. 

My research into COCO and its partners’ work with communities in East Africa has both inspired and humbled me. The stories of children and adults being empowered to change their futures show what’s possible with a little help at the right time, together with a lot of individual determination. By helping more children get an early start in life through nursery education and joining the dots all the way to adults learning how to increase crop output or become an entrepreneur, COCO and its partners are changing lives now and for the future. 

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