Friday, May 8, 2015

Malawian Of The Moment: Bobby Joe Mlongoti

Ask any Peace Corps volunteer who knows their stuff to show you around Mzuzu, and they will without fail end up showing you around The Greenshop Foundation, a Malawian ran storefront that provides unique fruits, vegetables, coffee, cakes, snacks as part of the store front and also offers training for disabled community members. The Greenshop Foundation is set amongst a lush garden where its founder Bobby Joe Mlongoti grows much of the produce on sale. Bobby is one of my favorite members of the Mzuzu community and I always stop by to say hello.

In its new location, set on one of the busier and underdeveloped (but growing) back streets and facing a slew of small businesses, the Greenshop is a pillar of peace and quiet. As you walk onto the lot you are greeted by beautiful border plantings and wonderful landscaping. A big open hallway on the right of the building leads to the back garden.

Signs along the way indicate you will find seedlings for sale and that chocolate cake is the special desert of the day. Others have the sign language alphabet posted and indicate that this is a vocational center for the disabled (more on that later).

Inside there are rows of local produce bordered by jam and baobab coffee that is made right here in the store. The variety of colors in the room reflect a diversity of fruits and vegetables that are rarely found elsewhere in the city markets.

A table is covered by books with titles like ‘The Permaculture Garden’, ‘East African Agriculture’, and ‘Back Garden Seed Saving’. Even the toilets are unique - they face chalkboards where people are encouraged to scribe their thoughts and praises. (Highlights include ‘The world needs more places like this’ and ‘No discrimination, let’s love each other’.

 Opened late 2014, this new setup and location is the result of years of hard work and recent collaboration with Jan and Lonneke, a couple from the Netherlands. It is a Sunday when I come to visit Bobby, and though the store is normally closed he has agreed to meet with me while he does some extra work. He leaves the shop doors open as he teaches two of his hearing impaired employees how to make Guava jam and juice for sale later in the week.

Several times during our conversation he steps aside to greet the wayward customer, curious about this new store and its purpose. He always meets them with a calm smile and happily answers all of their questions.

When he finally gets a break he sits down with me to answer my questions before showing me around the garden.

Born in 1963, now married and with 3 children, Bobby got his start in produce in 1998. He had watched at a local grocery store as people came to buy fruits and vegetables that were harder to find in the open air market.

“I thought to myself that if I could make a business of this (selling unique produce) that I could find my place in life”

He started selling fruits and veggies as a street vendor outside of that same grocery store. Over three years he developed a reputation as having some of the best produce around and was selling to tourists and many of the local lodges and resorts. In this time he started thinking ahead – in 1999 he bought a garden ~10k outside of Mzuzu where he began growing most of his goods. He also bought the land where his store currently sits in 2009.

From 2001 to 2014 he operated out of a small storefront a few hundred meters away, having been helped in setting up shop there by a German volunteer working with GTZ. In that time he was robbed twice, in 2009 and 2010. Both times were around the Christmas season and in both cases they took everything in the store except for his unique produce scale, which still sits on the sales desk at the new location.

Bobby is not shy of trying to grow new things, and since I have met him have seen him begin cultivating a variety of plants that are virtually unheard of in the region. (Currently he is excited to harvest his first asparagus, saying he has never tried it before!) His ingenuity, eagerness to learn, and willingness to try new things in his business model has paid off. In 2012 he won a prestigious award for “Best Small Medium Micro Enterprise in Africa”. After this he attracted the interest of Jan and Lonneke, who it sounds have been crucial in helping him to expand his business model, and also to build and finally move to the new location. With the help of these two he has also begun to learn about permaculture and permagardening techniques which he is applying to the store garden.

When I ask him how he views permaculture he describes it as “Better farming techniques that help with (preventing) erosion and utilizing a small space for more crops. You protect the soil so much!”

He also hopes to expand the use of this new skillset to his big garden (3 hectares!) outside of Mzuzu to establish an area of permaculture there as well. In the meantime he has also been using his growing knowledge to do community level development in a few different ways. He teaches community members near his big garden about diet diversification and conducts training sessions on improved agriculture techniques.

He really beams when he starts to talk to me about opening his new location to community members living with disabilities. He has specifically started working with hearing impaired students to help them become more productive members of society. He goes on to talk to me about how Malawian culture tends to neglect them and view the hearing impaired as useless. It is clear from our conversation that he wants to push back against this stereotype.

He has 5 students who are employed in the store, and he has classes in a large classroom at the back from 2-4 pm every day covering topics like agriculture, business, and home economics. He met the students through the local branch of the Malawi National Association for the Deaf. He chose to work with the hearing impaired first because of how segregated from society they are here, but wants to open up these services to other disabilities in the future.

As we start to wind down our conversation he takes me on a quick tour of his garden and I snapped a few photos as he points out the new plants he has growing.

I ask him what his plans are for the future.
“For now I want to just grow the business, but I hope to successful enough to expand to another city and use the resources to reach more of the deaf community”

I love it. Bobby is without a doubt one of my biggest heroes in this country.

Hope you enjoyed this installment!

For more information on The Greenshop Foundation check out this link

Use google translator on the webpage, as it is not in english.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


March started off with a bang and then just kept rolling with the goodness. I mean, I didn’t really get much work done besides Week Zero with the new volunteers, but I certainly kept busy.

Let me gush for a sec about the newbies. They are awesome – I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them and I really feel like they will do great here. The week was a bit overwhelming at times with TONS of questions being asked, but Shelby and I knew what we were signing up for. We will also get to go back for the final week and the swearing in ceremony, which will give us a bit of a before and after experience with them. It should be really cool to see how much the new volunteers change after 2 months here.
Right after seeing them through the first week in country I took some vacation time to rush down to Blantyre to meet my parents as they arrived for the start of a 6 week stay in country. I would be spending the first 2 weeks with them, giving them the lowdown on the country and guiding them up north to get a glimpse at my experience here. After that they would return to Blantyre to volunteer at an orphanage there, and take short trips into the countryside on weekends.

We spent 2 days in Blantyre and as we walked around I talked with them about the flow of life in Malawi, as well as how to stay safe and culturally appropriate.
We caught up over our first breakfast together

We also ate all the delicious food. I got spoiled rotten while they were here!
One of the cooler spots in Blantyre is the Mandala House. It is the oldest building in Blantyre (1879?) and the ground floor hosts the countries best art gallery (my humble opinion). When we got there they were just locking up the doors to close and the owner was generous enough to unlock and let us scope the place out. If you get down there ever, check it out for sure!
Street side mural on the way to Mandala house - I have not seen anything like it in Malawi!

The Mandala House - Historical location, art gallery, and restaurant

After storing their extra gear at the orphanage we hit the road on a major Malawian bus line for Lilongwe.

My parents enjoyed the views as we headed north (so did I honestly, it is the furthest south in country I have been!) and got a kick out of me buying food from street vendors out of the windows of the bus.

Best father ever?

Buying some roasted maize.

Street vendors always approach the busses trying to earn some coin.
Arrival in Lilongwe was stressful for them; they got stuck on the bus as a crowd of people heading further north boarded before they were able to disembark. Both of my very stressed parents squeezed and wiggled their way through the crowd to make it out in time!
We stayed one night in the capital before continuing north the following morning. After their experience on the bus, my mom wanted to give hitchhiking a shot – She has read a number of volunteer blogs about how ‘great’ hitching can be. It can be some of the best experiences for both travel and people, or represent the worst aspects of transport in the developing world. It is always an adventure. Fellow volunteer Ame Burk wrote best about it HERE.
We took a few hours working my father over, but eventually he broke down and agreed to trying hitchhiking. This would be my mothers first experience with hitchhiking, luckily it was a good one.
Dad practicing his hand wave, the Malawian signal for "Pick Me UP!"

Lookin' for that hitch

Nap time is the best time
It took us about 2 hours to officially get on the road, but overall the experience was awesome. Go team Ellis! (My mom did offer my hand in marriage to the first woman who gave us a ride…. I did not follow through however)
We spent 2 nights in Mzuzu to decompress from all of the travel and I showed them my favorite sights: Green Shop, the Chitenge market, Chipati Lady (mmm yummy!) etc. We stayed at Joys Place (AKA the haven of the north) and again, I ate all of the foods.
Mom took this cool picture of a woman selling her wares in the Chitenge market.
Next we went to the lake to stay at my favorite spot (so far) along the Malawian shore – Nkhata Bay. We planned for 2 nights, but it quickly turned into 4.
I relaxed by playing Bao. Bao is THE game in Malawi

The views, swimming, and weather were amazing.

Monitor Lizard!

Returning after a trip to do some Deep Water Free Solo climbing - it was flipping awesome.
Time at the lake was fantastic, a much needed vacation and a great way to mark one year. We got to meet a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers from my group and my parents had a blast talking to everyone they came across. (mom was so boisterous that she even lost her voice, refusing to give it a break as she caught a cough)
Next we made our way up to my site and home, Thazima Village. We spent 4 nights and highlights for my parents were – learning to use a pit latrine, a game drive into Nyika National Park, and a village dance party!
The dance party was particularly cool, it was put on by my village headman and good friend Mzikilla Mhone. Mzikilla and his wife Onless are the equivalent of my in country parents, and are also great friends. It was really a touching time to have mom and dad here with me to meet them and to share some food and culture.
Morning in the village.
Breakfast! The most important meal of the day.
We took some 'snaps' at the local market.

My counterpart, love this guy!

This is our serious face.

Dancing with my village headman, Mzikilla Mhone

Waiting for the celebration to start.

Khunga with the parents.

Mom dancing with Grandma Mhone

Sekulu getting down with dad!
Everybody loves a dance party!

Nyika Grass on the safari.

Orchids in bloom

Bush Buck checking out someone's laundry

After almost 2 weeks it was sad to see them go. They made their way back south from Mzuzu to Blantyre in one very long day of bus travel. We have been chatting a few times a week as they relay their experiences in the south and it sounds like the time here has left a profound imprint on them. I had a blast and was super excited that they got a firsthand glimpse of what my life is like here in The Warm Heart of Africa! Now who wants to visit me next?!