The Inspiring (True) Story of Kazembe Village

15° 44' 22.4124'’ S, 35° 19' 46.4952'’ E

Question to Kazembe: “With modest cash transfers from us, would you harness local money, labor, and materials to complete development projects of your choosing?” Answer: “Hell, yes, it’s about time a NGO asked what we want!”
A man bicycles through Kazembe Village, with Chiradzulu Mountain in the background.

Welcome to Kazembe Village, a rural hamlet in the Mulanje District of Malawi. For most residents, extreme poverty is the norm. Indeed, extreme poverty is growing only in rural Africa because international aid concentrates in the urban areas, bypassing the countryside. It’s immoral and undemocratic (in Malawi, about 85% of the population lives in countryside). We created Village X Org to deliver aid in a democratic way. Turns out, it’s a lot faster, cheaper, and more effective than the status quo. Back to Kazembe.

Pictures of Kazembe Village (circa 2014).

In early 2015, we approached Kazembe with a simple question: “With modest cash transfers from us, would you harness local money, labor, and materials to complete development projects of your choosing?” The answer: “Hell, yes, it’s about time a NGO asked what we want!” Kazembe’s chief leapt into action by calling village-wide meetings and organizing a committee to plan and implement projects. Little known fact: villages are powerful democracies not because leaders are elected (they’re not), but because of the strong economic and social ties that align their interests with those of their neighbors.

Kazembe holding meetings of village residents (left) and the project committee (right).

PROJECT #1 (2015): Kazembe identified its biggest priority — clean water — and chose a locally appropriate solution — a borehole (deep well). Community members contributed $300 in cash plus labor, bricks, and sand. Partner Water Charity donated the remaining funds, and a Malawian drilling company constructed a well in less than 30 days, at half the “NGO price.”

EZ Borehole drills a clean water well in Kazembe.

PROJECT #2 (2016): Kazembe identified its second biggest priority — a nursery school to prepare young learners for elementary school (which is free in Malawi), while providing some daycare for parents to pursue productive activities, such as starting businesses and growing and harvesting crops. Kazembe contributed $100, bricks, sand, and labor, and chose the building’s layout, color scheme, and location. We crowdfunded $2,000, and, with the help of a local contractor, Kazembe’s nursery school rose from the fields.

Kazembe gathers to celebrate the opening of its nursery school.
Class in session at Kazembe’s nursery school.

PROJECT #3 (2017): Kazembe identified its third biggest priority — lack of livestock assets. Kazembe contributed $100, labor, materials, and routine upkeep to nurture the adolescent goats through adulthood. We crowdfunded $2,000, and Kazembe received 40 female goats. Why females? They produce offspring for households to share. It’s easy to find male goats for breeding.

Field officer Myson Jambo presents a goat to a Kazembe resident.
Kazembe gathers to celebrate its goat herd.

Now Kazembe has a water well, a nursery school, and a goat herd. So what?

More than good intentions. Having stuff isn’t the point. Disrupting poverty is. That’s why, every year starting in 2014, we collected data on 13 development indicators, from waterborne illness rates to kilograms of maize harvested. We then used the data to compute a composite development score. We wanted to know whether giving Kazembe cash for community-wide projects changed anything, as compared to a control group of villages. Here’s how Kazembe did (as of 2016). We’ll collect 2017 data soon.

Kazembe outperformed control villages in all categories except agriculture.

Results: During 2015 and 2016, donors invested about $8 thousand to complement Kazembe’s cash investment of $400. Kazembe outperformed control villages, posting massive reductions in waterborne illness and showing growth in business, lifestyle, education, and livestock indicators, while control villages stagnated (lower right picture above). Interestingly, we observed this divergence in subsistence farming villages, notwithstanding two bad rainy seasons that left partner villages like Kazembe performing, on average, as badly as control villages in terms of agricultural output.

Due to flooding and drought, partner and control villages struggled with agricultural output in 2015 and 2016.

Takeaway: in extreme poverty villages, a little bit of money goes a long way and progress is possible absent gains in agricultural output. In terms of basic development, villages seem to know what they’re doing. How? In a word, democracy (actually, two words — micro democracy). According to Professor Ann Swidler, village chiefs succeed in coordinating the provision of collective goods (whereas other authorities not grounded in local cultural traditions and practices fail), because “most chiefs try to govern by consensus, and chiefs who behave in selfish, corrupt, or morally reprehensible ways can be deposed.” Indeed, “villagers in many parts of Africa in fact prefer chiefs to legislators or government officials and repose more trust in them.”

400 million people suffer in extreme poverty in rural Africa. Many of them live in cohesive and democratic villages. Let’s partner with those villages, transfer cash to them for development projects, and collect local impact data. As aid money in Africa disproportionately flows to projects in or around urban areas, extreme poverty grows in rural villages. We can and should do better. Kazembe Village is a harbinger of what’s possible across the continent.

By Mike Buckler, CEO & Founder, Village X Org. Mike received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and a JD from Duke University. Before and after serving as a Peace Corps teacher in Malawi, Mike practiced intellectual property law, specializing in international trade and patent litigation. After founding Village X, he earned a MPP from Princeton University, focusing on international development and quantitative analysis.