Lauren Simonis, Director of Operations and ever-inspiration, had warned me how intense preparation for the Development Entrepreneurship Lab would be, so I was ready for the post-midnight bedtimes and 5:30 mornings with Mzuzu coffee in my cup and macadamia honey toast on my plate. It delighted us both that monkeys romped along the brick walls when the first morning birds sang, their little hands grasping stolen corn while even tinier hands of newborn little ones clung to their mothers' backs. The drive to Mzuzu University is beautiful, refreshing, full of red flame tree blooms in canopies over the only lightly lined and haphazardly paved streets. Schoolchildren in their uniforms traipse along the roadsides beside women with baskets or buckets artfully balanced on their heads, brightly patterned skirts wrapped tightly around their waists, as large white passenger vans overflow with passengers, chickens, bags of cheaply bought cast-off clothing from China, and sharply dressed businessmen heading into the city.
The first DELab that Lauren conducted in September 2015 had been a trial-by-fire pilot experience with even later nights and earlier mornings. I was lucky to be buoyed by her hard-earned wisdom as the week in March 2016 progressed. For every breath that Lauren and Wayne spent guessing how tough and long the days ahead would be, three more breaths impressed upon me the inevitable inspiring caliber of these entrepreneurs. Their desire for change reflects a shifting psychology in East Africa to find new, innovative ways to confront barriers to poverty alleviation.
The DELab is an intensive workshop where nationally-selected applicants gather for one week to work on their business proposals. Skilled instructors help the entrepreneurs develop their strategic plans so that they have comprehensive budgets, theories of change, and clean-cut business models. By the end of the week they are able to vocalize their vision and mission statement in the succinct manner that brings them closer to perfecting their own ideas. The week culminates in individual pitch presentations to local professionals, academia, and media. FTI works hard to equip these men and women with the best tools possible to make their businesses attractive to impact investors. Our emphasis on social and environmental impact is key; it is what will lead progress for this country and, ideally, all of East Africa.
During the week, instruction varies from structured talks by field experts to group exercises where the entrepreneurs share personal experiences about conquest over trials, the pursuit of dreams, or for solidarity with each other's projects. They also receive one-on-one mentorship with FTI staff. Though not each entrepreneur will become a full-fledged Fellow in the follow-up DEStudio, they all become part of the Flame Tree family. They are each able to express what they have done #withFlameTree that has irrevocably changed their life. The participants find themselves embedded with new friends that prepare cross-collaboration, continued mentoring, and growth even when times are tough. They build close relationships that forge into partnerships for brainstorming, event-planning, and business expansion. FTI participants, instructors, and staff become bonded to each other with endless support and consistent communication across nations.
The pitch presentations are inspirational. The images are still strong in my mind...A fierce woman standing at the front of the room, cycling through her powerpoint, raising her hand and declaring that she pledges to fight for the educational and health rights of girls. Her passion was greeted with an awed silence. A pair of young university students who fearlessly answer questions about their inventive improvements on modern cookstoves. Their humble smiles were returned with congratulatory admiration. A businesswoman with a full plan of interweaving shared farming solutions to create a cooperative that sustains all involved. Her thoughtfulness and composure raises cheers.
Now the Flame Tree team has completed another DELab. Another set of pioneering men and women have chosen the road less traveled in order to build a more vibrant, dynamic, and innovative development ecosystem, building on present foundations while daring new ideas to skyrocket progress for the Warm Heart of Africa. Malawi is ready for change.