Mozambique: One Year After Cyclone Idai
by Mary Pat McVay
A few weeks ago, I spoke to my colleagues Doreen and Melba to get an update on the COVID-19 situation in Mozambique and see how they were coping and adapting. We chatted about the teenagers the three of us have at home, what kind of virtual learning they are engaged in, and how much time they should be allowed on social media with friends. Then Doreen said, “It’s good to hear from you. We’ve been so worried about you all over there. We pray for your health and safety every day.” My heart warmed from her kind words—it was a reversal of what I conveyed to them a year ago, in the aftermath of a different disaster, Cyclone Idai.
Doreen and Melba lead a program called Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture in Mozambique. We call it PEMA—an acronym of its Portuguese name. Opportunity and International Development Enterprise (iDE Global) collaborate on this program, implementing innovative solutions to help women engage in and benefit from commercial agriculture. We work through community-based microenterprises and lead farmers who sell inputs (e.g. seed and fertilizer) and equipment, train other farmers, and take crops to market. We call them “farm business advisors” (FBAs). Thanks to deals negotiated by the program, the FBAs can help farmers acquire inputs and access lending, when there are otherwise few alternatives. By proactively targeting women and customizing training to meet their needs, we’ve been able to recruit and train men and women to be FBAs and also reach many more women than similar programs are able to. We also integrate gender equality messages throughout the program to engage both men and women in the process of challenging gender roles to benefit the farm and the family. This program has been a great opportunity for me to facilitate learning across African countries and partners, bringing lessons to Mozambique, and helping to inform Opportunity’s approach to gender in Agriculture Finance. Smart leaders, cutting edge work, and making a difference—this is my idea of fun!
Whenever we are able to help others learn, we learn too. My Mozambican colleagues have shared how the capacity-building work we do in agricultural markets creates a network of leaders who are ready to respond to not only market opportunities, but also disasters. I witnessed this in March 2019 when southern Africa was hit by the violent Cyclone Idai, causing unprecedented damage. My first reaction was fear. Stefano, iDE’s country director, made sure staff were safe, got emergency supplies in, and kept us updated. Still, when I finally heard from Doreen, I was so relieved. “I’m so glad to hear from you,” I said. “I’ve been so worried. I pray for your safety every day.”
I’m so glad to hear from you, I’ve been so worried. I pray for your safety every day.Mary Pat McVay
Shortly thereafter, the photos and numbers and stories started pouring in: 250,000 houses damaged or destroyed, 1.8 million acres of crops destroyed, family members washed away in the middle of the night, thousands missing, unmeasurable psychological trauma. Altogether 3 million people were affected, 1.9 million of whom were in Mozambique. I felt so powerless and so far away. I updated Opportunity leaders, and we prayed together, but Opportunity does not typically operate as a relief organization, so I wasn’t sure if we could help physically. However, generous members of the Opportunity community donated funds without our even asking, and I was given a job: find a high-impact way for these donations to help. iDE made a plan for how to reestablish farms that included relief for farmers. We decided Opportunity’s smaller fund could best be targeted to the FBAs to rebuild their houses and their businesses so that they could get back to serving farmers as soon as possible. I felt tremendous relief to have a way to help.
In January 2020, I was able to visit Mozambique to hear how the recovery was going and to kick off Year 5 of the program. We were so optimistic. Our small learning lab, which normally served 4,000 people in a year, had reached more than 20,000 farmers with relief and recovery funds. I knew the achievement came at a high cost for staff, who worked tirelessly in very rough conditions. Expecting to find staff burned out, I instead found them exhilarated, geared up for the next planting season, and already tracking 5,000 new client farmers who they enrolled in training during the emergency.
My visits with the FBAs who had received Opportunity relief and recovery funds were the most inspiring. I sat with several FBAs under a thatched verandah to hear their stories; one stood out in particular.
Flora is a 56-year-old mother of six, grandmother of 11, and leader of a farmer’s association. Through PEMA, Flora learned the business of agricultural input supply, focusing on horticultural crops such as onions, tomatoes, and green peppers. Before the storm, Flora sold her inputs in local markets from a sack on the ground and distributed them to her association on credit. At that time, her husband worked far from home and didn’t earn enough to support the family well. After the PEMA training, Flora and her husband began to plan their affairs together and involved more of the family in the business. Now, one of her daughters works for the business, keeping records. With increased income from the FBA business, Flora and her husband both opened bank accounts, built a nice house, contributed to their grandchildren’s education, and were still able to keep savings in the bank. They are making plans to purchase a tractor to use and to rent to other farmers.
The cyclone damaged Flora’s main house and destroyed two houses on the extended family compound. She lost all of her stock of agriculture inputs, which were stored in the house. The family also lost about 75% of their maize crop. “Because of the training, my family was more prepared than others around us,” Flora says, as her husband nods in agreement. “We had savings, so we were able to eat until help came. We were used to planning together as a large family. So, we gathered everyone right away, and made a plan,” she said as her eyes teared up. “Words fail to express the gratitude we feel. We were cut off from everyone, with no cell phone service. Then, Samuel from PEMA came to check on us. He risked himself, crossing running streams on his motorcycle, just to see if we were okay, and to see what we needed. He is young, but he is like a father to us. And later, Doreen called us to get our things, and we were unbelieving. I don’t have the words, but I have to say how grateful we are that you came to help us, from so far away. Without you, we had no help.”
Tears welled in my eyes. “I am also so grateful to you too,” I said, “I was far away, and my heart was breaking, knowing people here were suffering so much, and not knowing what to do. Thank you for finding a way for us to help. Without you, we had no way to help.” Together, we prayed in gratitude, for the channels that connect us, and for the privilege of being a connector.
2020 is not turning out the way we hoped, but I have faith now more than ever. I have faith that the networks we’ve established and the capacity we’ve built will help the communities we serve weather this latest storm. I have faith in the connections God has helped us to make, from donors and partners, to community leaders and farmers, and back again. These connections empower all of us.
Remember, there is someone praying for you every day.