'Hardworking, dedicated and amazing" Our Malawian Entrepreneurs

An Interview With Our Photographer

Recently our award winning international development photographer, Adam Dickens and his assistant, Lizi, visited Malawi. We thought we'd take the opportunity to hear about their experiences, learn more about our Malawian entrepreneurs and show you some exclusive photos. 

Deki Microfinance

What was the aim/purpose of your trip to Malawi? What did you hope to achieve? 

ADAM: Deki provide micro-finance to clients in the Nkhata Bay North region of Malawi. The purpose of my trip was to visit as many of these clients as possible, to photograph them with their businesses and families and to show the positive impact that the Deki loans are having in one of the poorest countries in the world. This was my second trip for Deki, I visited their clients in Northern Uganda last July, you can read more about that trip here. 

LIZI: To make the most of the opportunity of having two people visiting the field, Deki asked if I could interview each of the entrepreneurs that Adam photographed with the aim of building a story around them and gain a better understanding of the impact that the loans are having on their lives and how their businesses are progressing so that they can show the Deki lenders how amazing their loans are.

Deki Malawi

Was the trip successful? Did you achieve everything you needed to?

ADAM: I was really pleased with how this trip went - I took over 12,000 photos and usually edit around 10%, so I was able to provide Deki with around 1,000 high resolution photos covering a diverse range of clients, children and locations. With no cost to the charity. I ran a crowdfunding campaign last year to help pay for 4 trips in 2015. I was blown away by the support that I got from my donors, who between them contributed over £10,000 to my project, which has meant that I can do 5 trips and visit the work of 6 charities. This was trip 3 of 5. 

LIZI: I think we exceeded our expectations and with the support of Deki’s field partners, Temwa, we visited over 50 entrepreneurs in just 5 days. The schedule was intense at times as all parties involved had travelled long distances in order to be able to meet, often at a central meeting point. This also meant they had to wait until it was their turn and we had to be efficient with the time.  

LIZI: Part of our brief was to take pictures in their homes and businesses so Adam and I often had to juggle the time to get both the stories and photographs we wanted, but we achieved it and worked well as a team. Although the schedule did mean that it was difficult to take as many photos as I had envisaged, it was a real privilege and opportunity for me to be able to speak to each of the entrepreneurs and have a glimpse into their lives.

What was Malawi like to work in? Did it meet your expectations?

ADAM: It exceeded my expectations - I was working with Lizi, a good friend of mine, and between us we were able to photograph and interview over 70 clients, and I had complete freedom to photograph. I have been travelling to remote projects around East Africa for the past 6 years, and, as always, the local partner team were very accommodating of my requests. 

LIZI: I have great memories of the stunning landscape and people who always welcomed us with big smiles and generosity.  Upon arrival in Malawi, we were told that Malawi is known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’ and this was definitely my experience. The only apprehension that I had was being a vegan in Africa and because of this I did take a supply of cereal bars and nuts! We ate amazingly well whilst we were there and it didn’t prove a problem at all as the Malawians don’t actually eat a lot of meat, mainly because of the expense,  but eat a lot of maize, potatoes and vegetables. 

What were the difficulties faced while working in Malawi? 

ADAM: There are the usual transport challenges in Malawi, with one road to Usisiya on the lakeside which you really need a 4x4 to travel on, and some of the communities along the Lake Malawi shoreline are only accessible by boat, and the weather can change suddenly (more on that later!)

LIZI: We had to travel quite long distances often on unsurfaced roads to meet the clients which perhaps impacted on our time with them. Another week would have been perfect! The one and only road from Mzuzu to Usisya was particularly challenging although our driver was skilled at avoiding the worst potholes. 

Deki Microfinance

ADAM: Keeping my web business running whilst I’m away is also a challenge, and I worked very long hours - out in the field visiting clients all day, organising the photos from that day into catalogues in my photo software (lightroom) to make it easier when I come to editing after the trip, then working through emails and building websites late into the night. I do love the flexibility that I have with my work - one day I’m working from an airport lounge, the next from within a mosquito net trying not to get Deet on my macbook screen!

ADAM: The speed (or lack of speed) of the internet can be frustrating, but I took a wifi dongle and loaded it with data, so I was connected for pretty much the whole trip. This was useful for GPS logging, and I know the exact location of every photo I took.

ADAM: Clean water is a challenge in Malawi, but I took a LifeStraw with me (water filter built into a water bottle) and was able to fill up for some slightly dubious sources but still have pure water. 

Which entrepreneur/person that you met inspired you the most?

LIZI: There were so many entrepreneurs that inspired me that it is difficult to just pick one! I think the women work incredibly hard and in many cases had sole responsibility to care and provide for their families, often because their husbands had passed away. Elizabeth Kondewe, a widow who I met in Ruarwe and who supports two grandchildren that live with her, told me that since the death of her husband she is only surviving because of the Deki loan.  Rather than one particular person, I think it was their spirit of resilience and determination to work for a better present and future for themselves, their families and communities as a whole that will make a lasting impression on me. Some of the clients have more vision than others to develop their businesses, perhaps diversifying and setting up further businesses, whilst others are concentrating on day to day success and having enough to meet their family’s basic needs.

LIZI: Recently, I read a very simple but profound quote which spoke to me and made me stop and think about the people I met in Malawi. It read, ‘Enough is a feast.’ With the support of Deki and Temwa the people that I met are working incredibly hard to have ‘enough’ to feed their families and send their children to school, thus improving their lives and greatly increasing their opportunities. It was apparent that to them this was indeed a feast! 

What hardships do our entrepreneurs face when setting up their businesses?

LIZI: The entrepreneurs that I met all live in remote areas of Northern Malawi and one challenge that struck me are the long distances they travel on challenging roads to sell their products, sometimes travelling on overcrowded public transport but also on foot or bicycle. In addition, if travelling by public transport, they not only pay for themselves but there is an additional charge for their goods, which obviously reduces their profits.

LIZI: Also, often before taking out the loan, the entrepreneurs do not have enough capital to make a success of their business. For example, if growing crops, they may not have enough money to buy fertilizer to improve the quality of the soil or simple equipment like watering cans.

Deki Malawi

How have Deki loans helped this?

LIZI: Many of the entrepreneurs said that the loans were manageable with regard to repayment and that most entrepreneurs had profited from taking them out. In some cases the loans enable them to buy the extras that they need in order to make their business a success and increase their profits. 

What is your best memory from the trip?

ADAM: Being caught on a very windy and choppy Lake Malawi in a small fishing boat, watching 15lbs of camera equipment rolling from side to side of the boat was definitely a stand out moment, although I wouldn't say it was a very good memory, especially as I can’t swim (is it too late to learn at 44?)  Even the boat crew were silent on that journey, and one of them told me afterwards that this was what ‘gave them courage’.

LIZI:  It was definitely exhilarating if not a bit scary at the same time!

And your best memory Lizi?

LIZI: Again it is difficult to pin down one single memory as the best, but one highlight for me was photographing the children, who were always there to greet us with enthusiasm and big smiles, especially if they spotted our cameras. They loved having their pictures taken and even did some of their own filming with the GoPro camera. They were incredibly confident around us and on the last day one little girl, who must have been about 5 years old, grabbed my hand and my heavy camera bag and insisted on carrying it for me.  

ADAM: There were a lot of great memories from this trip: watching the stars at night by Lake Malawi; spending time with the kids on the beach in Usisiya; churning up huge amounts of road in the 4x4 as we powered up from the lakeshore to the uplands (not so good for the Temwa staff who were in the back of the truck or our suitcases, which came away completely caked in dust!)

What is your favourite photo from the trip?

ADAM: There are so many, but probably my favourite photo from the trip is of a lady we met in Usisiya, who got very animated when she realised I was filming her. She was so happy that were were there and were taking an interest in their community. Here’s the photo, and you can watch the video here: https://vimeo.com/130923708

Deki microloan

ADAM: I also love the photo below. I am always respectful of the people I am visiting and try to capture their personality in my images. I have met some amazing characters who have led very difficult lives. You can tell just by looking into her eyes that life has been tough, but the loans that her community are able to take are really helping to change lives.

Deki Microfinance

What did our entrepreneurs and field partners think of you?

ADAM: We got on really well with Maria and Jericho (Temwa Staff) who were an amazing help to us during the trip. We did work them hard, so they were probably relieved when it was time for us to go and they could have their lives back again! I don’t think they completely understood just how many photos I would be taking, but they understood once I had a few edited that I could show them.

Anything else?

ADAM: I think they found some of my ways a bit odd - my special silver tipped teabags from Sri Lanka which travel with me everywhere, for example! And our obsession with curry - The ‘Red Chilli’ in Mzuzu near the Temwa office serves a particularly good 'Chicken Carry' (and as for the Sweet Balls..)

How would you describe our Malawian entrepreneurs to our lenders?

LIZI: The entrepreneurs are hardworking and dedicated to making the most of the opportunities that the loans provide. They place great importance on being self-sufficient and being able to contribute towards their community. 

LIZI: Every single person that we spoke to is incredibly grateful for the financial support that they are receiving, which is empowering them and their families, and they recognise how access to these loans is enabling their businesses to thrive and positively change their communities. 

ADAM: As I’ve mentioned before, the entrepreneurs were so pleased that we were there and were helping Deki to fundraise to provide loans. They gave us Malawian names - mine was Adam Nyasulu, which made people laugh whenever I said it. 


Happy ending...

ADAM: One of the things I like to do (and helps people relax so I can get the most natural shots) is to learn a few local words, and on this occasion Sekelela Kwambiri means ‘Big Smiles’, which got the desired result, as you can see below:

Deki Microfinance