Sr. Edna Himoonde, a member of the Religious Sisters of the Holy Spirit (RSHS) in Zambia’s Monze Diocese envisions a school tucked on the edge of a fruit-tree orchard. At this school, children from poor backgrounds in Western Zambia will use their time outside class to get practical knowledge in growing crops and rearing animals.
The school will be named James Corboy Secondary School, Sr. Edna has already decided together with two other members of the Congregation. The three Sisters are working on a project dubbed Emerging Framers Initiative (EFI) aimed to eradicate poverty through education in the Southern African nation.
It is an idea that the three Sisters had in mind when they joined the Sisters Blended Value Project (SBVP), the first ever project of its kind in Africa aimed at transforming Religious Sisters into social entrepreneurs.
“What I have in mind is a very beautiful school where students will learn surrounded by beautiful fruit trees and domestic animals. But it isn’t just about the beauty. I also envision a place where children will change their mindset about employment after school,” Sr. Edna told ACI Africa on Wednesday, December 9.
The institution, she continued, “will be a place where the students will implement the knowledge gained in school to start income generating activities of their own once they sit their final examinations.”
“We wish to change the mindset that agriculture is for school-dropouts and those who did not excel in their academics. We want to have a group of alumni who will come back 10 years from now to give back to the school from the proceeds they get from farming,” she explained.
All students at the school will be required to take agricultural sciences, complete with a curriculum on modern farming practices, at all stages of their education.
The Sisters embarked on their project in March last year after attending an orientation workshop that was organized by the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa (ACWECA) in collaboration with the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship based at Santa Clara University in the U.S.
At the workshop that was attended by Sisters from several other Religious Congregations in the ACWECA region, the Sisters were taken through topics such as theories of change, social value creation, value chains, and partnership strategies, among others.
The workshop was designed to help the Sisters grow in their understanding of social entrepreneurship, distinguish social enterprise from charity approach, and learn how to develop their own entrepreneurial initiatives.
On coming back from the workshop, the three members of RSHS sought permission from the leadership of their Religious Order to convert a building that was not in use at the Congregation’s premises for a school.
“We requested to use an unoccupied convent to be a boarding facility for 20 girls from a primary school belonging to the Congregation. The girls stayed in the boarding house for five months and only went away when schools closed due to COVID-19,” Sr. Edna explains, adding that the boarding facility, which is a pilot project for the proposed James Corboy Secondary School resumed two months ago.
While managing the boarding facility, the Sisters who have a background in Business Administration, Finance and Sustainable Development Goals started the EFI project by establishing an orchard on which they planted 200 plants of different fruits. These include mangoes, oranges, tangerines, avocadoes, guavas, bananas, papayas, lemons and lime.
The Sisters also constructed a chicken coop that houses 1,000 birds and put up a piggery and three fishponds at the farm. A second poultry structure is also nearing completion at the venture, which sits on some 10 acres of land donated by their Congregation.
The three members of RSHS who have attended a training on poultry farming went ahead to propagate the seedlings, which they planted at the farm. They have also facilitated the training of two youth from the community who take care of the farm with the help of extension officers.
The Sisters’ idea was to work towards eradication of poverty through education, hence the pitching of the school project. But without enough resources to start a school, they started with the EFI project, which they aim to incorporate in the school once it’s up and running.
“The agriculture project will be a department of the school. In three to four years, the school will be up and running and EFI will be a huge component of our operations,” says Sr. Edna, the project Coordinator.
Before the commencement of the school, the EFI project is targeting local youth and school dropouts who are equipped with modern farming skills to tackle farming challenges that have been brought about by the change in rainfall patterns in Zambia.
The RSHS member says that the shortage of rains has led to reduction in farm yields for the locals who are mainly practice subsistence farming.
“This part of the country used to be known as the greenbelt of Zambia as it produced a lot of food that fed the rest of the country. But things have changed. Rain is scarce and there have been lengthy dry seasons. Production had gone down terribly in the past 10 years,” says Sr. Edna.
According to the Zambian-born Sister, farmers have been unable to adjust to the adverse climate patterns and still rely on the rain to water their crops.
They also keep large herds of cattle mainly for ornamental purposes and are usually unwilling to engage in business.
“People keep a lot of cattle for prestige and to maintain a high status in the community. They find it difficult to sell, say two cows to purchase a farm tool,” she says and adds, “It is this mindset that we are trying to change from as early as possible. The children who go through our school will disseminate the knowledge they gain to the rest of their family members.”
The three sisters have partnered with a popular distributor of agricultural produce in Southern Zambia, which will help in the marketing of their EFI produce. The target market is also local community members who will buy from the farm directly.
Sr. Edna shares the goodwill the project enjoys from the local community saying, “The people around are very happy. They talk about the development that the Sisters project will bring in the community as well as the high moral value that will be inculcated in their young people. I think they trust us that much.”
Equally supportive are RSHS leaders who Sr. Edna says have “immersed” themselves in the project. The leadership of her Congregation, she says, understand the concept and are journeying with the three Sisters in its implementation.
Also working for EFI is the fact that the project’s activities are aligned to the charism of the Congregation including “providing options for the poor,” she says.
However, the three Sisters who have full time apostolates are forced to juggle between their services and the EFI project. The project’s Secretary is a full-time hospital Administrator while the Supervisor is a school Administrator. Sr. Edna, on the other hand, forms Novices of her Congregation.
The three Sisters who stay in separate places, separated by 22 and 160 kilometers, have also to travel long distances to attend meetings in which they plan the running of the project.
“It is not easy,” Sr. Edna says of the highlighted challenges, and adds, “But there is a lot of joy in doing it. The work is very demanding, which requires a lot of sacrifice and commitment.”
In her advice to those looking to venture into the new Sisters’ project, Sr. Edna says, “Settle on something that is aligned to the charisma of your Congregation and something that you all love doing. But above all, be willing to work as a team that understands each other.”
She advises Catholic Sisters to also work with available resources in starting their enterprises and to “avoid unnecessary loans.”