Fire at Malawi UM Conference farm leads to loan from three US partners

May 20, 2013

An intruder started the October 2012 fire at the 19-acre farm at the Malawi United Methodist Conference Center in Mchinji. By the time the flames were doused, mulch grass had been charred and fruit trees and the irrigation system destroyed. The fire also damaged two houses and some outbuildings.

Ankeny First United Methodist Church is one of three partner congregations committed to a 50/50 In Mission Together Partnership with churches in the Malawi Mission Conference. The additional supporting congregations are Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. Together they are working alongside the Malawi United Methodist Church supporting its goal toward self-sustainability

Despite the losses, the fire did not interfere with the determination of the Malawi United Methodist leaders to make the farm profitable, able to provide support for the church, its programs and its community. Neither did the fire interfere with the church's goal to become self-sustaining, said farm manager Lester Mhone.

That goal, Mhone said, is shared by his country. "Malawi as a nation is embarked on a journey toward self-sustainability," he said. "Farms are no longer colonial English estates nor American plantations. This change in mentality generates pride in accomplishments and is a step toward financial independence for the small shareholder farmers who are the [church] farm's neighbors."

So, while there were donations from the U.S. partners In Mission Together with the Malawi church to help the farm address its immediate recovery needs, the three U.S. churches are working together to arrange making a $20,000 interest-free loan to the farm.

“The idea of a loan fits the model of making a commercial operation, which the farm is supposed to be, pay its own way,” Mhone said. “This is a lesson that is being stressed to the farm workers.”

“We have had a lot of discussions with the leadership of the Malawi church,” said Ankeny member Dennis White. “They say they do not want us to do something for them, but help them meet their goals and develop leadership.”

The successful development of the farm will be the focus of the loan, he said. And one of the resources the Malawi church needs is leadership.

“They need people trained in accounting, in how to run a farm. It’s not just hoeing and planting seeds, then harvesting; it’s about how you make a profit,” he said. That means, he said, teaching the diverse skills needed to create a profitable farm, such as accounting and marketing, to interns.

“The farm was started to generate revenue for the church in Malawi. The loan is one more part of that — and it would be great if the loan were paid back someday, but the intent is for the money to be invested back into the farm,” he said.

Mhone said the loan will enable the farm to establish solar powered-irrigation, making it possible to grow crops year-round instead of being limited to growing crops during the November-April rainy season.

“With the installation of the irrigation system, we expect to use the available land throughout the year, maximizing land use and making profits during the off-season with crops that we shall grow,” he said.

“Without irrigation,” White said, “there’s one rainy season in Malawi, so if you can grow crops that need water and you have irrigation, you can sell your crops off-season for more money.”

Each of the three U.S. churches has an individual In Mission Together Partnership with different churches in Malawi; each provides support for the conference farm. But the idea of making a loan fulfills a yearlong goal of working together strategically, said the Rev. Cayce Stapp, Coordinator of Malawi IMT Partnerships and pastor of mission outreach beyond Kansas City at the Church of the Resurrection.

The three U.S. churches are working together to arrange a $20,000 interest-free loan to the farm.The loan is a new way to partner so that the “there isn’t overlap or duplication of resources or skill sets,” Mhone said. “As we put resources in play, both human and financial, we come alongside and accompany the Malawi United Methodist Church in a way that communicates our unified sense of partnering for the empowerment of the Malawi UMC.

“The great thing about offering a loan [to the conference farm] is it communicates our mutual commitment to the self-sustainability of the Malawi UMC,” he said. “We could have offered a grant, but we choose to come together around this loan to embody the unity of our faith in the amazing capacity of the Malawi United Methodist Church, as well as unity around the empowerment that comes through mutual responsibility and accountability.

“We partnered with them to provide input and consulting as to what it would mean to open a bank account specific to this loan, and looking at what kind of projects are going to move the farm forward in terms of its capacity to produce and become self-sustaining so the loan can be repaid,” he said.

Through this type of partnership, he said, the three U.S. churches are empowering the Malawi church to transform its community by sharing Christ and serving others so that in five or 10 years, the community is independent of foreign resources. It is, he adds, a way to respect the fundamental dignity of the Malawi United Methodist Church and the Malawi people by recognizing their skills and helping them live into their vision.

“We approach this with a huge amount of humility, but our hope in the way we approach the projects and initiatives is to model for the denomination something that so clearly focused on the ministry of accompaniment, empowerment and capacity building,” Stapp said.

Learn more about the work of the General Board of Global Ministries, its ministry with the poor and opportunities to partner in mission with a global church.

The story was written by Sandra Brands