"Before this grant I was waiting to die. Now I have this café, I have something to work for. I can see the future."
I have heard these words countless times over the past 10 years, since UK-based charity MondoChallenge Foundation - which provides sustainable support for education and livelihoods in Nepal, NE India and Tanzania - launched a project to help women suffering with HIV in Tanzania.
Our grants and loans programme has enabled more than 900 infected widows in the Tanzania suburbs of Arusha and Moshi to set up their own businesses to support themselves and their children.
Life for these women is tough; the husbands have died of HIV and their widows are often infected with the disease too, and may be stigmatised in their communities. The women struggle to support themselves and their children, are unable to provide adequate food, meet medical costs and pay school expenses.
The women who receive support are selected because they are HIV sufferers, have several children and an idea for a business they would like to start or expand. They are given a two-day training workshop where they choose a business, work out costs and margins and how to attract customers.
Despite their incredibly unfortunate circumstances, the optimism and hope for a better future that drives these women is utterly humbling. As soon as the women receive their grants and training we see a difference. Their attitude to life changes; they feel a part of the community again and are more positive about the future.
At the start of February, I flew out to Tanzania to meet some of the inspirational women involved in the programme. The first woman I saw, Grace Sindet, was selling bananas. One particularly charming touch was her nine-year-old son, Abdul, acting as a roaming sales agent. Carrying a large basket of bananas on his head, he was looking for trade in the nearby streets. His cheerful attitude marked him out as a future candidate on the equivalent of Dragon's Den!
We stopped off in Usa River, a flourishing town 30 miles east of Arusha. It is hugely spread out and a long dusty road stretches as far as the eye can see. Scattered dwellings are thrown together on both sides with acacia trees bringing spasmodic shade.
Squatting beside her charcoal brazier was Veronica, a recent grant recipient, whose business is grilling corn. Veronica has a steady flow of customers during the day for whom the grilled corn provides a welcome snack. It's not big business, but Veronica is happy with the way it is going. Above all, she is working, independent and manages to look after her three children better than before. It's too soon to know how it will develop but for now, Veronica is a happier woman.
Image: MondoChallenge Foundation.
Most of our small businesses are selling vegetables. One of our original recipients, Asha, sells potatoes and has built her business up impressively, selling to three large markets in the region. She started with £100 of stock and later borrowed £200 to invest in her own production.
A complete contrast was the hairdressing salon we visited in a small side street. It is run by Rachel, whose grant of £100 we authorised six months ago. Rachel has converted a smallish room into an attractive salon, with two driers and a welcoming waiting area. I liked the way she had decorated the walls with pictures of varied hairstyles.
Another woman, Hilda Joseph, runs a farm near Boma N'gombe. Hilda is still young, but was widowed three years ago. She looks after her elderly father and three small children. The eldest attends school, a 30-minute walk away. The family are in good health, and Hilda has created a secure livelihood.
She started with an £80 grant to grow and sell mangos three years ago. She still sells mangos and has 20 large trees providing a fulsome harvest.
Two years ago, she took out a loan to buy a cow. Using a local breed, tough and resilient to disease, it has enabled her to feed her three children with good milk. The original cow had two calves, one of which she sold. The two remaining cows have calved and so a steady stream of income is being produced.
I think this is an impressive story and Hilda an inspirational woman. It is a reminder of why our programme is so powerful: how else could one help a widow and her four dependents to create a sustainable livelihood with such modest investment?