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What Malawi has taught me

There are a number of values that go beyond international borders and cultures. The rule of law, freedom of expression or even an appreciation of chocolate are often sited, but from recent experience the need for and value of sound financial management is also on that list.

I achieved that experience in September, during a placement in Malawi, as a pro bono accounting volunteer with the Kusamala Institute of Agriculture and Ecology (‘Kusamala’). The placement was arranged by Accounting for International Development, a social enterprise who place accounting professionals with organisations around the world.

In Malawi

Permaculture (the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient) is at the heart of all that Kusamala do. It is about helping farmers and families make the most of the facilities they have, creating a sustainable way of living and maximising the resources available. In its 7 year history, despite Kusamala being a relatively small organisation with limited funding, it has made a difference to thousands of farmers and their families across Malawi and there is a real passion to expand further, to reach the whole country.

Fundamental to achieving that growth was the ability to access accurate, timely financial information. The purpose of my placement was to provide assistance to Kusamala’s administrator and finance staff, with the main focus being the implementation of a new electronic accounts package, to improve financial management and control throughout the organisation.

Previously, Kusamala had been using a package that, although an adequate way of recording transactions, could not deliver reporting information in a format that was relevant to the organisation. The transition to the new system required, operationally, a transfer of data and training the finance team. Also needed, and fundamental to success of the new system, was the creation of a reporting structure that produced information in a more meaningful, tailored format. This in turn provided management with quality, timely information to easily monitor the financial results of the organisation, to make quicker, better decisions and to plan for the future.

The financial management challenges facing Kusamala and other such organisations in Malawi will be familiar to many small and medium sized businesses and organisations in Northern Ireland. This assisted greatly with the aim of the project itself, which was to share the benefit of local experience and develop the appropriate framework on location.

Coming back home

What I had not anticipated however, was the valuable lessons that were learned from establishing a financial management framework in an environment where resources are limited, communication networks are less reliable and data capture is less efficient. The fundamental principle of compiling meaningful, relevant reporting from the information available certainly required alternative approaches and some thinking ‘outside the box’, learnings which I have brought home with me and local businesses could benefit from.

Whilst I am back home in Northern Ireland now, it is always a privilege to be able to contribute in a small way to the work that is happening in Malawi and I will continue to assist from afar.