An interview with Maria Kameta, Seed Prize Winner 2022

Maria in conversation with Millie from The Iris Project

Maria, it’s been almost a year since you won the prize. How are you, and how is The Mudzi Cooking Project going?

Everything is great. Thank you, Millie! I’m doing so well. As you guessed, my project has been good. It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve gained new skills through my project. With the funding from The Iris Project, I’ve been able to reach out to many people to construct cooking stoves and briquettes. We’ve been training youths as well as community members. It’s really, really great. My people in Chisinga now have knowledge about climate change, and also, with a little bit of funding, it’s brought us hope. Before this, people in my community felt left out and angry. They didn’t think anyone would come and help them. People stopped respecting the environment. My project has selected the most vulnerable people, the people most affected. With the funding, I went to them to help them with better, more sustainable opportunities for their livelihood. 

How many cooking stoves have you constructed now?

More than 1000! 

I remember when you won the prize, you sent me a message a few weeks later saying, “Hi Millie, I just wanted to let you know that I’m having a baby next week!” Now we have baby Michelle. How has it been for you to become a mother for the first time and run a project like this for the first time?

You know what, I would have said it would have been hard, but I’ve had amazing support on the ground level. If I’d been working alone, it would not have been easy. Actually, I need to say thank you to The Iris Project for the idea and the support you gave me in building a team. That was so amazing! If I were alone, I don’t think I could have achieved the project’s objectives. I had to attend to baby Michelle as my priority. Unfortunately, I couldn’t complete the CoalitionWILD training because of childcare responsibilities, but I’m glad to be able to attend the course again next year. If I didn’t have people constructing the stoves and people involved, if it weren’t for the maternity support you gave me, there is no way I could have achieved what I’ve achieved and looked after Michelle the way I have.

Maria, if you had to think about some of your challenges, what would you say were the most significant? 

In the Chisinga community, there are many women. Every household has a woman inside that house. When we came up with the project idea, everyone was interested. To tell you the truth, everyone was impressed. Everyone was expecting to have access to the briquettes, as well as the stoves. Seeing them happy and seeing them excited made the selection process so difficult. Because in the beginning, I had to choose the households that received a stove and briquettes. Everyone wanted one, but I couldn’t provide everyone with one. That was challenging. Luckily, it’s no longer a problem because now I’ve received additional funding from The Iris Project, and I can now help every woman in the community.

Maria, I wanted to ask you about the trust-based way The Iris Project funds its prize winners. As a grantee, how has that felt? Did this work for you, or were there times you felt you needed more support and direction? 

I would say the trust-based, unrestricted way to be funded is so amazing to tell you the truth Millie. Plans need to be flexible; plans change depending on the situation on the ground. The unrestricted way of funding is so amazing because it enables me to be flexible and adapt depending on what the community needs, affecting the project’s outcome. I don’t think I would have achieved my goals without this flexibility. The trust-based and unrestricted way is helpful as it makes you think independently. You have to work things out yourself. When you see that on the ground, things aren’t working the way you’d planned with your budget, you have to be able to adjust this to help and empower the people your project is working to enable. 

How has the mentorship aspect of the prize supported your work? 

When you look at Sam, Steve and myself when we won the prize, we were all in very different positions and stages of our project development. Sam and Steve probably didn’t require as much help as I did! With me, The Seed Prize winner, the project was just an idea in my mind. I needed support. I had amazing people on the ground here in Chisinga helping me and directing me because I’d never done this before. The idea is one thing, but the implementation is something completely different. When I started the capacity-building programme with CoaltionWILD, I could ask questions and then figure out how to implement the answers with my team on the ground. The mentorship element is crucial for a Seed Prize winner. I wouldn’t have known what to do if I were alone with the funds. Whenever I needed help, I knew I could speak with you, with Ezekiel or Alanieta, I’ve never been afraid to ask questions, and you’ve always supported me no matter what. 

What advice do you have for aspiring individuals or projects in your field?

Don’t just sit and wait for someone else to come to the rescue. There is no such someone else. You have to get up, reach out to people capable of helping you. For example, with my family, I had my brothers and sisters and my mother, but our father passed away when I was young. Surviving was hard. My mother was making her livelihood from selling charcoal, and I was helping too. No one is going to come to your rescue. I always tell my fellow youths that if you have an idea, I am always here to help and guide you. You have to find your voice to share the idea. Before getting the Iris Prize grant, I almost lost hope. I was rejected so many times. Think of other available resources you might have beyond funds; think about people around you, your community. Spread the word and the message and see what comes next. When luck comes your way, grab it! 

What is the plan for next year? Are you hoping to continue growing and scaling your project?

It’s step-by-step. At first, it was my local community level – maybe 200 or 300 households. Now I’ve managed to help the whole village. I dream of something much bigger. By next year I plan to reach out to the whole district of Kasungu, which contains thousands of people. Then I want to reach out to the whole nation of Malawi – more people than you can imagine. The more people I can reach, the more people on the ground I can engage and empower, and the more people will have opportunities and jobs. I hope to reach out to people at a national level eventually. Imagine if Malawi was then no longer a country vulnerable to deforestation. If we come together and hold hands as young people, we can get people’s attention and create meaningful change.