Global Voices: Embracing Localization


April 16, 2024

Yamba Malawi, meaning “to begin in Malawi” in Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, has proven itself to be a trailblazer in localization, which continues to be one of the most challenging, but leading, principles of global development.

Founded by OLAM individual member Melissa Kushner in 2006 with the vision of “creating a world where strong, self-reliant communities build brighter futures for children,” Yamba Malawi is a nonprofit organization that empowers adults to become more financially independent, so that they can provide for their children. It does this via a two-year program that invests in families to help them build their own businesses.

In recent years, Yamba Malawi shifted management of the organization to Malawi-based Executive Director Gertrude Kabwazi and a mostly-Malawian staff. We had the chance to speak with Melissa and Gertrude about their experience and their localization philosophy.

Melissa Kushner and Gertrude Kabwazi at Yamba Malawi Gala for Good in 2023. Photo: BFA
Q: Tell us about the decision to transfer the leadership position to a Malawi-based staff member. Did you always think that the organization should have local leadership?

Melissa: As soon as I began to work in Malawi, it became very clear to me that no matter how much time I spent there, I am an American who lives in America. The work we were doing was very nuanced; poverty is generational and complicated. It requires local solutions and people who understand the complexities involved.

So from the founding of Yamba Malawi, I knew I wanted it to be a locally-based organization. But first, we had to go through a process of growth and maturation. It was about putting the right people in positions who can make the organization sustainable. It was about program quality, doing the right thing, and asking the hard questions about who is in charge, who should be making the decisions that serve our beneficiaries - our children - in the best possible way. The answer for me was clear, it was just about how to get there.

This process has ultimately culminated in Gertrude becoming executive director - though this is certainly not the end of the journey. It is a journey we hope will continue throughout the lifetime of Yamba Malawi. I believe that doing this one-step-at-a-time, and piece-by-piece is how business should be done.

Gertrude: There are very few organizations that are advancing localization. I could already tell during the interview process that this was an organization that I wanted to be associated with, and I was very excited to be with an organization that was putting the theory of localization into practice.

A Yamba Malawi session about saving money and planning for the future*
Q: What steps did you take to ensure a smooth transition?

Melissa: The first step we took was to localize teams working on our programs. While originally, an American staff member was running the programs that were taking place in Malawi, eventually we hired an all-Malawian staff to do that. We are now working on shifting from being an American NGO to a Malawi NGO. 

Gertrude: The process to facilitate a smooth transition to local management was very intentional. My coming in as executive director was not just a promotion, it was shifting the entire philosophy of the organization.

Once the decision was made, Melissa and I started working together with [then-executive director] Peter to redefine roles and responsibilities, and to understand who should be doing what and how the responsibilities should be shared across the organization. We have both a Malawian and a US board, who started having conversations and co-leadership meetings.

Program participant Marbel Salamba at her newly launched snack stand. She uses her increased profits to provide regular, healthy meals for her children and plan for their future*
Q: What were some of the challenges of the localization process?

Gertrude: One of the most challenging issues we’ve faced is having both a Malawian and US board. We have to make decisions with both boards and then come together to make final decisions. We’ve been having, and will continue to have, conversations about how to manage them both more efficiently. We need the Malawian perspective, but at this point, we also need the opportunities, resources, and funds that we receive from the US and the rest of the world.

Melissa: As we undergo this process, I have been asking myself if having multiple boards was a necessary step or whether we could have merged into a global board right away. Even with the difficulties we have encountered, I realize that this stage [having two boards] is critical. It has given us time to understand what the Yamba Malawi board (or boards) should look like, and what the goals should be.

We now know that we do want one global board that will include experts from all over the world. We have also come to the realization that the only staff members who need to be in the US are development and fundraising professionals.

Program participant Overton Frackson showing his daughter Sophie his farming business*
Q: What lessons have you learned? What advice would you give to other organizations who are looking to localize and to empower local leaders?

Melissa: We are operating on a big time difference, we have technical issues, we have cultural differences related to money, work, and relationships. There are moments when we approach things differently, and we need to be able to pause and ask each other: “What do you actually mean?” 

But, we have managed to discover our common ground, and have developed a dialogue and a trust that allows us to be vulnerable with each other. 

This process has not been without its challenges, but the lesson I’m coming away with is that now, I cannot imagine doing business any other way, and that feels good. To me this is the right way to proceed in this space. I am proud of Yamba Malawi and of this process, and that we took up this issue and were willing to have difficult conversations along the way.

I will just add that the political wheel of your leadership is the special sauce that will determine success. Gertrude allows all of us at the table to have conversations that people in other organizations wouldn’t be willing to have. She came into this role with so much honesty and vulnerability, and her leadership has been instrumental. 

Gertrude: Good communication is crucial for this process. There were points that were very sensitive, but you can’t go into this process without talking about those issues and being open and honest with each other.

In addition, you must invest resources into the process, and must pay attention to how you are building capacity.

Ultimately, it’s great to have good intentions, but in order to turn those intentions into something tangible, it must be a very deliberate process. You must come up with frameworks to guide that process, and to understand what steps you need to take to turn the theory of localization into practice.

Program participants from Mangochi, Malawi participating in a community bank building their savings and investing in their family's futures*

*Photos: Yamba Malawi