A Lutheran layman goes to Africa

Paul Bolstad



What happens when a Lutheran layman from Hastings is persuaded by his pastor to take a mission trip to Tanzania and then sees something that will change his life?

For this Lutheran layman, it meant setting up a non-profit organization, which brings a special kind of knowledge to poor Tanzanian farmers. This knowledge changes their way of thinking about agriculture and their way of life. For generations, Tanzanian farmers looked at agriculture only as a way to survive. Now they were encouraged to think as businessmen…to make their small farms thriving businesses.

To do this required a change in “mentality” to recognize the potential of their good soils, wonderful climate and markets (especially the markets). Farmers in Tanzania (and Africa) rarely think of markets like those in the western world. After listening to many farmers, this Lutheran layman realized that many farmers would be willing and able to increase their output if there was only a market for their produce. In fact, a marketing system is what was missing. This marketing system which could help preserve and store their crops, transport them safely and economically to market, negotiate with buyers for good prices and then ensure that the resulting profits ended up in farmer’s pockets, not siphoned off in the pockets of corrupt cooperative officials. None of these things were available to farmers in this area of Tanzania. As a result, farmers were continually discouraged and dispirited at the prospect of improving their lives. Simply ramping up production without a way to sell crops at a good price just didn’t make sense.

Enter Ray Menard and the non-profit organization he set up in Minnesota called Cheetah Development. This organization’s mission is to develop businesses in Tanzania, which addressing problems like the missing marketing system. Ray’s first business, Pearl Foods, is a for-profit agricultural company designed to link farmers to agricultural inputs, provide agronomy training and, most importantly, create a marketing system.

Now these farmers are able to double, treble and quadruple their incomes and have money for school fees, medical care, housing improvements, clean water in their villages and much more.  Putting money in the hands of poor farmers that they earn through working hard, well, this is the stuff of rising up out of poverty permanently.

The saying is now famous: give a man fish and he will eat for a day but teach a man to fish and he will eat every day. How about buying his fish for a good price so that he can prosper? Cheetah takes this saying to heart – partnering with farmers in a real business venture, which enable them to prosper respects their human dignity. This is sustainable development…not development that is dependent on a continuous flow of charity.  What a concept!

So, a Lutheran layman is bringing a small rural revolution to the Iringa area of Tanzania.  One man’s experience in US business startups for over 30 years is changing lives in a whole new way. A new way of thinking is needed to break the poverty trap and for this Lutheran layman – the answer is clear: Buy fish and begin prosperity. Follow the story as it unfolds day by day at www.cheetahdevelopment.org

My wife, Shirley, and I have been members of the Rockford community for many years; our three children all attended Rockford High School. We have been members of Our Father’s Lutheran since the early nineties. Ray Menard was referred to me by good friend, Kjell Bergh, is the “Tanzanian consulate” for the government of Tanzania for the upper Midwest. I then wrote to Ray of my long interest in Africa and poverty (being a former missionary and Peace Corps Volunteer) and, after studying what Ray had written on the Cheetah Development website, I asked what I could do to help and he suggested that I arrange an invitation for him to come to my church.

Ray made a tremendous impression at his first visit and a number of our members are now enthusiastic supporters of Ray’s work with Cheetah Development. He has come to our church three times and will return to speak on Sunday, June 23 at the 9 a.m. service and stay for questions after.

In 2011, I was able to visit one of the sites where Cheetah is working in the Iringa area of Tanzania.  I can verify that the work Ray is doing is “ground-breaking” in that it deals with the very most fundamental problems of poverty in a comprehensive way, emphasizing how successful businesses—focusing on agriculture, food preservation, processing or any other area of need— can be a permanent solution to poverty.