UK comedy critic Kate Copstick’s 5-star success with Mama Biashara in Kenya

Mama Biashara’s Kate Copstick

Copstick at a Maasai wedding

Comedy critic Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya, working for her charity Mama Biashara.

As well as health care projects, it helps poor people (especially women) set up their own small businesses which may give them a lift to a better life.

It relies solely on donations, including a very tiny, tiny amount each year donated by audience members at the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Copstick takes no money of any kind for herself and covers none of her own costs in running the charity. This extract from her latest diary describes her brother Geoff’s visit to Kenya.

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Geoff and I head off with Doris on our Grand Tour of Mama Biashara businesses. I should warn anyone unused to hearing me be effusive, that the next few paragraphs might seem a little strange.

Business 1 is a Great Doris Success Story.

In one store on a mudslide of a hill, there are 37 small businesses. Albeit it looks very much like a well-stocked grain store also offering eggs and chicken feed, plus kangas and household utensils (hanging outside), chapati, tea and beans mashed with green bananas (also bubbling outside).

Geoff and I drink tea, eat startlingly fresh chapati, nibble on njahi (black beans) and find out about the logistics of running this mini miracle. One rent to pay, two medical certificates and security for all. The shop is womanned on a rota and, as a business grows, it leaves and sets up on its own. A perfect business nursery. Geoff is impressed.

I barely have the words to describe how fantastic it is having Geoff there.

Enthusiastic, friendly, incredibly knowledgeable and positive. EVERYONE has said what they noticed was that he did not criticise, only gave helpful pointers. All the Mama Biashara peeps thought him fantastic.

Business 2 is the pig boys.

The pigs are healthy but kept snout-by-muzzle with a donkey, which Geoff says is not good. He also points out we should be passing through a tray to disinfect our feet when we visit them.

Business 3 is one of the dairy goat groups who currently have a problem with mastitis. At least their goats do. Geoff notices this immediately on the one goat they bring us. They have taken them to ASK (Agricultural Society of Kenya) for treatment. On the plus side, they are giving loads of milk (albeit Geoff notes that the one we are looking at is too thin and they are possibly milking her too hard) and one has already produced a kid. So their profits are OK. And the mastitis treatment is free, thanks to our deal with ASK.

Then we struggle through the mud to what is, in effect, a little urban farm.

This is Business 4 is where Geoff really transforms what Mama Biashara can do and lifts us to that aspirational place Kenyans simply refer to as “a different level”. Here again, there are three businesses sharing one plot owned (and given rent free) by the mother of one of the women. There are a couple of dairy cows (milk business), a sow with a litter of piglets and a tiny herdlet of sheep.

As we go around looking at the animals, Geoff pales. OK, he goes a slightly lighter shade of Paisley Puce (that Scottish skin still doesn’t tan well and he has been out in the sun now for 2 weeks).

The whole area has suffered severe flooding recently. The plot is muddy – really really muddy – and covered in heaps of detritus. The sun is out today and flies are everywhere. The cows are swilling about in several inches of water, dirt and poo. The sheep are squashed in a pen and the piglets have had to be lifted out of their waterlogged sty (beside mum) and kept in a loft above the cows. Meanwhile, mummy pig is up to her trotters in mud and poo. And the rain shows no sign of abating.

Very gently Geoff explains to – well, to all of us – that:

(a) the flies DO hurt the animals and something needs to be done

(b) you should never give an animal water that you would not drink yourself (and so the tub of dodgy-looking rainwater with floaters and detritus needs cleaning)

(c) different animals need to be kept apart a bit and certainly never housed above each other (although he does realise that the piglets in the loft is merely an emergency measure)

(d) having them in these flooded, muddy, pooey conditions is not acceptable. He also says (as, to be fair, I have been saying – with no effect – for years) that animals MUST have access to outside, to the sun and its healing, helping UV light. Kenyans are so security-conscious that they practice what they call ‘zero grazing’ which means keeping everything locked in a shed.

By the time we leave, we have a plan for drainage and re-building all the animal sheds apart from each other and with outside space for each. Geoff says he will e-mail me plans for these sheds and it sounds very much as if they will cost very very little being, as they are, shelters with outside spaces as opposed to solid houses for animals.

Our lady farmer is so impressed with Geoff and his advice that she actually arranges to move the animals to another, well-drained plot and is, as we speak, laying the foundations for a pigsty with open ground outside and a nice trough for eating and a separate clean tub for drinking. After the pigs, she will move the cows and then the sheep.

At Business 5, we meet a young lad who is an orphan and being looked after by his brother whom Mama Biashara set up in a water-selling business some visits ago. He scored quite highly in his exams but cannot go to school as he cannot afford the fees or the uniform.

Business 6: We go and see an old gentleman who is making fishing flies. Geoff is fascinated. He fishes too, it transpires. Is there no end to my brother’s areas of expertise?

The man is currently looking to sell to a broker (there is no real market in Kenya but they do export LOADS) who will give him pennies and make a fortune. Geoff and I do not like the sound of that.

“Cut out the middle man,” says Geoff, channelling our dad. “There’s always a better deal.”

I nod, also quoting our dad.

We huddle in the tiny house and Geoff decides that the operation will be called The Third World Flies (nice!). They already have some people in the UK asking (directly) for samples and so I will take them when I go back. Geoff whips the phone out and we establish that fishing flies will fetch the group around ten times what the broker is offering if they sell them direct.

Not far from The Third World Flies is another of Doris’s brilliant multi-business businesses.

Business 7. A store which is home to about ten separate businesses including banana selling, githeri (mixed beans and maize cooked as a snack) and the local cabbage specialist.

Business 8. Along the road is a group who have got a business space to sell hair products and accessories (Geoff spontaneously buys a hairpiece, much to the delight and amusement of the ladies in charge) and do basic hair braiding by running the shop owner’s small electrical business for him as well.

As we leave the area (as ALL of these businesses are just in one small area and comprise much less than one funding workshop) we stop at a very smart hair and beauty salon with space outside for selling shoes, wellies, bed linen, kangas and a few other bits and bobs. This is…

Business 9. Again about ten businesses operating together.

Then we stop off at Chez Moi for Geoff to change into Going Home shoes and trousers and to Skype our dad back in Scotland. We all chat, Dad meets Doris and decides she must go into politics and I show him round my tiny slum palace. As I rotate the laptop, I hear Dad groan the words “Oh my god”. Even my tiny compound shared with the carwash boys fails to impress. However Geoff likes it.

I am so so sorry to be taking him to the airport. But it was just wonderful having him here for this time. Even David is moved to say: “He is not a boring man. He knows many things,” which is virtually tantamount to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Everything.

Bloody marvellous and INCREDIBLY useful day. Much learned. By many people

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Kate Copsick’s small-scale but extensive, effective and life-changing work relies solely on donations – and on sales at the Mama Biashara charity shop in Shepherd’s Bush, London. The webpage is HERE.

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