In 2004, David and Lynda Mills, an ordinary middle-aged couple from Norfolk, UK, visited the area for a fortnight on the way to Mozambique. The impact on them was so profound that they decided to return in 2005 and spend a further 4 months there.
During that time, Open Hand Projects—AID AFRICA’s local working title—was born, a chicken coop converted into an office and a couple of locals committed to work alongside. The aim was to restore the dignity of work in the community rather than affirm the dependency culture, though recognising that some were too ill or frail to provide for themselves.
Our “target group” has always been the most vulnerable: orphans, the elderly, those living with disabilities, and the AIDS-affected.
Agriculture was our first venture. As we watched and listened, it became obvious that hunger was the biggest problem, with the more vulnerable villagers at greatest risk. Communities generally worked together to help each other, but the poverty was so acute that there was little to share. So we gathered groups to plant crops, supplying conservation-farming training, seeds and other inputs.
But that wasn’t enough, the AIDS pandemic had decimated families often leaving grandchildren and other orphans in the care of the frail elderly without income or support. So we began a Food Programme, buying in maize– the staple diet—at harvest time and storing till the “hunger period”, December through to the maize harvest in March/April. Over the years, maize for over a million meals has been distributed, now each annual issue provides over 100,000 meals.
Elderlies’ Luncheons came about by seeing their hunger, and the peripheralization of older vulnerable folk to the frayed edges of society. So every month dozens are invited to site for a nutritious meal, always accompanied by enthusiastic singing, prayer, and even a spot of dancing—a great opportunity to socialise.
But beyond hunger is the need for nutrition. Even today over a third of Malawi’s children suffer from chronic malnutrition. So we’ve promoted moringa—an amazing tree with leaves packed with high-grade nutrients, and delicious eaten as a vegetable, as well as growing other fruit and veg.
Food is vital, but so is water. Many were sick using polluted water sources because borehole pumps broke down and were abandoned because of poverty. Some walked for hours to try to collect enough water for their households, forced to neglect families and fields, often with their children alongside missing education. We started repairing the pumps, restoring safe, local water to thousands.
In 2021 during the coronavirus pandemic, we began a successful scheme to empower villagers to take responsibility for their own pumps by training in the value of maintenance and organising the whole community to contribute a small tariff each month. This guarantees their water security in the future.
Over the years, we’ve also put in pipelines with taps across the area.
Education is often seen as the key to unlocking poverty, and over the years we’ve sponsored hundreds of teens through secondary school. Theoretically primary schools are free, but secondary places are precious and only awarded to those who gained the highest passes in exams. But some have to give up these opportunities because their families can’t afford the fees and uniforms. And that’s where we come in, responding to schools’ referrals and our own community assessment of need.
Every year we empower dozens to gain final exams, some going on to further education, employment, or starting their own business.
Reforestation is another passion. For many years we struggled to effectively promote the planting of trees in response to the relentless need for fuel, soil stability and protection against climate extremes. However, most are now beginning to recognise the benefits, so we grow thousands of tree seedlings every year, for fuel, timber, green manure and nutrition, for distribution into the villages.
Another area of service born from obvious need was our provision of goats’ milk. There were so many orphaned babies in the early days of the AIDS pandemic before free treatment—sadly, funerals were common. Baby formula was rare and ultra-expensive, and even cows’ milk wasn't part of the culture, so vulnerable infants were fed on watered-down maize porridge or sweet beer by desperate carers.
This prompted us to develop a herd of dairy goats—unheard of in Malawi—and gradually we saved hundreds of babies.
We established “milk-drops” in remote communities, delivered by staff on push-bikes. Play-Centres developed to encourage social interaction, personal hygiene, and introduced innovative toys alongside the milk. As the children aged but were still vulnerable, we provided “phala” - a maize porridge fortified with nutritious moringa powder.
Our goat herd began from humble local stock, and we carefully line-bred for maximum milk production. The value of our breeding programme was boosted when we imported pedigree saanen goats from South Africa—a specialist milk-producing breed to improve stock.
However, in 2018, district officials clamped down on our milk activities after a new policy for national nutrition was published, insisting that all babies be exclusively breastfed. “Breast is best” had always been our mantra and we only served orphaned babies or those whose mothers were unable to breastfeed, either through infections, insufficient milk, or malnutrition. However, the authorities denied these were wide-spread problems, and challenged the nutritional value of goats’ milk, so insisted we close down the programme. We appealed and continued for a while, but recognised that with the advent of free AIDS treatment, less babies were acutely vulnerable, so we dispersed the goat herd at the end of 2021.
Beyond goats, other community livestock projects have happened —breeding chickens, rabbits and then from 2022, pigs have been bred on site.
New designs were developed for community kholas (livestock houses) from local materials, encouraging best care.
In 2008 we moved to our current site, prioritising training, grain storage, livestock and admin facilities, bringing electricity and water supply into the area.
We’ve built 5 Community Centres in remote districts to host nursery schools, further education, health and civic events. Beyond that we’ve built dozens of houses for the most vulnerable, re-roofed hundreds more, constructed bridges and other infrastructure in partnership with local villagers and leaders, to benefit vulnerable communities right across this area.
It’s been almost a couple of decades of learning, growing, building relationships, and seeking solutions to complex challenges, but it’s also been a wonderful opportunity to increase our Christian faith—