Capital: How did Mercy Feeding Center get started?
Yosef Ewnetu: Mercy Church Center. We heard that students were struggling to study as a result of lack of food. In August 2011, we got a license as an NGO and started feeding 40 kids. They ate breakfast and took lunch from Monday to Friday and we fed them lunch on Saturdays. After we did this for some time, we came up with a new plan. The plan was set up to allow us to reach a large number of students. We spoke to the local public school if we could come to the school to provide lunch there. The school leaders were very happy to hear that we wanted to help. We came up with an agreement with the school; they agreed to provide us with two rooms – a kitchen and a place where students can eat. We provided the food and people serve the food to the students. This way, we [at Mercy Feeding Center] were able to provide much needed lunch to a lot of children who require such attention.
Capital: What challenges did you face so far?
Yosef: To start with, it entails having a huge vision to start a feeding center. The concept is so huge. That is a challenge by itself. Second, it is very difficult to select which kid is a really poor kid. And the third one, I wouldn’t lie to you, we had a financial problem. Even mobilizing the necessary human resource was also another challenge by itself.
Capital: How did you overcome these challenges?
Yosef: Day by day, we overcame them. We started with 40 kids. We found some other people to help us feed them and as I said, day by day, month by month, people are joining us for this great endeavor. Not all these people are religiously oriented; and they come from different backgrounds. I believe when people see something worth doing, they will come forward to help out, not only in terms of money, but with knowledge, with time and a lot of resources.
So now, we provide lunch every Monday to Friday – during school days, so that students can learn without the burden of not having eaten anything.
Capital: How much is your monthly expense?
Yosef: It depends on the number of students we feed. For example, on average, it costs us six birr to feed one student once.
Capital: Where are you getting the finance needed to feed those in need?
Yosef: We receive funding from friends, our church members, people from the US and from the International Community School (ICS); teachers of ICS and parents of the students at ICS.
Capital: What is your projection in terms of how many students in Addis Ababa public schools are in need of such help? Have you conducted research on that?
Yosef: So far, the schools we are supporting right now are Meskerem Elementary School where we are helping by feeding 45 students. We also have 51 students in John of Kennedy Elementary School, 79 students in Woyra Elementary School and 43 students in Addis Tesfa Elementary in need of our services.
Our goal is to provide lunch Monday to Friday during school days for students from needy families and orphans who really are disadvantaged.
In the near future, to make this program sustainable by working tirelessly with school leaders, we would like to make this lunch service available to all disadvantaged students [in public schools]. Students who can afford to pay the price for a meal are welcome to pay and avail themselves of our service. And there will be discount for others as per their family income.
So we would like to reach as many as we can – those in the whole public school system in Addis Ababa. We then can make it on a national level.
Capital: What does humanitarian service mean for you?
Yosef: When I first came back, I noticed quite a lot of students struggling to study and be able to finish school. The need for the service in public (governmental) schools is so high. We have currently contacted nine schools and are hoping to serve lunch in these schools within the next two months. These kids want to go to school and learn, but because of lack of food, they are finding it difficult to cope. Alleviating some of their problems and needs is what I call humanitarian service to our people.
Capital: Do you have plans that go further than feeding lunch to these students from poor families?
Yosef: So far, we envision that all students are able to go to school without lack of food and educational materials. That is our purpose and mission in this country. We want to help the students by providing them food, school materials and maybe help out with their clothes and uniforms. That is all we want to do right now.
Capital: After a long stay in the US, you came back to your country some four years back. Have you noticed any increase or decrease in the number of students that can attend school without any worries?
Yosef: I can’t say, because I haven’t done any research on that per se, but I have seen the need every public school, and the need is so huge. So probably, you find in one public school from 60 to 110 kids who might not have food to eat especially during lunch time and they are struggling. Teachers are the ones who are supporting them right now.
Capital: How’s your communication with other NGOs and government institutions in order to sustain your contribution to society?
Yosef: Right now, we are working with local government institutions like woreda 08 around Kebena area and Arada area, Kolfe Subcity. They are providing us with a list of students who really are poor. We take the list, screen out those who need immediate assistance, and then try to provide them with lunch and support them to continue their education.
Capital: Does the center have facilities of its own, like offices, cars, etc?
Yosef: It doesn’t. We are using the office of our Mercy church for a while. If you try to rent an office right now, it will cost you from 10,000 up to 15,000 birr. But with 15,000 birr, you can probably feed 150 kids every month.
Capital: The government asserts that it offers support for organizations that are helping the poor. In this regard, what support have you received from the government?
Yosef: We started this organization almost a year ago. It is a new organization. We want to do it properly and slowly. We don’t want to go further. We want to show them how we do it, how honest we are, how we spend our money, and then finally if the government discovers who we are, then we might ask for funding or any available assistance they can give us.
Capital: What’s your plan for the long term to sustain your program?
Yosef: It is very difficult to be sustainable at this rate. So what we want to do is set up a school cafeteria in public schools. Lunch service will be available to all students at public schools. Those who can afford to pay, will pay a very low price. And those who don’t have the money will be given a discount or will have lunch free of charge, based on family income.
Capital: What’s your take on the culture of helping others?
Yosef: I think a lot of people here in Ethiopia want to help. The culture also appreciates helping each other. But to be rather frank, the society doesn’t know how to help and contribute. They don’t know whom, how, when and where to help. Most people’s attitudes towards humanitarian NGOs is suspicion, because they think NGOs are here just to make money in the name of those in need and use it for themselves.
A concerted effort to curb this negative attitude and make people aware about how they can contribute in helping those in need is very much necessary. For instance we are doing a very practical job. They can see us feed the kids at schools.
Capital: How can one join the support you offer to these kids?
Yosef: They can go through our website, which has a lot of details on what and how we operate, and how they can be part of the center. Our website is www.mercyfeedingcenter.org. They can find a lot of useful information about us from this site.
Anyone who is interested in joining us is very welcome to contribute in a way they want to and their capacity allows them to. Whatever they have to give, we say yes, and accept. You know, some people provide us shiro, berbere (pepper) and other food items. That is what they can afford or they want to contribute. We would never say you should contribute only money to the endeavor. Sometimes, if you come and feed the kids, its gives them confidence, because they will know someone is there for them, thinks about their plight and are willing to look after them. We do have a lot of ways to help.