Creating New Beginnings for Malawians, Alumna Melissa Kushner’s Nonprofit Aims to Empower
Malawi, a small, southeast African country, is known as the “warm heart” of the continent, nicknamed for the friendly disposition of its people. But the country—nestled between some better-known neighbors, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zambia—faces real and pressing challenges, including an HIV/AIDS crisis, rampant poverty, food insecurity, a cycle of devastating natural disasters, and widespread malaria.
NYU Wagner alumna Melissa Kushner (MPA-PNP 2006) is working to change that. Her nonprofit organization, Yamba Malawi (previously known as goods for good) empowers local Malawians to break the cycle of poverty.
So how did this New Jersey native develop such a deep commitment to a country nearly 8,000 miles from home? In 2002, when she was a recent college graduate, Melissa began working for the United Nations. Her role took her to Malawi, where she was struck, in particular, by a stark statistic: Nearly one in 10 Malawians are orphans.
Having lost her father three weeks before she was born, Melissa felt a deep and immediate kinship with Malawi’s orphans. She was determined to do her part to ensure Malawi’s children faced a brighter, more promising future.
Melissa began by bringing toys, clothing, and other excess supplies to orphans in Malawi’s rural communities—scheduling trips back to the country multiple times a year. But she quickly realized that while she had the passion and drive, she needed to acquire the tangible, hard skills that would equip her to effectively run an international nonprofit.
NYU Wagner, she says, was the perfect fit.
"I was going down the path of running my own nonprofit organization, and had a good grasp of the work I wanted to do, but I needed the hard-core skills. I was looking in and around the tri-state area, and Wagner stood out as the program that would provide those skills.”
By demystifying disciplines like finance and statistics, NYU Wagner gave Melissa the foundational knowledge that’s been critical to her success, she says.
Melissa also worked part-time while earning her MPA. She says the decision enabled her to immediately apply the skills and concepts she learned in the classroom to a real-world setting.
Upon graduating in 2006, Melissa was off to the races, officially founding her organization. What began as a charity-based program that brought goods to rural Malawian communities quickly evolved. In 2011, Melissa’s organization began partnering with local communities in Malawi to build micro-enterprises—mainly chicken farms, tailoring co-ops, and beehives.
The goal of the expansion was simple: Empower Malawians to earn their own incomes and provide for their families, as opposed to simply applying a band-aid to a complex problem.
Melissa says she is especially proud of Yamba Malawi’s 100-percent Malawian programming team.
“Five years ago, we made a commitment to having 100 percent Malawian staff in Malawi. We know that the right people to be working on the ground are the ones who have experienced it themselves. Right now, we have ten Malawians running everything—we have experts in poultry, experts in honey … the goal is to keep the team in New York as lean and mean as possible.”
This spring, Melissa announced that her organization would once again expand the scope of its services to more wholly serve the Malawian population. As part of its expansion, goods for good was renamed Yamba Malawi.
“Yamba” means “begin” in the local language of Malawi, and the new name is quite fitting. Melissa’s goal is to attack the systemic roots of poverty in Malawi, transforming communities from the ground up.
“Our businesses that we’ve launched over the past years have been hugely successful in terms of supporting orphans and children in the community, and in bolstering healthcare, infrastructure, and launching community businesses. We’ve been able to create jobs and stimulate local economies—but we wanted to do even more.”
The new model pilots two programs that complement Yamba Malawi’s existing work: Technical skills coaching, which will help communities build financial literacy and invest their money wisely; and life-skills coaching, which empowers Malawians to help their children build better futures.
In addition, Melissa says the expanded scope will give parents links to social services like family planning, healthcare, and educational opportunities.
Throughout this journey, Melissa says she continues to value her NYU Wagner education and stays in touch, offering internships to students and returning to the school to speak about her work.
She has also maintained close relationships with several of her professors, with whom she still consults today.
"I've developed really lasting relationships with my professors. A lot of the Wagner professors have their research and their outside work, which really helps to bridge the gap between academics and practical work. That makes a huge difference.”