Adaptation of coaching to remote delivery in rural Malawi

Client: Venture 37
Location: Malawi


An in-person cooperative coaching program by Ventures37 (as part of the Cooperative Development Program) faced the Covid-19 challenge of putting in-person contact on hold. Yet, in rural Malawi without reliable internet and low tech literacy, the American reflexive reach for zoom as a solution was not tenable. We had the pleasure of running a 2-month design sprint with their fabulous coaches to create a viable solution.

Our task?

Conceive of, create, and test a way to deliver customized finance and governance coaching to rural cooperatives.

Here were some of the design parameters:

  • Two different coaches for each cooperative with intersecting, but separate curriculum contents
  • Used to being in person, cannot be face-to-face due to covid
  • Very low technological literacy—most have never opened a laptop and do not own smart phones
  • Intermittent electricity
  • Unreliable or no internet
  • Groups of 12-15 people are coached all together
  • Each cooperative is at a different stage of organizational development and needs content to be tailored to their needs
  • Cooperative members are busy farmers who donate their time to their cooperative amidst running their own businesses
  • Literacy levels of cooperative members varied between 8th grade in English, to 5-8th grade in Chichewa, to very little.

What we tested

Three cooperatives each had two remote coaching sessions on Finance topics and two on Governance topics (four sessions in total). Pilot sessions took place over a two week period (plus one Monday), having the cooperative members meet twice in a week.

The cooperatives were sent a bluetooth speaker, projector, and projector screen. Once a week they were sent, by courier, a packet of materials and a smartphone with that week’s audio/visual material.

Remote coaching sessions made use of pre-recorded videos, pre-recorded audio instruction combined with paper worksheets and group activities, coaching group phone calls, and whatsapp communication.

The intended tempo of a coaching day was to begin with an opening phone call from the coach, this was to set the tone and check the technology.

Then cooperative members were to work independently by watching a video from their coach. This video introduced the topic of the day and main concepts. Then they were to switch to an audio recording for receiving instructions on a group activity they complete before another phone call from their coach.

This video, then audio + activity, then coaching call was to be repeated twice—once before lunch, once afer.

A local facilitator, who was a member of the cooperative groups, was intentionally engaged and given special instruction for helping to lead activities.


Moving coaching to a remote engagement model ended up empowering and engaging learners in deeper ways than the face-to-face in-person modality. It held the cooperatives accountable to themselves, creating a more internal locus of motivation and a more learner-centered process. Coaches are still needed for customizing, pacing, answering real time questions, and building relationships.

Advantages of this new model—in their own words


“The combination of projectors, videos and audios and coaching process via Whatsapp and phone calls. The integration of all these was magical! This gave them a lot of encouragement especially the fact that they are able to revisit and relive the key moments of the training even in future.” [coach]


“During an in person training, a coach can introduce a new topic even when learners have not understood the previous one. With this model, they are able to review and rewind to ensure the instructions are clearly understood.” [coach]


“This model works better because they can learn at their pace unlike cases where coaches sometimes run through training content because they are in a rush to leave the training venue. They end up eroding the overall quality and focus of the learning process.” [coach]


“In the face to face model, they are used to being spoon fed by the coach but this time they had to struggle to generate their own home-grown solutions to the learning process.” [coach]

Local leadership development

“The level of control that the Chair of the organisation had today was more prominent and this is bound to make a lot of difference in the immediate future.” [coach]

What made it work?

In order to shift what the coaches did in-person to a remote engagement the coaching process had to be dissected and we had to intentionally apply adult learning principles. This meant identifying key concepts and discrete skills to learn and designing group learning experiences that would relate to existing knowledge, illustrate concepts and provide opportunity to practice new skills. This independent work, now done by the cooperative members without a coach, needed to be supported both with audio and video from their coach and with well-placed and heavily illustrated worksheets and learning aids.

Due to a hiccup in the design process one of the finance coaching sessions was administered without pre-designed group activities or supporting paper material—just with pre-recorded video and audio from their coach and activities consisting of immediately creating financial documents. We heard from cooperative members they “felt the workload was too heavy.” Developing a balance sheet was described as “a tedious process” and framed as a “necessary sacrifice to achieve an objective,” dampening the learning experience and enthusiasm of previous sessions.

The results confirmed that simply moving the in-person coaching process to video and audio is not enough to set the cooperative members up for success when working independently.

Sample worksheet pages

The hero of the story—holding everyone whole

“We now know that we have potential to do things on our own with little supervision, we have realized there is a lot more we can do on our own.” [cooperative member]

“The current methodology made the participants to think more as it enhanced self-learning and challenged them to go an extra mile as opposed to when the coach is around; ‘it pushed us to do more on our own’.” [coach]

When the cooperative members were faced with learning more independently and the coaches could not give in to their temptation to do things for people—magic started to happen. The coaches had to trust that cooperative members would understand ideas and apply them to their work. The cooperative members had to trust each other to work hard and engage. Everyone stepped into their new roles to great effect.

Exceeding expectations

From the time of the pre-test the coaches began expressing surprise and delight at the capacity of the cooperative members to produce high quality work on their own. The cooperative members even seemed to surprise themselves at times by working hard and accomplishing strong group work through the facilitated activities, remaking “we didn’t think this would be possible.”

We heard things like, “People who have never done visioning before were able to successfully generate a vision that can be linked to specific goals,” and “I was amazed by their insight and business acumen. They were talking about ideas that could be adopted in turn. Without the coaches in person the true potential and agency of the cooperative members was given a chance to shine and develop.

Shifting the learning dynamics

The coaches felt that, “this type of learning approach really benefits the recipients of this training. It was evident that the physical presence of a coach hinders other innovations that could otherwise be brought out to enrich the learning process.” Additionally, using activities to teach concepts was engendering excellent conversation and allowing for peer to peer learning among cooperative members. The coaches noticed, “it gives them the space to readily make mistakes and learn from them with the support of their peers and without the prying eyes of the coach.” Lastly, the participation of all cooperative members was designed into the activities (using individual, paired, and threesome groups) thus bringing forth the contributions of “those who are usually more timid in the presence of an external facilitator.”

Technology use instills confidence

Even switching to use of technology was an exercise in leaning into what cooperative members are capable of—most had never used such technology before (projectors, speakers, smart phones) and while it was daunting to begin with the fact that they were able to successfully navigate with minimal help made a big impression on them.

“This thing of relying on outsiders to help us with technical issues will be short lived….we need to be more inward looking…if a few of us who are schooled are taught on the techniques, we can do this.”

When the cooperative members succeeded in accessing the technology with only the coach on the phone there was a lot of excitement in the room—”you mean we can operate this thing on our own?”