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The time of his life

Dimitri talks with young people who are supported through one of Noah's community-based organisations. (Australian Red Cross/Debbie Yazbeck)

What exactly is a Sydney tax accountant doing in a Durban township, experimenting with dried meat products?

According to Dimitri Argyros, there's a right time for everything.

"It's like when you find a nice girl to marry," he laughs. "If you wait too long, someone's going to take her from you. But if you propose to the girl you meet when you're 16, you probably went too soon!"

And so, at 53 years old with a happy marriage, grown-up children and a successful tax accountancy practice, Dimitri decided the time was right for something new. That decision led him to South Africa on a 12-month volunteer assignment, where his financial management skills have found an entirely new purpose.

South Africa has over 1.9 million orphans and vulnerable children, largely due to the HIV pandemic. Some are in the care of grandparents or relatives; others have no home and no support. An organisation called Noah is attempting to change this situation, by empowering communities to care for their children.

Skhumbuzo Thabede is Noah's operations manager and Dimitri's new colleague. He explains that Noah seeks out carers in each community - teachers, pastors, grandmothers - and helps them form community-based organisations focussed on giving vulnerable children a better future. These organisations deliver a range of programs, from nutrition to social work.

"We are trying to build a foundation so they can run their own organisations," Skhumbuo explains. "We build their skills on organisational development and we also train them in how to care and protect vulnerable children in their communities, by rendering quality programs."

Turning goodwill into sustainability is where Dimitri comes in. Supported by the Australian Volunteers for International Development program (an Australian Government, AusAID initiative), he assists community-based organisations to become financially self-sufficient.

"Initially my role is to train volunteers in financial matters - how to produce a budget, record income and expense, reconcile a bank account, produce a simple financial statement. This is a cash economy so people don't interact with the banks a lot."

The next stage is to identify small business opportunities to fund the work of the community-based organisations. "Dimitri doesn't tell them what to do," Skhumbuzo explains. "He asks them, 'What are your plans, what do you have available?' So they say, maybe we could have a hydroponic garden, open a sweet shop. He costs these ideas and comes back to them."

Dimitri's entrepreneurial mind is already crunching the numbers and exploring the possibilities. A hydroponic vegetable project might require 200 square metres of land - and therefore a substantial up-front investment - but it can feed about 200 children with enough produce left over to sell at local markets. On the other hand, a business making and selling biltong (a local delicacy of dried, spiced meat) is relatively cheap to start. "One kilo of biltong requires 2 kilos of meat, which costs roughly 110 rand," he explains. "But you can sell the biltong for 220 rand."

He's gone as far as buying his own biltong-making machine and taste-testing his creations with various locals. "If a Greek Australian who's been in South Africa six weeks can make a decent biltong, then it's really simple to do. And it has a 100% profit margin!"

"Little by bit, you make something - 100 rand here, 50 rand there. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Teaching communities and children how to run a business, cultivate land, manage money, taste success - those benefits are not as tangible as money but more important."

Amidst researching hydroponics, making biltong, learning the Zulu language and remembering to lock his windows (to keep out marauding monkeys), Dimitri is having the time of his life.

"I didn't want to look back when I'm 70 and think, you've done nothing for the last 20 years because you got too comfortable. I wanted to try something different, that speaks to the heart a bit more."