MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Alan recently earned his Master of Applied Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Waterloo. While studying and conducting research, he worked as a teaching assistant of undergraduate courses. Having completed his own undergraduate degree from Waterloo’s cooperative engineering program, Alan has gained work experience with numerous companies in various technical fields. His interest in volunteer work has also motivated him to get involved with local charitable organizations in the Waterloo and Toronto areas. Currently, Alan hopes to learn more about the implementation of information and technology for international development in his role as the I.T. development intern in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Parallel Processing

In Canadian culture, customers are usually processed serially.  When you go to a store and ask an employee for help or when you make a purchase, it’s usually one at a time and first come, first serve.  Not in Tanzania.  In the middle of a negotiation, it is okay for the seller to turn to another customer and start dealing with them at the same time.  In fact, it’s okay to deal with 3 or 4 people at the same time!  But I must admit, I was a little taken aback the first time that this happened to me in a work environment.  While in the middle of discussing an important problem, my coworker turned to somebody walking by and started a completely different conversation.  I was kind of shocked and stood there awkwardly…trying to figure out what I might have done to upset my colleague and instigate this kind of behaviour. Noticing my puzzled look, she laughed and kindly explained how things go in Tanzania.  It’s totally acceptable for you to put somebody on hold and it’s okay for somebody to put you on hold too!

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I love my job

I find the intricate details of the world fascinating.I like reading stories of how humanity has investigated these details and learned to harness the power of nature.Theories of how the ancients might have birthed mathematics.Sometimes I enjoy just pondering the miracle of mathematics.It’s nothing short of a miracle that mathematics makes contact with reality – that it can be used to accurately define rules which the universe obeys.I like the stories of humankind creatively devising experiments to validate their conjectures.And how the journey has led to the creation of amazing technological tools, which have transformed our interactions with the world and even our interactions with each other. But I know the stereotypes about the Information Technology field.Countless times I’ve seen first interest and then consciousness itself drain from people’s faces when they’ve unwittingly asked me what I do. That’s probably why I shy away from talking about it…even though I absolutely love my job. However, a number of friends have asked me for some sort of description of what I’m doing in Africa.Perhaps the fact that I’m applying my training to international development will make the story a little more interesting.So I’ll keep the technological part to a minimum, and I’ll go in stages…leaving you with plenty of exit points as I drill into the details.

Okay. The big picture. If there’s only two concepts you remember from this entry, I’d hope that they are “malaria prevention” and “long lasting insecticide-treated nets (LLIN)”.Those are the end and the means of the Tanzania National Voucher Scheme (TNVS), which I am involved in.TNVS, as the name suggests, implements a voucher system.When a pregnant woman or infant (the ones at highest risk of contracting malaria) visit a health clinic, the health worker issues them a voucher.This voucher can be taken to a retailer to obtain a LLIN at a subsidized cost (funding by USAID and DFID).The price paid by the beneficiary is very affordable, and I think it’s more of a token amount just so that they have some skin in the game. Besides malaria prevention, the program also aims to jumpstart the market for mosquito nets.This includes creating both an awareness of and the demand for mosquito nets.In addition to driving down net prices through economies of scale, there is a second strategy.Initially, the program partnered with a single net manufacturer.However, we are currently working on introducing a second supplier into the program. The hope is that providing the beneficiary with a choice in net type will create a little competition between the manufacturers.This will motivate manufacturers to make better nets at lower costs.Don’t worry, LLINs must be inspected and certified which ensures no sacrifice in quality.The desire to drive down net prices stems from a desire to make nets more affordable to low income families after the voucher system is removed.The hope is that the LLIN market will remain even after TNVS shuts down.If it all works according to plan…net manufacturers will be creating more jobs and income, retailers will also have an increased income from selling nets, and the general public will have an opportunity to better protect themselves against malaria. Okay, now for some of the challenges.I’ll give just two examples of the types of projects I have been working on.The first one is automated reporting.The second is market actor profiling.Grab a coffee!!TNVS is a nation-wide program with around 5,000 clinics and 6,000 retailers redeemingjust over 370,000 vouchers every month.MEDA TZ handles the logistics of the entire program.MEDA TZ only has about 25 employees in the office (there is also another 10 field officers with drivers scattered throughout Tanzania conducting training).It’s a great opportunity for technology to help ease the workload! In order for a program like TNVS to thrive, it’s important to know which locations are succeeding and which ones are failing.This feedback is extremely useful to learn from success and nurse weaknesses.It’s kind of like a strategy game.MEDA TZ keeps a pulse on the health of the program through weekly reports.Weekly reports guide field officers to the locations which require attention. Performance indicators in the weekly report include figures like the number of issued vouchers, the number of redeemed vouchers, and the percentage of issued vouchers which were redeemed.Manually gathering and summarizing this information for all the clinics and retailers can easily take a half day of work. Every week.Similarly, the payment report, which tallies the number of nets distributed and the money owed to the net supplier, will take a half day to compile.It’s done every other week.To put it in perspective, one employee (I think it was supposed to be me) can spend well over a week of every month compiling reports.My first project was to automate the process so that the reports could be generated by a button click and save a lot of time and manual work. But IT skills can do much more than just improve the efficiency of report generation. The paper voucher system suffers from a problem. The problem is its limited visibility of what’s actually taking place in the field.For instance, we are unaware when a clinic runs out of voucher stock and stops issuing vouchers to patients.We are unaware when a retailer stops redeeming vouchers because they have run out of nets.Furthermore, we can’t detect if a clinic worker and retailer are colluding together to steal nets – they could get together and make up fictitious beneficiaries to issue vouchers to and redeem vouchers from…and then keep the nets for themselves.The voucher system needs a way to extend its sense organs into market actor transactions. This was the motivation behind the eVoucher system.It is an sms based tracking system which documents market transactions.Clinic workers must use a cellphone (everyone’s got one!) to text MEDA’s shortcode when issuing a voucher.Retailers do the same to inform MEDA of a voucher redemption.A retailer will only be restocked with nets for voucher redemptions which were reported.A voucher redemption will only be successfully reported if its issuance was also reported.Basically, the system works…and we have information about the time and location of every issuance and redemption.Information which allows us to profile clinic/retailer behaviour.This is known as data mining, and it’s another project that I’ve been involved in.I create algorithms which try to determine when a retailer is out of net stock.I also create algorithms which try to determine when a retailer or clinic is engaging in fraud. Okay okay, I’m beginning to realize how incredibly long this story is.I’m curious how many people made it to the end.Anyway, I hope I’ve given you a taste of my work and satisfied some of the curiosities floating around.Let it be known that it’s not ONLY exploratory adventures for me.I work hard too!
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Diwali

Yesterday, Marie (my colleague, housemate, and honorary little sister) and I traveled to the city centre, home of Dar’s skyscrapers.Diwali, the festival of lights, has enticed us downtown with the promise of fireworks.We were on an adventure to find “the courtyard beside the Indian temple”.And although we have become quite talented at using creative landmarks to find our way through Dar’s unlabeled streets, there are still other challenges which can confront us on our journey.

For instance, this evening one of the streets we need to travel is unlit…pitch black unlit.But seeing that the darkness only lasts 100 feet, we decide to brave the abyss.A mistake.About 50 feet into the blackness, my left foot disappears into the pavement.Of course it has to be the unlit street which is missing a storm sewer cover. My entire left leg was swallowed by the sewer.My right leg and both hands hit pavement."Pole!" Marie hands me a sock and wetnap to help clean the dirty water off…then we continue on our way.

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Chickens, Children, and The Call to Prayer


Chickens, children, and the call to prayer. These are the reasons I can't sleep. Nope, it's not because of deep philosophical matters. Just the practical.

The call to prayer is trumpeted from Islamic mosques five times a day. There is a mosque just down the street from my apartment which has provided me with a piercing education that one of these calls happens at dawn. Every morning. Recently, however, I have stopped waking up to the call and continue sleeping.

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Chaza Mwamba & Bondwa

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The African dust stirred up by my hop across the ocean is beginning to settle.What was once so unfamiliar is swiftly becoming the familiar.Yesterday I noticed that my office was finally air conditioned to a habitable temperature. Walking over to the thermostat, I was surprised to find that the office was still being cooled to 28°C as it always was…and then I realized that it was me, I was finally acclimatizing to the heat. I feel only vaguely aware of a metamorphosis I'm going through.It's becoming more difficult to pinpoint the things which once seemed so foreign, now they are camouflaged in the normal activities of life.

Chaza Mwamba

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First week impressions

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Dar es Salaam, like any city, is a maze of streets packed with buildings and people. It's just that the packing is a little tighter than Canadian cities and there aren't any parks to escape to. None of the roads have signs, and only the main roads have referable names. Also, it's only the major roads which are paved. The rest of the dirt roads constantly kick dust up into the air making things…well…dusty. Poorer quality side roads frequently instigate meetings between you and your vehicle's ceiling. While particularly deep holes in the road are usually repaired with a couple bricks and some dirt, in desperate situations they are just filled with garbage...and sometimes a metal pipe is implanted across the chasm for support. Some side streets are peppered with chickens, others with cats and dogs, and still others with goats. But every street, no matter how remote or at what time of day, will have people on it. People walking to work or school, people carrying outrageously large amounts of materials on their head, people yelling about the football match, people playing checkers, people sweeping the front of their shop, people buying food, people selling food. If you are stopped on Bogamoyo road, people will run up to your car and try to sell you a coat rack. Yes, an entire coat rack. Or a skipping rope, or hangers, or sunglasses, or any one of a hundred other trinkets. And if you are one of these pedestrians on the Dar streets, you better watch out - motors always, always have the right of way! I'm not sure if all these people filling the streets have a permanent residence. It doesn't always seem that there are enough houses to fit everybody. And yet, people are constantly stepping in and out of the small huts and shops. These buildings are moderate and simple…built from cement…or sometimes from sticks, mud, and bricks…and topped off with a roof of sheet metal or clay tile, but I've also seen roofs made from palm branches. I'm eager to explore some places further outside the city...and maybe spend some time on the coast. I wonder what the islands are like! And where do I find some mountains?!Coconut CrabPlease meet my friend the coconut crab. Locals tell me that his kind are the largest crabs in the entire world. The name is appropriate because this guy loves climbing palm trees to feast on coconuts, which he can open with his bare claws. Being a hermit crab, he probably used a coconut for his protective shell when he was younger… and he will sometimes even mimic being a coconut. If he tries to take my finger, or grabs a hold of anything else he shouldn't, the locals have a secret way of rubbing his tummy to loosen his gripThe BajajiI can't think of a better way to be introduced to Dar than by Bajaji. Soon after my arrival in the city, I had the pleasure of riding in one of these three-wheeled vehicles and quickly realized that this would be my main mode of transport. There is a single seat in the front for the driver and a seat in the back which can fit 2 people comfortably. But the driver will often have a friend or two along, and we will often try to pile 3 or 4 in the back to make the whole thing a wonderful entanglement of limbs. Smaller than cars and trucks, the Bajaji is free to weave in and out of traffic and often bypasses traffic by making its own path in between oncoming traffic and the proper lane…or by simply driving half on the road and half on the pedestrian walkways. Due to the absence of doors, it is not out of the ordinary to white knuckle the seats in order to prevent ejection from the vehicle. It's also prudent to keep appendages inside the vehicle during the numerous close encounters you are bound to have with other vehicles. Bajajis are a cheaper alternative to taxis, but it is important that the Bajaji customer be a quick judge of character – to be able to look a driver in the eye and predict exactly what level of rationality he is willing to show on the road. I have been using the same driver every day to get to and from work. I feel Siprian has found a good balance between making the trip exciting and taking relatively few gambles with my life.IntersectionsDar es Salaam can be translated from Arabic as "haven of peace", although when you travel through its streets you might find the name slightly misleading. The trick to being a good driver here is to have the bigger vehicle - it's a constant game of chicken. There are no speed limits and no traffic enforcement…in fact, I have not yet been able to deduce any rules beyond the suggestion that you should try to drive on the right (as in "not left") side of the road. And although Dar is Tanzania's largest city, there are only a couple traffic lights. And so, it is standard procedure when approaching an intersection to just inch into the cross traffic, get the timing, and then make a move to squeeze through – it's like playing a high stakes version of skip rope. Master Facility ListThe end of my first week at work has been extremely exciting. After a tour of the office on Monday morning (followed by some jet lag naps at my desk), MEDA asked me to attend a 3 day conference put on by the Tanzania Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The goal of the conference was to outline the technical requirements in developing an online registry of all the health facilities in the country. A number of stakeholders were contacted and about 25 people attended to give their input on what was required from the "Master Facility List". I felt very privileged having a front row seat to watch the beginning stages of what I feel is a very significant project. It would be so useful for Tanzania to have a centralized and reliable list of hospitals with their provided services. And to make the information available to other health projects and to the general public, well that would just be a great thing. Mostly I sat back and enjoyed the experience, letting the more experienced members discuss what shape the project should take. However I did get a chance to chip in when I noticed some flaws in the chosen database constraints. And boy was my heart pounding when I said my piece. After being understood, I promptly sat down and returned to my more comfortable role of observing.

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Packing

It's a difficult thing to do – leaving everything you love.I love home.I love my grandparents, my parents and siblings and extended family.I love my friends. I love my bedroom and my pet dog.I love road trips and weekend adventures. But it’s probably that appetite for adventure which allowed the whispers of flight to materialize into action. So where did the whispers come from? By nature I’m an incredibly curious person.I often find myself wondering how things work.I find delight in exploring and discovering.Naturally this leads me to sometimes wonder what the lives of other people around the world might be like.What’s happening in the developing world?What is their culture like? What are the people like? Why don’t they have what I have?Do they even need or want what I have in Canada? Why are things unbalanced?And why is humanity so broken anyway?I’m not naive enough to think I will find answers to all these questions.Nonetheless, it was time for me to find a way into the developing world and scratch the surface.So now I’m on my way to work with Mennonite Economic Development Associates doing an IT internship in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.The project I will be involved in is the Tanzania National Voucher Scheme, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunity to discuss the details of my job position in future entries.Today I’m focusing on what it’s like to leave.And of course the emotions are intermingled…yet I find that when I suppress my apprehension, I’m excited to live in a new culture. When I suppress the sadness of leaving family, I find I hope to make new friendships.I hope to find creative and practical ways to serve the local community.I hope that I will find my work meaningful.I hope that the sacrifice will be worth it.

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