MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

What does a ride with some nice police officers and a mud bath have anything to do with renewing my passport?

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A few weeks ago I had an unforgettable experience in renewing my visa in Costa Rica. Catherine, the other intern with Mi Credito, and I went to Liberia, about an hour from the Nicaraguan border. The first experience I had was seeing the economic gap between the two countries, and it was hard to miss. The living standards in Costa Rica are higher and the country uses 95% renewable energy. Based on the history in Nicaragua it hasn’t been able to develop as Costa Rica has, but it has potential that it’s sometimes hard to comprehend that it isn’t a developed country yet. Nicaragua has rich and varied land, with different soil, climatological, and altitude characteristics. The country’s many rivers and volcanoes offer easily exploitable sources of both hydroelectric and geothermal energy, and internal waterways facilitate inexpensive domestic transportation. As well, the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea over international importation and exportation. This was the first part of the experience that I thought was interesting.The second part of the experience in Costa Rica was Liberia itself. From Managua to Liberia it takes 6 hours, including stopping at the border and going through customs. We arrived mid-day and wanted to do something relaxing after sitting on a bus for so long. We went to a beautiful waterfall, Llano de Cortes. However, our relaxing tropical waterfall didn’t turn out as we had hoped; my passport was stolen. It did, on the other hand, create an amazing story that will never be forgotten.

To begin the new passport process we hopped on a bus at 3am to head to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. By 7:30 am we were in the Canadian embassy. Even with all the stress, it felt nice to be in the embassy, a reminder of my country with French and English signs everywhere and the Canadian flag decorating the office. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful; I got a new passport the same day! We then travelled back to Liberia, a 4 hour bus ride from San Jose. After this very long amusing and frustrating day, it was kind of like it never happened.  The next day we went to a national park, El Rincon del Viejo (Old Corner), which has fumarillos (steam vents) and paillas (mud pots). We hiked for three hours with monkeys jumping over us and we were surrounded by hundreds of Coatis, the cousin of the raccoon. We met a nice French couple that knew all about different species of plants and animals, they were pretty much our own private tour guides. After the hike, we were taken to a hot springs that included a mud bath. I might as well have owned the hot springs because there was no one else there. It was paradise and losing my passport was like a dream (or nightmare, depends how you look at it). It was definitely a week that I’ll never forget, that’s for sure! Through all my amazing and sometimes frustrating experiences with travelling, I have incredible memories and an understanding of new and different cultures that could never be replaced.

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Surfing in San Juan del Sur, Volcano Boarding in Leon, and Opening a Clinic in Managua

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Things have really been picking up here at MiCrédito. Everyone here is hard at work on a number of new and exciting initiatives. Last week MiCrédito opened a health clinic at its Rubenia branch in Managua. The clinic, operated by partner organization AMOS Health and Hope, offers medical exams to clients which include screening for breast and cervical cancer for women and diabetes and prostate cancer for men. The cost of the exam is incorporated into MiCrédito loans, allowing clients to pay gradually for the services provided. So far the response from clients has been overwhelmingly positive! Clients are excited to have access to quality healthcare which is affordable and conveniently located right around the corner from their bank. I’m also getting ready to go out into the field to start interviewing clients for a case study I am currently working on for MEDA. I love chatting with clients and learning about their experiences. I am also looking forward to interviewing some loan officers and other MiCrédito staff members which will be a great chance to learn more about the inner workings of the organization. I’ve also had the opportunity to do a bunch of travelling over the last few weeks, crossing a lot of things off of my Nicaragua to-do list. I made it to Cerro Negro to go volcano boarding! Nicaragua is the only place in the world to experience this extreme sport which involves sledding down the side of a volcano on a bed of ash. It was an awesome experience and I came out of it with a very attractive ash beard.I also made it to the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur and tried surfing for the first time with my fellow MEDA intern Sarah French. I can see why so many people are addicted to the sport. Although I was only able to stand up and surf once (and very briefly), it was such a rush when I finally did catch a wave and ride it into shore. Both in the office and out, my time in Nicaragua so far has been extremely rewarding. The staff members at MiCrédito are such kind and hardworking people and I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to get to know them and the beautiful country which they call home!     

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Nicaragua’s Micro-Entrepreneurs Show Savvy Business Skills

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Last week MiCrédito received a visit from a group of representatives from MEDA including President Allan Sauder, Chief Engagement Officer Dave Warren and Senior Project Manager Nick Ramsing. I got the opportunity to spend the day with them visiting MiCrédito’s Granada branch and chatting with clients about their experiences with MiCrédito and the impact of MEDA’s TechnoLinks project.  Most of my work so far with MiCrédito has been concentrated in the office, so this was a great opportunity to get out into the field to chat with clients and learn about the impact of MiCrédito and MEDA projects. The main thing that struck me is how business-savvy our clients are. The clients that I spoke with were extremely adept at finding ways to provide a unique product or service to make their businesses more competitive. We spoke with one client who runs a pulperia (convenience store) just outside of Granada near the base of the Mombacho volcano. As there is no medical clinic near her community she had the idea to add a small pharmacy area to her store to provide basic medical supplies so that community members would not have to go all the way into Granada to purchase supplies. No other pulperias in the area are providing these types of products which really helped her differentiate her store and compete with other pulperias in the area. We visited another client named Don Carlos who runs a horse-drawn carriage business in Granada. The historic center in Granada is full of horse-drawn carriages catering to the large number of tourists who visit the city. Don Carlos wanted to do something different, so instead of catering to tourists he decided to provide carriages for special events. He proudly showed MEDA President Allan Sauder and me countless photos of beautiful carriages decorated for weddings, quinceañeras (the fifteenth birthday celebrations which are a huge deal in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries – like a sweet sixteen but bigger), and other special events. At the end of the visit Don Carlos gave us his business card – telling us to call him if we ever needed a carriage.      Another thing that impressed me is that all of the clients mentioned how much they appreciate how fast MiCrédito is at approving loans. MiCrédito can be so fast because they use mobile credit checks – a technology introduced as part of MEDA’s TechnoLinks project. Using mobile technology credit officers can check the credit ratings of clients in the field without having to return to the office. Most micro-finance banks in Nicaragua take 3-5 days to approve a loan; MiCrédito takes only 1-2 days. Don Carlos was approved for a loan within an hour, making it possible for him to buy a horse for his business which was only available that day. He bought the horse years ago and it is still serving him well today. This speed really sets MiCrédito apart from other MFIs in Nicaragua and enables the bank to better serve its clients. Overall I was extremely impressed by all of the clients we visited in Granada. It just confirmed for me the importance of the work that MiCrédito and MEDA are doing in Nicaragua. Many micro-entrepreneurs are extremely creative and know their markets very well but they need financial support to make their businesses work. 

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MEDA Staff Visit and a Quinceañera to top it off!

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I was given the pleasure of meeting Allan Sauder, Katie Turner, Nick Ramsing, and Dave Warren and accompany them along with my coordinator Roger Larios to different companies that the project Techno Links in Nicaragua is supporting. This was a great experience for me in getting to know some of the MEDA staff that are working on the same project as me. There were a lot of great explanations and ideas shared with me on the Techno Links project. On Tuesday afternoon I arrived in Managua with Roger, where are hotel was for the week. On Wednesday morning we were up by 6:00am and out the door to meet MEDA staff for 7:00am. Each day was like this as we had a full packed schedule of visiting different companies of Techno Links. We travelled to Rivas, in the southwestern region all the way to Ocotal, near the border of Honduras.Of the 10 companies in Techno Links we visited EIAG, Burke Agro, Chiles, and Davila & Associates. I was excited to visit each company because they bring such different aspects to the project. During one of the visits, I got a little carried away and started asking my own questions in Spanish to the producers. There was a machinery room with the cleaning and sorting of beans (frijoles). At Davila & Associates they have used the assistance from Techno Links to use sustainable energy such as the fertilization with worms. They also have a rain catcher to save water. Each of the companies have different processes since each company is using different crops and have different needs. I was fascinated by the different sustainable developments and technology used in agriculture. It was a very comfortable environment and I appreciated the laughs and lessons learned from the trip. I arrived back in Leon Saturday afternoon and there was no time to rest as I had to get ready for a Quinceañera. The daughter of the house of where I am living had her 15th birthday last week. In Latin America turning 15 for a girl signifies becoming a women. There is a large celebration for this birthday with invitations being sent out to family and friends as well as attending a mass before the party. This was definitely a nice way to finish my amazing week with dancing and learning a little more about the culture!

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The Power of Development

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Last week I travelled to visit farms in Ometepe, which is an island that is formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua, and a region in Jinotega called Tomatoya, which is in the northern region of Nicaragua. Sediment from the two volcanoes in Ometepe provide rich land for planting a variety of fruits and vegetables, while Jinotega is known for producing 80% of the nations coffee, as well there is a variety of other crops. I visited both these regions because MEDA has funded IDEAL Technology, which is an organization that has a commitment to the welfare of its producers. It does this by creating accessible technology and micro-irrigation to rural farmers, which helps to maximize revenue and small agriculture businesses. In Ometepe there were four farms we went to visit with IDEAL. Three out of four of the farms have female farmers. For example, at the first farm we visited there were 20 women and two men working with irrigation. As well, they have a hostel called Puesta del Sol on the side of their work being done in collaboration with IDEAL. The fourth farm was ran by a man named Freddy and his son who grow a variety of produce from papaya and watermelon to plantain and avocados. I also had a chance to help set up a drip system in Tomatoya, Jinotega. Then we visited Bayardo Alonso near Jinotega who is a distributer for IDEAL, as well as RC Industries, which manufactures the drip systems for IDEAL. This has helped me grasp a better knowledge of how technology in agriculture can provide a better knowledge and increased income for producers. On top of this, women have become empowered in their lives with the knowledge they have gained through this organization.Not only is this a learning experience for rural farmers, but this has been an eye opening experience for myself. I have only been on my internship for three weeks and I have learned about the benefits and power of development.

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Chatting with Revolutionaries and Chilling on the Beach in León

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I’m nearing the end of my third week here in Nicaragua and I just keep falling more and more in love with this country and my job. The people are wonderful and the landscapes are breathtaking! I have been taking advantage of my weekends to travel as much as possible and learn as much as I can about Nicaragua. Last weekend I took a trip to visit my fellow MEDA intern Sarah French in León where she is currently also working on MEDA’s Techno-links project which seeks to increase access to markets and financial services in Nicaragua using technology. León is a beautiful city full of history and beautiful beaches! I learned a lot about Nicaragua’s past during a visit to the Revolutionary Museum where I received a tour from Comandante Hugo who himself fought to remove the Somoza family from power in Nicaragua. It was amazing to hear about the revolution from someone who was actually there and to even see pictures of Hugo as a young man participating in the conflict. And of course I had to spend an afternoon at the beach! I visited Playa las Peñitas, a beach located about 45 minutes outside of León, to watch the many surfers and eat some amazing seafood.   I am also trying to use more Nicaraguan slang as this is one of my favorite things to pick up while living in different Spanish-speaking countries. So far I’ve lived in Spain and Mexico and my Spanish changed completely living in each place. I lived in Mexico last year so I still use tons of Mexican slang which has earned me the nickname “La Mexicana” from a few of my new friends here in Nicaragua. By the end of my time here I hope to speak like a real Nica.   On the internship front, I am working on a number of really interesting projects here at MiCrédito including helping the organization start collecting more data regarding the social impact of its products and services. I am extremely happy to be a part of this project as I believe that MiCrédito is providing a lot of amazing services to its clients which really have a strong impact on their lives. MiCrédito recently introduced a loan product for university students to help them finance their education or start a related business; it is also the first microfinance institution in Nicaragua to provide savings accounts and debit cards to its clients through a partnership with BAC (Banco America Central). Collecting data is extremely important to make sure that products like these are having a positive impact on clients and I am looking forward to contributing to this project. I am also working on some gender-related programming, helping MiCrédito to continue the implementation of its Gender Policy to ensure that the needs of male and female clients and staff are being met. I am looking forward to helping out at the gender workshops which MiCrédito runs every few months and to help run some staff training sessions with one of MEDA’s Gender Specialists later in the year. This weekend I’m off to Estelí to get my first taste of northern Nicaragua and then it’s back to the office to continue my work with MEDA and MiCrédito!

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Deacachimba

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I have recently moved to the colonial and picturesque city of Leon, Nicaragua. The volcanoes, specifically the famous Cerro Negro, surround the city and the 17 churches that fill the city make it a popular tourist destination. Along with the beautiful nature and astounding architecture there are constant celebrations. The first night I arrived there was a festival called Griteria Chiquita, which celebrates the conception of the Virgin Mary. I’ll never forget my first night in Leon!

To add to the colorful festivities occurring on a regular basis, there are also other cultural factors that I have tried to immerse myself in. I have titled this blog “Deacachimba” as it is a slang word for “Awesome” and is only used in Nicaragua. I use this title as a representation of my goal in trying to better understand the culture of Nicaragua. This past weekend I went to the Revolution Museum where I learned from veteran Sandinistas the history of the Somoza dictatorship that lasted 50 years. I believe my immersion in the culture and study of the history will help me in return to connect better with the Nica people. To understand why I am doing this, I must explain my role as the impact assessment intern with MEDA. I am grateful to be working with Techno-Links, which supports business plans of agriculture companies. The approach of each company is on sustainable energy and gender equality. The strategy is to promote small producers, poor rural farmers, and as a result support women’s participation as producers. For example, in some companies, 89% of producers are men and 11% are women. I have had the opportunity to communicate with the agriculture companies and will soon be meeting them. The streets of Leon are continuously busy with around 4 large markets. With going to each market I learn about all the important agriculture that rural farmers depend on, such as chia seeds and red beans. I have been studying these different companies and their history and their business approaches supported by Techno-Links from my home with a Nica family. This has also helped me to fully immerse myself in the culture. I live with a single mother and her mother and this has helped me understand the difficulties they face. They teach me new things every day and I am thankful for their knowledge and help in understanding current Nicaraguan issues. 

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¡Bienvenidos a Nicaragua!

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I have arrived in Managua, Nicaragua and begun my 6-month internship with MEDA working with its partner organization MiCrédito as a Rural Microfinance intern. I am lucky enough to be overlapping with fellow MEDA intern Katherine who has been working in the MiCrédito office for the past 10 months. I’m very grateful to have someone to show me the ropes and introduce me to Nicaragua. I’ve been here for just over a week and have had a great experience so far. I have had the opportunity to meet most of MiCrédito’s lovely staff members and everyone has been extremely welcoming and helpful. Although things have been a little confusing having two MEDA interns with the same name working side by side. Often people have to differentiate between la nueva (the new) Catherine and la vieja (the old) Katherine. But at least there is only one name for everyone to remember.   I was also lucky enough to spend some time with the President of MiCrédito’s Board of Directors Fred Wall who was in Managua for the quarterly board meeting. Fred was kind enough to take Katherine and me out for dinner to share his experiences and spend some time getting to know me and catching up with Katherine. I am already hard at work and trying to absorb as much information as I can about MiCrédito and its work. Last week I wrote my first news article about MiCrédito’s search for a new branch location in Rivas which it plans to open in the next few months. I’m excited that I will be here for the opening and am looking forward to working with MiCrédito staff to help get this and other projects going.  I am also really looking forward to exploring Nicaragua! It is such a beautiful country with so much to see and I am hoping to fit in a lot of weekend trips to cities like Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. I am especially looking forward to getting to Ometepe – Lake Managua’s volcanic island.Over the weekend I took my first trip with fellow MEDA intern Sarah (who is based in Leon also working on MEDA’s Techno-Links project) to visit Granada. Granada is a beautiful colonial city about an hour south of Managua. We had a great time exploring the city and even took a boat tour of the more than 360 islands which sit in Lake Managua – my personal favourite was the monkey island where we got to visit Panchito the monkey and his family. On the way back to Managua we visited the Masaya Volcano. I am looking forward to exploring more of Nicaragua and working with MEDA and MiCrédito staff for the next six months here in Managua.    

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Steve Sugrim
Awesome blog Catherine and I love the pictures of Panchito
Tuesday, 27 August 2013 15:41
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Time Flies By!

I realized just the other day that I only have three months left of my just over a year term in Nicaragua. I have no idea where the time has gone! It amazes me that this can happen but it happens every time I am abroad – the time flies!Projects have slowed down a bit here in the MiCrédito office, as internal transition has put a hold on some of my projects while I wait for information to be gathered and pass along to me to work with. This slow-down has given me some time to think and reflect on my time here and my upcoming trip home to visit friends and family, which will be in a month.People here keep asking me what I miss the most about Canada or what is the first thing I am going to eat, for example. So, in honour of Canada Day this Monday, I thought I would reflect this post on Canada and what it is that I miss the most from the motherland... And the answer? Bubble tea. Bubble tea is a delicious drink with a cold tea or juice base liquid and tapioca bubble-balls that float around at the bottom. It is served with an enormous straw you can use to sip up the bubbles! It is DELICIOUS. Every Sunday when I lived in Ottawa for school I would make my way down to the Korean area with some of my friends and we would indulge in Vietnamese pho and bubble tea for dessert. Afterwards, my Chinese friends would educate me about all of the different things you can find at the local Chinese grocery store. I loved a Sunday afternoon in Korea Town.I realized that the thing I missed most from home was not exactly bubble tea, itself, but the multiculturalism and diversity that can be found in Canada and in particular, cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. On any given night of the week, my friends could be faced with the tough decision of which restaurant to visit. Here in Managua, we do have several options: the local fritanga stand, the more “upscale” Nicaraguan food, a Peruvian restaurant (which I am in love with), various American food chains, French, Mexican, and a few others. Managua does offer a varying amount and therefore, I cannot complain. However, I still can’t quick that longing desire to debate with my friends the classic “sushi” or “pho”. Italian? Thai?What I also look forward to seeing is a sea of faces from hundreds of countries living together in one city; enjoying the hot Toronto sun, partaking in one another’s culture and appreciating the unique cultural aspects each person can bring to the community.

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A Clipboard, a Nissan Pickup, and a Very Bumpy Road

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These three essential components describe well the first week of my most recent field work, through the east-coast's rugged region of Nicaragua's RAAS (Region Autonoma de Atlantico Sur). The RAAS region of Nicaragua is very unique from the middle and western parts of Nicaragua, which are primarily inhabited by the Spanish-speaking population of the country, and many more of the country's larger urban centres. RAAS is one of the two autonomous regions of Nicaragua, with distinct cultures and populations from the rest of the country. One of the major distinctions is the rich cultural mix and backgrounds present within this region, ranging from native groups of the Miskito and the Mayangna, to the Creole African population, speaking a heavy creole Afro-Caribbean English. The degree of influence and presence of the Afro-Caribbean culture and language becomes stronger as one approaches the east coast of the nation, with the Corn Islands (60 kilometres into the Caribbean sea; and highly recommended) exhibiting the extremes of this culture, with the absence of Spanish speakers a regular occurrence. The field work did not take us to the islands however, but it did bring us right to the coast, and to many hidden, small communities along the way, granting us glimpses into peoples' highly isolated lifestyles.The purpose of the trip was to follow up on some of Techno-Links' end clients; users of the technologies that the grant-winning businesses produce and distribute. The first week was working with clients of Tecnosol, the first round winner that is working to distribute bio-digesters to small rural cattle farmers in order to improve their sustainability and independence from commercial suppliers of fertilizers and propane kitchen gas. By use of the bio-digesters the farmer is able to utilize the manure from the cattle to produce bio-gas, a sustainable alternative to propane. The gas is produced from manure, water, and nothing more. After the gas exits the bio-digester and is piped to the kitchen for kitchen use, the bi-product produced ("biol") is deposited at the opposite end, leaving a potent fertilizer.Juan Humberto is one of the project's very successful farmers, who has worked with the bio-digester for some time now and has employed the use of the biol effectively as well, creating his own compost and fertilizer uses for other plants around his farm. Juan no longer needs to purchase propane gas from town and has cut down his costs greatly.The calm and collected participants of Tecnosol's initiative continue to look onward, to the future of sustainable farming and alternative agricultural energy methods. These brilliant bovine have little idea as to the difference they are making for the farmers of Nicaragua and other proponents of bio-digesters around the world.The first of the two weeks in the field was no easy feat, as many of the roads to access the farmers were barely roads at all. The pathways were merely washed out dirt/rock pathways that have faced the severe climate alternations of the rainy season, switching with the desert-like dry seasons of the country's summer months. This back and forth pattern leaves a not-so-pleasant trail of scattered rocks, semi-submerged in the hardened soils, at times resembling the shape of sharp and bloated footballs. Travelling for hours across these roads lends chance the truck may glide across the broadside of the football with relative ease and smoothness, but also brings the probable passing that the nearly completely exposed football could have one pointed end highly exposed from the earth, waiting to send the passengers of the truck flying into the ceiling of the cab. The challenge for the driver is to cross the 20 km stretch of road within the allotted 3 hours, as to not fall behind and arrive home late at night (returning on the same quality road), while the passengers' goal is to find a position and manner to sit throughout the journey that leaves the least bodily damage. Riding without a safety belt poses the risk of launching one's self into the ceiling, and enduring a good blow to the head/neck, while fastening the safety belt eventually leaves bruises and lacerations across the shoulders and chest, where the "said" safety belt has repeatedly attempted to keep you "safe", every 10 seconds, for the past 3 hours of being launched around the cabin of the truck like a can of paint in the motorized shaker at home depot. Needless to say, after a few days on these roads, my upper torso felt like I had undergone some sort of military training with intensive workouts and all-day fitness drills. The following is a quick screen capture of the map where we traveled, with the original Google Map accessible in the link to follow:The journey was extremely enduring but full of adventure. Working the long days and crossing hundreds of kilometres on back-country roads really summons feelings of unique opportunity and the gift of experience. Meeting and talking with the farmers that MEDA works with in the small communities of Kukra Hill, and Laguna de Perla (both communities within the RAAS region of Nicaragua), helps one to understand the extreme disparities between how some families live in Nicaragua, and how families live in Canada. Although these differences are acknowledged and common fact to most, even those not working in development work or overseas, seeing the lives of those living in Managua and other urban centres of Nicaragua still appear significantly different than those in the remote communities of RAAS on the east coast, often in deeper levels of poverty due to remote locales. These individuals are exceptionally isolated and bringing in the technology of bio-digesters to create a cooking fuel from on site natural resources (besides burning firewood), presents a superior alternative to purchasing propane gas tanks from the nearest towns and villages. Passing 6 months with MEDA as an Impact Assessment Intern with the Techno-Links project was an excellent opportunity to become increasingly exposed to developing-world conditions, but in addition to this, proved to be a pivotal learning stage in my life to witness business connections made between local businesses and the small rural farmers of Nicaragua. Given the gift to work and live abroad is a pivotal time in one's life, to learn about culture, language, mannerisms, and all things different, that invigorate and awaken one to the vibrancy and reality of life outside of North America. It was a pleasure to work with MEDA and serve in the monitoring and evaluation of the Tecno-Links program. I would recommend this internship with MEDA to anyone interested and would love to tell you more and answer questions if you would like to contact me (arifriesen@gmail.com). God Bless, and continue serving and exploring the wonders of the World.

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The Fear of the Unknown

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Every morning, I have the joy of getting in a car with a man named Leo. Leo is a taxi driver living in Managua, Nicaragua and has been working at his trade for 15 years. He knows every speed bump, pot hole, over-turned stone and congested street in the city and has even managed to master the difficult directional system that Nicaraguan's proudly stand by. "Buenos Dias, Katherine! Como estas?" He exclaims every time. His smile always seems to bring one out in me, as I know his exclamations and excitement stem from the heart. Leo is a client of MiCrédito and through their relationship, which has spanned the last 5 years, he has received multiple loans to finance his taxi business. Leo is known around the Rubenia branch for being quick to pay back his loan and always excited about coming in to the office to do so, often being sure to steal the time of one of the busy Loan Officers or the Branch Coordinator, engaging them in a deep conversation (whether they have the time for it or not!).It was no surprise to Cesia Calderon, the Rubenia Branch Coordinator and Financial Educator for MiCrédito clients that Leo was quick to adopt the newest financial product offered by the Microfinance bank. "Leo loves the new Debit Card system that we are using! He instantly saw it's benefits and wasn't hesitant to share them with the rest of the clients at our last Financial Education meeting. He was practically up on the table!""The debit card lets me feel safe and secure, while conducting my business. Now, I do not carry large amounts of cash in my taxi with me and run the risk of being robbed. Instead, I use my BAC Debit Card to deposit the money I make each day. In the same way, I use this card at gas stations, which lets me collect points with BACs reward system and limit the risk associated with using cash." Through MiCrédito's recent partnership with Banco America Central (more commonly known as BAC, in Central America), client loans are deposited directly into a BAC Debit Account and the clients are distributed a debit card from a MiCrédito branch. This account represents a secure and safe place to hold loan money and truly represents the idea of financial inclusion. Clients that were previously denied access to the regulated financial system because minimum balance requirements and banking fees were too high, are now provided an account with BAC that has no fees and does not require a minimum balance. "I like this product a lot and I am happy to be able to use it every day. My money is more secure and therefore, I feel more secure."Leo continued on to express how the account provides a safe place for his savings, which are very vital to his own sustainability and that of his families. "Some days are good days as a taxi driver and other's are not. Therefore, I need to prepare for those bad days and have some money kept away in order to do so."As clients begin to use the Debit Card offered by MiCrédito, many road blocks, cultural barriers and system limitations prevent them from adopting the technology with optimism and ease. However, success stories, like Leo's, helps clients to realize that the benefits, which lie in the associated safety and security, outweigh the hesitation that springs from the unknown.

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Habia Una Vez...

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At this point in my Nica story, I have already learned that this internship is proving to be one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures that I have been blessed to embark on. Not only am I gaining important skills that I can take with me throughout my career, but the things I have already learned about myself make every cross-cultural challenge, language miscommunication and personal struggle worthwhile.Habia una vez... For the first month and a half of my time in Nicaragua I lived near Masaya, in a small pueblo named San Juan de la Conception (La Concha), with an amazingly kind Nicaraguan family. While attending La Mariposa Spanish School, the family opened their home to me and shared with me their food, time, knowledge and most importantly, patience. Knowing absolutely zero Spanish before coming here made the first few weeks (correction: entire trip thus far) a little bit difficult. However, poco a poco, I have learned how to communicate, though their remains many times at which, I smile and pretend to understand what is happening... (more often than I would like to admit, actually..)By the time I left La Concha and my Nicaraguan Family, I felt like I was leaving the nest for the first time. Driving away in a half battered RAM truck, I looked behind me through the dust to see my family waving, worried. I was off to the big, scary city of Managua; and now, after living in Managua for about a month and a half, I see where its reputation originated from...The Big, Scary Managua...If you speak to most Nicaraguan's about Managua -those living in or outside of the city – few kind words are shared. The general perception of Managua encompasses three Spanish words, whose meanings I learned quickly: lleno, sucio and peligroso. AKA busy, dirty and dangerous. Part of this perception is routed in truth, but I also believe that most Nicaraguans are biased. And how could they not be? Nicaragua (outside of Managua) is one of the most naturally beautiful countries I have ever been blessed to visit. Rich, full of beautiful jungles, volcanoes, islands, beaches, and mountains; it is understandable that when knowing Nicaragua can offer these things, Managua may seem like quite the dump. With this realization came a very real truth in my life, something that I knew before, but limited the amount of weight I associated to it: What makes or breaks a place is its people; and Managua is not short of great people.Work LifeI work in a small office, with one of MEDA's partner organizations: MiCrédito. This microfinance bank is blessed to have a hard working, talented and kind staff, complete with patience and open arms. Though my understanding of the Spanish language falls short, I feel that I have been able to make real connections, possibly in despite of or beyond the barriers of language. Though my conversations may move at the speed of a tortoise and involve a lot of "Como?" or "Que?" real depth exists and it has proven to be my inspiration and motivation, while living here.Every city has its draw – its value, which at times, may be hidden. The rich history in Rome, the Culture of Art in Paris, the beauty of Multiculturalism in Toronto and what I can now see as Managua's draw – its soft hearted, good-spirited people, complete with a rough exterior and what can seem at times, an abrasive approach. With the good and the bad that Managua brings, it is where I am calling home for the next 4 months and I am happy to do so!

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RIVAS & RAMA - Al Campo Take 2

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Upon the realization that we were lacking our required quota of small-scale farmers from each client, it was time for Roger (coworker and business consultant here in Nicaragua for MEDA) and I to embark on another adventure into the rural expanses of Nicaragua's countryside. The first two days would be spent in and around the municipality of Rivas, where we would gather information on 5 more farmers by means of a lengthy questionnaire taking approximately 1 hour. The clients were all very friendly and helpful with giving us all the information that we needed, and at the one farm we needed to park Roger's car and head to a different part of his farm by motorbike, as it was the only vehicle that would fit through certain areas and tiny dirt roads.

The best part about this was that the guy I was doubling with carried a shotgun strapped around his body, meaning it was literally pressed in-between us on the motorbike.

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Al Campo!

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My life in Nicaragua is starting to sink in. Not only have I had the opportunity to see so much more of this city and country,but I have also gained a much more intimate understanding of what my job will entail. This truly was the busiest I have been in a long time, with the Friday and Saturday being spent driving around to different towns to visit small scale farmers working with our first-round grant recipients of the Techno-Links project.

Three businesses had been selected as the grant winners from the first-round: Burke Agro, who works with drying and packaging fruits for export to buyers such as Whole Foods in the United States; EIAG (Escuela Interamericano de Agricultura y Ganaderia – Interamerican School of Agriculture and Livestock), which is a post-secondary institution in the southern region of Rivas, that works with educating farmers about using their new "vitroplantas", a selected strain of in vitro plants that are a more versatile, healthy, and resistant plantain crop. From this the farmer can use less fertilizer and pesticides because the plantain is already at a greater advantage from the previous in vitro process. The final winner we went to visit on the following Wednesday was that of Tecnosol, a company working to provide biogas from manure through the installment of biodigesters, of many uses in the house including cooking and a lesser need for fuel woods, while also simultaneously creating fertilizer to be used on the farmers' crops. For Tecnosol we needed to drive up into the mountains of Matagalpa, the coffee growing region of Nicaragua to the north. Here we performed a similar task as to the others, performing questionnaires with the farmers who are working in partnership with Tecnosol to improve their crops through the said technology they work with and promote.

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Managua - Take 1

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Bienvenido a Managua, Nicaragua

I am finally on the ground and life is buzzing with change, challenge, and adventure. This is definitely not my first time landing in a new country with a completely foreign environment in front of me, and quite frankly, this time is actually easier than some in the past, as when I stepped out of the arrivals area to confront the herds of taxi drivers and seemingly best of new friends, I had the advantage of some familiarity with the language, which was not always the case many times before. I was meeting Kathy, my fellow co-worker and intern with MEDA in a hostel/guesthouse that was supposedly located somewhere near the office of MiCredito. The first taxi driver did not take my proposed price and insisted on double, but I soon found the chosen cabby to help me complete the journey into the city for the reasonable fare of 10 USD. When we finally pulled up to the hostel it was clear that I was expected by the owner, as the moment I stepped up to the gate (as most every place is gated in Managua, either communities or single dwellings) she immediately exclaimed: "Adrian?" with a very inquisitive tone. Once inside she pointed to where Kathy was and I snuck up to surprise her for a grand reunion and hugs :) The next day was my first set of waking hours in Managua, as things look quite different when you can see them in plain daylight. The city is completely disorganized (like many developing nations' cities), but the addresses here are fairly difficult as well, as there really aren't any. Almost all directions and addresses point to a general reference of where you are going. e.g. two blocks south of the "virgin roundabout", 1.5 blocks east of here, and then 2 houses more to the south with the house on your right hand side. This is the address of said house you may be trying to find. Needless to say, when things are already extremely confusing, this doesn't facilitate the matters much. The streets themselves are always a good way to get a sense of the noises, the smells, and the scenery, that constructs a well-rounded feel of the city. Some characteristics are notably similar to other places I've been, but certain aspects that I experienced here are not as prevalent around other capital cities in Latin America. The mule-drawn carts were one scene I haven't seen a whole lot of before, and the level of handy craftsmanship in constructing wheelchairs using plastic patio-chairs.

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