MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

The Love for Food, Science, and Word of Mouth

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I love food! One of my favorite side dishes in Nicaragua is tostones, fried plantains. Lucky me because I got to eat all the tostones I wanted by doing a case study in Rivas.I visited the International School of Livestock and Agriculture in Rivas (EIAG in Spanish) where MEDA has supported the lab at the university to combine different plantain seeds to create a vitro plant that won’t be affected by disease or insects. In past years, plantain production has been low due to the spread of an insect pest known as black weevil, which feeds on the leaves, and black sigatoka disease, which causes yield losses. I went into the lab and saw the whole process of the vitro plant. I interviewed twenty male and female farmers to see their progress with the technology. Farmers said the planting of the plantain (vitro plant) was exactly the same as the normal plantain they used before. The only difference was that they didn’t have to use any or few pesticides, a happy side fact. They noted that they had more production and the leaves were bigger and healthier. One farmer had no experience in planting plantains and said it was quite easy with the help of EIAG technicians. One of the most amazing indications found in the case study that I witnessed with talking to local farmers was their desire to help one another. EIAG has a methodology of the Waterfall Method to spread information about the vitro plant, in other words spreading information with the word of mouth. Many farmers, like Norbin Abel, said he likes the innovation and helping farmers with a new level of knowledge. Junior, one of the technicians that explains the vitro plants to farmers, said he was helping farmers to be more stable in their production. The overall objective of farmers, technicians and the university was to help one another in the community. The goal of MEDA and EIAG is to have efficient production and incorporate small producers into the equation with the national and international market. Carl Sagan in Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997) stated, “Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history.”

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E-FACE Field Visit in Arba Minch Part Two: Agricultural Intervention and School Visit

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The next day the E-FACE team headed out to an agricultural intervention site in Gamo Gofa. You may be wondering what agriculture has to do with child exploitation and the weaving industry. Well, not much actually. However, the aim of the agricultural intervention is to help households that are at-risk of having their children engage in child labour improve their livelihood and income through other means. In this case, potato is the chosen commodity and will provide the targeted households with options (i.e. supplemental income for school tuition) besides child labour. During the visit, the farmers explained their excitement in the project and the techniques they learned from the E-FACE facilitated agronomy training sessions. The excitement of the farmers was contagious and I found myself eager to see the results of the hard work when harvest time arrived. Down the hill from the potato farm was the village school facilitated by World Vision. E-FACE in partnership with World Vision, provides the livelihood programs for the working youth and households involved in the textile industry. World Vision provides the education portion of the project, ensuring that the at-risk children are in school. The visit to the school was by far the most rewarding and inspirational part of the entire trip. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by children eager to have their picture taken during lunch break.  I happily obliged and held an impromptu photo shoot. We were then lead to a classroom to view the improvements being made to the structure. The school had recently added educational paintings, improved lighting and better desks to encourage the students to learn.  It was amazing to observe the difference between a rural Ethiopian classroom versus the Canadian classrooms I have grown accustomed to seeing. I experienced a major wakeup call about the importance of education and how difficult it can be to access a proper education for some communities.

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E-FACE Field Visit in Arba Minch Part One: Textile Intervention

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After a month of anticipation, I was finally able to go to on my first site visit for the MEDA E-FACE project. To give a bit of background, E-FACE (Ethiopians Fighting Against Child Exploitation) aims to reduce exploitative child labour by improving market access to textile and agricultural markets for vulnerable families and improve working conditions for working youth. Having worked on many of the contracts for the programs being implemented, I was excited to see my contribution to the project in action.  During our nine-hour car ride, the first thing that stood out to me the most was the abundance of cattle, donkeys and goats in the road. In past posts I have mentioned animals in the road but the trip to Arba Minch was by far the craziest. Our wonderful driver Mekdem did an amazing job avoiding each donkey or goat that decided to wander into our path. Although bumpy and extremely long, the trip was so beautiful that I am now certain the Garden of Eden is lost somewhere in Ethiopia. We arrived at the hotel very late so we decided to rest and start very early the next day. After a nice breakfast we headed to the first site, a textile intervention undergoing technology upgrading. With a portion of their own savings, the weavers were provided spinning tools to help boost their productivity. During the meeting, the weavers discussed their progress, their expectations for the coming project phases and how the project has impacted their lives. A few of the weavers even mentioned being able to afford school tuition for their children and medicine for sick family members since starting with E-FACE. At that moment, I felt extremely proud to be a part of the MEDA E-FACE team. My small contributions to the project were helping someone to make a difference in their life. After a month of doing assignments, reports and contracts, it was all starting to make sense and I was finally starting to see the bigger picture. On the way back to the hotel, the team got together to discuss the day’s events. Using the feedback from the weavers, we were already making adjustments to the program. At that point I realized that the process of improving lives is not something that can be done overnight. It requires effort from every individual involved in the project. It takes a lot of time but, in the end, it really does make a difference.

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The power of microfinance

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My feet are muddy, my legs are tired, and the bags under my eyes are growing increasingly visible, but these physical flaws are proof of the incredible (albeit exhausting) four days I have spent in Bahar Dar thus far. As I sit here typing these words in my tiny hotel room, I feel fulfilled.Throughout this week I have spent an incredible amount of time “on the field”, which basically means visiting our clients in their homes, at their workplaces, or even their place of meeting.Boardrooms are completely unnecessary when you can circulate under the heavenly shade provided by an overarching tree. And shade really is heavenly when the mid-day African sun is otherwise beating down upon you.On Tuesday I visited 6 different clients, all of whom have benefited in one way or another from the microfinancial services provided by my organization. Needs are diverse and varied, and may include facilitation of a cooperative or a village saving and loan association (VSLA), or access to an existing bank or local partner microfinance institution (MFI) for access to working capital.While the benefits our clients receive from these services are also diverse, they can be summed up into two words: improved livelihood.Take Egowetet, for example. She is a member of a women-only rice cooperative, and her membership has provided her with the ability to wear shoes and send her two children to school (which is imperative to end the cycle of poverty).Or Belay, who, relatively speaking, is financially well-off. Belay has already acquired the resources required to run a successful rice business. He has recently been linked with poor women farmers, and now provides them with the tools they need to produce quality product, which Belay then stores for them until the ideal time for product purchase. It is a win-win situation for all.This morning I was on the road by 6 am in order to make a 7 am meeting with another VSLA. This 11 member group has learned the importance of savings through training provided by their group facilitator (who formed the group after receiving training from my organization). While they were previously renting the equipment required to produce local rice seed, their accumulated savings allowed them to become proud owners of this prized asset.Before we moved on to our next meeting, some local children and I started playing with my camera. These kids are too poor to attend school, and even though they aren’t usually much older than 7 or 8, they are responsible for herding livestock for up to twelve hours per day. Despite the fact it was only early morning, we enjoyed a quick work break together. Their facial expressions transformed from curiosity, to joy, to complete chaotic enthusiasm as we took our photos together, and it was hilarious to watch. It’s moments like these that truly make the loneliness and difficulty involved with packing up and leaving your home behind worthwhile.The rest of the day was spent visiting another VSLA and Farmers Field School (FFS). This VSLA, known as Addis Alem (meaning “new world”), have managed to save over 10,000 birr (divide by 18 for a Canadian currency conversion) in two years.The FFS is a group formed to share knowledge of best practices and to support one another in times of difficulty. This 24 person group was formed in July, but is already experiencing great success.The power of microfinance has the ability to change lives for the better using a variety of methods, and the impacts are incredible to witness. The ultimate goal is clear: eliminate poverty – and while quite a feat, it is possible.

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Road Trip!

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I’ve always enjoyed a good road trip and the past two weeks I was able to cover some Zambian countryside! Things like dodging potholes, driving long tracks on dirt roads, avoiding bicycles, stopping for goats, chickens, cattle, and once an elephant never leaves time for dull moments on the road in Zambia.I especially enjoy having the opportunity to interact with Zoona Agents and tellers supported by MEDA’s techno-links project in Zambia. These are entrepreneurs who are providing a host of mobile money financial services for their communities while also employing tellers to facilitate transactions at their outlets. Mundia, a Zoona Agent in the small town of Mongu, which is located in western Zambia, employs 18 tellers throughout his 12 Zoona outlets.  Pulling into Mongu after a 10 hour drive I hear people yelling “ZOONA!” as they see our brightly branded vehicle. Cars drive by with the “I LOVE ZOONA” stickers on the back giving thumbs up to us out their window. It feels good to see the impact Zoona is having in the community.  The purpose of the road trip involves me training our tellers and Agents on new services Zoona is providing customers. However, I spend a lot of my time listening to our customers, who are Zoona’s Agents and tellers. Hearing their feedback is valuable for me as I can relay important information gathered from the field to management so we can continue to improve our product and services to the end consumers.  As I’m driving 10 hours back to Lusaka from Mongu I pass one of our Zoona outlets at 4pm and see a queue of five customers waiting in line. 20 meters down the road a competitor with a company value in the billions has their mobile money shop closed up. Sometimes it’s not resources that bring success and growth to companies, but rather resourcefulness.  At Zoona we understand our end users needs and create a service that is reliable and easy for them to access (we now have over 225 locations in Zambia). Our spirit of entrepreneurialism has always focused on problem solving (and there are lots of problems to solve here) rather than just pursuing profit. By focusing on identifying bottlenecks and finding creative ways to unlock value for consumers and corporate suppliers Zoona is now growing on average at 20% per month. One of Zoona’s core beliefs is growth, and we are having fun while working towards a common goal of cashless thriving businesses, everywhere. 

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Ready, Fire, Aim

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The title of this blog is often used by entrepreneurs who are constantly striving to challenge the status quo and welcome change and risk within their business. They view change and risk not as a threat, but rather an opportunity to innovate and grow under-served markets. In the competitive and hyper-evolving mobile money market I like to operate by the quote, “It’s better to have a good plan today, than a perfect plan tomorrow.”  This is what MEDA techno-links partner Zoona personifies. Leading the mobile money financial transaction movement in Zambia requires taking calculated risks in the quest of pushing the ordinary in the name of development. We at Zoona constantly ask ourselves if we are being REAL… Real to our customers, real to our employees, real to our stakeholders, and real in what we strive to accomplish. If the answer is yes, we move forward.  As we work to gain traction in growing the mobile wallet product in Zambia, challenges and breakthroughs constantly arise. The key to executing in this type of environment is staying focused and true to your customer. My role in this is to provide our Agent network with the training tools they need to successfully convert their customers over to mobile wallets.  Generally speaking mobile wallets are a cheaper, more convenient, and easily accessible service than traditional over-the-counter money transfers. One way I like to break down the mobile wallet is by saying it provides ACCESS.  It is a mechanism through which financial inclusion can be delivered on a mass (and cost effective) scale.  One example includes Kiva Zip starting a pilot program where entrepreneurs and small business owners in Kenya can get cash funds sent directly to their M-Pesa account to help grow their businesses. There are myriad examples of how M-Pesa has provided improved access for individuals traditionally cut off from savings, insurance, bill payments, and person-to-person (P2P) sending  and receiving of money. This is the scale we are aiming for at Zoona. One step in achieving this goal is the recent partnership Zoona signed with international telecom company Airtel. You can read more about the partnership here.  Zoona stands alone in one very important way. Our Agent network has significant working capital to service customers compared to our competitors. Basically, this means when a customer comes to a Zoona shop they can feel confident their financial request will be served, whether they are sending $10 or $500.  We provide our Agents with the opportunity to access working capital finance (WCF) through a partnership we have with Kiva. This enables our Agent network to have sufficient working capital, service more customers in need of financial services, grow their businesses, and earn more profits. We are confident in the model we have and its potential to scale far beyond Zambia.  We at Zoona know one key to success depends on having a well financed network of Agents to serve the customer’s financial needs.  

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Field Trip

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Shortly after I got to work yesterday morning, I was offered the opportunity to spend a half day visiting some clients. For those of you not familiar with the concept behind microfinance, basically, our clients are poor workers, primarily women, who work in the textile or weaving industry. In order to grow their business and ultimately improve their livelihoods, they need access to fair and secure financial capital, as well as financial literacy training in most cases. In third-world countries, this is not so easy to come by – and this is where an organization like mine comes in.A colleague of mine took me to visit a cooperative of 50 weavers in the nearby village of Shiro Meda. These weavers make beautiful textile products, and on display at the time was a collection of hand woven scarves and shawls.We interviewed four male weavers to discuss their progress with a new project. Due to a market linkage initiative within my organization, they have recently been linked with a new designer who has access to the U.S. market. Her business is granting them an income increase of up to 75% – 75%!!!!!!!! Imagine how your life would change if your income jumped that drastically from one day to the next. Unfortunately for these weavers however, it means their average pay is so low that one additional contract can make such a difference.On the flipside, the loss of one contract can also have an equal impact, but in a devastating way. Thankfully, these weavers are living up to the designers’ expectations. They are able to buy quality input supplies in bulk (input prices can fluctuate dramatically by the hour, so it is imperative to buy affordable inputs when available) thanks to secure access to capital, and are meeting the designers’ standards thanks to training.Even though their dependence on this one contract is high, this is progress being made and a step in the right direction. It is now up to us to continue to source new market linkages and provide additional financial services. In a few years, the savings allocated from this additional income will alleviate these four weavers, and hopefully the entire cooperative, from poverty. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?! While there are billions of people still living in poverty, progress is still progress, even if it’s 50 weavers at a time.Yesterday was pretty amazing. I usually spend my days writing about how my organization strives to eliminate poverty, but yesterday I got to witness it first-hand. And let me tell you, it certainly reinforced my conviction for what I do.Oh, and I couldn’t not support the weavers so I had to purchase a half-dozen scarves ;) .

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How much for a bag of soybeans?

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70-80 cedis (roughly $35-$40).That was the (tentatively) agreed upon price for a 100kg bag of soybeans in Ghana.The Oct. 24th meeting to decide said price was held in the refreshingly air-conditioned PreHarvest Forum’s Conference Room A – a welcome respite from the sunny and sweaty outdoor booths. The PreHarvest Forum was, from my perspective, a mix of information and networking; sessions on improving yields and strengthening local markets were broken up with snacks and the swapping of business cards. The event was attended by farmers, aggregators, processors, ag equipment manufacturers and more… all hoping to connect with the right people and inform themselves. With these thoughts, MEDA arranged for both the local partners and some lead farmers (from the GROW project) to attend, and set up a booth of its own. But let’s go back to the soybean pricing. It was perhaps the most interesting event of the day, and it was definitely the most intense. Determining an acceptable price for soy for both buyers and sellers while trying not to price out local chicken farmers (who use the soy for feed and who will, if the price is too high, import soy from neighboring countries), requires a great deal of consideration: conservation, costs, and markets. “Brothers and sisters, let us remember that we are in a global village,” was one sound bite from a persistent refrain. The meeting attendees understood that all parties (soy farmers, chicken farmers, producers, and aggregators) had to benefit if they wanted to protect this “new and fragile crop” from being swallowed up by the global market.

The debate was one part theatre and two parts substance – “[B]etter than daytime television,” I remember thinking, as the man next to me struck the table to emphasize his point. Several people quickly established themselves as authorities, refuting claims of past prices, commanding a presence, and making comments like “I don’t think I need to introduce myself, everyone here knows me.” The crowd was lively – both murmurs of approval and dissent ran thick. It made sense, I supposed later. Everyone in that room’s livelihood was at stake. They had to make a living… and they had to make sure the market would exist in the future.The 70-80 cedi price didn’t leave many in the room satisfied – some wanted an exact number, others thought it too high or low. But the schedule called for the next event’s use of the room so the meeting ended. It closed with protest, only quelled by the promise of meat pies and Fanta.The price of soy fluctuates, but it follows a somewhat consistent yearly pattern. It reaches its highest just before harvest (October), drops to its lowest at harvest (in late October/early November), and slowly rises until the next harvest. If you’re curious, here’s a handy chart (from this study) that shows the history of grain prices in Ghana: (note that 1000 cedis per MT would convert to 100 cedis per 100 kg bag)For the farmers MEDA works with, getting a good price is important. During the dry season (November – May), it’s difficult to obtain other sources of income, so the money earned from their harvest now needs to sustain them in the leaner months. During the debate many of the farmer’s market worries were expressed – not breaking even, being priced out by international markets, not having sufficient demand locally. The task of farming seemed daunting, even in discussions from an air-conditioned room.

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The Power Of Partnerships; Airtel Money Now Powered by Zoona

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Today, Thursday, October 10, 2013 marks a memorable day for Zoona.  At 8am this morning Zoona officially began its partnership with telecom giant, Airtel.  Airtel is an international telecoms company with over 270 million users.  It is presently in 18 countries throughout Africa and has 4.2 million registered users in Zambia alone.  For the past eight weeks Airtel and Zoona have been in negotiations over a partnership between Airtel money (e-wallet) and Zoona.  The partnership is mutually beneficial as it allows both companies to collaborate together to provide more comprehensive mobile money financial services to Zambian consumers.  Now any of Airtel’s 4.2 million users can register for an Airtel money account via a Zoona Agent.  They can also deposit, withdrawal, and pay bills via Zoona Agents with their Airtel e-wallets.  An e-wallet is basically a mini-bank in your mobile phone.  You can deposit money into your account through an Agent and send money to other Airtel customers in Zambia via your mobile phone.  Once someone sends money to a friend or family member they will receive a text message notifying them of the transaction.  At this point they can pick up the money at any one of the 150+ Zoona Agent outlets throughout Zambia.  Another example is someone now can go to a Zoona Agent, deposit money into their Airtel e-wallet and pay their water, electricity, and DSTV bills through their mobile phone.  This allows more local Zambians to make cashless financial transactions.  The reason why Zoona entered into this partnership with Airtel is for a variety of reasons.  However, this partnership aligns well with Zoona’s core beliefs of entrepreneurship, growth, change, and impact.  1) Entrepreneurship: This partnership will allow Zoona to stay at the forefront of developing and empowering our Agent network.  We specialize in making businesses grow, and we believe the data shows in the long run mobile wallet adoption is the future for branchless banking in emerging markets.  Rather than wait for this to slowly develop in Zambia, we at Zoona want to be at the forefront of creating the successful mobile wallet.  2) Growth: We invest in skills and technology that drive growth in our company for our customers and stakeholders.  This partnership with Airtel gives us the opportunity to gain 4 million new customers in Zambia alone.  3) Change: We challenge the status quo in the name of progress and development.  Currently, Zoona is growing and doing well in the money transfer business.  However, we foresee the future of branchless banking moving towards the adoption of the e-wallet, which will have more services and cheaper costs for consumers.  We are not afraid of change and will continue to adapt in the name of progress.  4) Impact: We will develop solutions that will scale across industries and markets.  At Zoona we are always striving to stay one step ahead of the competition, driving innovation and early adoption in the name of creating sustainable impact.  This partnership with Airtel will allow us to have a more significant impact on the Zambian market and beyond. The past few weeks the staffs in Lusaka and Cape Town have been working long hours preparing for the launch.  On my end I have been working to put together a training packet for Agents and tellers to walk them through the new features that will be on the Zoona interface.  This partnership will benefit Zoona the most if we sign up a large number of Airtel’s 4 + million subscribers and have them begin transacting with Airtel money.  Keeping this in mind, we understand our Agent network is the key to having this venture be successful.  The Agent is Zoona’s customer, as we derive value from Agent performance.  We strive to provide our Agent network with the tools they need to succeed and grow their businesses.  We do this through trainings, marketing/branding, prompt customer care, and real-time payments/commissions to name a few.  At Zoona we believe we have a top-notch Agent network.  This is why we believe we can sign up one million new Airtel money subscribers by January 1st, 2014.  Now that the launch has begun, it’s all about execution.  Like CCO Brad Magrath said yesterday, “Today the real work begins everybody.”  I often joke with my friends back in America that I feel as though I won the lottery to have the opportunity to intern at Zoona.  The organization is at a pivotal point right now in its growing phase and I am working diligently to add value to Zoona during my time.  The next month I hope to continue to travel around the country like I have the past few weeks training Agents and getting valuable feedback on how we can improve the system for them.  Now, it will be more about listening to our Agents and customer feedback.  Then we will do our best to have systems and processes in place to meet the challenges we will face as the new product grows.  We are confident in our Agent network to sell Airtel money.  However, we are most excited about the opportunity this brings local Zambians.  We are striving to innovate and grow the mobile money financial services market in Zambia.  Now, Zoona is offering more services, for a cheaper price, to more potential customers.  This feeds directly into our vision of a world of cashless growing businesses… Everywhere.

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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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Numbers Are Deceiving

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Days out of office with the field staff are a good break from sitting in front of a computer all day. I enjoy seeing new parts of the city of Dar Es Salaam and viewing people going about their daily lives in this ‘Haven of Peace’. On field days with Kapaya and Gabriel the experiences are always unique and differ from the previous drives. I have visited more than a few dukas (shops), kliniki (clinics), and hospitali (hospitals) around Dar in districts of Illala, Kinondoni, and Temeke. I have quickly discovered some of the struggles, and issues with the current voucher system/health care system in place. As well as encountered the deceptive progress reports which are examined and shown to clinic staff. A few trends I have noticed are:1. Overworked staff. After regular kliniki (clinic) hours, only doctors may be working, and they don’t have enough time to hand out the TNVS voucher’s to women so they often write down their names and number and the nurses then have to give them the voucher on their second, or third visit. This translates to a time problem with the nurses, who along with their other duties have to catch up on the paperwork from past patients: fill in the MEDA logbook with the Hati Punguzo net sticker and information, write down the Hati Punguzo number on the Antenatal Card, and check off that it was given to the patient.2. Problems with competing bed net companies.  The two main suppliers of bed nets are A-Z and BestNets. On one occasion, we encountered a situation where the retailer wanted a certain type of net, and ordered it but there was no stock with the original supplier (who had the contract). The other supplier wanted to deliver nets, but a contract was already in place. The duka had already confirmed to receive even though they were not yet delivered. The result of this situation is that TNVS insisted the supplier not to confirm delivery before the duka (retailer) actual received the bed nets. The delivery is still pending.3. Potential for new duka contracts. One observation I noticed on a few occasions was the doctors and nurses at the kliniki (clinic) being helpful in offering new, more reliable, and closer dukas to sell the bed nets to patients. On one occasion we walked with the doctor to a very close duka to see the progress of their start up into the TNVS program. The retailer had been contacted by a supplier to sign a contract for bed nets, but hadn’t received a shipment yet.4. The above situations lead us to the problem of stock. Often times there are more than enough vouchers and e-vouchers being given out to patients but when the customers go to the dukas to purchase the bed nets they are out of stock. With only two suppliers with operations in Tanzania, and a very large country to cover and service, often times there is an issue either getting the bed nets to locations with drivers, or keeping up with the amount needed to service the clients. This creates a problem of a want for more dukas involved in the program, but not enough stock to maintain them. Thus, the need for more suppliers and competition between suppliers, which will bring down the price of the net, and allow stock to be maintained and readily available. As well, a solution might be if stock had to be ordered far in advance, then maybe availability issues could be avoided.5. As well the quality of the bed nets from the suppliers may differ. While all companies bed nets in the program are insecticide treated already, a user may have a preference for a type of net which may be out of stock. Also, most nets aren’t designed to last forever, and instead only last up to five years. At the start of the program the mother may obtain a second bed net for their child as well as herself. If the mother becomes pregnant again she may gain another net for herself as well as her 2nd newborn child and so on.6. Another issue is education of SMS, texting, shortcodes and phones. While most clinics and hospitals have staff that are well-versed in using a cell phone and its functions to report info to suppliers, there are a few holdouts. One kliniki we visited we had to educate the nurse to show her how to use her phone to SMS the supplier on bed net numbers. This is why the pamphlets and paper leaflets given to the duka owners and kliniki staff are a good tool to educate about the program. In some isolated cases repetition of SMS demonstrations is the only way to proceed. You have to have patience, especially with a generational gap with respect to technology, cell phones, and their use. Sometimes, a helping hand is needed to learn.7. Dukas playing their part. Dukas writing the numbers of the nets handed out in the log book (which sometimes doesn’t exist if they haven’t made one) and putting the net sticker in as well for confirmation in the MTUHA (Mfumo wa Taarifa za Uendeshaji Huduma za Afya) (record book). It is important for dukas to keep records, and be educated on the importance of being organized for the program. After all, they are benefiting from the process with profits and need to keep up their end of the bargain.8. Cell phone network issues, and signal problems. Often times different cell phone companies (Airtel, Tigo, Vodacom, Zantel etc.) have different reception problems in rural communities and one might work better than another in an area.  Investment in updating and providing larger cell coverage is key to the success of the e-voucher system. Also it is cheaper to SMS in multiple Hati Punguzo net numbers together in one message. This info could be compiled for a while, and thus reporting numbers may be off if the duka waited too long to report. It is not hard to figure out that if these problems exist in the large urban city of Dar, then they will be highly heightened issues outside in the rural areas.All of this translates to much lower reporting percentages and number for kliniki (clinics) and hospitals for how many vouchers are being sent out to women and children and the redemption rates for them. A large factor is motivation. The workers and field staff at MEDA Tanzania needs to make sure all of the suppliers, duka owners, clinic staff, nurses, doctors etc. know how they are making a difference and helping save lives every day by completing and maintaining their part in Hati Punguzo.An idea of providing a specific phone for each clinic to use has been thought of and mentioned a few times, as whose phone do you use for SMS messages? This is a difficult question, as there may be four plus nurses working on the program. An idea of a specific phone to be used for SMSing voucher codes might make sense, and be affordable for a larger clinic or hospital, but wouldn’t work in smaller cases. Whose talk time minutes do you use? Or, do you use those minutes to SMS a supplier about bed nets or call your family and children? A moral dilemma in some cases.Data shows significant achievements in the fight against malaria in Tanzania after Hati Punguzo was introduced, with the infection of under-five year olds declining to 10% from 18% in 2008. (http://medatanzania.org/) Also, the number of patients attending health facilities to seek treatment has increased since then. In July 2013, in the Dar Es Salaam region most clinics averaged about a 70% redemption rate for vouchers from the kliniki to the dukas and to the user.Even though some of the kliniki, and hospitali redemption rate numbers are low due to several issues explained above, the fact that the MEDA TNVS program is making a difference in pregnant women and children’s lives and helping them from falling ill to malaria is incredible. This is a far more important fact than any number or reporting figure!

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“What if Soy Milk is just Regular Milk… introducing itself in Spanish?”

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Stole that line from one of my favourite memes haha. But in all serious, soy and soy products are vey popular in today’s traditional and trendy diet crazes. Yet, most people continue to debate whether soy is healthful or harmful. As a science geek, I always say ‘show me the research’. If it can’t be scientifically debunked, hypotheses remain to be proven. Ironically, I have done papers and presentations on the benefits and controversies of soy before hearing of the GROW project let alone becoming an intern here.Simply put, I am a huge advocate for soy in pretty much any form. I enjoy edamame, tofu, miso, and soy sauce of course. But most of all, I am a self-proclaimed soymilk junkie. It all started last year. I can admit to having mild allergies to just about everything, which is the cheery on top to my sensitive skin woes. I pondered one day to myself, if as milk is known as one of the most common food allergies (I was drinking about 3 glasses/day), maybe I should wean myself off it and see if it is contributing in anyway to my allergies and sensitivities. So that is exactly what I did. But not without replacing it with something equally as nutritious, packed full of calcium, iron protein, and lactose-free… SOYMILK!!! Needless to say, I haven’t turned back since. From the beginning, I was all about organic and unsweetened types and not so much the sweetly flavoured stuff. It really was a seamless transition. I use it in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, French toast, just to name a few of my go-to breakfast meals. And just about any and every recipe that calls for milk, I substitute with soymilk. When I found out the GROW team would be visiting a small-scale soymilk plant, I was beyond excited. Even though I loved soymilk so much, I had never given much though to how a legume (bean) can be processed into such a smooth, creamy, awesome-tasting beverage. I was ready and eager to further explore the wonderful world of soy.Before heading to Valley View University in Techiman, I did a little research on the soymilk equipment and operation we were going to see. The systems are called VitaGoat and SoyCow. Originally developed by a Canadian company ProSoya, it is now manufactured in India and supplied by Malnutrition Matters, an organization with the mandate to provide sustainable low cost food technology solutions for malnutrition, primarily by using soya, but also cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables. They have been used for projects in developing countries including Myanmar, North Korea, Thailand, India, Belize, Guatemala, Malawi, Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mozambique, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana. SoyCow and VitaGoat are both well suited for developing countries. They can provide employment for 3-6 unskilled workers while providing nutritious foods for hundreds. There is also the option to have a pedal-powered motor, when electricity is not available.The one we were going to visit is in operation at Valley View University in the Brong-Ahafo region. Adventist Development and Relief Agency Ghana (ADRA) and World Soy Foundation sponsor the project, which launched in 2009. Currently, Valley View University pumps out 200 liters of soymilk/day (the system makes 15L of soymilk in 20 minutes from 2 kg of soya beans). Everyday, just over half of this is delivered to four local primary schools to provide 450 children a daily serving of soymilk free of charge. The remainder of production is bottled and/or prepared as kebabs (tofu) to be sold on campus to students. This is a prime example of how a mixed enterprise can work; some output is donated for social feeding and some is sold to sustain the operation. In addition, the University will be using this project to assess the nutritional impact soymilk has had on school children since the implementation of it’s pilot school feeding program. I personally can’t wait to hear of the results of this research study.We should have metric tons of soya beans coming from GROW women farmers this first harvest. A small-scale soy processing business is of great interest to the project and why it’s being explored further. We visited Valley View with FTF-USAID Agricultural Technology Transfer (ATT). This is a USAID-funded project that specifically focuses on improving public institutions’ and private sector businesses’ capacities to introduce new technologies to Ghana’s agricultural sector. If ATT is willing to cover the costs of equipment and training as a technology demonstration, then MEDA could help identify investors to operate the equipment as a business. But most importantly, the operation will be supplied with soya beans by GROW women. In collaboration like this, both parties, MEDA and ATT, are aligned with their respective project objectives, ultimately, for the benefit of rural farmers in Northern Ghana. It’s like a match made in soy heaven.

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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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Safe Travels to the 2013 MEDA Interns!

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For the past 16 years, MEDA has sent over 100 young professionals in total to 20 countries around the world to give them the opportunity to gain experience in the field and discover their career interests. This summer, 14 new interns visted MEDA head offices for a week-long orientation to learn about the organization and meet staff members before they embark on their 6-month international development internships. While not all of the interns will be in the same country or working on the same project, each of them will be helping MEDA fulfill its overall mission of creating business solutions to poverty for families around the world. Check back on this blog regularly to read their stories about how they are building new skills, uncovering unique experiences and changing the lives of those around them. Bringing different skills and life experiences to their position will no doubt make for varying perspectives on the realities of their internship and of international development as a whole. Let us now introduce the 2013 cohort of MEDA Interns...EthiopiaEDGET (Ethiopians Driving Growth through Entrepreneurship and Trade)Emma Harris – Rural Microfinance InternShaunet Lewinson – Business Development Advisor

GhanaGROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women)Daniel Penner – Communications/Impact Assessment InternGillian Perera - Nutrition/Food Security InternJessica Adach - Gender InternMoroccoYouthInvestJeelan Syed – Communication Development InternSanae Elamrani – Impact Assessment InternNicaraguaMiCredito & Techno-Links (Technology Links for Improved Access and Incomes)Catherine Walker – Rural Microfinance InternSarah French – Impact Assessment InternPeruTechno-Links (Technology Links for Improved Access and Incomes)Stefanie Santana – Value Chain Development InternTanzaniaTNVS (Tanzania National Voucher Scheme)Curtis Shane – I.T. Development Intern Mary Fehr – Impact Assessment InternUnited StatesInes Sawadogo – Project Coordinator InternZambiaTechno-Links (Technology Links for Improved Access and Incomes)Jared Worley – Rural Microfinance InternVisit MEDA Internships for more information on our internship program and to read the biographies of the 2013 interns.

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Walking the talk in impact investing

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My first visit to the Centre for Social Innovation at Regent Park was uplifting. I’d arrived at the first community Impact Investing Fair, a room brimming with smiling faces and glowing with slight perspiration, thanks to Toronto’s infamous humidity.The evening began with a presentation from the charismatic “Sustainable Economist,” Tim Nash, who dispelled the mysteries behind impact investing. Swiftly cutting through clunky terms like portfolio, market risk and liquidity, Nash boiled down the essence of impact investing. Afterwards, a number of entrepreneurial investment funds pitched their cause and expected returns to the crowd.There were many conversations that night that I would have loved to continue for lengthy coffee breaks. Though from different backgrounds, the people present spoke a common language, one that understood the value of putting their money into something worth investing for. Sure, your own financial security is important – but at what economic benefit are you willing to allocate your funds to blue chips or off to mutual funds? I feel that it is much like the clothes we buy, never once contemplating the supply chains of our jeans and jackets. Where is our money going?Ignorance is bliss, but meaningful investment is better.The term impact investing started to gain traction in 2009, with the establishment of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). Since then, leading publications and groups have jumped in.Dipping my toes in the waterWith all this discourse on the glorious frontier of Impact Investing, I craved a reduction in talk and uptake in action. And this started with myself. Several months ago I finally stumbled upon an impact investment opportunity that met my investment needs. It happened serendipitously through a conversation with the CFO of MEDA (my previous employer) that they had a Risk Capital Fund. With a low minimum investment of $1000, returns of 2 – 4%, and high social-environmental investment standards, I had found my match.Agro Capital Management (ACM), one of MEDA’s investments. ACM sells and finances agricultural equipment to small farmers to help create more profitable operations in the Ukraine.My relationship with impact investing has mostly been rocky, a lot of talk and little action. I’ve learned that I need to be thorough and patient in my search. Impact investments do exist, and there is no shortage of places where money is needed. Investing safely and wisely means due diligence plays a serious role at this stage. Until impact investing becomes a staple in mutual funds, us investors will have to take a more active stance, and spend more time and resources understanding, supporting and promoting the industry. As difficult as my impact investment pursuits are, I’m in it for the long haul. Are you?

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Those who can't post...link to other people's blogs?

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Ok so I know that my next blog is long overdue, but it is definitely a testament to how much I have been enjoying myself in Zambia!  Since you heard from me last I have been to Chobe National Park in Botswana for a camping trip/safari, Livingstone twice (still without mustering up the courage to do the bungee jump), the Harare International Festival of Arts in Zimbabwe for music/arts and horseracing, and to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia to see the Mzungu All Stars football team take on the local Zambian team, raise money for conservation projects and not see any leopard upclose.  All in all, not too shabby. I have had the opportunity to see more of the amazing countryside in this part of the world. 

On my non-weekends, I have been working on training materials and editing videos while are nearly done. Stay tuned as I will share a bit more about the process of editing and developing training materials next.  But to wet the appetites, I thought I would share a post from Michelle, our visiting Kiva fellow, documenting one of the amazing success stories of Zoona.

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mHealth Meeting in Dar

Describing MEDA Tanzania’s transition to the eVoucher channel from a paper voucher for subsidized bednet distribution, never fails to interest an audience. As MEDA’s eVoucher uses a USSD platform, the simplest of feature phones, allow vouchers to be issued and redeemed by beneficiaries. It also makes it a lot easier for MEDA to track and measure trends to inform future decisions about the program.

Using ICTs and mobile phones in particular as part of health and development solutions are not new, and their applications are countless: SMS scratch codes are used to verify the authenticity of certain drugs, mobile phones are used to monitor and record data on teacher attendance etc.

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Training MFIs to improve financial access for youth

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For the past year our project, YouthInvest, has been working to shift strategies to its second phase - training Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs), commonly referred to as AMCs (Associations de micro-credit) here in Morocco, to improve their services and products to meet the needs of the sizeable youth market. In 2012 MEDA signed an agreement to train credit officers and branch managers for one of the larger MFIs - the Fondation Banque Populaire de Micro-Credit (FBPMC) in cooperation with another NGO that is funding the training on improved customer service for youth clients. MEDA Maroc has been training their staff in week long sessions across the country, With the goal being to train the staff from about 50 branches. The evaluations coming out of these sessions show how successful the program is, and the participants' satisfaction with the content and delivery.This past weekend, February 8-10, 2013, MEDA Maroc offered a short overview training on the "Financial Solutions for Youth" training suite we will be offering to all Moroccan MFIs. There were nearly 20 participants at this select workshop, representing MFIs large and small, as well as a few individuals interested in the sector. Training for Trainers (TOT), Better Customer Service for Youth Clients, Developing Financial Products for Youth, Risk Management for Youth Clients, and Technical Assistance for Product Development are the components of this new YouthInvest phase. MEDA will also be conducting a study of financial products and services currently available to youth, as well as current youth client satisfaction surveys before commencing the training suite for MFIs. A similar study is being conducted in Egypt, where YouthInvest is also active.While this phase has taken some time to get off the ground, partnership agreements are being signed with MFIs presently, and the materials and content for the three training topics are being finalized. A good deal of my time at work has been dedicated to supporting this phase in recent months (helping with customer service materials, translating partnership agreements, and taking photos at the FBPMC training in Khouribga in order to use some shots for upcoming publicity. Included are a few photos from our training on "Financial Solutions for Youth" in Casablanca and the FBPMC training on Improving Customer Service for Youth Clients in Khouribga the last week of January. 

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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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Building Resilient Livelihoods

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In the rural areas of Amhara, rice farmers live a hand-to-mouth existence. Having enough money to afford inputs for farming, school and household expenditures, particularly before harvest time is a significant challenge. Farmers are often forced to sell rice during harvest season when prices are low, which endangers their livelihood and hinders their income potential. As farmers are without savings habits, any surplus income earned following harvest is squandered at the local Saturday market on drinks. This was the previous experience of thirteen rice farmers who, with the assistance of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), formed a group known as Addis Alem Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA).

MEDA's InterventionIn 2011, Gizaw (pictured left), a rice farmer, received MEDA's training on the benefits of saving and how to form a VSLA within his community. The training covered topics on saving, credit, managing risk, and resolving conflict. MEDA also provided Gizaw with the necessary materials to start saving, which included: a savings box with two locks, thirteen passbooks, four plastic plates, and a bookkeeping ledger.

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