MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

The Great Ethiopian Run 2013

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I participated in the Great Ethiopian Run last Sunday – and what a blast it was! Originally a few of my colleagues and I were supposed to run it together, but life got in the way and I ended up running it with a friend of mine from the local gym!While there were a minority of runners who were racing, this event is much more of a “fun run” than a race. The course was 10km in total, and there were tons of great distractions throughout. We were drenched with water multiple times, which I really appreciated considering the heat! At the halfway mark there were huge speakers playing popular Ethiopian music, and massive trucks were handing out water balloons. As you can probably guess, a massive water balloon fight broke out!IMG_1228 My friend, Fantahun, and I post-race!The course was flat in some places, but very hilly in others. The sheer quantity of people (40,000 in total!!), combined with the narrow roads (often plagued with pot holes) and (fantastic) distractions actually prevented running in certain stretches of the course, at least for us middle-of-the-pack runners. I really didn’t mind the odd walk break though – racing at this elevation and heat was a bit of a shock!The race wasn’t timed, but I’m guessing we finished in an hour or so. It was tons of fun and I’m so thankful my friend from the gym ran it with me!

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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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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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Mis-Frustration

Some individuals could find their way in any place with others who speak any language and find a way to connect, I however, find this extremely difficult. Even though, Ninajifunza Kiswahili (I am taking Swahili classes), I still find many instances where there is a significant communication barrier.As part of my internship, I am currently managing our call center of four employees. When I started we had two employees in the call center collecting data from our retailers in the North and South on how many nets they have in stock. Now, due to donor demands on data that should be collected, we have four employees collecting data on retailers in the North and South, hard to reach retailers, eVoucher redemptions and clinic voucher stock outs. As the manager, it is my role to train the new employees, create the calling lists for each, monitor and analyze the data retrieved. This is all new to me in English never mind Swahili.As I am putting together these different lists, I confuse myself over the different retailers and clinics, whether they’re eVoucher or Paper Voucher clinics and who is collecting what data. Meanwhile, as I’m only confusing myself more, I am trying to teach one of our new employees what I am looking for her to do. As I ramble on, back and fourth she continues to nod her head and accept the tasks I have given her. I finish my explanations, ask her if she has any questions and when the answer is always, “No madam” I return back to my desk. A few hours later or some times even at the end of the day when I am looking to collect the work from the day to review, I receive an email in response that explains that she is unsure of what the task was and was not able to collect the data. This is not ignorance or lack of wanting to work, this is a conflict in communication.Growing up and studying in North America, I would expect if someone did not understand the task, they would ask for clarification but that is not the case here. I have started to learn in many circumstances that Tanzanian people tell you what you want to hear. Tanzanians are extremely polite and this is simply a part of their culture as they do not want to offend you so they tell you what will make you happy. When asking a waitress to get you something the correct phrase is “Naomba maji?”  which directly translates to, “I beg you to get me some water?” The cultural universals are based off of politeness rather than efficiency. This allows me to appreciate the way of communication a little more but it is most certainly not an easy adjustment for me to get used to.I am learning that is difficult for me to understand many things until I am able to actually experience them. Even through all my communication studies during school I don’t think I really understood the frustration of miscommunication. I am embarrassed to say but initially I was quite frustrated at the situation but that is not fair or right. It is up to both me and the employee to work together to be sure the other understands what is being said. It is up to us to learn to work together to accomplish the tasks. It is up to me to embrace the culture for what it is and rather than being upset of time lost, take the time to use these as moments as teachable opportunities. I am learning, it is difficult but I am learning both Swahili and communication norms.

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Hiking through the Blue Nile Falls!

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My time in Bahar Dar came to an end on Saturday evening. I was back in Addis by 9 pm, and while already missing the lush vegetation, I was more than happy to be back in my own bed.I took advantage of an empty Saturday morning and arranged to join a tour group to the Blue Nile Falls, a beautiful waterfall connected to the Nile river. The Blue Nile Falls is known as “Tis Abay” in Amharic, which means “smoking water”.I was picked up in the early morning, and we began our adventure with a 45 minute drive over the bumpy roads of the outskirts of Bahar Dar. From there we began our trek throughout the surrounding mountains, which I LOVED! Hiking is definitely one of my favourite outdoor activities.It took us about an hour to reach our destination. And then we were able to get a bit closer!After passing the falls we hiked some ways longer in order to reach a traditional (read: rocky!!) boat to take us to the other side of the shore. After a short walk back to the car, we were on our way back to the city center.A quick costume change later and I was on my way to an afternoon conference, and shortly thereafter I was boarding my flight home. Overall, I’d say I enjoyed one awesome weekend!

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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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LIfe without ‘Kodak Moments’

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Within one second, they were all gone and there was nothing I could do about it. I guess that’s one reason why I should stop living my life through a camera lenses. So often when I take a picture the thought… “This is going to be a great cover picture!” comes to my mind. I think of the instant gratification from others with a facebook ‘like’ instead of experiencing every moment to it’s fullest.This past weekend I spent in the Ngorogoro crater near Arusha, North Tanzania. This crater is a beautiful, widespread mass of land that is home to many of Africa’s greatest creatures. I had the chance to see elephants, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, lions, hyenas, gazelles and so much more! Every time we saw an animal all of us reached for our cameras snapping an over excessive amount of pictures of that one animal which for the most part just laid there and watched us. As soon as we got the ‘perfect’ picture, we told our driver and he drove us to the next part of the road where vehicles were crowed around another magnificent animal. All the while, I’m taking these pictures I’m thinking about how I can’t wait to show my friends and family about this amazing experience I am having and I guarantee you, all of you would have been amazed. Too bad, someone had another plan for me and decided to teach me an extremely valuable lesson.This morning when I go to look to my photos and decipher which ones I would like to share, I notice an entire folder missing out of photo library. Trying to think rationally, I think maybe I just put them in a different folder or maybe I can get them back some how. I start the search. So many incidents seem to have led up to this casualty. I think maybe I can just re-download them but I decided to clean off the memory cards of my camera so I wouldn’t duplicate them on my computer. I emptied the trash on my computer to free up some space. I figured I could just download them to Iphoto yesterday and then today would add them to dropbox. It’s okay they should be in my photo stream…my photo stream was turned off. Wow. They were seriously gone. Permanently deleted.A few days ago, a coworker of mine taught me a very powerful lesson that has been coming up more times than I can count. He taught me about the power of now. He read a book recently that taught him to focus on the exact moment you are in. When all these problems seem so great and overwhelming the key is to focus on the now. “What is your biggest problem right now?” he asked as I was sitting on a beach on a small deserted island. Well, obviously I couldn’t come up with any problems at that moment but I was sure that if you got me in a really stressful situation that would be different. Since that moment, I have found myself in a few different situations where normally I could work myself up over the circumstance but I was able to think about my biggest problem at that moment which always came back to nothing. I had food, I had water, I had shelter, I had family and friends. I had a lot more than most people have in a lifetime. All of a sudden instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt grateful.So even though, I have to end this post without showing you any photos of my amazing trip, I am still incredibly grateful. This weekend I was able to see Africa in a new light. I saw the beautiful terrain of the crater that was filled with magnificent animals of all kind. I saw the Massiah men show us a dance from their culture. I spent many great moments with friends sharing stories about their lives and their cultures. I got to experience something many people will never get the chance to see. I was so excited to share all those pictures with everyone to show how much fun I am having but I think that sharing these experiences and lessons learned is even more special. I often here the phrase, a picture can say 1000 words… but what about all the words, lessons and memories that the picture can’t get across to just any viewer. What about everything that led up to that picture?I am learning to experience life in the now rather than how that picture will be received later. Even with someone video taping my every movement here I couldn’t completely show how much I have already learned from these people, this culture, being abroad and learning to be independent while still maintaining the relationship with a community. Not a picture or a movie or an essay could explain that but whom I become from what I have learned throughout this experience will. That in itself will be evidence that I am on a magnificent journey.***Added Nov 29:Then, once I think I have it all figured out…everything always seems to change completely. I had come to terms with that fact that I had lost my pictures and actually wasn’t even the slightest bit upset about it anymore! Then when I go to show Shaunet just a few of the pictures I thought I saved somehow… they ALL appear! Life is a serious mystery! So I thought I would share just a little of my favourite moments and hopefully you can feel a slight glimpse of the magic I felt seeing all these beautiful creatures!

 

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Ox, Donkeys, and Umbrellas in Church… or, how I spend my weekends

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I’ve had many people ask me what life looks like over on this side of the pond, so I figured a few of you would be curious to read it! While my weekdays are pretty busy, my weekends are typically just as filled… mind you, with a little more fun stuff. That being said, other than my visit to the National Museum, I haven’t really mentioned what I’ve been up to during my weekends! I try and get out to experience something Addis has to offer every Saturday...

 

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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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I expected the worst but found the best

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First things first: Elderly Ethiopian ladies are truly the cutest human beings. They ALWAYS say hello to me and they ALWAYS laugh hysterically when I respond in Amharic. As I walked home from work tonight, I noticed a group of four ladies sitting around a shop and smiling at me as I passed by. I waved, said hello, and asked them how they were, and they chuckled in delight at my broken attempts at their language. I walked up to them to introduce myself and ask their names, and we had a brief conversation about my purpose in Addis. Turns out one of the women was selling injera (a local food), which I had been trying to find for weeks at the supermarket. What a coincidence! I picked up a week’s worth of injera for 6 birr (30 cents!) and said goodbye, and the ladies told me they loved me! Like I said, the cutest.Speaking of injera, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Ethiopian food. Prior to my departure, a friend and I decided to try an Ethiopian restaurant back home, but to be honest, we were so turned off by the menu that we walked away. Many people warned me I wouldn’t like the food, when in fact, the traditional food is one of the best aspects of life here! I expected the worst but found the best - just another example of why preconceived notions are typically never useful.99% of the Ethiopian food I’ve tried thus far has been delicious. The only thing that turned me off was goat tongue (thankfully Sege, my landlady, understood my aversion!). Utensils are rarely used, as Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hand. If eating a communal dish, a special pot is used to clean your hands before and after the meal.Last Thursday I enjoyed a special dinner at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant with three other people visiting my organization. One was a volunteer, one was from our headquarters in Canada, and one was from an external organization – and we all had yet to experience a traditional dinner and dance ceremony.The base of all meals is normally injera, a flat, gluten-free bread made with teff, a local grain:We ordered a serving of doro wat and shero wat; doro means chicken, shero means chick pea and wat simply means dish. In Amharic, wat is always added after the name of the food if you are serving it as a meal. Each dish was a bit spicy, and the texture is similar to that of a stew.In addition to the food, we were completely entertained:A few weeks ago, Sege, my “Ethiopian mother” honored my arrival with the killing of a baby lamb. Although I must admit I was a bit sad about the poor lamb’s fate, it was imperative to respect the local culture and demonstrate thankfulness and appreciation for her generosity.When an entire animal is killed, the meat is often cooked over a traditional Ethiopian stove:I must say, the lamb was fantastic, and combined with injera and some rice this was a traditional feast I’ll never forget.

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Celebrating our one month anniversary

It’s been a rocky four weeks with lots of ups and downs, but don’t they say the transition period is the hardest?! While you’ve thrown me for a few curveballs, I’ve already become so thankful and appreciative of your entrance into my life. Yup, it’s been a good four weeks, Ethiopia.Exactly one month ago today I disembarked flight ET503 at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Equally exhausted and excited, I had no idea what lay in store; I was entering this new chapter as blind as could be. I think this was for the best though, because I had no preconceived ideas and was able to create an impression of Addis entirely my own.While life can be summed up as harder here, I’ve mentioned before how blessed I feel to be in this place. To be working for a cause I believe in, to learn the in’s and out’s of an entirely different culture, to challenge myself to adapt to such a foreign environment… it’s all so incredible and so enriching.I can’t believe a month has already flown by. While it moved quickly, a lot happened. I left everything familiar behind and arrived in Addis, started a new job, rented my first house (pictures to come soon!), joined a new church, and met a ton of new people. That’s a lot of change!!! It’s a good thing I thrive off it.Ironically enough, I was struck by a mild case of homesickness on this 30 day mark. I took a nap to brush if off, and woke up with a renewed sense of assurance that I’m meant to be here. Right now, this is home… my intuition could not have been more clear. Although my time in Ethiopia is limited, I know this is my stepping stone to greater things to come. I know this place will let my potential flourish and ultimately, will be make me a better person.Ethiopia tests my patience on a daily basis. I still get annoyed with having to disinfect all my fruits and veggies before eating them; too often I find myself staring at my watch and thinking about how salad prep takes 1/8th of the time in Canada. And then reality strikes and I am ashamed for such thoughts. How can I complain about the abundance of food in my fridge when there are dozens of homeless surrounding my home who probably haven’t eaten for days?Ethiopia has been a wake-up call. We don’t know how blessed we are until we see how unfortunate living conditions can be for others. While my patience is tested, my patience is growing. When I am at my most uncomfortable, my comfort level expands. When I look down while crossing paths with a stranger, as my Torontonian upbringing taught me to do, that stranger says hello and encourages me to be more welcoming.These are the changes I’ve undergone and the experiences I’ve encountered within my first month in Ethiopia. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.

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The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

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As you may or may not know, Ethiopia is known for fantastic coffee. I’m not sure how I’ll ever be able to return to Tim Hortons in Canada, because this stuff is liquid gold. There’s nothing “instant” about it – coffee beans are roasted over fire, ground up (traditionally by hand), and then brewed – it doesn’t get any fresher than that!I mentioned we had Eid al-Adha off work a few weeks ago. Well, my gracious colleague Soliana invited me to spend the day at her home with her family. Not only was the lunch amazingly delicious, but I was honored with a coffee ceremony as well! Soliana explained that the non-working women in Ethiopia - the older generation in particular - often enjoy a ceremony three times per day. Most women now work, however, so coffee ceremonies normally occur for holidays or when welcoming a guest to your home. The coffee should be surrounded by grass and served while incense is burning with sides of fruit, nuts, or even popcorn (which is very popular here!). Also interesting is the fact that one pot is brewed for three “rounds” of coffee, no matter the number of guests. Each round is weaker than the former because hot water is added to the mixture each time (therefore, the more people being served, the weaker each round of coffee).This process isn’t for the impatient – it takes about 30 minutes before the coffee is even ready! How many of you at home would be willing to give up your instant for this?! (none, I’m guessing…). But when it’s done – the TASTE! Indescribable. Well, perhaps it’s best described as pure happiness…I know a few people – including my mum & I – who definitely can’t wait 30 minutes for their morning coffee to be ready. But experiencing this part of the Ethiopian culture is just another reason why moving here has already been such an enriching experience.I already know I’ll be bringing a truckload of beans and a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot back to Canada – who’s up for a ceremony at my house?! :)

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Life in Ethiopia

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I have slowly fallen in love with living in Ethiopia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the most challenging change I’ve ever inflicted upon myself. Ethiopia is a fantastic example of societal harmony. Despite an equal divide between the Muslim and Christian population, each religion offers complete respect to one another. The working calendar respects each set of holidays, which means the employees of Ethiopia essentially receive double the time off work! Last Tuesday was the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, so my gracious colleague invited me to her home for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.Another aspect of life in Ethiopia: the culture. Ethiopians are proud to be who they are. Whether through generous offerings of food, supporting the local soccer team, or just general friendliness, Ethiopians want to welcome any “forenji” (foreigner) to their country, because they hope you’ll love it just as much as they do (and yes, I do!). For example, I didn’t make it home from an after-work commitment tonight until well past 8 pm, but immediately upon my arrival my landlady offered me a delicious Ethiopian dinner, plus a glass of wine!Other incredible perks of living here include the weather!! Ethiopia has a reputation for offering “13 months of sunshine”, and I can see why! Every day is sunny and hot, but the nights and mornings dip down to about 10 degrees! I love grabbing my fruits and veggies from the local huts on the way home from work – picking up a kilo of avocado for 80 cents is pretty great ;) . Oh, and then there’s this guy:So yes, there are many positives to life in Ethiopia, but this doesn’t make it perfect.  Moving here has undoubtedly been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m not yet “immune” to the extreme levels of poverty I witness on a daily basis. I must get asked for money at least 15 times per day, and when I do open my wallet to offer a few birr (1 Canadian dollar = 18 Ethiopian birr), I am like honey to bees and am surrounded by others, who are only hoping for a few birr themselves. The health issues are widespread, serious, and gory to witness, and the most disadvantaged are always women, since they normally end up carrying the burden of unwanted children.While my “issues” do not compare to those facing such poverty, I cannot say it’s easy to adapt to life without a source of continuous power. It is not unusual to be without electricity for a few hours per day, or to lose an internet connection. The internet is my lifeline when it comes to keeping in contact with those back home.Speaking of home, part of my evening is often spent Skyping or emailing with someone in Canada. When I moved to The Netherlands, I was able to meet new people constantly, since we were all in the same business school together and all spoke the same language. Here, English is a rarity and connecting with people outside of work is much more difficult. Thankfully I have my fellow Canadian here with me (and we enjoyed a great weekend downtown)! For the first time in my life, it’s not unusual for me to experience sleep issues, whether due to my own mind in constant motion, or the outside roosters/dogs/wild animal making noise. I’m always able to make a phone call home and be back to bed within the hour, though :) .

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Goodbye Personal Space

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This past week I was able to spend some time in Capetown, South Africa. So many things about this place reminded me of North America, it is definitely not what one would imagine when thinking about Africa.The uniting language between strangers on the street is English, the roads are nicely paved, the price they tell me, is the price I pay (No bartering…my worst nightmare)! It was definitely a very different scene from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania but one thing that was not completely different was the train station at rush hour.I spent the day surfing, while my friend Marina was at school and work. I jumped on the train around 5pm to head back to her place before dark. I sat third class as I normally do. At first it didn’t seem like a big deal, I was still able to get a seat but with in the matter of three stops the train filled up so much that I wasn’t even able to see out the windows. I wasn’t quite sure when my stop was so I decided to stand up which at least would let me see out the window so I could get out at my stop.After a few more stops, I must have had a look of panic on my face because a map had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Where are you going?” with quite the questioning tone. I told him Observatory and asked, “This is the right train isn’t it?” He laughed and told me, “Yes but I was still about 7 stops away!” Phew, at least I wasn’t completely lost. He offered to tell me two stops before mine, and when to walk over to the door. Within the next few stops that train filled up so much that I was now spooning someone from every angle, there was no where left to stand, or so I thought but somehow they kept piling more people into this car.The kind man told me it was now my time to head towards the door. I looked to the left and the right, unfortunately I was standing directly in the middle of the train. I had no idea how I was going to be able to get to the door. I tapped the shoulder of the woman beside me, “Excuse me, can I sneak by?” and the man, “Excuse me, my stops coming up.” They all started to giggle a little and moved about a millimetre to let me by.  I had moved barely at all and new I had very little time until my stop so I started to push my way through, apologizing the whole way.Finally at my stop, they helped push me through the door. Once I stepped foot on the ground, the whole train started to clap and laugh at me. I once again was the centre of attention! I am not really sure how I get myself into all these situations where I seem to have all eyes on me but it sure does help me make friends easily.My trip to South Africa was wonderful, I was able to surf, climb Table Mountain, see the penguins and meet many wonderful people. It is a very different part of Africa, so much that some times I even forgot I was in Africa. I have only been to a few places in Africa so far but I am learning that the Africans are unbelievably kind, friendly and joyful. Even in the most stressful situations they are able to put a smile on my face!

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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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Giving Thanks

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I had a different topic in mind for today, but I’m opting to postpone it in favour of a themed post to honor today’s Canadian holiday – Thanksgiving! In my house, celebrating Thanksgiving would involve church, lots of time spent with family, friends, and loved ones, and an excessive amount of food - most likely a turkey, green beans, sweet potato, baked potato, and a tasty pumpkin pie or two. My grandma always made an incredible sweet potato casserole. I am missing her AND her sweet potato casserole today.While I am not ‘celebrating’ in the traditional sense, I am still incredibly thankful for where I am today, both figuratively and literally. I have moved into my new home, and have basically been adopted by my landlady as her “white daughter”. Really, I saw the house on Wednesday, moved in on Thursday, and when I returned from work on Friday she had mountains of gifts for me: new bedding, cutlery, pots, pans… anything I could ever need, and everything I would have had to buy with my own money. The housing director said that in all his years of work, he has never known a landlady like her. While this move has been a bit overwhelming at times, finding a home is what I needed to start feeling a lot more settled here. I will post pictures soon!I’m so thankful for my new life in Africa. It is changing me, in ways that I like. During a conversation with someone from home the other day, I mentioned I try and keep to myself while walking to work. Now I can’t make the 10 minute trek without stopping to talk to a stranger, or at least receiving a “hello!” from a passerby. The locals and I exchange smiles, waves, and “good mornings!” multiple times. This is quite different from North America, where we try to avoid eye contact with anyone we don’t recognize.Case in point: today I asked to take a photo of a group of boys supporting their local team for today’s soccer match (soccer is life here). Not only were they thrilled to do so, they were ecstatic that this “forenji” (foreigner) could speak limited Amharic. We ended up having a brief conversation is support of the soccer match; my Amharic is broken (to say the least), but they were more than happy to put up with it. In the end, they requested a picture together.While I may be missing some sweet potato casserole, there’s no other place I’d rather be spending today… HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Whether you’re in Canada or not!

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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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The next chapter…

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9 days ago, I began what I think is bound to be the greatest and most difficult adventure of my life.Guess where I currently am? In my new office, in my new place of living … in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, AFRICA!My arrival date was delayed time and time again because of the crazy amounts of paperwork I needed, but I finally made it last Sunday (the 29th). I have already experienced more than I can even begin to describe. The only reason it’s taken me a week to post from Africa is because here, the internet is quite a luxury!Speaking of luxuries, let’s add hot water, electricity, and a working cell phone network to that list. The adjustment has been… difficult. After a 16 hour direct flight, I was too tired to comprehend anything last Sunday. The newness of my new surroundings left me ecstatic on Monday, and the reality of my new surroundings left me overwhelmed/anxious/insert uncertain emotion here on Tuesday. Thankfully, I have a select few people I can turn to in any time of need, even if I’m now 7,140 miles away from them.I’m still living out of a hotel, but I hope to move into my new apartment sometime this week. Who would have thought my first apartment, paid for by my first post-grad “real job” paycheck, would be in Addis Ababa?! Ummmm… would anyone?Once I get moved in, I’m pretty sure I’ll start feeling a lot more settled here. The level of poverty is still shocking, but in a sense it’s becoming more normal to witness on a daily basis. The beauty of this city cannot be denied though. The surrounding landscape is consumed by green countryside and mountaintops, providing for fantastic sunrise and sunsets.I’m so fortunate to already have a friend here. Her name is Shaunet, and we were lucky enough to be driven around the city on Saturday afternoon. What’s astonishing is the contrast between rich and poor here. There are five-star hotels and million dollar homes practically across from tin huts the less fortunate call their home. Beggars are not found every few blocks, as is the case in Toronto; rather, they line the “streets”, which in fact are dirt paths with pot holes the size of… well, let’s just say you can’t drive over them.I feel so BLESSED to be here. I am already accustomed to the community-oriented nature of the Ethiopian people. This type of kindness is not common in the ever-consuming society I come from. I am learning every Amharic (the local language) phrase I need to know, and perhaps best of all, I am working in microfinance, putting my skills to use to help disadvantaged women!

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