MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Life is a Beautiful Struggle

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Life is a beautiful struggle.These are the incredible words of my friend Elise that described the weekend perfectly. A group of us had decided it was time to made the trek to Zanzibar for those of you who don’t know this is a beautiful island right off the coast of Tanzania. Saturday morning we took the ferry, which for residents costs about $10 US. The 90minute ride I was filled with a whole lot of excitement as I had only heard great things about Zanzibar. When arriving in Stonetown, the main city of Zanzibar we had to go through customs even though Zanzibar is still technically a part of Tanzania. It seemed pretty quick for the most part until we noticed that one of us was missing. Elise had been pulled in for questioning. They were accusing her of breaking the law because she did not hold the proper visa. Elise is a student and has a student visa but the officers would not let her go until she paid the $200 US for a working visa. They were not budging; there was no negotiating to be done and after a long while Elise finally gave in and handed over the $200.Luckily, we quickly found a taxi driver to take us an hour up north where we were hoping to book a hotel, this is where we were told they have the most beautiful white sand beaches. From only one question our driver knew exactly the hotel we would like. All he asked was, “Price range- cheap or expensive?” Simultaneously we all shout, “CHEAP!” He knew the perfect place! We were able to get a hotel room with 4 single beds, right on the beach, free entrance to the beach party and free breakfast all for $20 each. It was perfect.From all the pictures I had seen on google about Zanzibar I knew it would be beautiful but I didn’t expect it to be half as magnificent as it was. The beaches were a perfect soft, white sand, the water was this phenomenal clear turquoise color, the staff was incredibly friendly! I was seriously in paradise.We spent all day swimming in the water, laying on the beach and even playing some American football! It was the relaxation I needed. Then at night we had a giant dinner buffet right on the beach while we watched the staff perform different dances and acrobatics. We finished the night off with their usual Saturday beach party that included dancing, bonfires, stars and great conversations. It was a perfect ending to the amazing day!It was too perfect. The next morning, I woke up at 6am ready to go for a morning swim before we were heading out to the spice tour. Elise just came in the door and told me that her and Curtis’s phones had been taken from our porch last night. The porch was the only electrical outlet that worked so they had left them out there to charge. We should have known something was bound to happen, everything seemed to wonderful to be true but I am way too naïve to think that way! So her and Curtis spent the morning talking to the staff, security guards, managers and watching video tape. Nothing could be found.Since I was no real help, I decided to take a swim before breakfast. This is where I had my first real, “I’m really in Africa!”  moment. Sitting on the beach with little to no one around, listening to the waves and the birds, feeling so refreshed from the cool blue water.  It was the most at peace I had felt in a long time. Without using too many cliches, the best way to describe it is that moment where time really does seem to stop. It felt as if all was good in the world. It felt as if everything was going to be okay. It restored hope inside me.After I met up with Elise for breakfast. We talked a lot about what could of happened to her phone, what could have been done to prevent it and how vulnerable it made her feel. I knew all these feelings because I had gone through a similar situation recently. In the midst of our conversation though she simply took a breath and said, “Life really is a beautiful struggle.” I was taken a back by this quote. We were in this perfect beautiful paradise where all these unfortunate events seem to be happening to her and she was still able to see the beauty in the world.The most amazing thing about travelling abroad is the people you meet! I am truly blessed to have this opportunity!

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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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First Impressions of Addis Ababa

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After stepping off my 14 hour flight from Ottawa to Addis Ababa, I am in utter amazement. I cannot believe I have finally arrived.  I am immediately overwhelmed by the stark contrast between rich and poor.  Shiny skyscrapers housing international organizations of all kinds are scattered throughout the city. At the same time, impromptu fruit stands and tiny businesses operate only steps away.  The roads are filled with foreign vehicles but must share with the locals and animals that are walking to their destinations. Construction is going on everywhere –signs of a city quickly developing. I could go on about the disparities surrounding me, but I am content to just take it all in and revel in the fact that I am in Addis Ababa. The weather is colder than I expected for an African nation (a curt reminder to never assume). I was told at the airport that the Ethiopian rainy season is in the final weeks. I am extremely excited for the sunny weather as it is pretty dark and damp. However, I am still impressed with the palm trees and overall tropical feel to the city. I am ready to explore but I have to keep reminding myself that I have six months to do this. At the moment, I just need to get settled and collect my thoughts. When I applied for the position of Business Development Advisor intern, I never imagined I would get this far. Despite my lack of confidence, here I am, ready to see what the next six months has in store for me. What do I want out of this experience? First and foremost, I want to leave Addis knowing that I made a difference in someone’s life, regardless of how small of an impact. I want to bring hope to people and change their outlook on life.  I want to make great friends, discover this side of the world and take the time to get to know myself better. In the meantime, I will try and figure out how to get around using the minibus taxis and communicate with my limited Amharic vocabulary.

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MEDA Staff Visit and a Quinceañera to top it off!

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

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Ninapenda Kula Chakula!!

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Chakula time! My favorite phrase of the day…food time. For any of you who know me, you know I am handicapped by any foods that are too spicy… or that have any spice at all really. All of you would be so proud. Although, not all the food here is spicy, hardly any of it really but they always have an option to make it spicier. Here at the MEDA office we are fed lunch everyday. We are given 3 or 4 options the day before; mostly the same options everyday with one new option, that again… I usually stay clear from. I have been sticking in my comfort zone with wali ne kuku (rice and chicken). Now this rice isn’t the same as rice in North America though. I never really enjoyed rice back home, I would only eat with some delicious sauce on top to let me forget about eating the rice but here it is a whole new world. I am told it is because this rice is whole and does not go through as much processing, whatever the reason may be… I can actually say that I crave rice. I enjoy my comfort zone, I feel safe eating that but my roommate/fellow intern Curtis thinks I need to be more adventurous. He often encourages me to try the new things on the menu that even he doesn’t know what they are. This is why… I have a strong suspicion that he changed my order one day. Sitting at my desk, I finally here “Chukula (food) is ready for all!” I was starving that day and could not wait for my wali ne kuku… only when I open up my container I find a whole samaki (fish). When I say whole fish, I mean whole… head and all. The little guys eyes were just staring at me! We are fortunate enough to get food every day, so I didn’t have the guts to say this isn’t what I ordered instead I just had to eat it. I was forced out of my comfort zone! I used the lid of my container to cover the head, I just couldn’t eat it with those eyes staring at me. It just felt so wrong. I looked around to see how others were attacking this meal. No forks and knives, just their delicate hands peeling the meat of the bones and then throwing it into their mouths. Oh boy… unfortunately Nichols College etiquette dinner didn’t prepare me for this. I forced down as much of this fish as I could. Wasting over half of the meat on the fish that apparently is in the head. I felt so awful but there was no way I could put any more of that fish in my body and I have a feeling my face gave off every ounce of misery I felt during that lunch. It is not all bad though, I have found quite a few foods that I enjoy. There is this wonderful sauce that I put on top of my rice; a sort of salsa that is not spicy but has the sweetest most flavourful addition to my amazing rice. As well as a form of rice called, Pilau. It is brown rice cooked with different spice that gives it an amazing flavour! Being in a big city though, we have a lot of selection such as Indian, Ethiopian, Thai and even Pizza. I can certainly find something to here that is not the problem. Also, I am lucky enough that Cutis, anapenda ku pika chukula (likes to cook food). I try to repay him by doing as many dishes as possible. Maybe one day I’ll make him an amazing grilled cheese sandwich!

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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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Karibu Tanzania

I have only been in Tanzania for 3 and a half weeks but I already feel I have so much to tell you. I could talk about the major culture shock I experienced or about having to dance my way through a church service or about having my purse stolen right off my neck. I have so much to share but I feel I should start with what the heck I’m doing out here.After graduation last May, I was offered a six-month internship with MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Association). MEDA is a non-profit non-government organization that works to alleviate poverty through sustainable economic development in many different countries around the world. They work to encourage struggling rural farmers, to empower women, to motivate youth and more. In Tanzania, we work with Hati Punguzo bed nets.In Tanzania, malaria is responsible for more that one third of deaths among children under the age of 5 years and up to one fifth of deaths among pregnant women. Effective preventive and curative measures have been developed; however, sleeping under bed nets remains an important strategy for protecting. When the bed nets were given out for free though, they found that Tanzanians were using them for anything but a bed net. Therefore a small fee was introduced to create a higher value for the Hati Punguzo bed nets. To be sure that those most susceptible to Malaria were still able to get a bed net at a cheap price, a voucher for pregnant women and infant children was introduced.When a pregnant woman or a parent with their child goes to a clinic for their check up, they receive a voucher for a bed net. They take that voucher to the retailer where they are able to redeem that voucher and receive a bed net for 500 shillings, which is about $0.35 U.S. MEDA is the logistics manager in the whole operation. MEDA ensures that the clinics have vouchers; the retailers have nets in stock; the distributors are supplying the nets to the retailers on time and collecting data to keep track of the all the vouchers calculating the redemption rates for each region.I was hired as the impact assessment intern for the next six months and am a member of the monitoring and evaluation team here. We work with many field officers and collect data from all regions to compare, analyze and recommend new solutions to reoccurring problems.With only six months, I am working hard to contribute as much as possible as well as learn from the incredible coworkers I am surrounded by. There is a lot of behind the scenes work that I am starting to get a great introduction into and am constantly impressed with the work ethic of both those in the office and the field. I have been able to make one field visit so far and hope that there will be a few more in the next few months, as it certainly makes the numbers I am looking at all day have a lot more meaning.

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Present Bus System (Dala-Dala’s)

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With the future D.A.R.T. project underway comes the limiting of the Dala-Dala (mini-bus) licenses. These buses can still be used for getting around on the smaller road routes but should stay off the main throughways if the city is going to have a reliable bus system in the future.Being a geographer I wanted to get a look at the dala-dala routes before using this method of public transportation system. This information is hard to come by as I’m pretty sure it doesn’t really exist! These dala-dala drivers have a specific route they take, but the routes have never been mapped and it’s pretty difficult when the streets they take are not named sometimes. The closest thing I have found to a route map was done by Anson Stewart (an American who specializes in engineering and urban studies). While not perfect, this map is a good tool for anyone venturing out in a new city, and trying to make their way around using public transportation. These types of maps should be public knowledge, and distributed. When I showed this map to co-workers and even a dala-dala driver they were intrigued, and wanted a copy for use.For now, the dala-dalas are the main bus transportation system in Dar. However, in the near future the D.A.R.T. bus system will hopefully ease traffic problems. It is a major construction project and in order for it to be completed soon the contractor Strabag needs to pay its workers on the project. The workers are demanding up to two months in back pay. The over 1000 road construction workers if not paid could lay down their tools bringing the Morogoro Highway construction project to a grinding halt. The workers are not only demanding wages owed but are also complaining of ‘poor working conditions’ and are requesting the government to secure them a safe and more humane work environment. Thus, cooperativeness between the Dar Es Salaam Regional Commissioner, Strabag management, Tanzania Mining and Construction Workers Union (TAMICO) along with the construction workers need to happen soon to fix transportation in Dar!

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Urban Planning and D.A.R.T.

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I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to go out with some of the field staff within my first week at the MEDA office in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.  On the way to the dukas/clinics I was greeted by the traffic in Dar. It is a city which could benefit from a few changes to its current roadway and highway structure layout. The larger highways (Morogoro road, Mwinyi/Bagamoyo Road) have a smaller side road along it for bikers (boda-boda), walkers, people carrying items, sometimes motorbikes (piki piki), bajajis (3 wheeled vehicles), trolleys etc. Then, there is a large ditch, 2 lanes of traffic, a very large centre area (not often fully used, where you could easily fit in another 1-2 lanes) and the same setup on the opposite side of the road.  This is a city with a traffic problem. There doesn’t appear to be a time during the day when the roads are not clogged. I haven’t yet seen a highway in Dar which has more than two designated lanes in one direction. Adding more lanes would ease congestion in this large city of over 4 million people. A similar case is in Nairobi, Kenya (population of 3 million) where they recently worked on building the Thika Super Highway away from the city. With 4 lanes of traffic (on each side), it works well at dispersing people to and from work within the city centre. This combined with the bypass system for the north, south, and east should further ease congestion.Although I’m not here for Urban Planning, I am very interested in it! The ambitious Dar Es Salaam Rapid Transit (DART) project will first be building a bypass with dual four-lane carriage ways, which seems like a great idea for the city and its transportation future. The project is expected to save billions of shillings lost daily in traffic jams and provide relief to at least 300,000 Dar Es Salaam commuters (I work with many of them!) Completion of the project would result in shorter travel times for motorists, decongestion of surrounding roads, improved security, safety and convenience for pedestrians and cyclists due to construction of footpaths and bicycle lanes. The roads will form major alternative routes bypassing the downtown business area and as such would ease nightmares motorists encounter while navigating through the city.

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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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The sole Canadian at a Swahili church service

It was my first weekend in Dar es Salaam and Curtis my fellow intern/ roommate was in Kenya so needless to say I had to find something to fill my time. This is why when our security guard, Joseph invited me to church with him, there was no way I could turn it down.  We were a little late when we walked in, so most of the seats were already full.  As we walked right in front of the whole congregation, I could hear a whisper go through the crowd.  I took the last seat available and tried to listen as they rambled off in Swahili for a few minutes before turning toward me.  The pastor was looking right at me, I wanted to run.  He called me in front of the room, introduced me as “Sister Mary from Canada” and asked me to dance with the choir.  There was no way I could say no, so I tried to copy the choirs moves as best as possible.  When I finally get somewhat close to the step they were doing I lift my head up to see almost every one of them with a cell phone or camera pointed at me!  They had me dance a few times before they let me return to my seat. After the service, they were having a fundraiser for a new member to buy him furniture for his house.  It was an odd tactic but I went with it.  They had an envelope of money that was donated to him, then someone would pay money to open that envelope and show the congregation how much money was in the envelope.  Immediately they came up to me to be the first one, but all of these instructions they were giving me were in Swahili with a lot of hand gestures, one of them being the pastor pointing to the envelope then at the congregation.  So me still not aware of what I am doing and why, I gave him a few shillings and went to the front of the room.  I open the envelope, I pull out a 10, 000 shilling bill and I throw it into the crowd.  The congregation is roaring with laughter, my cheeks are bright red so I take my seat.  The next women goes up, pays her fee and opens the envelope, she pulls a bill out, raises it in the air and places it in the basket next to her as she sends a glance and smile my way.  Hmm, that makes more sense.  They let a few more people go by until they finally ask me to go again so now knowing what I am suppose to do, I am back front and center.  This time I have 5 bills in my envelope, the first 4 I did exactly what I was told but the fifth I faked a throw into the congregation and then placed it into the basket, again I had the whole room filled with laughter.  So needless to stay most of the service was spent laughing at me and my lack of understanding for Swahili but it was quite enjoyable.

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Chatting with Revolutionaries and Chilling on the Beach in León

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

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Deacachimba

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

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

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My Arrival in Zambia

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It felt wonderful to arrive in Lusaka, Zambia after 31 hours in transit from San Francisco to Washington D.C. to Addis Ababa to Harare to Lusaka. After waiting in the long line for an entry visa I was welcomed by the Zoona driver, Maxwell, holding a sign with my name on it. Talk about service! On the 25km drive to the Zoona office he pointed out some of the major points in the city as we passed them. Although I was jetlagged, it felt great to be back in Africa after a one year break where I was working in Phoenix, Arizona for the International Rescue Committee.  The partner agency I will be working with in Lusaka is the mobile money transaction company, Zoona. Recently, Zoona developed a one page summary of the company that I find helpful. Not only does it explain Zoona’s purpose, values, and vision but also its corporate strategy, goals, and business KPI’s. You can view a scanned copy of it here. With a rapidly growing agent base, superior access to working capital finance, and real-time payments for customers Zoona has its sights set on providing cashless services to help businesses grow in emerging markets.  Housing has proved to be a bit more difficult to find than I was anticipating. Zoona has been kind enough to let me stay at their company 2 bedroom flat about 200 meters from the office while I lock in a place to live for the next six months. Having some cross over with the current MEDA intern, Jenn Ferreri, has been very helpful in helping me meet people in the community as well as getting up to speed with everything Zoona and MEDA.  In my first week I have been learning about the Zoona business model, what my role will be in helping add value to the company during my time, and visiting local agents to work in performing transactions with customers. This was helpful to understand the process of sending/receiving money via one of Zoona’s agents. I was placed on the busy Cairo Rd. near the city center with Zoona agent, Misozi. It was a lot of fun hanging out with her four tellers and learning the ins and outs of Zoona transactions. I was a little slow at the start, but was getting the hang of it after a few hours behind the booth.  Thus far things have been splendid in Lusaka. The weather is also a nice plus coming from Phoenix in August. I am excited to be working with MEDA to help scale a growing entrepreneurial business with a bold vision of a “cashless Africa.” In my next entry I will go into more detail as to what my role will be with Zoona as I am now beginning to finalize my TOR (terms of reference) for the upcoming six months. 

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¡Bienvenidos a Nicaragua!

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

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Recent Comments
Steve Sugrim
Awesome blog Catherine and I love the pictures of Panchito
Tuesday, 27 August 2013 15:41
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A short buy very sweet (and packed) trip

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I got to spend two of the busiest days of my post graduated life during my training at MEDA’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario; getting ready for my value chain development internship in Peru.  I have to confess that I am feeling a little dizzy after having over 10 meetings in only 2 days. However, it is a little price to pay for all the knowledge I’ve acquired in such a short time, I truly went from zero to hero!I was able to learn much more about MEDA. I honestly feel privileged to be part of such a noble organization. What a pleasure to be able to work in a place where I deeply identify myself with their mission and their faith.I also got the opportunity to personally meet the passionate team members of MEDA.  I was impressed to see their impeccable work and discipline. You are all fabulous and generous of you time! I specially want to thank Sheila Mei for organizing this trip for me.My heart beats faster and louder every second that gets me closer to the day of my departure to Peru (Time left: 5 days, 3 hours, 25 seconds) I can’t imagine a better place to start my career than my beloved country.Let the internship begin!

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My Story

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I have just graduated from American University with a Master in International Development at American University. I did my freshmen year of college in Dakar, Senegal and at the time, my major was undecided. In others words, I knew I wanted to study in the international field but I did not know what exactly. I decided to study in development because at an early age, I was exposed to the field as a result of my mothers’ professional career as a human right’s activist. Without a doubt, my mother’s career was my true inspiration. In fact, hearing stories about places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other African countries in crisis, made me realize that this is what I wanted to do. I want to contribute to the economical, political and social development of developing countries like my home country, Burkina Faso. I transferred to Suffolk University in Boston in 2006 for my sophomore year and despite some initials struggles with English language, I caught up really fast. After one year in at Suffolk University I decided to relocate to La Roche in Pittsburgh, a smaller city and smaller educational environment where I could focus more on my studies. After my graduation in May 2009, I thought getting a job would be easy, but reality taught me otherwise. In fact, finding an internship or a job is not simple. However, during my program at American University, I had the opportunity to intern with two great two great organizations but I was still looking for an internship that would tie everything together and put me in a position where I could really use what I have learned in the last two. MEDA’s Project Coordinator internship came at the right time. I have been with MEDA for just a month and I am already impressed. Unlike many internships where you are just sitting by the copy machine, I get to work on ongoing projects and attend staff meetings. Right now, I’m working on developing and updating MEDA’s entrepreneurship toolkit for the financial services. I have learned so much already and I am looking forward to the rest of my experience with MEDA.

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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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Time Flies By!

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

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Meghan's Most Significant Change Story

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As part of her internship, Meghan interviewed over 20 clients of the UHDP project to learn what impact MEDA's work was having on them, their business and their families. The method they used to measure their life changes is called Most Significant Change (MSC). At the end of her internship, Meghan decided to complete the exercise herself to see what she was able to achieve, how has she changed and what she has learned most from the experience. To read her MSC story, click here or on the photo.

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