What do you get when you cross 5 Canadians, 2 British friends, an American, a Danish girl, a Canadian flag and a power outage? Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana! (I have coined the term Ghanadian Thanksgiving)Last Sunday we celebrated Thanksgiving, hosted by three other Canadian girls also doing CIDA internships here in Tamale. It was a great time and a wonderful meal. None of us have an oven, and turkey isn't that popular a menu item here, so the girls bought chickens and asked the local street meat vendor on the corner to roast them for us which he kindly did. We also had mashed yams (potatoes are a rare commodity), a mountain of eggplant, onion and carrot, cabbage (not such a rare commodity), and a lovely tomato soup with bread to start. Our contribution (us MEDA interns) was a watermelon for dessert, roasted corn, which Gillian very impressively perfected over a homemade charcoal grill, and a Canadian flag from our apartment which we hung proudly over the curtain rod.It was a nice surprise when I was asked to give a toast before the meal. I mentioned how fantastic it was, as we were all so far away from home, to be gathered together to celebrate our holiday – and exciting that others could join us in their first experiences of Canadian Thanksgiving (I was sure to toast to some other Canadian trademarks we could recognize on this occasion like hockey, maple syrup and Celine Dion).At one point we were asked the story behind Canadian Thanksgiving, and unfortunately, I didn't know all the facts at the time. After some quick research I learned that the Canadians started giving thanks for the harvest 43 years before the pilgrims landed in the United States. At first, the national holiday was celebrated on November 6, but in 1957 when Remembrance Day was established on November 11, the date of Thanksgiving was changed to take place in October instead. Now I can be ready to answer that question during the next Thanksgiving I celebrate abroad!Before we started the main course, we were asked to each share with the group the things we were thankful for. As well as being thankful for the health of my friends and family, I also explained how thankful I am for this great experience in Ghana – in the workplace, in the communities, across the country (I have been to all but one Ghanaian region) – together with some amazing people. I really couldn't ask for anything better. It was nice to hear that most of the others had similar things to be thankful for.In the middle of dinner, a thunder storm rolled in and we lost power. This didn't slow us down and, as we've learned to be prepared with candles and flashlights at hand in a moment's notice, we were ready to continue dinner in no time, accompanied by various forms of mood lighting. Luckily the power came back again about 10 minutes later. All in all it was a wonderful evening filled with laughter, food and friends. Although I was thinking of my family back home, I wouldn't change my Ghanadian Thanksgiving experience for anything. It served as a reminder of how grateful I am to be exactly where I want to be, helping provide families here with a harvest they too can celebrate.
It’s been one week in Tamale, Ghana. (Here are some split seconds of the week. And yes, it has gone that fast.)I’ve been lost (and found… a key part to the story), gotten rained on, tested out my gag reflex, sung karaoke with a very drunk Japanese man, haggled, been bitten by mosquitoes, visited the office a few times, and celebrated Thanksgiving. To which you might say, “wait, isn’t Thanksgiving in November?” To which I respond, “not if you hang out with Canadians.”So I’ve been trying to do a few things — one of them is to accept my current state of cultural inefficacy.When you arrive to a new place, there are things you are not going to know — language, customs, where to purchase eggs at the best price, etc. You can try and act like you’ve eaten Tuo Zaafi and soup with your right hand your whole life (when in fact you’re left-handed and are a big fan of flatware). You smile and nod as your friend/host carries on the conversation. Suddenly, with all of the elegance of a newborn giraffe, you miss your face. Soup drips slowly down your chin. You pause, pretend that nothing is wrong, reach for a napkin casually, glance up at your friend, and notice that he awkwardly looks down at his plate. Errr.*Embarrassing things happen to most people, but with a much greater frequency and certainty in a foreign context (So I’ve found). As the old Polish proverb goes, “a silent fool will always remain a fool.” Or something like that.So if I’m going to learn some phrases in Dagbani (one of Ghana’s 79 local languages), I’m going to have to be ok with a little butchery of the language. If I’m going to learn the layout of the city I’m living in, I need to run that errand even though I’m not 100% sure where the building is. If I’m going to make my experience in Ghana valuable, I’m going to have to ask some obvious questions and make mistakes. To mistakes!* - the following story is not as hypothetical as the author would like to suggest, but rather a fairly accurate account of a recent Saturday outing.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
“What a long, dreadful train ride” I heard people shrugging, while I was watching the landscape slip away behind me. We were stopping in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time, in what appeared to be “ghost stations”. I didn’t’ really ask why, I didn’t really care, I was simply enjoying the moment and anticipating my first work related trip. I was heading to Tetouan to assist with a 3 day training session organised and supported by MEDA Maroc, which focalizes on informing credit agents and directors from MFI’s on how to better understand and handle young clients. The train stops yet again, the AC wasn’t working, and some of the windows wouldn’t open, the passengers are all quiet, it was too hot to bother talking. Kids were coming out behind piles of rocks and bushes, running from a distance towards the train, trying to hop on the train for a free ride to the neighboring costal city: Azilal. They were bright eyed boys with big smiles, having the time of their lives while being chased after by the security guards and their dogs. I always enjoy road trips; I lose all concept of time while basking in the images and live portraits surrounding me.After resting in Tangier I hit the road to Tetouan! The development agents I met there were all enthusiastic about the training. Their interest and participation were great, even though the sessions were held during the week-end. We all had a sense of how important it was to provide appropriate financial services to the youth, and countered the multiple stereotypes surrounding young MFI clients. Clients weren’t numbers anymore; they were people from their community that they were eager to help. While I was capturing these moments with my camera, I noticed the same bright eyes and smiles I previously encountered during my train ride. I kept wondering what was so similar between two completely different groups of people. Could it be hope? Hope to reach more clients...hope to reach the beach or hope for improvement...hope for a better future.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
One of the highlights of my time in Ghana so far was having the pleasure to meet and get to know the MEDA delegation that recently came to tour the GROW project.Waiting at the airport in Tamale for the group to arrive, we were all reviewing the plans for the week ahead and crossing our fingers everything would go smoothly. We hoped the days' pouring rain (and their hours-long flight delay from Accra!) would not be too much of an inconvenience for this group who had travelled half-way across the world to support and visit the GROW project first hand. As soon as the 15 tour members walked into the arrivals hall (which also serves as baggage pickup and waiting room), we knew we would have nothing to worry about – everyone was laughing and joking with one another as though they had known each other for years (I would later find out that many, in fact, HAD known each other for years) and we knew this group would take everything in stride with smiles on their faces. Their happiness to simply be in Ghana and their willingness to be a part of MEDA's initiative, in turn, put bigger smiles on our own faces.Each moment we spent together was memorable in it's own way, although there were a few specific highlights that stand out...Going on safariNo visit to the Northern Region is complete without a stop at Mole National Park. Here it's possible to see a range of animals, from elephants to different types of antelope, baboons and birds. Something just as fun is the experience of riding in, or on the top of, the safari jeeps. It was wonderful to see the excitement of the group as they clambered up the rickety ladder to get a good seat on the top of the vehicle. Watching the cars driving a long the dusty paths of the park, it was really a marvel that everyone made it out in one piece – some of the angles these jeeps were driving at, going along embankments and navigating the potholes caused by the rain, was unbelievable. At one point, the guide stopped the car and encouraged us all to get out. Leading us into the bush, he took us up close to an elephant enjoying his lunch. It was great to see such a huge animal in this context, instead of inside bars at the zoo. After we all snapped pictures, we piled back into the cars and continued on our safari.Wise words from the chiefLater that same day we paid a visit to Wa West, one of the communities where the GROW project is located. Although there were many villagers waiting for us outside in a group, we first were summoned to the chief's palace, a modest building beside a mosque. We all took our shoes off and entered, finding a space to sit on chairs or crouch on the floor. The chief was waiting for us inside, and shared some insights with us before we went out to interact with the community. One of the most powerful sentiments was his comment: "When you empower a woman, you empower the community." It was so encouraging to hear this support for MEDA. It reinforced how important the project is and the scope of the impact it will have.Sharing resultsVisiting another community on our second day in the field was another meaningful experience for myself as well as the group. After initially greeting the community members, participating in their local dance (I did join in this time like I promised myself, even if it was only for a total of roughly of 2.4 seconds) we were taken to see the soybean fields. The land we looked at was farmed by two women together. They had put their 1 acre plots together to form a plot of 2 acres which they both cared for, making the work less strenuous. The women were so proud to show us their crops, which were growing beautifully. I learned from MEDA donors Sam and Lynn, who have agricultural backgrounds, that the soil is very fertile making the crop (also the maize that grew opposite) grow lush. Having never seen the women's farms before, it was a great visual to me to see the work in progress.Our MEDA president being initiated into the communitiesIt was so wonderful to spend time with Allan, our MEDA president, and his lovely wife Donna. These are two of the most humble and warm people I have ever met. What was even more special was to see them welcomed into the various communities we visited. Allan was the first one to join in the dancing with the women, the last one to get into the car for the drive back. and he always had encouraging words to share with the villagers. In one of the communities Allan was presented with a typical chief's outfit, marking his importance to that community. Similarly, on our last day in the field, he and Donna were both given traditional smocks by one of our partners TUDRIDEP, as thanks for their support and hard work. Seeing this confirmed how grateful the communities are and how influential MEDA is here in Ghana. It was a bittersweet moment as we stood waving and watching the group drive away on our last day together. After spending hours telling (or listening to) puns, playing music and trying not to fall asleep on each other during long car rides, having conversations about our families, sharing travel experiences, and eating meals together every day for a week, I really began to feel as though I had known some of these people for years. As we all hugged each other goodbye, and us interns received comments of encouragement and thanks, I realized that they were the ones who should be acknowledged. Working in the Tamale office, closely with the staff and partners on the ground, it is easy to forget that so much effort also takes place behind the scenes. The groups' visit made me fully understand how important their support is, and how, without their help, the GROW project would not be as successful as it is today.A big thank you to all of MEDA's donors, biggest fans and staff back at home. I hope I'm lucky enough to see you all again in the future (hopefully all wearing the Ghanaian outfits I know many of you have!), so we can reminisce about our time together. I really believe MEDA will continue to connect us all.
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!
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.
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me make something abundantly clear, snail soup is probably one of the best street foods out there! The moment I stepped foot in Morocco, my thoughts were haunted by the delectable gooey critter. During orientation week in Waterloo, we were taught to examine our surroundings the second we arrive in our residencies; I am a tad bit ashamed to admit that I went snail cart hunting instead, though I promise I promptly scrutinized my environment afterwards. Once I unpacked in Casablanca, I went for an evening walk to get acquainted with my new neighbourhood, and of course track down the “bebouch” (snail) stand. I was able to smell the tempting broth from miles away; sweet scent of herbs and spices such as thyme, oregano, tarragon, mint, peppermint, liquorice roots, anise seeds, and the list of ingredients goes on, and on…and on. For those of you who have an adventurous gastronomic side, I suggest you try some snail, click here for the recipe or hop on a plane to Morocco.After checking off “bebouch” from my bucket list, my real adventure started: interning as an impact assessment agent with MEDA, in the city of Casablanca. The team here is great! Everyone is eager to help and love to share different information about the area. YouthInvest is the project that MEDA Maroc is currently working on, it’s truly catered to the Moroccan demand; unemployment being a heavy burden, this project facilitates youth access to micro financial services as well as the work market. Next on my bucket list: sheep brain.
Stole that line from one of my favourite memes haha. But in all serious, soy and soy products are vey popular in today’s traditional and trendy diet crazes. Yet, most people continue to debate whether soy is healthful or harmful. As a science geek, I always say ‘show me the research’. If it can’t be scientifically debunked, hypotheses remain to be proven. Ironically, I have done papers and presentations on the benefits and controversies of soy before hearing of the GROW project let alone becoming an intern here.Simply put, I am a huge advocate for soy in pretty much any form. I enjoy edamame, tofu, miso, and soy sauce of course. But most of all, I am a self-proclaimed soymilk junkie. It all started last year. I can admit to having mild allergies to just about everything, which is the cheery on top to my sensitive skin woes. I pondered one day to myself, if as milk is known as one of the most common food allergies (I was drinking about 3 glasses/day), maybe I should wean myself off it and see if it is contributing in anyway to my allergies and sensitivities. So that is exactly what I did. But not without replacing it with something equally as nutritious, packed full of calcium, iron protein, and lactose-free… SOYMILK!!! Needless to say, I haven’t turned back since. From the beginning, I was all about organic and unsweetened types and not so much the sweetly flavoured stuff. It really was a seamless transition. I use it in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, French toast, just to name a few of my go-to breakfast meals. And just about any and every recipe that calls for milk, I substitute with soymilk. When I found out the GROW team would be visiting a small-scale soymilk plant, I was beyond excited. Even though I loved soymilk so much, I had never given much though to how a legume (bean) can be processed into such a smooth, creamy, awesome-tasting beverage. I was ready and eager to further explore the wonderful world of soy.Before heading to Valley View University in Techiman, I did a little research on the soymilk equipment and operation we were going to see. The systems are called VitaGoat and SoyCow. Originally developed by a Canadian company ProSoya, it is now manufactured in India and supplied by Malnutrition Matters, an organization with the mandate to provide sustainable low cost food technology solutions for malnutrition, primarily by using soya, but also cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables. They have been used for projects in developing countries including Myanmar, North Korea, Thailand, India, Belize, Guatemala, Malawi, Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mozambique, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana. SoyCow and VitaGoat are both well suited for developing countries. They can provide employment for 3-6 unskilled workers while providing nutritious foods for hundreds. There is also the option to have a pedal-powered motor, when electricity is not available.The one we were going to visit is in operation at Valley View University in the Brong-Ahafo region. Adventist Development and Relief Agency Ghana (ADRA) and World Soy Foundation sponsor the project, which launched in 2009. Currently, Valley View University pumps out 200 liters of soymilk/day (the system makes 15L of soymilk in 20 minutes from 2 kg of soya beans). Everyday, just over half of this is delivered to four local primary schools to provide 450 children a daily serving of soymilk free of charge. The remainder of production is bottled and/or prepared as kebabs (tofu) to be sold on campus to students. This is a prime example of how a mixed enterprise can work; some output is donated for social feeding and some is sold to sustain the operation. In addition, the University will be using this project to assess the nutritional impact soymilk has had on school children since the implementation of it’s pilot school feeding program. I personally can’t wait to hear of the results of this research study.We should have metric tons of soya beans coming from GROW women farmers this first harvest. A small-scale soy processing business is of great interest to the project and why it’s being explored further. We visited Valley View with FTF-USAID Agricultural Technology Transfer (ATT). This is a USAID-funded project that specifically focuses on improving public institutions’ and private sector businesses’ capacities to introduce new technologies to Ghana’s agricultural sector. If ATT is willing to cover the costs of equipment and training as a technology demonstration, then MEDA could help identify investors to operate the equipment as a business. But most importantly, the operation will be supplied with soya beans by GROW women. In collaboration like this, both parties, MEDA and ATT, are aligned with their respective project objectives, ultimately, for the benefit of rural farmers in Northern Ghana. It’s like a match made in soy heaven.
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.