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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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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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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To the field: Oujda, by the Algerian border

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In late July, I was sent to Oujda to interview a few young clients who received “100 hours for success” training from MEDA Maroc. I took the (quite comfortable) overnight train from Casablanca and arrived in Oujda, right by the Algerian border to the East, on the next day. After having checked-in at the hotel, we promptly set off for the MEDA Maroc Oujda office and I met with our local staff. I was soon thereafter interviewing the first client, Fatima Zahra, who plans on opening her own clothing store once she gets enough experience in the field and has put aside enough money.

Later that day, I had a long and engaging two-way discussion with a group of youth after a “100 hours for success” session and was able to gain a lot of mileage as to the real-life skills and the hope MEDA Maroc’s program instills in Moroccan youth, enabling them to reach for their dreams and achieve whatever they set out to do. I’ve met and interviewed a few more youth and was able to collect valuable information and success stories.

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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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For Generations to Come…

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Field TripOn our way to the Verimpere community of the Wa West district, many things were racing through my mind. I was highly anticipating my first trip to the field, in a community where the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project is active. Days leading up to our journey, MEDA’s Gender Specialists facilitated gender sensitization and analysis training for our staff and partner organizations. Now more than fifteen of us were heading to the field, some to participate and others to observe the gender sensitization pilot activity for women and their husbands. Many things in that hour-long visit were unforgettable; the women gathered under a large tree awaiting our arrival, their singing and dancing to celebrate our presence in the community, and the attentiveness and involvement exhibited by women and men alike. But the enthusiasm and pleasantness of the children were what really captivated me. Family MattersOnce adults of the community broke off into groups, each settling under a tree, children gradually started congregating nearby. Starting with a few, it soon became over a dozen little ones circling our group. Of course, we were a sight to see for them, dressed differently and speaking a foreign language. Yet, they were sincerely engaged in their parent’s discussion, keeping a keen eye on everyone involved and quietly giggling when something unexpected was said. During the activity, gender roles and responsibilities were being discussed or rather, negotiated. I imagine this was the first time these children heard this subject talked about so openly. I was moved by the children’s curiosity and interest, eagerly soaking up every word.Plant a Seed and Watch it GROWAnd then, “Eureka!” (I really had one of those eureka moments). I was already very familiar with MEDA’s values to ensure sustainability in their projects. Most projects truly provide business opportunities, incredible, sustainable solutions to poverty. But I was now seeing with my own eyes the impact these projects have on the next generation! Because many of these children do not attend school, their attitudes and behaviours are modeled after the only leaders they see, i.e. parents and caregivers. GROW is helping to increase food security for women farmers and their families. Importantly, it’s not only the women involved now, but also generations to come, that will benefit from improved health and development, resources and skills to generate and manage income, and the countless education and business opportunities that result from those. I am so proud to be a part of the GROW project and a representative of MEDA, contributing to and witnessing history in the making.

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THIS is why I'm here

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Since arriving here in Tamale, I have been helping to prepare and facilitate workshops focussed on gender sensitization and awareness. Along with Faustina from the Tamale office, and Yasir who has been visiting from Waterloo, we have conducted these trainings for MEDA staff, as well the local partners involved in the GROW project.Admittedly, it was a little daunting to imagine myself training a conference room full of people, some who have more experience than I did in the field of gender. Now that we're nearly done with the training sessions I can say that I am so grateful for having the experience of participating in the planning and execution of these sessions. Sharing thoughts and ideas with others, meeting colleagues whom I will continue to work with during my time here, and listening to different cultural perspectives has taught me so much.However, today's session taught me the most.In the afternoon our group of local partners and facilitators got into a mini bus and drove 30 minutes outside of Wa, where our field office is located, to one of the participating communities. I was excited to finally see the people who were benefitting from the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project, and knew I would enjoy myself. The experience, however, was above and beyond my expectations.When we pulled up we were surrounded by women and children clapping, singing and dancing. (I told myself I would practice my dance moves in order to join in  next time!) We enjoyed this warm welcome for a few minutes before separating into groups in order to lead an activity based on community roles of men and women.This interactive session with the community members was great to see: men and women sharing their views, laughing, listening to differing opinions, coming to the agreement that women are just as capable as men, and acknowledging their support of the project. Our goal of raising gender awareness and making an entry into the community was a huge success.My favourite participants in this activity were the children who had gathered around the tree under which we were holding our meeting, listening in on the conversation, laughing along with their parents, and catching our eye to smile and wave. Although most of them were too young to realize what exactly we were doing there, it was wonderful to have them present – we really felt like we were reaching out to the community as a whole.After our session, as we made our way back to the minibus, the children were fascinated by our digital cameras and seeing their own faces in the pictures we took. I was soon approached by an unsmiling women who began speaking to me in the local language. I couldn't understand a word, but assumed she was telling me to stop taking pictures. As I was putting my camera away, someone came over to translate: "No, no, she wants you to take a picture of HER!" She struck a pose, quickly grabbing a wooden stool to balance on her head for this photo-op.Heading back Wa, I reflected on the experience. There were so many highlights – meeting the community members, seeing where they live, playing with the children, and witnessing, on a small scale, changes beginning to happen for the better. I've enjoyed all my adventures here in Ghana so far, from trying the different foods to seeing local sights and making new friends. But after this trip to the field I realized – THIS is why I'm here.

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On language and identity

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So, apparently, I’m Moroccan. No one could ever tell that I’m Canadian by my appearance alone. Due to my French and Indian background, I guess I could look like a great many things. I remember people in Uzbekistan thought I was Uzbek, in China I looked as though I was from the Xinjiang (East Turkestan) Autonomous Region, and Caucasians (from the Caucasus mountains) think I’m Azeri. It’s pretty practical. Even when I do tell someone, such as my cab driver on my first day, that I am from Montreal (I flew from Montreal, but I’m actually from Brampton, Ontario), he assumed I was one of those 60,000 young Moroccans who study abroad. Awesomeness. But… when I don’t speak French, and switch to Arabic I pass for any other Arab, but definitely not Moroccan. I spent the past year studying Fusha (literal) Arabic and a bit of Egyptian dialect. When I talk to people I do so in Fusha. I don’t really fear being made fun of – as I’ve been told I would –; the important thing is to be able to communicate. And frankly, I never get any remarks. People usually ask whether I’m Syrian or Egyptian. I tell that I’m Indian – a habit I’ve acquired in my travels in Central Asia, where your ethnicity is of utmost importance and is determined by your father’s background. Saying that I’m Indian also helps me avoid the temptation of speaking in French – my mother tongue. I’m in part here to improve my Arabic skills, after all. I have Satellite TV with over 700 channels in Arabic from all over the Arab world. It’s pretty cool to have been able to follow political events in Egypt on an Egyptian channel, and watch Turkish soap operas in Syrian dialect. I’m impressed with the fact that many Moroccans understand these dialects. In general, I find Moroccans are gifted with languages. At work The staff at MEDA Maroc is very friendly. Colleagues have helped me buy, and then, repair my bike. They made me try couscous, tagine and other local goodies. I am definitely a fan of Moroccan cuisine now. At the office, I’ve mainly been working on building the MEDA MENA website for Morocco and Egypt, translating a newsletter from Arabic to English and doing other communications tasks. This week, I’ll be going to Oujda to conduct a few interviews with program beneficiaries. It should be interesting.

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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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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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Ola's Most Significant Change Story

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As part of her internship, Ola 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, Ola 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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One Door Closes and Another Door Opens!

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It is hard to believe I am writing this post from my new desk, in my new office in my new home!  I cannot believe my internship is over and that I am back on Canadian soil!  I think my last month in Crimea was probably the best of them all, which made it hard to leave, but none-the-less I am happy to be back in my home and native land!Everything at the UHDP wrapped up wonderfully.  Olya and I went full throttle finishing up our MSC stories.  In the last month we conducted 8 interviews and wrote 8 stories bringing us to our goal of 20!  Each story was as heartwarming as the last.  Each person we interviewed, no matter their age, gender, background, crop, or size of their farm, has had great results from working with the UHDP.  It just goes to show how great the Ukraine Horticulture Project is to be able to produce such great results for such a variety of different clients.As a small parting gift for the UHDP offices, Olya and I wrote Most Significant change stories about ourselves to share with everyone how the Project impacted us as interns. You can find mine here: Meghan Denega MSC StoryNot only was work the busiest in the last month, but I also travelled the most too!  Although I had been taking advantage of the interesting and beautiful natural and historic sights of Crimea the whole time I was there, in the last month I managed to squeeze in a bunch of great trips with great friends! I have so many great memories from hiking in the mountains, exploring ancient Byzantine settlements, visiting residencies of the tsars and other nobles of the Russian empire, and meeting and getting to know so many great people along the way!  I was even able to meet and spend some magical times by the sea and at the top of Crimea’s highest mountain, Ai Petri, with my now colleague Susan and a volunteer auditor Dale! On my last full day in Ukraine I climbed the mountain Djimerji, had dinner in a lovley cottage restaurant in the forest and enjoyed another Russian sauna- complete with oak branch beatings!  Here are a few photos from my last few adventures including the UHDP Simferopol Staff (left), Ai Petri (middle), Rock City (right):

Although my time at the UHDP has come to an end, my time with MEDA is just beginning.  I am now located in Waterloo at MEDA’s headquarters, working as the new Project Coordinator/Junior Consult in the Financial Services department.  It is true what they say that when one door closes, another door opens! Al though I will miss the staff in Simferopol, my first week at the Waterloo office has been wonderful.  The staff is friendly and very welcoming.  I can tell that this next leg of my journey with MEDA will prove to be as impactful as my last and I look forward to all that is to come my way!

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

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

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Kamikaze Video Shooting in Zambia

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What do you get when you mix a rural microfinance intern, a Canadian multimedia specialist and adventure travel/documentary videographer  from Livingstone?The answer – hopefully, some wonderful training videos.Pictured left: Mike Q, Zoona CEO, Tony & I, on locationSo, for the past two weeks I have been running around the Copperbelt, Lusaka and Southern provinces trying to collect video footage of agents transacting, agent and client testimonials, branding in action, and good and bad business practices.  I have been interviewing, storyboarding, scouting locations, hiring actors, playing chauffeur, helping set up dollys, holding bounce cards, getting multiple waivers signed, and playing producer/director/screenwriter for a tiny production that will later become Zoona’s new agent training videos. Needless to say it has been quite an adventure. Here is a little run down of the process. The Process…Prior to mapping out the video process, the MEDA and Zoona teams worked on looking at what types of  content we could deliver via video, what the overall content for the agent training program should be and how receptive our prospective and current Zambian agents would be towards a video as the first touch point of joining Zoona.  Since I thought it was key to get feedback from the current Zoona agents, I traveled around a bit of Zambia interviewing agents and tellers. The questions I asked them primarily focused on: (1) how they had received training in the past, (2) what they thought the key components of a training should be, (2) what they thought about video as a mode of delivery, (3) what types of technology would be useful in making their Zoona businesses more efficient and profitable, (4) which customer care issues they deal with most often, (5) what the drivers of growth in their business are, and (6) how they manage their account in a given day and set targets for growth.Having sat through a week of the formal training program when I first arrived in Zambia, I had an idea of what the feedback might look like. Surprisingly, though, most of the agents and tellers I interviewed had not even gone through any kind of training and had instead been introduced to the platform by either an agent or a predecessor.  It therefore became clear that video would be a great supplement to the hands on training that most Zoona agents/tellers were receiving in the field.One of the other items that I learned during my research trip was that most agents or tellers were very clear on the type of technology that would help them process transactions faster.  Now since tablets are all of the rage in the development world, one would naturally assume that these would also be very popular with agents. BUT because the internet/network on a tablet is slower than on a laptop, the agents and tellers had a preference for the latter.   Agents and tellers were also quick to point out that the number pad attachment was also one of the key pieces of equipment that helped them transact faster because of the need for a customer to enter in a pin code for most transactions. Finally, I was also excited to get a chance to do some reconnaissance about the common customer care issues that agents and tellers deal with since I have used the feedback to script the customer care role plays for the agent training.Pictured right: Agents in action in NdolaApart from training content, it was really rewarding to hear first hand how becoming part of Zoona has changed many of the lives of the agents/tellers.  It was also a great opportunity to learn more about the Zoona business and see how many of Zoona's successful agents have developed regular customer bases and utilize word of mouth to gain new customers. Finally, as a side project, I took what I now know as B-roll, or footage of agents, tellers and customers transacting to include some variety in our video content. Based on the feedback I received from interviewees, I was able to work with another MEDA colleague, to draft an outline of the training content, associated goals for each training module, and determine the areas where video would be a value add.  Ultimately, there will be four training videos, including one focused on marketing and introducing the company and its products, one focused on customer service, troubleshooting and customer care, one focused on marketing, and one on managing your Zoona business and tellers.  These will be supplemented by two screen cast modules that show users how to use the Zoona mobile platform to transact and manage their accounts.Challenges...There are of course a number of challenges associated with doing my first ever training video production. The first being – planning.  During this process it has come to light that I am a “plan b” person….that is to say that I like to make sure that if something goes wrong we have an alternative in place to accomplish the same goals. Maybe this is a holdover from the Bear, Stearns days, but nonetheless, it is something I have taken with me.  It probably won’t come as a shock to most of you to know that that is not always possible here in Zambia. Luckily, I was able to have some amazing support from my MEDA colleague, Steve, to guide me through the shooting. We definitely developed some creative work-arounds when things were not going our way during shooting...most notably rain on a tin roofed booth interrupting sound quality, intermittent sunshine changing the look of video, and actors showing up late, various stray people wanting to interrupt filming. For the last one, it is amazing what an ambassador a free t-shirt can be as long as you don't give it out until the end. Pictured above: Actors hard at workBased on the advice of Steve and Rachel, I knew that having a comprehensive storyboard and shot list was key to getting the project off on the right foot and ensuring that we had enough footage for the final video product.  For those of my more video minded friends, I now have an even greater appreciation of all of the things that go into making a video possible. Part of the storyboarding process included scripting good and bad customer service scenarios and common customer care issues. For these items, we did live role plays with Zambian actors and our kamikaze film crew of 4 – me, Memory from Zoona, Steve from MEDA, and Tony, our videographer/cameraman on hire from Livingstone.  We tried to get as wide a range in ages and appearance as we could, but unfortunately the casting director did not come through at the last minute. Still, we managed to get some very professional actors that took their jobs seriously and succeeded in recreating the transaction process. It was definitely a different experience having actors come up to me and ask me about how they should be playing the role of agent or customer and asking about changing dialogue. While I had initially thought that filming in and around Zambia and getting various permissions would be the greatest of my challenges, I was pleasantly surprised when people were bending over backwards to make shooting possible. We were even able to film in the busiest bus station in Lusaka.  That's not to say that we didn't have our fair share of traffic, horns honking,  parade practices shutting down streets, and locals who wanted to run into shots....we even had a man ask us to film him while he was doing some Michael Jackson choreography.I am so grateful to all of the agents I interviewed for being so patient and open with me. I hope to use most if not all of their amazing feedback to make the case for the benefits of being a Zoona agent and show people how joining the team can impact their lives.Next Steps…Now that the shooting is complete, I am working on going through all of the footage and making selections for the first round of edits to be done by Steve. After that I will be working on the screencast portion of the training to be followed by putting together the user guide which will accompany all of the training materials.

Pictured right: Me in Livingstone in front of Victoria FallsOther Updates…In other news after much debate and deliberation I have decided to stay on Lusaka for another 5 months. It was a really difficult decision since I am missing my family, friends and partner, but ultimately it didn’t seem like I was quite done with my stint living abroad or any of the training projects that we are currently embarking on. 

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Long Time Gone

I'm trying to look back and process the last six months, but it's hard right now to visualize everything together; it comes in bits and pieces, good and bad. I think it's going to take some time to figure out exactly how I've changed because of this experience.*We went to Oujda, one of the towns in northeast Morocco where our programming happens, earlier this month. I had the chance to sit in on youth trainings, which was an amazing, inspiring experience.These are kids who sign up for training to improve their job prospects - kids, I say, but really 14-25 year olds. Every week, they go to sessions on entrepreneurship, money management, and life skills at community centers, where they sit in unheated rooms (and I am here to tell you, it gets cold in Oujda!) and listen to our awesome training staff. They're focused, they're interested, they participate - and these are things I think most Westerners take for granted.How many of us complained about talking CALM 20 (for non-Albertans, this is "Career and Life Management") in high school? How many of us, at, say, age 17, would have sat politely through a presentation on stress management or time management without rolling our eyes, passing notes, or just zoning out? Obviously, there is some self-selection happening, but it was seriously impressive to see young people so engaged.We had staff from MEDA in Oujda help us out by showing us around and translating from Arabic into French. They were some of the absolute nicest people I have ever met in my life, incredibly welcoming, and I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to hang out with them and see the awesome work they're doing.*I never did figure out how to love Morocco. Deeply respect, yes; the culture and tradition, the focus on family, the art, the amazing people I've met, the amazing things I've seen and done. I like a lot of things about Morocco, but not living here! I love to travel, but I want something to come home to, people to share what I've done with. I miss my family and friends so much that it almost feels physical, sometimes. Six months was enough, for me. I want a home base near the people I love.I've learned a lot about myself from this experience. I'm proud of some of it; other stuff I'd like to work on, like my instinct to retreat inward when I feel stressed or threatened. I never used to consider myself shy, but here I've been different - diffident - and it's definitely been a personal and professional obstacle.The thing is, though - I think I'm learning (slowly, painfully!) to take my personal challenges and view them as challenges, not failures. For everyone who knows me, this is huge! I'm a major perfectionist, super A-type, perhaps slightly OCD - so being able to sit and think, okay, I feel really timid today, but I'm going to do one thing that scares me and I'm going to keep doing it until it doesn't scare me anymore has been a real game-changer.This experience has taught me how to be a stranger, how to be the 'other', how to exist on the outside of a society. I think until you have that experience, you can't fully understand how hard it is to live someplace like Canada and not speak very good English, not understand the customs, not know how to get from place to place. I think of our 'nation of immigrants' and wonder how many people I encounter every day who feel like I often felt here - confused, homesick, out of rhythm, even judged. I only have to do it for another 9 days, but for some people it's just life.Anything that builds your capacity for empathy is a good experience. Even the bad parts of living here - by which I mean the constant street harassment - have taught me a lot about how women in most parts of the world (up to and including many parts of the developed world, absolutely) are adversely affected by outward displays of sexism.I have also had some great professional experience to add to my CV, for which I am super grateful, and I have loved working with the MEDA team and learning about the YouthInvest project. I feel really good about the career I've chosen in development and I think this internship has really solidified it as the right choice for me.I'll leave you with the poem that means the most to me, and the sentiment that has kept me going when the going got rough:    love is a place    & through this place of    love move    (with brightness of peace)    all places     yes is a world    & in this world of    yes live    (skillfully curled)    all worlds     (e.e. cummings)

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