I’m in Wiwili, the department of Jinotega, Nicaragua. On the horizon I can see the Honduras border while I’m sitting on a bench outside doing the final interviews with farmers. In the department of Jinotega there is a large production of chia seeds and the Central American Commodities Trading (CAC), a partner of Techno-Links, has taken advantage of this opportunity. CAC Trading is well known for having the most comprehensive program of chia seeds in Central America with chia seeds being exported to the United States. They focus on giving technical assistance to farmers and by using the program Techno-Links through MEDA, they have been able to reach farmers in Wiwili. One particular individual caught my attention today, Jose Andres Basque Martinez. Jose Andres produces chia as his only cultivation on the farm, while his wife and two girls work in the household and manage a clothing store. He has been working with the new technology from CAC Trading for one year and has noticed an ample change in his harvest of chia seeds. A year ago he was growing 1 manzana as Nicaraguan farmers call it, or 0.5 hectares of chia seeds. Today, he has 8 manzanas, 5.6 hectares. This is one of the goals that CAC Trading strived to achieve by having farmers adopt a methodology with the ability to increase revenues both through the increase in yields per hectare and increased sales prices. Beforehand, Jose Andres faced a technology gap of technological development. Today he said that with the technical assistance of CAC Trading, there is a new market for his chia seeds, a higher production rate at harvest, and an improved quality of chia seeds with new nutrients. He’s happy and his family is happy, and that makes me happy.
A benefit of living and working abroad for MEDA is travel. What used to be across an ocean is suddenly a short (or maybe just shorter) distance away. Also, through our network of fellow interns, we have places to crash and people to travel with. Not bad at all.In December, I took advantage of that. Here's a short video that I made from a portion of a Tanzania trip:
The total land area of Nicaragua is 19,990 km2 with Honduras and Costa Rica bordering on each side and 910km of coastlines on the Caribbean and Atlantic together, making Nicaragua the largest country in Central America. I am lucky enough to be travelling for a month across the country doing final surveys for the MEDA program Techno-Links. I gain a vast amount of experience interviewing farmers in their homes to see the impact that MEDA has had on individuals throughout the country. This week alone, I have travelled to Ocotal, along the border of Honduras, Matagalpa, Rama, and Kukra Hill, located in the region of Leguna de Perlas on the Atlantic Coast. This means that I have been in the car for over 14 hours a day. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Travelling and enjoying the touristic aspects of a country is fun, but being able to travel all over the country and go into local farmers homes and receive typical Nicaraguan dishes and playing with the children is a one of a kind experience. I’m not saying this is by any means easy. Waking up at 4am and going over potholes for three hours in the middle of nowhere, is not my idea of a road trip. However, once I arrive in the homes of the farmers, I get this “WOW” experience. I’ll give an example of one of these experiences I had yesterday.We were in Rama, which is located along the Escondido River and is in the municipality of the Autonomous Region of the South Atlantic Region department. We were with the company Tecno Sol, which has a branch in Rama. Tecno Sol has been selling biogas to farmers, which has created amazing results. This is my “WOW” experience. After travelling in the middle of nowhere and being stuck on a muddy hill and having to put rocks under the truck tires to leverage it and get up the hill, we finally made it to our interviewees’ house, Marvin Ramirez. While his kids sat with us and stared at the Chela, a white girl, and we ate arroz de leche, rice with milk and fresh sugar cane, Marvin told us about the benefits he has seen with biogas.He noted the most important things such as health and saving money. The family is healthier because they aren’t burning firewood in their home to cook. Cook stoves are commonly used for cooking and heating food by burning wood. Besides the high expense of purchasing firewood or coal, another problem of cooking over an open fire is the increased health problems caused by the smoke, causing lung and eye ailments and also birth defects. With the use of biogas, Malvin has been happy to say that his children and wife are healthier. He also talked about how biogas has helped the environment by using the fertilizer from the biogas for his plants and putting minerals back into the soil. Sitting in the middle of nowhere with chickens running under my feet and children staring at the Chela with clients such as Marvin discussing the benefits that he has, is my “WOW” experience. In all the bumpy roads and 14 hour drives, I look forward in this month to those experiences.
Christmas wasn’t normal, but I’m not complaining one bit. This is the fourth Christmas I haven’t been in Canada, and I swear each time is a new experience. For the Christmas holiday I was in Jaco, Costa Rica. On Christmas day I was on the beach sipping on coconut water and eating sponge coconut (see why I’m not complaining). I went with a Costa Rican family, also known as Ticas, who had packed a big picnic and this is what my Christmas was. The rest of the holiday was spent relaxing on the beach and going fishing! I had been ice fishing and camping and fishing before in Canada, but nothing compares to fishing in the sea. My friends caught red snapper, dorado, and sail fish. I caught a sail fish, I can see how fishing can be addicting. It took all my effort to real in the fish and the fish fights back and jumps in the air. Once I reeled in the fish I was so shocked to see that it was about the same size as me. The fish have beautiful colors and are all completely different. It was also beautiful seeing dolphins swim beside the boat and schools of fish jumping to get away from bigger fish chasing them. Not only did I get to see the beauty of nature, but the owner of Google has his own boat with a helicopter on the boat, which was docked in Jaco. Overall, the best part of doing these fishing trips was that once the fish were caught we took them home and had them for dinner and could watch the sunset. My holiday was simple and relaxing, but I’m happy to be back in Nicaragua to start my adventures with MEDA again.
I have lived abroad twice before, but I have always returned to Canada for Christmas. This year, with my internship ending in February, it didn’t really make sense to make the trip home to Canada for the holidays so I decided to spend Christmas in Nicaragua. I was extremely lucky that my little brother William decided to come and visit me so that we could spend the holidays together. It has been amazing to have him here with me and to get to show him the country that has been my home for the last 5 months. He also brought presents with him from home which was another major benefit.
I was lucky enough to get to do some travelling over the holidays, spending Christmas in Corn Islands, the beautiful Caribbean islands off the coast of Nicaragua. These islands are full of beautiful white beaches and delicious seafood. I also got to return to the island of Ometepe to bike and climb a waterfall as well as relax on the beach and do some boogie boarding in San Juan del Sur.
I think anyone who works in international development will tell you the best part of the job is always the field visits. It is always a great way to lift your spirits and remember why you do what you do. It is when the numbers you stare at all day really come to life. My role here at MEDA is titled Impact Assessment but I have been most useful in the monitoring and evaluation position so I spend most of my days creating call lists, compiling net stock out reports or sitting in meetings to discuss how we could do this more efficiently. I often forget, I forget that for me this is simply a job but for those pregnant women this could be life and death for their newborn. Field visits bring that back to live. They encourage me to remember why I started or why I need to put every ounce of energy and focus into my work. The difference matters. My last field visit was very special for me because I was able to bring along my parents. We went to a local clinic here in Dar es Salaam, which uses the eVoucher system. MEDA Tanzania works with two voucher systems, the paper voucher and the eVoucher. We are trying to introduce the eVoucher system more and more but the mobile network in the rural areas is holding us back in certain regions. In Dar however, we have been able to go completely eVoucher. We dropped in a local clinic filled with women and their newborn babies waiting for their check up. When a woman comes in their first trimester or in the baby’s first three month they receive a voucher for a mosquito net to prevent against malaria. Once the beneficiary has the voucher code via mobile phone, they take that number to the nearest retailer. We work to ensure these retailers are within 5km from the clinic. At the clinic the retailer shop owner verifies the code via SMS to the host server and once they have confirmation that voucher is valid, they are able to issue the net for 500 Tanzanian Shillings, approximately $0.32 US. The 500 shillings goes directly to the store owner and we find a donor to cover the costs of the net for to the supplier. If an individual does not have the voucher a mosquito net would cost them 1750 Tanzanian Shillings.With the kindness of one of the mothers we were able to sit in on her appointment with her newborn baby, they were there to get their voucher for their bed net. We waited with her for several minutes as they tried to connect and reconnect to the network as the signal was quite weak. Once the voucher ID number finally came through, the nurse wrote the number on a slip of paper and handed it to the mother. With an infectious smile she received the voucher and gathered her things so we could be on our way to the retailer. This clinic and retailer were extremely special because the retailer was only about 100 feet from the clinic making it easily accessible to the women. We walked across the street to the Duka (shop) where they sold the approved nets. Again we waited for the shop owner to connect to the network so this woman may obtain her net. After some time, he had received confirmation that the voucher ID was valid. He exchanged her 500 Tsh for a net. When in the office, I see this simply as another positive number towards the redemption rate but to this woman this is securing the health of her newborn baby. It is so easy to be caught up in the day-to-day work, even here; I find it to easy to forget the importance of each report or each redemption rate. Hearing the impact first hand is much more rewarding than any paycheck.
Knock, Knock. Knock, Knock. “Hodi? (May I come in?) Wake up tea!” says Adam, our awesome porter, “Hodi?” In theexcitement/exhaustion of the summit climb the morning before Jaredshouts, “Caribouuuuuu!” His attempt at the Swahili word Karibu (Welcome) gives us all a great laugh, as we are ready to hike the last stretch of the mountain to the bottom.Wanting to make Christmas in Tanzania special a few of the other MEDA interns and I decided to climb MT. Meru, the 5th tallest mountain in Africa that looks directly at Mt. Kilimanjaro.There are a lot of benefits to climbing Mt. Meru, it only takes 4 days, cost is a lot less than other treks and it is said to be a beautiful hike. All these reasons led us to signing up for to hike to 4566m to the summit of this mountain. December 24th, we meet our crew that will be helping us make it to the summit. Ashleigh our guide, Adam our porter and Godfrey our cook. We will also pick up 2 more porters at the gate.At the bottom of the mountain, before we head out they prepare a wonderful lunch for us; my nerves are already starting to bubble up. I try to calm myself down by impressing the park rangers with my kidogo (little) Swahili knowledge. As we start the hike I am able to calm myself down using positive self-talk that I had learned in my Sport Psychology class last year. With every step I repeat the phrase in myhead, “I can, I will, I am.” Step by step I will make it up this mountain. The first day was a 5 hour hike, uphill and downhill and even a few flat areas. Nothing I couldn’t handle. After arriving at the hut, they cook us a delicious dinner and we head to the viewing deck where we are able to see the most amazing stars I have ever seen, absolutely incredible.“Hodi? Wake up tea!” we were greeted the next morning by Adam. I haveto say the best way to be woken up is by someone serving you tea in bed, certainly a great way to start the day! After a quick breakfast, we started our next 5 hour hike up to Hut #2. This trail consisted of what seemed like 1 billion stairs, then paths slanted upwards that went back and fourth for a few hours. Tiring, but again nothing I couldn’t handle. When we arrived at Hut #2, we enjoyed a lunch prepared for us and then we hiked an hour and ahalf up to Little Meru to acclimatize us a little before back down to Hut #2 for the night.It was an early night for us, dinner at 6:30pm and in bed at 8pm. The nerves were certainly building up, the air was a whole colder at the second hut and as much as we wanted to sleep and rest for the hike the next day, I was wide awake. It seemed as though I had just fallen asleep when we were woken up with some breakfast tea just like every other morning, only this time it was 1:30am. It was time to hike to the summit. We tried to force down a little breakfast, put on almost every item of clothing we had for me that meant 5 long sleeve shirts, 1 sweat shirt, a windbreaker, spandex, jeans and wind pants… mostly provided by Nichols College Women’s Ice Hockey. We emptied our packs as much as possible, bundled up, headlamps on and we were off.The trail was long and windy; all I could see was Ashleigh in front of me except when I took a minute to look up at the brightest stars that light up the whole sky. I didn’t do that to often though because it usually involved me running into something or tripping over myown feet so I focused straight ahead following Ashleigh’s every step, repeating the phrase, “I can, I will, I am.” We continued to hike this dark path that was only light up only by our own headlamps. The hike was extremely steep and included many challenges where we scaled a rock wall to get to the next path instead of going all the way down and up again, walked on the very narrow path with a steep fall on either side and walked straight up as the volcanic ash collapsed beneath our feet. It was extremely strenuous and at one point, I felt as though I could not take another step, my legs felt like jelly and my whole body felt weak. I fell to my knees and with an uneasy stomach had my first experience with the dreaded altitude sickness. Ashleigh offered me some water and said, “Great! Now you’ll have more energy! Let’s go!” And incredibly he was right, I had a sudden burst of energy that was able to get me up the next stretch until it hit me all over again.Every time I slowed down, I could hear Ashleigh from a few steps ahead say, “Maria, it’s nearly there, you are so close, come on!” Even though I had learned by this point he was completely lying, I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I continued one foot in front of the other. As we were 50 meters from the summit we saw the sun start to rise right behind Mt. Kilimanjaro, it was the most beautiful array of colors painted across the sky. I have never seen such an amazing sight… too bad I was too exhausted to grab my camera and take a few pictures. Instead, I continued. Three steps. Water break. Three more steps. Another water break. I was going to make it to the top, I was not giving up. With quite a few more rounds of this, I finally found the last push in myself and fought threw the last 25 steps to the top. With my final step, I collapsed on the ground right in front of the “Congratulation” sign. I had made it. It was undoubtedly the hardest thing I have ever done. Every muscle in my body ached, I was chilled to the bone and my stomach was bubbling in pain but I felt proud. After a few moments, I regained a little strength to stand up, take a few pictures and drink some warm water to satisfy my insides. It was shortly after when we started the trek down.Down felt a little better but certainly still not easy. After a few hours we made it back to the second hut where we enjoyed lunch, packed up the rest of our stuff and hiked all the way down the 1 billion stairs to the first hut. We had hiked a total of 3000 meters that day. Sleep was most definitely in order. We forced ourselves to stay up for a little dinner and then it was off to bed. The next morning after sleeping close to 12 hours we were awaken with our last wake up tea. It was time for the last stretch. I could not have been more wrong when I was thinking this would be a light stroll down the mountain. With every step, every muscle and my body protested. After hours of painful walking, listening to our park ranger play, “Call me maybe” on repeat the whole way down and my pack feeling heavier than ever, we finally made it to the bottom where five beautiful giraffes waited to congratulate us on an incredible accomplishment.There are many experiences that I will carrywith me for the rest of my life and this certainly, is no exception. The summit was beautiful but the true memory for me was in the journey. I was challenged, encouraged, frustrated and inspired all at the same time. I was able to learn from all those around me while sharing in so many laughs. I am so blessed to have these amazing opportunities.
The last week of my internship was possibly the most exciting time in my five months with the GROW project in Ghana. I saw all of my ideas and plans for GROW’s Nutrition Strategy come to life.In case you’re not sure of what my role and responsibilities with GROW are, let me give you a brief summary. As the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I analyze needs for nutrition training and identify opportunities to stimulate healthy dietary choices within families participating in the project. The ‘analyzed needs for nutrition training’ part means I conducted a needs assessment of GROW’s beneficiaries. I researched their health and nutritional status, community assets, local diet, attitudes and values, use of community resources and services, and perceived barriers to improved nutrition. All of this information gathering entailed desk research of GROW project data and other West African food security projects, focus group discussions with GROW women, as well as key informant interviews with local nutrition stakeholders. The second half of my responsibilities was the ‘identifying opportunities’ part, which is formerly called the GROW Nutrition Strategy. This included nutrition-related program goals, objectives, and recommendations to address identified barriers. Also, I included an assessment of internal and external trends and issues that can pose challenges to the nutrition program as well as an appropriate implementation strategy for my recommendations.I found the needs assessment and strategy development processes very rewarding. Not only did it build my professional skills, I also gained insight into the culture of the communities we work with. Although, my work focuses on food and nutrition, it is astonishing how intimately food is related to families’ lifestyle and beliefs system. I gained an appreciation for the ‘why’ many things are the way they are for GROW women today. But most importantly, never straying far from my health background, I saw the big picture of how hunger, poverty and diseases are all interlinked. And all of these revelations played a part in my recommendations for the nutrition program. Developing and designing the nutrition training and food demonstrations for the program involved working with Women in Agricultural Development (WIAD), a technical directorate of Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Ghana Health Services (GHS), a public service body formed from the reorganization of the Ministry of Health. Drawing on the technical expertise of each of these agencies, I drafted the agreement for MEDA to enter into a collaborative partnership with WIAD, implementing basic nutrition training and food demonstrations using soybeans, and with GHS, implementing community-based Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) training in GROW communities. The messages and materials used in these training sessions are key as attempting to change food habits is a very complex and lengthy process. Motivating these families to adopt long-term nutritional practices requires increasing their knowledge, skills and environmental supports for the behaviour change. The channels of communication, size of training groups, and even the timing of sessions (we decided on four sessions for each group) play a significant role in how well a new behaviour will be accepted and practiced. Outlining the messages, materials and implementation schedule with WIAD and GHS, led up to the planning of pilot sessions to be conducted during my last week with GROW. I was so excited to see everything I planned actually come together. Of course, it was very chaotic times as I had to organize my work to be handed over to the future GROW Nutrition Coordinator to be hired in 2014 and some tasks remained to be completed. Nevertheless, I organized two pilot sessions to be hosted in two different communities of Wa West district hosted by two of GROW’s Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs). Community Aid for Rural Development (CARD) hosted the first pilot session in the Wechiau community with WIAD implementing nutrition training and a practical activity. Even though visual materials weren’t available for this pilot session, positive feedback was received from attendees (fourteen women lead farmers) and CARD staff (KFPs hosting these sessions build their capacity in food and nutrition training as well!). Topics of discussion included:Food groups and local food varietyBalanced mealsImportance of clean waterBenefits of soybeansWhat and how soybeans can be blended into local dishes
The practical activity taught women how to properly select, wash, dry and cook soybeans to make soy flour or soy paste. This practical activity is introductory as the following session teaches attendees to incorporate soy flour into local dishes like banku, Tom Brown, tubaani and many others.Centre for the Alleviation of Poverty, the Environment and Child Support (CAPECS) hosted the second pilot session in the Poyentanga community with GHS implementing nutrition training. This pilot session went really well and the women were very engaged, sharing their personal experiences and challenges with the group. Topics of discussion included:
Meeting others working in the same field is an encouraging and fun way to share ideas and collaborate efforts. It’s especially interesting when you are based in rural Ghana and the technical areas of the project you work on include agriculture, business, financial services, nutrition and gender. I was lucky enough to represent the GROW project at two different ‘sector events’ in October and November. The first event I attended was the 3rd Annual Northern Ghana Pre-Harvest Agribusiness Forum. The theme was to connect farmers to competitive markets. In attendance were buyers (aggregators, processors, etc.) and sellers (farmers) who intermingled, visited vendor booths and even negotiated deals. A commodity exchange session was scheduled for farmers and buyers to come together and discuss issues of price, quality and supply (I learned that certain crops don’t have maximum value immediately after harvest). For this reason, MEDA invited select famers of the GROW project to attend this one-day event. Four lead farmers were chosen from various GROW communities to get a sneak peek into the industry, its players and meet new buyers. This activity is important in achieving one outcome of the GROW project, which is market linkages and improved bargaining skills for generating income. Many of these women have never sold their crops wholesale. Many believe that selling crops by the bowl in the local market (a bowl of soybeans sells for 2 GHS, equivalent to 1 USD) will generate more income over time than wholesale. However, encouraging the woman to join with others in the community to sell larger amounts at wholesale prices (100 kg bag can sell for 86 GHS) means they receive a larger sum of money with less labour and time invested in the selling process. Also, going home with 86 GHS compared to 6 GHS means that women are more likely to allocate money to priority expenses/savings and less likely to spend it on petty items during their day at the market.On MEDA’s attendance list for the Pre-Harvest Forum were MEDA staff, GROW coordinators from our five Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs = local NGOs), and four lead farmers. There were keynote speakers throughout the day discussing the global market price of grains (i.e. rice, soybean and maize) and how it influences Ghana (i.e. buyer and seller requirements). All organizations attending had a vendor booth to showcase their products, services and interact with others. An agricultural technology transfer project even hosted demonstrations of equipment for post harvest handling such as a thresher machine for soybeans. So you’re probably wondering what was going on at the GROW booth aren’t you? Soymilk of course! Well, not only soymilk… Daniel, the GROW Communication Specialist, worked really hard upon arrival to Ghana (literally his first day of on the job!) to begin preparations for this event. He developed the GROW logo, banners, brochures and a large pictorial map showing MEDA’s approach to provide ‘business solutions to poverty’, specifically related to GROW and food security. Daniel and I also collaborated to create give-away posters highlighting the benefits of soybeans.Weeks leading up the event, Rachel came for one of her usual project visits and brought along a soymilk/tofu maker. It looks like an electric kettle and can make more than 1L of soymilk from less than one cup of raw soybeans soaked in water. It seemed like a fun (and convenient) way to familiarize the local attendees with soymilk. Traditionally, milk and dairy products are not a part of the local diet (although, imported and packaged soymilk has been gaining popularity among those that can afford it). Naturally, I was excited to test out the soymilk machine so I made a trip to the market to buy soybeans, vanilla extract and cane sugar. I followed the manuals instructions to operate the machine and eagerly watched as it vibrated and warmed up. After five minutes, nothing! The machine just turned off and never turned back on again. My disappointment was obvious, but I was determined not to disappoint GROW staff by not serving homemade soymilk as planned. Equipped with a few online recipes, a make shift sieve and a sterilized handkerchief as cheesecloth, I recipe tested in our office kitchen every afternoon for a week (using GROW staff as sensory evaluators a.k.a. taste testers). I used their feedback to adjust accordingly until I had it just right to serve those attending the forum. The evening before the event, Felicia, the GROW office cook in Tamale, assisted me whip up 10 L of soymilk from 8 cups of soybeans in the office kitchen. At the Pre-Harvest Forum, we served over 300 people samples of soymilk! For many people, it was their first time having soymilk but the awesome thing was that others were aware of some its benefits. They eagerly asked questions about the nutritional value of soybeans and gave great feedback on the taste of it. Daniel and I had also developed recipe cards for handouts to those interested. The funniest part was that people started thinking the GROW project were soymilk producers! Serving soymilk at these events successfully introduced soybeans to the local audience, created dialogue about its nutritional value and utilization, and most importantly, educated others about what GROW is doing to help women farmers… all starting with soybeans.
Hakuna Matata. A phrase we all learn from the beloved Disney movie, The Lion King. The first phrase people often teach you when trying to teach you Swahili. A phrase that is used multiple times a day here in Tanzania.Sitting on the rooftop terrace having dinner with my parents and listening to some beautiful melodies played by the local Zanzibar band, I had my first ‘Ah-ha!’ moment. Hakuna Matata is more than a phrase, it is a way of life. Hakuna Matata literally means ‘no worries’ but truly means ‘take it all in!’ It means don’t rush through every second of every day rather enjoy the small moments. It means don’t stress about the problems that arise instead deal with them and move on. It means look into the eyes of the one next to you and share a smile over the communication barrier because that sign of happiness is universal.With Christmas approaching it’s hard to not think about what I would be doing back home right now or the beautiful snowfall. I try to stay busy to keep my mind off of all that I am missing back home but this is not completely the answer. Rather I should take it all in, every single moment, every single smile. I need to focus less on what I am missing and more on what I am gaining. I need to learn to live in the present. Live in the now.Life in Africa moves at a different pace, it’s African Time! This is my worst enemy, I value punctuality and efficiency so I don’t understand why every African minute equals five regular minutes. The first few months I let this bother me quite a bit, I found myself getting frustrated when others were late to meet me or stressed out when I was late leaving for a Swahili lesson. I now see, it is not about the exact time but the quality of life we are living. Many of these people face much bigger problems then I could ever imagine so why let such a small thing as time bother them? People are fighting for their lives and I’m worried whether I will be there five minutes early.Now, don’t misunderstand me, I still value punctuality and if I make plans with someone at a certain time I try my best to be there at the time but I realize that it is not something that should cause me stress. I am realizing that life is a beautiful playground. We often make our problems seem so much bigger than they actually are and let that get in the way of our fun. We only have so much time at the playground before we must move on so why not capture every moment to it’s fullest. Smile over everything even miscommunications because Hakuna Matata.In this exact moment, sitting on this rooftop with the cool breeze flowing through me listening to these musicians put their heart and soul into the songs they are singing, I not only feel the moment but am living it. I experience Hakuna Matata to it’s fullest. I breathe all the way in until my lungs are full, close my eyes, and with the release of all that air I recognize all the blessings I have been given in life. I have nothing to be but thankful. So to that I say….Hakuna Matata
Normally around this time of year, I am battling snowy driveways, piling on the layers of clothing, and cursing the wind chill. I am also sipping on hot chocolate, pulling out the downhill skis, and decorating a Christmas tree. Despite the odd winter-related inconvenience, I really do love this time of year. But what happens when “this” time of year no longer exists?
Being in the middle of Africa in December, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. While I complain about the “frigid” morning temperatures (of 5 degrees – I’ve become weak), it’s usually close to 30 degrees here in the afternoon. Even though I don’t have to worry about frost bite, I can honestly admit I miss the snow.
I always enjoy getting out of the office in the busy capital city of Lusaka and visiting MEDA techno-links partner Zoona in the field. Zoona has an expansive agent network totaling over 200 agents located throughout Zambia. Seeing firsthand how these entrepreneurs are being empowered to grow their businesses is inspiring. Not only has Zoona helped increase their incomes and well-being, but it also provides a needed financial service in a country where over 84% of the adult population does not have a formal bank account. Zoona is unique against other competitors in that individuals do not have to create accounts to use and benefit from Zoona services like sending/receiving money, bill payments, airtime purchases, and receiving international remittances. All they have to do is provide their personal National Identification Card (NRC) and they can be served. This makes the barrier to utilizing the services minimal and with Zoona’s Easy, Quick, Safe platform anyone from illiterate rural farmers to Lusaka businessmen can easily understand and appreciate the simplicity of the service. This past week I was able to interview five agents along with MEDA M&E Program Manager Jillian Baker. Here are some of the highlights of how this techno-links funded project is making a difference for local Zambian entrepreneurs and consumers:Marjori and her husband Dominque have been operating two Zoona outlets in the Copperbelt region of Zambia since 2009. After being trained and supported by Zoona staff their business has steadily grown. With this income Marjori and her husband re-invested back into the business and also purchased 23 hectares of land for farming to begin generating additional revenue streams. Marjori says her goal is to, “Grow her Zoona business and help others in need.” One way she is already doing this is by taking in 8 orphans to her home and paying their school fees so they can receive an education. Constance is a young and talented entrepreneur who after receiving training and support from Zoona has now managed to grow her business to six Zoona outlets throughout the Copperbelt region. She employs 8 female tellers who work at her shops and receive a salary as well as bonuses based on performance. When one of Constance’s tellers was pregnant she gave her three months of maternity leave fully paid. Constance understands the concept that if you treat your employees well it will not only benefit them, but also the business and her customer base. With the income Constance earns from her Zoona outlets she has enrolled in College to study for her Diploma. She also says she enjoys the feeling of independence running her own business brings. Mercy started her Zoona business only 9 months ago. Through training from Zoona, hard work, and direct selling she has expanded her business quickly. She already employs three tellers and recently opened a second outlet in the town of Ndola. She says Zoona has empowered her to think like an entrepreneur. She is now enrolling in College to study Business Management. When asked why Business Management Mercy said, “So I can learn more about how to be a successful business owner.” Perhaps the most inspiring part of doing these interviews was seeing the confidence and independence these Zambian entrepreneurs conveyed in every word spoken. This visit only reinforced my views that Zoona is living out its core belief, “we will be at the forefront of developing and empowering entrepreneurs in emerging markets.” Improved incomes for agents, local job creation, and increased financial services for the non-banked.... The list could go on and on. This is a model that works, this is sustainable impact.
This is the path I walk up and down every morning and every evening. Despite the personal trials I have dealt with as of late, I still find humour and amusement in this daily walk. I’ve become familiar along this path, and as a result have formed the most unique relationships. And to put it bluntly, it’s because I’m the only “forenji” (aka white person).When you are the only forenji… your name is no longer Emma, it’s “forenj!!!”When you are the only forenji… it is easy to become friends with the local injera maker, who just happens to be a very sweet, old lady who invites you for a coffee every evening.When you are the only forenji… the woman selling vegetables and herbs, who also happens to be old and sweet, insists you take some herbs for free, even though you have no idea what to use them for.When you are the only forenji… the beggars who you give to begin to depend on your donation, which isn’t good.When you are the only forenji… the woman who sells corn, once again old and sweet, kisses your hand when she sees you after the work day has ended (and it’s really adorable!).When you are the only forenji… you are kind of like a local celebrity! I better not get used to it.
In Northern Ghana there is a legend about a tribal chief who had a son who would become chief after him. One night, the chief noticed the baby was missing. He gathered the whole village to look for the child. They carried torches with them to guide them through the night. Finally, the baby was found under a tree - the villagers believed the tree had stolen the boy. The chief rescued his son, and as a punishment, set the tree on fire. The villagers returned to the chief's palace and celebrated by singing and dancing, maintaining their torches to light up the night. Now, in Tamale and other towns in the northern regions of the country, the fire festival takes place every November to celebrate the return of the chief's son. Daniel, Gillian and I had heard about this fire festival, without really knowing the history behind it. We were told vague details about how it would begin around 8pm and it would involve some sort of parade, taking over the road so that no cars could pass. We waited, sitting on a curbside, looking for clues that this event was about to start. Around us, the excitement grew - children and families gathered, many holding sticks, lighting fireworks, and wearing different traditional outfits. Finally, after an hour, we heard rumblings in the distance. Chanting, singing and drumming filled the air, and those children around us began to stream into the road. The three of us followed suit, walking into the intersection which had become eerily void of cars. Craning our necks to see further down the road, where the noise was originating, we could see a mass of people coming towards us from the direction of the chief's palace, carrying wooden sticks and branches that were ablaze. Once this group merged with ours, which had grown substantially as we waited, the procession began moving towards the center of town. Let me describe exactly what I mean by procession. This involved people of all ages, from babies bagged on their mother's backs to elderly people using walking sticks. Young men, either shirtless or wearing traditional attire, were running through the crowd, firing rifles in the air or dragging machetes on the ground as they ran, creating sparks behind them. Mothers were constantly grabbing their children - those who were getting too far ahead and risked getting lost in the crowd, or those getting too close to one of the many open flames. The air was filled with smoke, song and screams every time an unexpected gun shot went off. Basically, procession can be interchanged with chaos. Or maybe mayhem. A young boy, Rashid, became my personal guide (which was lucky because I lost and found Daniel and Gillian several times during this event) taking my hand and telling me to 'watch out', or 'walk over here,' to avoid particularly excited youth darting through the crowd with various types of weaponry. We got to our meeting place, where crowds of other people had also come to gather, and where unsuspecting trees and vegetation stood. In only a few moments, trees were lit on fire, and branches from trees still standing were vigorously chopped off and brought back into the crowd. We then turned back and started our walk of about 30 minutes, towards our starting place. The chopped tree branches were held by women high in the air, and would be taken back to the chief's palace to be burnt. At times, according to the song that was being sung and the instruments accompanying it, the crowd would turn and run momentarily in the opposite direction. My friend Rashid was particularly helpful in these moments, alerting me to turn and run with the group, instead of being trampled. (Or at least substantially jostled by people running by) When we reached the intersection from which we started, Gillian and I separated from the crowd. They would continue on, returning to the chief's palace where they began, to celebrate with more singing, dancing and fire. Of all the cultural events I have experienced here in Ghana, the fire festival was by far the most exciting and interesting for me. It was a night when everyone left their daily roles behind and became a villager from the legend, truly embracing the celebrations amidst an atmosphere buzzing with excitement. I am so glad I could experience this event and happy that I too, become a villager for the night.
“Everything is possible” the words of our taxi driver that seemed to fit with so many things in this past trip to Zanzibar.Right from the start nothing seemed to go as planned. We arrived at the ferry terminal only to find all the tickets were sold out, thinking that we would have to start our Zanzibar excursion the next morning we headed out of the Terminal and down the street. It was then that we met the incredible Mr. James. He pulled us into his office telling us he would just go talk to the Captain of the ship, it was fine. In disbelief we sat there as they scrambled to find us ways on to this boat. After several minutes, some of his employees came back slightly disappointed but not completely out of options. They exclaimed that they could only get the residents tickets on the ferry but they could fly us to Zanzibar on a private plane and book us a ticket for the ferry back. It was only a $20 difference from the original price but they could quickly tell we weren’t completely sold, so with their excellent business skills they started to throw in extra incentives. They started with free transportation to the airport then adding a hotel in Stonetown with free breakfast for only $15 per person. This was deal breaker.Off we were on our private plane to Zanzibar, some people still in disbelieve this would all work out. There was quite a bit of traffic but our driver ensured us the plane would wait for us! Never worry! We enjoyed a quick private plane ride, were picked up at the airport, customs went flawlessly and made it to the hotel. That night we walked to the local food market enjoying every type of fish, seafood and chicken you can imagine while we made our plan for the weekend. It was simple, we would spend the night in Stonetown, in the morning head to the East side of the Island for some beautiful swimming and relaxation. Then Sunday, head back to Stonetown to meet up with a friend and head to Prison Island. That was the plan at least.The rest of the evening and morning seemed to go smoothly, as we enjoyed delicious dinner and breakfast and were able to get a taxi to drive us to the East side. He found us a great quiet place to stay. This was going to be a perfect afternoon laying by the pool, getting a great tan (or burn) and walking by the beach. It was not 10 minutes after changing into ourswimsuits and getting outside that the thunder started to roll and the rain down poured! Change of plans, it would now be a perfect cozy afternoon listening to the rainstorm, playing some scrabble and enjoying some delicious pizza!Sunday morning, we are packed and ready to head out to meet our friend for Prison Island. Per usual in Africa, we have more people than fit in the car, so stuffed with 4 people in the backseat our driver Ali takes off. It should be about an hour until we are in Stonetown, we’re right on time! Not more than 20 minutes down the road we are pulled over by the police, apparently you are not allowed to have that many people in car…who knew! It was easy to understand that through quick conversation in Swahili that he wanted a bribe, not completely sure how this was going to happen we all sat quietly in the back as Ali got on the phone with his boss. A few long minutes later the Police Officer received a phone call and was told to let us pass. As we are speeding off, Ali tells us that he works for the High Commissioner in Zanzibar and he is able to do anything he wants, “Everything is possible!” says Ali. We are all quite impressed with his achievement and sing along to the most perfect Bob Marley song on the stereo, “Get up, Stand up!”Of course, it is not smooth sailing from there. Our car starts to slow to a roll and then to a complete stop. We are out of gas and it is downpouring again. Ali without a worry in the world just out of the car, grabs a empty jug and hops on the back of a truck to the nearest gas station, as we all sat in the car laughing at the events of this trip. A few minutes later he returns on another car with just enough gas to get us to the last stretch to Stone town.We did not make it in time to see Prison Island or enjoy the warmth of the sun beating down on us. We had to pay a little more to get to there and we did not find a perfect paradise of a beach to stay on. Everything we planned seemed to change but in the midst of all this craziness and chaotic trip we laughed. It is incredible how we can focus so heavily on the little details in life missing the pure beauty of human connection. This is certainly a trip I will never forget. What was supposed to be a quick getaway for the weekend ended up being one of my favourite moments thus far in Africa! I am beyond grateful for the many moments of this past weekend that I was able to learn and experience so much with some wonderful new friends. The friendships mean so much more than any souvenir I could ever imagine. I am blessed.
I love food! One of my favorite side dishes in Nicaragua is tostones, fried plantains. Lucky me because I got to eat all the tostones I wanted by doing a case study in Rivas.I visited the International School of Livestock and Agriculture in Rivas (EIAG in Spanish) where MEDA has supported the lab at the university to combine different plantain seeds to create a vitro plant that won’t be affected by disease or insects. In past years, plantain production has been low due to the spread of an insect pest known as black weevil, which feeds on the leaves, and black sigatoka disease, which causes yield losses. I went into the lab and saw the whole process of the vitro plant. I interviewed twenty male and female farmers to see their progress with the technology. Farmers said the planting of the plantain (vitro plant) was exactly the same as the normal plantain they used before. The only difference was that they didn’t have to use any or few pesticides, a happy side fact. They noted that they had more production and the leaves were bigger and healthier. One farmer had no experience in planting plantains and said it was quite easy with the help of EIAG technicians. One of the most amazing indications found in the case study that I witnessed with talking to local farmers was their desire to help one another. EIAG has a methodology of the Waterfall Method to spread information about the vitro plant, in other words spreading information with the word of mouth. Many farmers, like Norbin Abel, said he likes the innovation and helping farmers with a new level of knowledge. Junior, one of the technicians that explains the vitro plants to farmers, said he was helping farmers to be more stable in their production. The overall objective of farmers, technicians and the university was to help one another in the community. The goal of MEDA and EIAG is to have efficient production and incorporate small producers into the equation with the national and international market. Carl Sagan in Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997) stated, “Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars in history.”
The next day the E-FACE team headed out to an agricultural intervention site in Gamo Gofa. You may be wondering what agriculture has to do with child exploitation and the weaving industry. Well, not much actually. However, the aim of the agricultural intervention is to help households that are at-risk of having their children engage in child labour improve their livelihood and income through other means. In this case, potato is the chosen commodity and will provide the targeted households with options (i.e. supplemental income for school tuition) besides child labour. During the visit, the farmers explained their excitement in the project and the techniques they learned from the E-FACE facilitated agronomy training sessions. The excitement of the farmers was contagious and I found myself eager to see the results of the hard work when harvest time arrived. Down the hill from the potato farm was the village school facilitated by World Vision. E-FACE in partnership with World Vision, provides the livelihood programs for the working youth and households involved in the textile industry. World Vision provides the education portion of the project, ensuring that the at-risk children are in school. The visit to the school was by far the most rewarding and inspirational part of the entire trip. When we arrived, we were immediately greeted by children eager to have their picture taken during lunch break. I happily obliged and held an impromptu photo shoot. We were then lead to a classroom to view the improvements being made to the structure. The school had recently added educational paintings, improved lighting and better desks to encourage the students to learn. It was amazing to observe the difference between a rural Ethiopian classroom versus the Canadian classrooms I have grown accustomed to seeing. I experienced a major wakeup call about the importance of education and how difficult it can be to access a proper education for some communities.
I participated in the Great Ethiopian Run last Sunday – and what a blast it was! Originally a few of my colleagues and I were supposed to run it together, but life got in the way and I ended up running it with a friend of mine from the local gym!While there were a minority of runners who were racing, this event is much more of a “fun run” than a race. The course was 10km in total, and there were tons of great distractions throughout. We were drenched with water multiple times, which I really appreciated considering the heat! At the halfway mark there were huge speakers playing popular Ethiopian music, and massive trucks were handing out water balloons. As you can probably guess, a massive water balloon fight broke out!IMG_1228 My friend, Fantahun, and I post-race!The course was flat in some places, but very hilly in others. The sheer quantity of people (40,000 in total!!), combined with the narrow roads (often plagued with pot holes) and (fantastic) distractions actually prevented running in certain stretches of the course, at least for us middle-of-the-pack runners. I really didn’t mind the odd walk break though – racing at this elevation and heat was a bit of a shock!The race wasn’t timed, but I’m guessing we finished in an hour or so. It was tons of fun and I’m so thankful my friend from the gym ran it with me!
After a month of anticipation, I was finally able to go to on my first site visit for the MEDA E-FACE project. To give a bit of background, E-FACE (Ethiopians Fighting Against Child Exploitation) aims to reduce exploitative child labour by improving market access to textile and agricultural markets for vulnerable families and improve working conditions for working youth. Having worked on many of the contracts for the programs being implemented, I was excited to see my contribution to the project in action. During our nine-hour car ride, the first thing that stood out to me the most was the abundance of cattle, donkeys and goats in the road. In past posts I have mentioned animals in the road but the trip to Arba Minch was by far the craziest. Our wonderful driver Mekdem did an amazing job avoiding each donkey or goat that decided to wander into our path. Although bumpy and extremely long, the trip was so beautiful that I am now certain the Garden of Eden is lost somewhere in Ethiopia. We arrived at the hotel very late so we decided to rest and start very early the next day. After a nice breakfast we headed to the first site, a textile intervention undergoing technology upgrading. With a portion of their own savings, the weavers were provided spinning tools to help boost their productivity. During the meeting, the weavers discussed their progress, their expectations for the coming project phases and how the project has impacted their lives. A few of the weavers even mentioned being able to afford school tuition for their children and medicine for sick family members since starting with E-FACE. At that moment, I felt extremely proud to be a part of the MEDA E-FACE team. My small contributions to the project were helping someone to make a difference in their life. After a month of doing assignments, reports and contracts, it was all starting to make sense and I was finally starting to see the bigger picture. On the way back to the hotel, the team got together to discuss the day’s events. Using the feedback from the weavers, we were already making adjustments to the program. At that point I realized that the process of improving lives is not something that can be done overnight. It requires effort from every individual involved in the project. It takes a lot of time but, in the end, it really does make a difference.