MEDA Blog

According to Plan

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“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.

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The Love for Food, Science, and Word of Mouth

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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.”

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E-FACE Field Visit in Arba Minch Part Two: Agricultural Intervention and School Visit

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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.

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The Great Ethiopian Run 2013

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

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E-FACE Field Visit in Arba Minch Part One: Textile Intervention

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After a month of anticipation, I was finally able to go to on my first site visit for the MEDA E-FACE project. To give a bit of background, E-FACE (Ethiopians Fighting Against Child Exploitation) aims to reduce exploitative child labour by improving market access to textile and agricultural markets for vulnerable families and improve working conditions for working youth. Having worked on many of the contracts for the programs being implemented, I was excited to see my contribution to the project in action.  During our nine-hour car ride, the first thing that stood out to me the most was the abundance of cattle, donkeys and goats in the road. In past posts I have mentioned animals in the road but the trip to Arba Minch was by far the craziest. Our wonderful driver Mekdem did an amazing job avoiding each donkey or goat that decided to wander into our path. Although bumpy and extremely long, the trip was so beautiful that I am now certain the Garden of Eden is lost somewhere in Ethiopia. We arrived at the hotel very late so we decided to rest and start very early the next day. After a nice breakfast we headed to the first site, a textile intervention undergoing technology upgrading. With a portion of their own savings, the weavers were provided spinning tools to help boost their productivity. During the meeting, the weavers discussed their progress, their expectations for the coming project phases and how the project has impacted their lives. A few of the weavers even mentioned being able to afford school tuition for their children and medicine for sick family members since starting with E-FACE. At that moment, I felt extremely proud to be a part of the MEDA E-FACE team. My small contributions to the project were helping someone to make a difference in their life. After a month of doing assignments, reports and contracts, it was all starting to make sense and I was finally starting to see the bigger picture. On the way back to the hotel, the team got together to discuss the day’s events. Using the feedback from the weavers, we were already making adjustments to the program. At that point I realized that the process of improving lives is not something that can be done overnight. It requires effort from every individual involved in the project. It takes a lot of time but, in the end, it really does make a difference.

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What does a ride with some nice police officers and a mud bath have anything to do with renewing my passport?

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A few weeks ago I had an unforgettable experience in renewing my visa in Costa Rica. Catherine, the other intern with Mi Credito, and I went to Liberia, about an hour from the Nicaraguan border. The first experience I had was seeing the economic gap between the two countries, and it was hard to miss. The living standards in Costa Rica are higher and the country uses 95% renewable energy. Based on the history in Nicaragua it hasn’t been able to develop as Costa Rica has, but it has potential that it’s sometimes hard to comprehend that it isn’t a developed country yet. Nicaragua has rich and varied land, with different soil, climatological, and altitude characteristics. The country’s many rivers and volcanoes offer easily exploitable sources of both hydroelectric and geothermal energy, and internal waterways facilitate inexpensive domestic transportation. As well, the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea over international importation and exportation. This was the first part of the experience that I thought was interesting.The second part of the experience in Costa Rica was Liberia itself. From Managua to Liberia it takes 6 hours, including stopping at the border and going through customs. We arrived mid-day and wanted to do something relaxing after sitting on a bus for so long. We went to a beautiful waterfall, Llano de Cortes. However, our relaxing tropical waterfall didn’t turn out as we had hoped; my passport was stolen. It did, on the other hand, create an amazing story that will never be forgotten.

To begin the new passport process we hopped on a bus at 3am to head to the capital of Costa Rica, San Jose. By 7:30 am we were in the Canadian embassy. Even with all the stress, it felt nice to be in the embassy, a reminder of my country with French and English signs everywhere and the Canadian flag decorating the office. Everyone was extremely friendly and helpful; I got a new passport the same day! We then travelled back to Liberia, a 4 hour bus ride from San Jose. After this very long amusing and frustrating day, it was kind of like it never happened.  The next day we went to a national park, El Rincon del Viejo (Old Corner), which has fumarillos (steam vents) and paillas (mud pots). We hiked for three hours with monkeys jumping over us and we were surrounded by hundreds of Coatis, the cousin of the raccoon. We met a nice French couple that knew all about different species of plants and animals, they were pretty much our own private tour guides. After the hike, we were taken to a hot springs that included a mud bath. I might as well have owned the hot springs because there was no one else there. It was paradise and losing my passport was like a dream (or nightmare, depends how you look at it). It was definitely a week that I’ll never forget, that’s for sure! Through all my amazing and sometimes frustrating experiences with travelling, I have incredible memories and an understanding of new and different cultures that could never be replaced.

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Mis-Frustration

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

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Hiking through the Blue Nile Falls!

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

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The power of microfinance

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My feet are muddy, my legs are tired, and the bags under my eyes are growing increasingly visible, but these physical flaws are proof of the incredible (albeit exhausting) four days I have spent in Bahar Dar thus far. As I sit here typing these words in my tiny hotel room, I feel fulfilled.Throughout this week I have spent an incredible amount of time “on the field”, which basically means visiting our clients in their homes, at their workplaces, or even their place of meeting.Boardrooms are completely unnecessary when you can circulate under the heavenly shade provided by an overarching tree. And shade really is heavenly when the mid-day African sun is otherwise beating down upon you.On Tuesday I visited 6 different clients, all of whom have benefited in one way or another from the microfinancial services provided by my organization. Needs are diverse and varied, and may include facilitation of a cooperative or a village saving and loan association (VSLA), or access to an existing bank or local partner microfinance institution (MFI) for access to working capital.While the benefits our clients receive from these services are also diverse, they can be summed up into two words: improved livelihood.Take Egowetet, for example. She is a member of a women-only rice cooperative, and her membership has provided her with the ability to wear shoes and send her two children to school (which is imperative to end the cycle of poverty).Or Belay, who, relatively speaking, is financially well-off. Belay has already acquired the resources required to run a successful rice business. He has recently been linked with poor women farmers, and now provides them with the tools they need to produce quality product, which Belay then stores for them until the ideal time for product purchase. It is a win-win situation for all.This morning I was on the road by 6 am in order to make a 7 am meeting with another VSLA. This 11 member group has learned the importance of savings through training provided by their group facilitator (who formed the group after receiving training from my organization). While they were previously renting the equipment required to produce local rice seed, their accumulated savings allowed them to become proud owners of this prized asset.Before we moved on to our next meeting, some local children and I started playing with my camera. These kids are too poor to attend school, and even though they aren’t usually much older than 7 or 8, they are responsible for herding livestock for up to twelve hours per day. Despite the fact it was only early morning, we enjoyed a quick work break together. Their facial expressions transformed from curiosity, to joy, to complete chaotic enthusiasm as we took our photos together, and it was hilarious to watch. It’s moments like these that truly make the loneliness and difficulty involved with packing up and leaving your home behind worthwhile.The rest of the day was spent visiting another VSLA and Farmers Field School (FFS). This VSLA, known as Addis Alem (meaning “new world”), have managed to save over 10,000 birr (divide by 18 for a Canadian currency conversion) in two years.The FFS is a group formed to share knowledge of best practices and to support one another in times of difficulty. This 24 person group was formed in July, but is already experiencing great success.The power of microfinance has the ability to change lives for the better using a variety of methods, and the impacts are incredible to witness. The ultimate goal is clear: eliminate poverty – and while quite a feat, it is possible.

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Road Trip!

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I’ve always enjoyed a good road trip and the past two weeks I was able to cover some Zambian countryside! Things like dodging potholes, driving long tracks on dirt roads, avoiding bicycles, stopping for goats, chickens, cattle, and once an elephant never leaves time for dull moments on the road in Zambia.I especially enjoy having the opportunity to interact with Zoona Agents and tellers supported by MEDA’s techno-links project in Zambia. These are entrepreneurs who are providing a host of mobile money financial services for their communities while also employing tellers to facilitate transactions at their outlets. Mundia, a Zoona Agent in the small town of Mongu, which is located in western Zambia, employs 18 tellers throughout his 12 Zoona outlets.  Pulling into Mongu after a 10 hour drive I hear people yelling “ZOONA!” as they see our brightly branded vehicle. Cars drive by with the “I LOVE ZOONA” stickers on the back giving thumbs up to us out their window. It feels good to see the impact Zoona is having in the community.  The purpose of the road trip involves me training our tellers and Agents on new services Zoona is providing customers. However, I spend a lot of my time listening to our customers, who are Zoona’s Agents and tellers. Hearing their feedback is valuable for me as I can relay important information gathered from the field to management so we can continue to improve our product and services to the end consumers.  As I’m driving 10 hours back to Lusaka from Mongu I pass one of our Zoona outlets at 4pm and see a queue of five customers waiting in line. 20 meters down the road a competitor with a company value in the billions has their mobile money shop closed up. Sometimes it’s not resources that bring success and growth to companies, but rather resourcefulness.  At Zoona we understand our end users needs and create a service that is reliable and easy for them to access (we now have over 225 locations in Zambia). Our spirit of entrepreneurialism has always focused on problem solving (and there are lots of problems to solve here) rather than just pursuing profit. By focusing on identifying bottlenecks and finding creative ways to unlock value for consumers and corporate suppliers Zoona is now growing on average at 20% per month. One of Zoona’s core beliefs is growth, and we are having fun while working towards a common goal of cashless thriving businesses, everywhere. 

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“Oh shoot, I’m supposed to talk?”

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That is my immediate thought as I am given the go-ahead nod from Yunus, expert technical advisor for GROW and my translator for the day. Twenty women farmers from the village of Gilang are seated in the large village shade tree in front of me, waiting for the meeting to start. Chickens dart through the center of the circle, babes suckle milk from casually exposed breasts, and the cool morning breeze graciously stymies any chance of sweaty armpits.I wasn’t counting on this, meeting all these women, here, under this formal tree in the center of Gilang. I was planning on meeting a few women individually, get an idea of how the program was going, hear their concerns, rejoice in their successes and be gone. But instead, I am meeting with a group of twenty GROW farmers, all of whom were staring at me. right. now.  So I start.Why am I here? Mostly to listen. I tried to ask my questions and get out of the way. I’m in Ghana for six short months (just five now) and I needed to figure out what’s the best use of my time. These women were to provide me with ideas – they’re the reason everything in this project happens, so it seemed like a natural place to look. I head a variety of concerns (consistent credit, rain, tractors) and successes (paying for a child’s education, expanding production).  They talked about how they received information from radio, or how lead farmers worked to disseminate crop price info. Lots of info, all jam-packed into one session.I think Einstein said that if you give him an hour to solve the problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes solving the problem. So maybe this is part of my 55 minutes. I don’t know the sort of work I’ll have completed in six months time, and to right now, the time seems frustratingly short. And in order to contribute something meaningful come April, I need to spend this time soaking up as much info as possible to get an idea of what’s going on. In order to do that, it involves talking with people. There is a large group of people with valuable experiences and perspectives, from the MEDA staff to our facilitating to the woman talking in front of me. So right now I’m listening.

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LIfe without ‘Kodak Moments’

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

 

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

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

 

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Ready, Fire, Aim

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The title of this blog is often used by entrepreneurs who are constantly striving to challenge the status quo and welcome change and risk within their business. They view change and risk not as a threat, but rather an opportunity to innovate and grow under-served markets. In the competitive and hyper-evolving mobile money market I like to operate by the quote, “It’s better to have a good plan today, than a perfect plan tomorrow.”  This is what MEDA techno-links partner Zoona personifies. Leading the mobile money financial transaction movement in Zambia requires taking calculated risks in the quest of pushing the ordinary in the name of development. We at Zoona constantly ask ourselves if we are being REAL… Real to our customers, real to our employees, real to our stakeholders, and real in what we strive to accomplish. If the answer is yes, we move forward.  As we work to gain traction in growing the mobile wallet product in Zambia, challenges and breakthroughs constantly arise. The key to executing in this type of environment is staying focused and true to your customer. My role in this is to provide our Agent network with the training tools they need to successfully convert their customers over to mobile wallets.  Generally speaking mobile wallets are a cheaper, more convenient, and easily accessible service than traditional over-the-counter money transfers. One way I like to break down the mobile wallet is by saying it provides ACCESS.  It is a mechanism through which financial inclusion can be delivered on a mass (and cost effective) scale.  One example includes Kiva Zip starting a pilot program where entrepreneurs and small business owners in Kenya can get cash funds sent directly to their M-Pesa account to help grow their businesses. There are myriad examples of how M-Pesa has provided improved access for individuals traditionally cut off from savings, insurance, bill payments, and person-to-person (P2P) sending  and receiving of money. This is the scale we are aiming for at Zoona. One step in achieving this goal is the recent partnership Zoona signed with international telecom company Airtel. You can read more about the partnership here.  Zoona stands alone in one very important way. Our Agent network has significant working capital to service customers compared to our competitors. Basically, this means when a customer comes to a Zoona shop they can feel confident their financial request will be served, whether they are sending $10 or $500.  We provide our Agents with the opportunity to access working capital finance (WCF) through a partnership we have with Kiva. This enables our Agent network to have sufficient working capital, service more customers in need of financial services, grow their businesses, and earn more profits. We are confident in the model we have and its potential to scale far beyond Zambia.  We at Zoona know one key to success depends on having a well financed network of Agents to serve the customer’s financial needs.  

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Field Trip

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Shortly after I got to work yesterday morning, I was offered the opportunity to spend a half day visiting some clients. For those of you not familiar with the concept behind microfinance, basically, our clients are poor workers, primarily women, who work in the textile or weaving industry. In order to grow their business and ultimately improve their livelihoods, they need access to fair and secure financial capital, as well as financial literacy training in most cases. In third-world countries, this is not so easy to come by – and this is where an organization like mine comes in.A colleague of mine took me to visit a cooperative of 50 weavers in the nearby village of Shiro Meda. These weavers make beautiful textile products, and on display at the time was a collection of hand woven scarves and shawls.We interviewed four male weavers to discuss their progress with a new project. Due to a market linkage initiative within my organization, they have recently been linked with a new designer who has access to the U.S. market. Her business is granting them an income increase of up to 75% – 75%!!!!!!!! Imagine how your life would change if your income jumped that drastically from one day to the next. Unfortunately for these weavers however, it means their average pay is so low that one additional contract can make such a difference.On the flipside, the loss of one contract can also have an equal impact, but in a devastating way. Thankfully, these weavers are living up to the designers’ expectations. They are able to buy quality input supplies in bulk (input prices can fluctuate dramatically by the hour, so it is imperative to buy affordable inputs when available) thanks to secure access to capital, and are meeting the designers’ standards thanks to training.Even though their dependence on this one contract is high, this is progress being made and a step in the right direction. It is now up to us to continue to source new market linkages and provide additional financial services. In a few years, the savings allocated from this additional income will alleviate these four weavers, and hopefully the entire cooperative, from poverty. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?! While there are billions of people still living in poverty, progress is still progress, even if it’s 50 weavers at a time.Yesterday was pretty amazing. I usually spend my days writing about how my organization strives to eliminate poverty, but yesterday I got to witness it first-hand. And let me tell you, it certainly reinforced my conviction for what I do.Oh, and I couldn’t not support the weavers so I had to purchase a half-dozen scarves ;) .

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I expected the worst but found the best

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

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How much for a bag of soybeans?

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70-80 cedis (roughly $35-$40).That was the (tentatively) agreed upon price for a 100kg bag of soybeans in Ghana.The Oct. 24th meeting to decide said price was held in the refreshingly air-conditioned PreHarvest Forum’s Conference Room A – a welcome respite from the sunny and sweaty outdoor booths. The PreHarvest Forum was, from my perspective, a mix of information and networking; sessions on improving yields and strengthening local markets were broken up with snacks and the swapping of business cards. The event was attended by farmers, aggregators, processors, ag equipment manufacturers and more… all hoping to connect with the right people and inform themselves. With these thoughts, MEDA arranged for both the local partners and some lead farmers (from the GROW project) to attend, and set up a booth of its own. But let’s go back to the soybean pricing. It was perhaps the most interesting event of the day, and it was definitely the most intense. Determining an acceptable price for soy for both buyers and sellers while trying not to price out local chicken farmers (who use the soy for feed and who will, if the price is too high, import soy from neighboring countries), requires a great deal of consideration: conservation, costs, and markets. “Brothers and sisters, let us remember that we are in a global village,” was one sound bite from a persistent refrain. The meeting attendees understood that all parties (soy farmers, chicken farmers, producers, and aggregators) had to benefit if they wanted to protect this “new and fragile crop” from being swallowed up by the global market.

The debate was one part theatre and two parts substance – “[B]etter than daytime television,” I remember thinking, as the man next to me struck the table to emphasize his point. Several people quickly established themselves as authorities, refuting claims of past prices, commanding a presence, and making comments like “I don’t think I need to introduce myself, everyone here knows me.” The crowd was lively – both murmurs of approval and dissent ran thick. It made sense, I supposed later. Everyone in that room’s livelihood was at stake. They had to make a living… and they had to make sure the market would exist in the future.The 70-80 cedi price didn’t leave many in the room satisfied – some wanted an exact number, others thought it too high or low. But the schedule called for the next event’s use of the room so the meeting ended. It closed with protest, only quelled by the promise of meat pies and Fanta.The price of soy fluctuates, but it follows a somewhat consistent yearly pattern. It reaches its highest just before harvest (October), drops to its lowest at harvest (in late October/early November), and slowly rises until the next harvest. If you’re curious, here’s a handy chart (from this study) that shows the history of grain prices in Ghana: (note that 1000 cedis per MT would convert to 100 cedis per 100 kg bag)For the farmers MEDA works with, getting a good price is important. During the dry season (November – May), it’s difficult to obtain other sources of income, so the money earned from their harvest now needs to sustain them in the leaner months. During the debate many of the farmer’s market worries were expressed – not breaking even, being priced out by international markets, not having sufficient demand locally. The task of farming seemed daunting, even in discussions from an air-conditioned room.

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Celebrating our one month anniversary

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

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The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

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

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MEDA, GROW, and Ghana. A summary

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So this is my attempt to give a basic framework for the rest of my posts — a sort of method to the posting madness. Not all the posts will relate specifically to these bolded topics (MEDA, GROW, and Ghana), but I like my frameworks flexible.So.. ahem. Framework.Two weeks and a few mosquito bites ago, I arrived in Tamale, Ghana as a part of the organization MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) with the project GROW. So what does MEDA do? Well, lots of things, but they focus on creating means to do business for underserved farmers and entrepreneurs around the world. A few examples: they provide access to financial services in Nicaragua, linking farmers to markets and technology in Ukraine, or providing women entrepreneurs with capacity-building training in Libya. If you want to know more, here’s a video I put together for MEDA this past year.So what’s up with this project anyhow? GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) focuses on women growing soybeans in the Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana — the ultimate goal is to improve food security in the region. This ideally will happen by making sure they have the right seed, equipment, financial services, technical assistance, and market access to make that happen. Here are these handy graphs to show how MEDA’s work relates to the whole operation of GROW.So what do I do? Communications / Impact Assessment is my title, but that sounds a bit vague. I suppose at the very base, I’ll find out how things are going (impact assessment) and tell about it (communications). So that seems simple enough. I’ll create a variety of media to communicate the work of GROW — video, writing, photos, audio, digital design. This random assortment of noises, pictures, and words will be used to engage the following: farmers, seed aggregators, Ghanians, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), MEDA staff, MEDA members, you, Bono probably). That’s the Communication piece.Impact Assessment is more of a direct task. GROW is in its early stages and not a bean has been harvested. (Year 2 of 6 to be exact… and the first year was dedicated to hiring staff, connecting with the right local partners, etc.) Recently, MEDA and its local implementation partners completed the baseline report, giving us some insight of the pre-project status with the idea that further surveys will provide the metrics we need to fix the wrong things, keep the right things, and accurately measure our progress. I’ll be working with this more as the harvest happens and we start and evaluate the early goings on.If anything piqued your interest don’t hesitate to let me know. Take Twitter for example. Maybe I can even give you some engaging follow-up info.

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