MEDA Blog

“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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Life in Ethiopia

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I have slowly fallen in love with living in Ethiopia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the most challenging change I’ve ever inflicted upon myself. Ethiopia is a fantastic example of societal harmony. Despite an equal divide between the Muslim and Christian population, each religion offers complete respect to one another. The working calendar respects each set of holidays, which means the employees of Ethiopia essentially receive double the time off work! Last Tuesday was the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, so my gracious colleague invited me to her home for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.Another aspect of life in Ethiopia: the culture. Ethiopians are proud to be who they are. Whether through generous offerings of food, supporting the local soccer team, or just general friendliness, Ethiopians want to welcome any “forenji” (foreigner) to their country, because they hope you’ll love it just as much as they do (and yes, I do!). For example, I didn’t make it home from an after-work commitment tonight until well past 8 pm, but immediately upon my arrival my landlady offered me a delicious Ethiopian dinner, plus a glass of wine!Other incredible perks of living here include the weather!! Ethiopia has a reputation for offering “13 months of sunshine”, and I can see why! Every day is sunny and hot, but the nights and mornings dip down to about 10 degrees! I love grabbing my fruits and veggies from the local huts on the way home from work – picking up a kilo of avocado for 80 cents is pretty great ;) . Oh, and then there’s this guy:So yes, there are many positives to life in Ethiopia, but this doesn’t make it perfect.  Moving here has undoubtedly been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m not yet “immune” to the extreme levels of poverty I witness on a daily basis. I must get asked for money at least 15 times per day, and when I do open my wallet to offer a few birr (1 Canadian dollar = 18 Ethiopian birr), I am like honey to bees and am surrounded by others, who are only hoping for a few birr themselves. The health issues are widespread, serious, and gory to witness, and the most disadvantaged are always women, since they normally end up carrying the burden of unwanted children.While my “issues” do not compare to those facing such poverty, I cannot say it’s easy to adapt to life without a source of continuous power. It is not unusual to be without electricity for a few hours per day, or to lose an internet connection. The internet is my lifeline when it comes to keeping in contact with those back home.Speaking of home, part of my evening is often spent Skyping or emailing with someone in Canada. When I moved to The Netherlands, I was able to meet new people constantly, since we were all in the same business school together and all spoke the same language. Here, English is a rarity and connecting with people outside of work is much more difficult. Thankfully I have my fellow Canadian here with me (and we enjoyed a great weekend downtown)! For the first time in my life, it’s not unusual for me to experience sleep issues, whether due to my own mind in constant motion, or the outside roosters/dogs/wild animal making noise. I’m always able to make a phone call home and be back to bed within the hour, though :) .

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Goodbye Personal Space

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This past week I was able to spend some time in Capetown, South Africa. So many things about this place reminded me of North America, it is definitely not what one would imagine when thinking about Africa.The uniting language between strangers on the street is English, the roads are nicely paved, the price they tell me, is the price I pay (No bartering…my worst nightmare)! It was definitely a very different scene from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania but one thing that was not completely different was the train station at rush hour.I spent the day surfing, while my friend Marina was at school and work. I jumped on the train around 5pm to head back to her place before dark. I sat third class as I normally do. At first it didn’t seem like a big deal, I was still able to get a seat but with in the matter of three stops the train filled up so much that I wasn’t even able to see out the windows. I wasn’t quite sure when my stop was so I decided to stand up which at least would let me see out the window so I could get out at my stop.After a few more stops, I must have had a look of panic on my face because a map had tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Where are you going?” with quite the questioning tone. I told him Observatory and asked, “This is the right train isn’t it?” He laughed and told me, “Yes but I was still about 7 stops away!” Phew, at least I wasn’t completely lost. He offered to tell me two stops before mine, and when to walk over to the door. Within the next few stops that train filled up so much that I was now spooning someone from every angle, there was no where left to stand, or so I thought but somehow they kept piling more people into this car.The kind man told me it was now my time to head towards the door. I looked to the left and the right, unfortunately I was standing directly in the middle of the train. I had no idea how I was going to be able to get to the door. I tapped the shoulder of the woman beside me, “Excuse me, can I sneak by?” and the man, “Excuse me, my stops coming up.” They all started to giggle a little and moved about a millimetre to let me by.  I had moved barely at all and new I had very little time until my stop so I started to push my way through, apologizing the whole way.Finally at my stop, they helped push me through the door. Once I stepped foot on the ground, the whole train started to clap and laugh at me. I once again was the centre of attention! I am not really sure how I get myself into all these situations where I seem to have all eyes on me but it sure does help me make friends easily.My trip to South Africa was wonderful, I was able to surf, climb Table Mountain, see the penguins and meet many wonderful people. It is a very different part of Africa, so much that some times I even forgot I was in Africa. I have only been to a few places in Africa so far but I am learning that the Africans are unbelievably kind, friendly and joyful. Even in the most stressful situations they are able to put a smile on my face!

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Happy Thanksgiving from Ghana

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What do you get when you cross 5 Canadians, 2 British friends, an American, a Danish girl, a Canadian flag and a power outage? Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana! (I have coined the term Ghanadian Thanksgiving)Last Sunday we celebrated Thanksgiving, hosted by three other Canadian girls also doing CIDA internships here in Tamale. It was a great time and a wonderful meal. None of us have an oven, and turkey isn't that popular a menu item here, so the girls bought chickens and asked the local street meat vendor on the corner to roast them for us which he kindly did. We also had mashed yams (potatoes are a rare commodity), a mountain of eggplant, onion and carrot, cabbage (not such a rare commodity), and a lovely tomato soup with bread to start. Our contribution (us MEDA interns) was a watermelon for dessert, roasted corn, which Gillian very impressively perfected over a homemade charcoal grill, and a Canadian flag from our apartment which we hung proudly over the curtain rod.It was a nice surprise when I was asked to give a toast before the meal. I mentioned how fantastic it was, as we were all so far away from home, to be gathered together to celebrate our holiday – and exciting that others could join us in their first experiences of Canadian Thanksgiving (I was sure to toast to some other Canadian trademarks we could recognize on this occasion like hockey, maple syrup and Celine Dion).At one point we were asked the story behind Canadian Thanksgiving, and unfortunately, I didn't know all the facts at the time. After some quick research I learned that the Canadians started giving thanks for the harvest 43 years before the pilgrims landed in the United States. At first, the national holiday was celebrated on November 6, but in 1957 when Remembrance Day was established on November 11, the date of Thanksgiving was changed to take place in October instead. Now I can be ready to answer that question during the next Thanksgiving I celebrate abroad!Before we started the main course, we were asked to each share with the group the things we were thankful for. As well as being thankful for the health of my friends and family, I also explained how thankful I am for this great experience in Ghana – in the workplace, in the communities, across the country (I have been to all but one Ghanaian region) – together with some amazing people. I really couldn't ask for anything better. It was nice to hear that most of the others had similar things to be thankful for.In the middle of dinner, a thunder storm rolled in and we lost power. This didn't slow us down and, as we've learned to be prepared with candles and flashlights at hand in a moment's notice, we were ready to continue dinner in no time, accompanied by various forms of mood lighting. Luckily the power came back again about 10 minutes later. All in all it was a wonderful evening filled with laughter, food and friends. Although I was thinking of my family back home, I wouldn't change my Ghanadian Thanksgiving experience for anything. It served as a reminder of how grateful I am to be exactly where I want to be, helping provide families here with a harvest they too can celebrate.

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Why I need to make mistakes

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It’s been one week in Tamale, Ghana. (Here are some split seconds of the week. And yes, it has gone that fast.)I’ve been lost (and found… a key part to the story), gotten rained on, tested out my gag reflex, sung karaoke with a very drunk Japanese man, haggled, been bitten by mosquitoes, visited the office a few times, and celebrated Thanksgiving. To which you might say, “wait, isn’t Thanksgiving in November?” To which I respond, “not if you hang out with Canadians.”So I’ve been trying to do a few things — one of them is to accept my current state of cultural inefficacy.When you arrive to a new place, there are things you are not going to know — language, customs, where to purchase eggs at the best price, etc. You can try and act like you’ve eaten Tuo Zaafi and soup with your right hand your whole life (when in fact you’re left-handed and are a big fan of flatware). You smile and nod as your friend/host carries on the conversation. Suddenly, with all of the elegance of a newborn giraffe, you miss your face. Soup drips slowly down your chin. You pause, pretend that nothing is wrong, reach for a napkin casually, glance up at your friend, and notice that he awkwardly looks down at his plate. Errr.*Embarrassing things happen to most people, but with a much greater frequency and certainty in a foreign context (So I’ve found). As the old Polish proverb goes, “a silent fool will always remain a fool.” Or something like that.So if I’m going to learn some phrases in Dagbani (one of Ghana’s 79 local languages), I’m going to have to be ok with a little butchery of the language. If I’m going to learn the layout of the city I’m living in, I need to run that errand even though I’m not 100% sure where the building is. If I’m going to make my experience in Ghana valuable, I’m going to have to ask some obvious questions and make mistakes. To mistakes!* - the following story is not as hypothetical as the author would like to suggest, but rather a fairly accurate account of a recent Saturday outing.

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Surfing in San Juan del Sur, Volcano Boarding in Leon, and Opening a Clinic in Managua

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Things have really been picking up here at MiCrédito. Everyone here is hard at work on a number of new and exciting initiatives. Last week MiCrédito opened a health clinic at its Rubenia branch in Managua. The clinic, operated by partner organization AMOS Health and Hope, offers medical exams to clients which include screening for breast and cervical cancer for women and diabetes and prostate cancer for men. The cost of the exam is incorporated into MiCrédito loans, allowing clients to pay gradually for the services provided. So far the response from clients has been overwhelmingly positive! Clients are excited to have access to quality healthcare which is affordable and conveniently located right around the corner from their bank. I’m also getting ready to go out into the field to start interviewing clients for a case study I am currently working on for MEDA. I love chatting with clients and learning about their experiences. I am also looking forward to interviewing some loan officers and other MiCrédito staff members which will be a great chance to learn more about the inner workings of the organization. I’ve also had the opportunity to do a bunch of travelling over the last few weeks, crossing a lot of things off of my Nicaragua to-do list. I made it to Cerro Negro to go volcano boarding! Nicaragua is the only place in the world to experience this extreme sport which involves sledding down the side of a volcano on a bed of ash. It was an awesome experience and I came out of it with a very attractive ash beard.I also made it to the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur and tried surfing for the first time with my fellow MEDA intern Sarah French. I can see why so many people are addicted to the sport. Although I was only able to stand up and surf once (and very briefly), it was such a rush when I finally did catch a wave and ride it into shore. Both in the office and out, my time in Nicaragua so far has been extremely rewarding. The staff members at MiCrédito are such kind and hardworking people and I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to get to know them and the beautiful country which they call home!     

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Giving Thanks

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I had a different topic in mind for today, but I’m opting to postpone it in favour of a themed post to honor today’s Canadian holiday – Thanksgiving! In my house, celebrating Thanksgiving would involve church, lots of time spent with family, friends, and loved ones, and an excessive amount of food - most likely a turkey, green beans, sweet potato, baked potato, and a tasty pumpkin pie or two. My grandma always made an incredible sweet potato casserole. I am missing her AND her sweet potato casserole today.While I am not ‘celebrating’ in the traditional sense, I am still incredibly thankful for where I am today, both figuratively and literally. I have moved into my new home, and have basically been adopted by my landlady as her “white daughter”. Really, I saw the house on Wednesday, moved in on Thursday, and when I returned from work on Friday she had mountains of gifts for me: new bedding, cutlery, pots, pans… anything I could ever need, and everything I would have had to buy with my own money. The housing director said that in all his years of work, he has never known a landlady like her. While this move has been a bit overwhelming at times, finding a home is what I needed to start feeling a lot more settled here. I will post pictures soon!I’m so thankful for my new life in Africa. It is changing me, in ways that I like. During a conversation with someone from home the other day, I mentioned I try and keep to myself while walking to work. Now I can’t make the 10 minute trek without stopping to talk to a stranger, or at least receiving a “hello!” from a passerby. The locals and I exchange smiles, waves, and “good mornings!” multiple times. This is quite different from North America, where we try to avoid eye contact with anyone we don’t recognize.Case in point: today I asked to take a photo of a group of boys supporting their local team for today’s soccer match (soccer is life here). Not only were they thrilled to do so, they were ecstatic that this “forenji” (foreigner) could speak limited Amharic. We ended up having a brief conversation is support of the soccer match; my Amharic is broken (to say the least), but they were more than happy to put up with it. In the end, they requested a picture together.While I may be missing some sweet potato casserole, there’s no other place I’d rather be spending today… HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Whether you’re in Canada or not!

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The Power Of Partnerships; Airtel Money Now Powered by Zoona

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Today, Thursday, October 10, 2013 marks a memorable day for Zoona.  At 8am this morning Zoona officially began its partnership with telecom giant, Airtel.  Airtel is an international telecoms company with over 270 million users.  It is presently in 18 countries throughout Africa and has 4.2 million registered users in Zambia alone.  For the past eight weeks Airtel and Zoona have been in negotiations over a partnership between Airtel money (e-wallet) and Zoona.  The partnership is mutually beneficial as it allows both companies to collaborate together to provide more comprehensive mobile money financial services to Zambian consumers.  Now any of Airtel’s 4.2 million users can register for an Airtel money account via a Zoona Agent.  They can also deposit, withdrawal, and pay bills via Zoona Agents with their Airtel e-wallets.  An e-wallet is basically a mini-bank in your mobile phone.  You can deposit money into your account through an Agent and send money to other Airtel customers in Zambia via your mobile phone.  Once someone sends money to a friend or family member they will receive a text message notifying them of the transaction.  At this point they can pick up the money at any one of the 150+ Zoona Agent outlets throughout Zambia.  Another example is someone now can go to a Zoona Agent, deposit money into their Airtel e-wallet and pay their water, electricity, and DSTV bills through their mobile phone.  This allows more local Zambians to make cashless financial transactions.  The reason why Zoona entered into this partnership with Airtel is for a variety of reasons.  However, this partnership aligns well with Zoona’s core beliefs of entrepreneurship, growth, change, and impact.  1) Entrepreneurship: This partnership will allow Zoona to stay at the forefront of developing and empowering our Agent network.  We specialize in making businesses grow, and we believe the data shows in the long run mobile wallet adoption is the future for branchless banking in emerging markets.  Rather than wait for this to slowly develop in Zambia, we at Zoona want to be at the forefront of creating the successful mobile wallet.  2) Growth: We invest in skills and technology that drive growth in our company for our customers and stakeholders.  This partnership with Airtel gives us the opportunity to gain 4 million new customers in Zambia alone.  3) Change: We challenge the status quo in the name of progress and development.  Currently, Zoona is growing and doing well in the money transfer business.  However, we foresee the future of branchless banking moving towards the adoption of the e-wallet, which will have more services and cheaper costs for consumers.  We are not afraid of change and will continue to adapt in the name of progress.  4) Impact: We will develop solutions that will scale across industries and markets.  At Zoona we are always striving to stay one step ahead of the competition, driving innovation and early adoption in the name of creating sustainable impact.  This partnership with Airtel will allow us to have a more significant impact on the Zambian market and beyond. The past few weeks the staffs in Lusaka and Cape Town have been working long hours preparing for the launch.  On my end I have been working to put together a training packet for Agents and tellers to walk them through the new features that will be on the Zoona interface.  This partnership will benefit Zoona the most if we sign up a large number of Airtel’s 4 + million subscribers and have them begin transacting with Airtel money.  Keeping this in mind, we understand our Agent network is the key to having this venture be successful.  The Agent is Zoona’s customer, as we derive value from Agent performance.  We strive to provide our Agent network with the tools they need to succeed and grow their businesses.  We do this through trainings, marketing/branding, prompt customer care, and real-time payments/commissions to name a few.  At Zoona we believe we have a top-notch Agent network.  This is why we believe we can sign up one million new Airtel money subscribers by January 1st, 2014.  Now that the launch has begun, it’s all about execution.  Like CCO Brad Magrath said yesterday, “Today the real work begins everybody.”  I often joke with my friends back in America that I feel as though I won the lottery to have the opportunity to intern at Zoona.  The organization is at a pivotal point right now in its growing phase and I am working diligently to add value to Zoona during my time.  The next month I hope to continue to travel around the country like I have the past few weeks training Agents and getting valuable feedback on how we can improve the system for them.  Now, it will be more about listening to our Agents and customer feedback.  Then we will do our best to have systems and processes in place to meet the challenges we will face as the new product grows.  We are confident in our Agent network to sell Airtel money.  However, we are most excited about the opportunity this brings local Zambians.  We are striving to innovate and grow the mobile money financial services market in Zambia.  Now, Zoona is offering more services, for a cheaper price, to more potential customers.  This feeds directly into our vision of a world of cashless growing businesses… Everywhere.

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The next chapter…

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9 days ago, I began what I think is bound to be the greatest and most difficult adventure of my life.Guess where I currently am? In my new office, in my new place of living … in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, AFRICA!My arrival date was delayed time and time again because of the crazy amounts of paperwork I needed, but I finally made it last Sunday (the 29th). I have already experienced more than I can even begin to describe. The only reason it’s taken me a week to post from Africa is because here, the internet is quite a luxury!Speaking of luxuries, let’s add hot water, electricity, and a working cell phone network to that list. The adjustment has been… difficult. After a 16 hour direct flight, I was too tired to comprehend anything last Sunday. The newness of my new surroundings left me ecstatic on Monday, and the reality of my new surroundings left me overwhelmed/anxious/insert uncertain emotion here on Tuesday. Thankfully, I have a select few people I can turn to in any time of need, even if I’m now 7,140 miles away from them.I’m still living out of a hotel, but I hope to move into my new apartment sometime this week. Who would have thought my first apartment, paid for by my first post-grad “real job” paycheck, would be in Addis Ababa?! Ummmm… would anyone?Once I get moved in, I’m pretty sure I’ll start feeling a lot more settled here. The level of poverty is still shocking, but in a sense it’s becoming more normal to witness on a daily basis. The beauty of this city cannot be denied though. The surrounding landscape is consumed by green countryside and mountaintops, providing for fantastic sunrise and sunsets.I’m so fortunate to already have a friend here. Her name is Shaunet, and we were lucky enough to be driven around the city on Saturday afternoon. What’s astonishing is the contrast between rich and poor here. There are five-star hotels and million dollar homes practically across from tin huts the less fortunate call their home. Beggars are not found every few blocks, as is the case in Toronto; rather, they line the “streets”, which in fact are dirt paths with pot holes the size of… well, let’s just say you can’t drive over them.I feel so BLESSED to be here. I am already accustomed to the community-oriented nature of the Ethiopian people. This type of kindness is not common in the ever-consuming society I come from. I am learning every Amharic (the local language) phrase I need to know, and perhaps best of all, I am working in microfinance, putting my skills to use to help disadvantaged women!

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Life is a Beautiful Struggle

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

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What a long dreadful train ride

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“What a long, dreadful train ride” I heard people shrugging, while I was watching the landscape slip away behind me. We were stopping in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time, in what appeared to be “ghost stations”. I didn’t’ really ask why, I didn’t really care, I was simply enjoying the moment and anticipating my first work related trip. I was heading to Tetouan to assist with a 3 day training session organised and supported by MEDA Maroc, which focalizes on informing credit agents and directors from MFI’s on how to better understand and handle young clients. The train stops yet again, the AC wasn’t working, and some of the windows wouldn’t open, the passengers are all quiet, it was too hot to bother talking. Kids were coming out behind piles of rocks and bushes, running from a distance towards the train, trying to hop on the train for a free ride to the neighboring costal city: Azilal. They were bright eyed boys with big smiles, having the time of their lives while being chased after by the security guards and their dogs. I always enjoy road trips; I lose all concept of time while basking in the images and live portraits surrounding me.After resting in Tangier I hit the road to Tetouan! The development agents I met there were all enthusiastic about the training. Their interest and participation were great, even though the sessions were held during the week-end. We all had a sense of how important it was to provide appropriate financial services to the youth, and countered the multiple stereotypes surrounding young MFI clients. Clients weren’t numbers anymore; they were people from their community that they were eager to help. While I was capturing these moments with my camera, I noticed the same bright eyes and smiles I previously encountered during my train ride. I kept wondering what was so similar between two completely different groups of people. Could it be hope? Hope to reach more clients...hope to reach the beach or hope for improvement...hope for a better future.

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