MEDA in the News

GROW project and Farmerline partner, educate Ghanaian women farmers like Vida on food security

Vida scooping her soybeansSource: "Farmer Story #5 – Vida Baazaantaayele" by Jessica Kaisaris on the Farmerline website

Did you know that half of Ghana's female population is in agriculture?

Vida Baazaantaayele is a soybean farmer in Piina, Wa. This past farming season, Vida suffered heavily from post-harvest losses due to insufficient storage facilities. Farmerline and MEDA's GROW Project have launched a partnership in order to educate women in the Northern region of Ghana on food security and sustainable households. The hope is to address challenges such as Vida GROW project clientVida's through filling the knowledge gap.

In December 2014, Farmerline and MEDA visited Vida and 40 other female smallholder farmers in the Wa district of Ghana. Workshops such as these are encouraging for women to form their own farming associations, a critical means of support for many women independently working in agriculture. Not only do farming associations allow farmers to collectively negotiate competitive prices, but it also opens the communication lines to provide a greater sense of community among those living and working together in the same district.

Over the course of the workshop, Vida took Farmerline to show her method of drying soybeans. During this time together, Farmerline was able to teach Vida new, simple techniques for storing and drying soybeans in order to reach optimum levels of moisture and greater yields. Techniques included running your hands through the grains and storing grains above the floor.

Vida is one of 110 million African women making a living in agriculture. Farmerline supports small-scale farmers, like Vida, by sending agriculture-related information directly to farmers' mobile phones in the form of voice calls.

Stay tuned as #Farmerline continues to tell the stories of small-scale farmers in Ghana over the upcoming months.

To learn more about the initiative, visit us at www.farmerline.org or follow us on social media @farmerline 

Bluffton students ponder poverty at MEDA Convention

Bluffton students at 2015 MEDA ConventionSource: "Students ponder poverty at conference" by Chay Reigle on the Bluffton University website

Nine Bluffton students explored business solutions to poverty at this year's Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) conference.

The annual conference, held recently in Winnipeg, Manitoba, seeks to show how business practices—particularly in the private sector—can be used to pave the road out of poverty for others around the world.

"MEDA really made me think about my future career choices," said Emily Huxman, a sophomore from Waterloo, Ontario, majoring in communication and marketing. "We learned a lot about how to be successful in the business world without giving up our values and morals in order to make a profit. We also learned about the many ways big or small businesses can help to ensure human rights, not only for their own workers, but also for workers around the world."

This year's theme—"Human Dignity through Entrepreneurship"—lent itself to several seminars and networking opportunities for students and business professionals alike.

"Once I learned about MEDA's vision and goals, I immediately knew that it was an organization that I wanted to follow," added Carly Unruh, a senior from Wayland, Iowa, studying business administration and sport management. "MEDA introduced me to a way that I could put my faith into my work as a business professional."

Aside from hosting an annual conference, the organization has 200 partners in almost 50 countries working year-round to help end poverty, according to its website. Some of MEDA's initiatives include investing in small agribusinesses to support small-scale farmers, helping women get access to maternal health coverage and providing small populations with microloans to create new and sustainable businesses.

"MEDA was a great opportunity for me," said Owen Lugibihl, a junior from Pandora majoring in accounting and business administration. "It provides the opportunity to meet people who have been in business for a long time, and it gives you a chance to see what they have done to get that far in the business world."

Also at the conference, Bluffton students attended a lecture by Laura Ling, a journalist and author who was detained for 140 days by the North Korean government in 2009. "She talked about her experience there and how she maintained strength, and about what she learned about human rights," noted Jacey Dehogues, also a junior in accounting and business administration.

The conference "helps you become an ethical business person in this world we're in. It's something you don't get many other places," said Dr. Jonathan Andreas, associate professor of economics, who led the trip along with Dr. George Lehman, the Howard Raid professor of business. "Students are exposed to economic development issues that are eye-opening."

Next year's conference will be in Richmond, Virginia. "I most definitely will encourage others to go, even if they're not a business student," Dehogues, from Kalona, Iowa, said. "We learn about things that go beyond the business world, for example, different types of leadership and how to put it into practice. MEDA has definitely enhanced my life this year."

Pictured from left: Mike Liska, Owen Lugibuhl, Carly Unruh, Crosby Suter, Jacey Dehogues, Ryan Gingrich, Marissa Krier, Matt McCoy, Emily Huxman

On the go: Champaign man has world view of business

Peter MillerSource: "On the go: Champaign man has world view of business" by Don Dodson in The News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN — Peter Miller is only 29, but already he has had business dealings in Ukraine, Romania and Ethiopia and held two jobs in Jerusalem.

Miller, who is working on a master's degree in business administration at the University of Illinois, is executive vice president of Equipment Direct West, an agricultural equipment export company based in Arcola and founded by Wilmer Otto.

But that's not his only business involvement.

In the past year, Miller and a business partner have started a small residential subdivision in Romania. Miller is also a co-owner of Agro Capital Management, a business that leases equipment such as rotary tillers and greenhouses to small farmers in Ukraine.

Plus, he will serve as chairman of the board this year for the Ten Thousand Villages shop in Champaign, which sells fair-trade items from artisans from 35 countries around the world.

In November, Miller was honored by Mennonite Economic Development Associates as one of 20 people under age 35 for making a difference in the world — and exemplifying faith, service and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As his resume suggests, he's very much on the go.

"In 2014, I visited maybe nine different countries. ... For business-related things, I probably spend a week a month traveling," Miller said.

Most of the ventures he's involved in are designed to help people in other countries better themselves.

"Something that underpins most of our business is interest in seeing sustainable economies built from the ground up," Miller said.

"With the real estate development in Romania, we're trying to get starter homes going, and we're trying to employ Roma laborers as much as we can in construction work," he said.

"In Ukraine, our target market is really small farmers," he said. "With small farmers in Ukraine, we have more flexibility than banks do in how we structure the equipment leasing. Banks and other financial institutions have to structure the leases with regular same-sized payments every month. We can tailor them to the individual."

That way, farmers can make smaller payments during the growing season and larger payments after harvest.

Miller, who lives in Champaign, grew up near Hutchinson, Kan., a member of a Mennonite family. His grandfather was a full-time farmer, and Miller's father continues to operate the farm part time, growing corn, wheat and soybeans.

After high school, Miller took a "gap year" before college, to work on a farm in Germany that grew sugar beets, potatoes and onions.

"I knew I wanted to learn another language and travel the world," he said.

Miller then returned to the U.S. to attend Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., with thoughts of becoming a lawyer.

But an opportunity in Jerusalem gave him a burgeoning interest in economic development and international business.

That opportunity was a two-year job with the Mennonite Central Committee, in which he worked with a partner organization to introduce tourists to the Palestinian Christian community in and around Jerusalem.

Miller then took a job with the Lutheran World Federation in Jerusalem, heading up the annual olive harvest on the Mount of Olives.

The 800 trees there are harvested by hand, and the olives are pressed to make oil sold around the world as a fundraiser for the federation's Augusta Victoria Hospital.

"Each year, they bring someone on to spend three months coordinating the harvest, pruning the trees and coordinating volunteer groups," he said. "Often tour groups want to take part in the olive harvest."

Prior to taking the Lutheran World Federation job, Miller met Wilmer Otto through a mutual friend who thought they would be a good fit.

As a result of that, Miller flew from Tel Aviv to Ethiopia on his first business trip for Otto. In Ethiopia, he met with cotton growers interested in improving mechanization of their farms.

"To this day, they still harvest most of their cotton by hand, so someone with a 2,000-acre cotton farm is bringing in seasonal workers, 4,000 to 5,000 at a time," he said.

But without mechanization, they weren't growing as much cotton as they would like, he said.

Later, Otto hired Miller at Equipment Direct West. That company had been actively conducting business in Ukraine and other parts of the world.

"We had been selling used Illinois farm equipment to Ukraine for the last 10 years," Miller said. "That market has dried up since 2009. We have changed the business model since that time."

In July 2014, they acquired majority ownership of an equipment leasing company in Ukraine — Agro Capital Management, which sells equipment to small-scale farmers growing fruits and vegetables for sale in Ukrainian cities and also for exporters.

"A large number of clients are women, and for most of them, it is a primary source of income," he said.

The enterprise had been located in Crimea and southern Ukraine, but with Russia's takeover of Crimea, the company moved to central Ukraine.

In Romania, Otto operates a four-star hotel in Sighisoara, a city in the Transylvanian area of Romania and also has a construction company and other real estate projects there.

Miller said he too has a real estate project there, having developed with a business partner a six-home subdivision close to the center of town.

The subdivision is composed of "small efficient homes for first-time homebuyers — two-bedroom and starter homes," he said.

Equipment Direct West also exports equipment to the east African countries of Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

"Most of our work we do in collaboration with local partners, so I never feel too uncomfortable," Miller said. "I can't think of any country where we work where we don't have a local partner we trust completely."

In addition to speaking English, Miller speaks "conversational German and can be polite in Arabic."

Despite recent violence in the Middle East, Miller said he would "absolutely" like to visit the region again.

"I love the Middle East and would love to find a way to somehow do business there," he said. "It's such a vibrant place. The mix of cultures is fascinating to me."

He works from Champaign one day a week, but otherwise commutes to Arcola. To communicate with business partners overseas, "we rely on Skype quite a bit," he said.

Miller entered the UI's MBA program in January 2013 on the recommendation of a friend and hopes to finish up the degree in May.

"I've developed some nice relationships with professors, and a couple have provided great advice on specific business deals I've been evaluating," Miller said.

He accompanied the class to India during spring break last year, where students got exposure to agriculture there.

Miller said his brother, John, took a financial planning job in Champaign, so they are roommates for now. Miller also gave his family a glimpse of his overseas experience.

"I hosted my siblings and their spouses and our parents for a trip to Romania in August. They traveled around, checked out Transylvania and the northern part of the country and had a great time," he said.