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MEDA volunteer business experts ask questions to help develop answers

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018Kathleen ENGINE meeting Getting businesspeople to think of themselves as service providers was helpful, says Kathleen Campbell (right)

Helping small businesses in Africa is like any new relationship in one important respect — listening carefully is a crucial first step.

“As outsiders, we never bring the answers,” Kathleen Campbell says. “But if we can bring the right questions, then it helps these small businesses. They can make leaps forward in how they start to think about their businesses.”

Campbell, who lives in California, volunteered in Tanzania for MEDA’s ENGINE (Enabling Growth through Investment and Enterprise) program for six weeks this past fall.

During that trip, she delivered technical assistance and business training to 67 service providers (28% women) in the southern agricultural regions of Mbeya, Morogoro, and Iringa, and on Zanzibar.

Campbell collaborated with field staff in four locations to tailor training for ENGINE, a USAID-funded program.

Listening to ENGINE staff, understanding their insight, then sitting down with small business owners and trying to hear their biggest concerns is important before walking with them in a process of discovery, she said.

Campbell, whose career has included a nine-year stint with the Ten Thousand Villages fair trade organization, knew about MEDA through her Villages work. She agreed to take on the assignment because she was attracted to the idea of working with small businesses, particularly firms in the juncture between agriculture and the service sector.

Previously she lived in the Philippines for two years, working with women operated businesses in fishing villages. Her work at Villages also gave her the opportunity to interact with many small businesses.

“It’s always inspiring, because these are quite frequently people who are certainly changing the futures of their families, but many times they’re changing the futures of their communities as well.”

Change is happening in these communities because the businesses are doing something innovative, providing job opportunities for people who wouldn’t otherwise be included in the economy very well. “It’s always an amazing learning opportunity, and an incredible set of people you get to work with.”

Many of the groups Campbell worked with were engaged in sunflower oil processing, rice and coffee.

Asking questions about operating and material costs, how prices are set and who is the customer can change some of the entrepreneur’s approach to their work, she said. “It can help a lot.”

Campbell asked businesses how they define their service, how they talk to potential customers in a way that changes the conversation to one of how business’s experience can help customer solve some of their issues.

Marketing issues and defining the customer relationship were among the main challenges businesses needed to face, she said. “It was more moving past the idea that my job is to sell you something, moving to: my job as a service provider is to help you solve your problems.”

For some of the clients, it was their first venture in becoming a service provider. “That does change how you think about your role in a business relationship. It does change certainly how you communicate about yourself.”

The trip was an amazing experience for Campbell. She remembers Tanzania as a stunningly beautiful country, and everyone she met was gracious and hospitable.

Workshop Zanzibar John Oudyk volunteering with ENGINE programJohn Oudyk (left) had to improvise to help clients he met in TanzaniaShe came away from the trip with a strong appreciation of the resources we have in North America to start and operate businesses in an economy that is functioning. By contrast, Tanzanian small business owners face enormous hurdles, including national government policy hurdles, an economic slowdown and very little cash in the economy. “At every turn, there is something that makes this a really tough environment to be a small business. These people have such courage”

Campbell worked with 62 businesses during her time in Tanzania. Well over 90 per cent of the entrepreneurs she met were operating more than one business, some as many as three or four, just to survive. She came away impressed by people’s fortitude, tenacity and resilience. s

Campbell hopes others will choose to share their skills on behalf of MEDA, and go to visit projects for as long as they can. “To find how you can really be most effective, it takes a little time.”

“I would recommend it in a heartbeat, enthusiastically.”

Campbell’s visit overlapped with that of Ontario resident John Oudyk and other volunteers. While they were not in the field together, she enjoyed the camaraderie of debriefs at the ENGINE office, hearing what other people experienced.

For Oudyk, who sold his Power Vac duct cleaning business in late 2016, the Tanzania outing was his second MEDA trip. He did a Nicaragua learning tour in January 2017.

Oudyk spent the month of November in Tanzania. He originally thought he didn’t have the skills to be useful, as he thinks his skills are more in coaching than in doing presentations.

Recognizing the needs of some of the businesspeople he met, he had to refresh himself on principles learned in school decades earlier — the SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats); and thinking about marketing in terms of four Ps — place, purchase, price and promotion.

Despite the language issue of translating from English to Swahili, “It went quite well actually,” he said.

Most people who he worked with had a good understanding of business and some had a lot of formal education as well.

“Once I discovered that I didn’t have to come with all the answers per se, I was there primarily as a facilitator, it went a lot easier.”

Oudyk found the meetings forced him to improvise, something the clients must do all their lives.

For Oudyk, the trip confirmed something he had read earlier in a book: “the world over, people want the same things.”

Food in their bodies, shelter over their heads and education for their children are universal goals, he said. “You don’t hear about that often about developing countries in the western media.”

“We have more commonality than differences.”

Oudyk was impressed with the way MEDA works with partners and other organizations. Sometimes MEDA’s work is the continuation of another project, and other times its work becomes the basis of another group’s project, he said.

Oudyk would like to volunteer again, but found the experience stretched him. “It was darn hard to be that flexible.”

To learn more about MEDA’s volunteer program and opportunities, visit http://www.meda.org/volunteer or contact Jodi Martin, MEDA’s volunteer program manager, jmartin@meda.org