A 70-Year Journey of Leadership and Innovation at MEDA

Erie Sauder (left) and Ed Peters (right) were two of MEDA’s earliest leaders. Peters was the first board chair. Sauder served as corporate secretary. | Photo courtesy of the Sauder family

A look at people who led and changes that occurred during their eras

As MEDA celebrates 70 years of working with entrepreneurs to create business solutions to poverty, this issue looks at the organization’s top leaders, past and present, and the changes to MEDA that have occurred during their time.

MEDA’s first leader was a California businessman. Edward Joel Peters was one of eight businesspeople who agreed to form MEDA in late 1953. He served as the organization’s earliest board chair. During MEDA’s formative years, the board executive acted as management, helping to oversee investments and project work. Peters and Erie J. Sauder, MEDA’s first corporate secretary, served as MEDA officers for two decades, a remarkable long-term commitment.

In the first 15 years of MEDA’s existence, there were 33 projects in operation in six countries, retired Goshen College business professor Leonard Geiser noted in a speech to members of MEDA’s Michiana chapter on MEDA’s 65th anniversary in 2019.
“Early MEDA was not for the faint of heart as members were assigned projects and were expected to visit the projects periodically and to provide ongoing counsel,” Geiser said. Ed Peters juggled many other responsibilities with his MEDA commitments. The Fresno Pacific University Library holds Peters’ papers. It describes Peters as “a prominent California agricultural, civic, and Mennonite Brethren Church leader. He was a successful potato farmer and held several local and national leadership positions in the potato industry.”

Lloyd Fisher (left) in Paraguay with “Herr Peters,” in June 1961. Fisher, who would become MEDA’s first paid executive secretary in 1969, is explaining the terms of a MEDA loan to Peters. | Photo courtesy MCC Photo Collection, Akron, Pennsylvania

Lloyd Jacob Fisher, MEDA’s first full-time North American executive secretary, joined the organization in 1969. But his ties to MEDA go back nine years earlier. In July 1960, he and his wife, Evelyn, were seconded from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to work with MEDA in Paraguay. Minutes from a March 1960 MCC executive committee meeting show they would each receive allowances of $10 a month. The Fishers’ economic development efforts led to a farmers’ credit plan for the Volendam Colony. The settlers that founded the Volendam colony came to South America from Berlin, Germany, in 1947, fleeing communism.

Lloyd Fisher drew on his experience with a farm cooperative in Oregon to develop a system of short-term farm credits, a groundbreaking innovation for Paraguay at the time. The program was in place for 12 years and had a repayment rate of over 98 percent. He made the first MEDA loan for a tractor in the colony. At the time of his final visit to the colony in 1997, 53 tractors and 38 combines were in use. Fisher led MEDA from being an organization where board officers such as Erie Sauder, Lyle Yost, Levi Weber, and Orie Miller were overseeing programs in various parts of the world to more formal approaches.

In 1976, Fisher hired MEDA’s first full-time international staffer, Ken Graber. Graber worked in Bolivia and later directed MEDA operations in South and Central America. When Fisher retired in 1981, MEDA had undertaken 422 global projects, of which 87 percent were considered successful.

After Fisher’s retirement, MEDA’s board interviewed two staff members — Paul Derstine and Neil Janzen — for the top job.
Derstine was chosen as president in a close vote, with Janzen taking on the role of vice-president, Wally Kroeker wrote in The Marketplace magazine in 2003. “Derstine would carry some international assignments but would primarily look after domestic activities, such as recruiting more members and organizing chapters, while Janzen would direct most of MEDA’s overseas development work.”

But a year later, Paul Derstine suggested that the two men switch roles and titles, Janzen wrote in his 2022 memoir, “Memories of a Journey with MEDA.” Derstine wanted to work exclusively with MEDA’s international programs, Janzen wrote. Derstine “also felt that the president should be a person who would manage MEDA’s emerging domestic programs since it involved a significant amount of direct engagement with members.”

Paul Derstine served a year as MEDA president, then asked to swap jobs with VP Neil Janzen.

Janzen and Derstine proposed the switch to the MEDA board, which approved the changes. A few years later, Derstine left MEDA to work in the private sector. Neil Janzen oversaw significant changes to MEDA. In the early 1980s, he and Derstine decided it was appropriate to “rationalize” MEDA’s international work, which had grown to 21 countries and several continents. That process included closing a project in Ethiopia.

Neil Janzen

Before becoming president, Janzen also established MEDA’s first Canadian office in Winnipeg, Manitoba. MEDA had outgrown its shared space in the Akron, Pennsylvania, MCC office. Derstine set up a MEDA office in nearby Ephrata, while Janzen and Henry Fast occupied a small space in the MCC Canada/Manitoba complex. Four years later, MEDA’s Canadian staff and people from the MCC Food Bank (which became the Canadian Foodgrains Bank) moved together to a downtown Winnipeg office complex where MEDA had office space for over 30 years.

Lee Delp

In his memoir, Janzen lists eight achievements during his tenure at MEDA. First was attracting a highly motivated and professional staff and building a team with a long-term commitment to MEDA. The second was keeping MEDA as a single binational entity. Developing supportive partnerships with government, non-profits, and church organizations and transforming MEDA’s annual convention into a major event for the organization and its members were also highlights. He also noted an annual 15 percent increase in contributions from members, incorporation of microenterprise lending into MEDA’s operations, and work with board chairman LeRoy Troyer on updating board governance.

Janzen’s successor, Lee Delp, was one of MEDA’s shortest-serving presidents. He resigned after 1.5 years on the job. In a resignation note published in MEDA’s 1993 annual report, he cited the need to care for a disabled son, not allowing him to “maintain the travel needed to fulfill the duties of MEDA president.” Delp’s career included work in insurance as a senior vice president with National Liberty Corporation. He also worked as CEO of MOPAC (one of the largest renderers and used cooking oil recycling centers in the eastern US) and ran a consulting business. “During the course of his career, he was on the board of 13 companies and chaired 9, including leadership roles at Grace Mennonite Church and the international level with the Mennonite Church,” his 2021 obituary said. “He always saw himself as a pastor who happened to be in the business world.”

Ben Sprunger had a varied management career in academia, the non-profit sector, and running a consulting firm before joining MEDA in 1994 as Delp’s successor. He was interviewed for the president’s job twice. The first time was in 1992 when the board decided to hire Delp. One of the achievements he looks back on with pride from his nine-year tenure is assembling the “dream (leadership) team” of Allan Sauder, Kim Pityn, Gerhard Pries, Gerald Morrison, Jerry Quigley, and Wally Kroeker. “Nothing gave me more pleasure than continually observing this team at work and their successes,” he said. Programmatically and institutionally, he considers MEDA’s decision to financially augment its development efforts by raising capital “for which we would have obligations to pay interest, but also to repay capital” a significant step in MEDA’s evolution.

Ben Sprunger | Photo courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba

There were some bumps in the road during Sprunger’s term. During his second year, a $40,000 fraud scheme emerged at a project in Nicaragua. While that problem was “quickly discovered, contained and rectified,” a more significant, similar problem arose that summer. “A few MEDA Tanzania staff colluded in what turned out to be a $300,000 USD ($580,000 in 2023 dollars) embezzlement scheme.” MEDA quickly investigated the crime and repaid the stolen amount, but “the perpetrators were never arrested. With the money embezzled, they bribed officials conducting the investigation.” Pressure from the Russian mafia to pay bribes in that country, followed by an $800,000 US tax fine when MEDA refused to pay any bribes, forced the organization to evacuate its staff and shutter its Russia program. “MEDA was a perfect capstone to three decades of CEO or equivalent leadership in education, church, and business,” he writes in an ongoing memoir project. “I loved, respected, and cared deeply for the MEDA staff. As one observer noted, I was 150 percent bullish on MEDA.”

Allan Sauder is MEDA’s longest-serving president.

Allan Sauder joined MEDA in 1987 and served as president from 2002 to 2018. He holds the record as the longest-serving MEDA president to date. One of Sauder’s predecessors, Neil Janzen, was enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program at Western University (formerly UWO) in London, Ontario, at the same time as Sauder. Sauder worked as a project manager in Tanzania and then as director of international operations before becoming president. He oversaw a period of tremendous growth at MEDA. Revenues from institutional contracts grew more than five-fold during his tenure as president. Gifts from private donors grew at an even faster rate. MEDA’s budget in his final year heading the organization reached $35 million, seven times what it was when he took office.

One of the more significant strategic shifts at MEDA under Sauder’s presidency was MEDA’s move to a lead firm model. Where MEDA staff had previously worked directly with farmers and other clients, it now began providing incentives to processors and other businesses to do that training. It “was definitely an approach that was formalized in several projects during my tenure,” Sauder said. “The Ukraine project was a good example of this approach, but there were others, such as the earlier Afghanistan project with women gardeners.”

Dorothy Nyambi joined MEDA in December 2018, bringing a vast and deep-lived experience in international economic development. Starting her career in health, she moved into international development, where she worked in a wide range of sectors. She is the first woman and first person of African descent to head the organization. She has ushered in an era of transformation that would ensure MEDA’s continued relevance in the context of a very rapidly changing world. During her third year, she skillfully guided MEDA to secure its largest-ever contract — the groundbreaking $200 million Mastercard Foundation Africa Growth Fund.

Dorothy Nyambi

This transformative initiative, a pivotal component of MEDA’s Vision 2030 strategic plan, is set to generate 15,000 decent jobs for women and youth in seven sub-Saharan African nations in five years. As investments from this visionary project are repaid, they will circle back to MEDA, creating a self-sustaining cycle that enables further reinvestment for additional job creation. As part of the strategic plan, MEDA is doubling down on its focus on agrifood and agribusiness. Historically, this sector has accounted for about 80 percent of MEDA’s work, and it is the sector that most countries in the global south recognize as key for addressing poverty as well as transforming their economies. Another major pillar of MEDA’s current strategic plan is working towards a North-South equilibrium.

This approach aims to increase local decision-making in the design and execution of solutions, working with partners. This will result in streamlining the number of staff positions both in the global north and global south. “The shift arises out of the reality of today’s international development context and in respect for the people on the ground who have the best solutions for their problems,” Nyambi said. “Developing partnerships for system-level impact is also part of MEDA’s strategic plan. As we reduce and establish a leaner corporate structure, a further step for MEDA in the coming year is regionalization in the delivery and oversight of what we do and how we do it. The goal of this is to recognize the role of partners and bring greater efficiency, effectiveness, and continued proper stewardship of the resources entrusted to us. No intervention can claim success and sustainability if the system on which that intervention relies is not addressed and fixed,” she said.


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