Convention speakers tell stories of MEDA’s impact, in North America and abroad
The opening session of MEDA’s 70th-anniversary celebration convention was entitled Cultivating Dreams, Empowering Communities. Robert Shuh, an Ontario entrepreneur who co-hosted the session with his wife, Lisa, noted that 2.6 million direct clients have benefited from MEDA’s projects and investments over the past seven decades. He cited a development industry estimate that the benefits of such work are multiplied 10-fold once the impact on children, the creation of decent work, and the surrounding community are tallied. That leads to the conclusion that 26 million lives have been positively impacted by MEDA’s work. The Shuhs structured the evening as a party where a series of guests reflected on significant aspects of their association with MEDA. What follows is a selection of some of these anecdotes.
A ticket to heaven
Asrat Gebre was first a volunteer and then the first employee of MEDA’s work in Ethiopia. In 1969, those efforts included a cloth shop, a tailor shop, a drug store, and an agricultural project. Gebre’s responsibilities included supervising those initiatives and assessing the credit needs of small-scale farmers. Working with women in a culture that had rigid gender roles posed some challenges. “Initially, we worked with men,” he said. “It didn’t really work. When we started working with women, we got our ticket to heaven. The question was not equality, it was complementarity. And we found out, on the ground level, that women were better entrepreneurs. They did not become better because they were women; it was because they were caring.”
Happiness from serving others
Ohio businessman Dan Sauder grew up hearing stories about MEDA from his grandfather Erie, who was one of the organization’s founders. Erie Sauder made 18 trips to Paraguay over 30 years, Dan said. The last half of those trips were to work with indigenous people, teaching them banking and finance, “teaching them to have their own businesses also.” At one point Erie was working in a woodshop in Paraguay’s Chaco region, when two indigenous visitors came to the door, shyly saying that they wanted to see the “MEDA man.”
When Erie Sauder introduced himself, the visitors took off their hats, bowed and said thank you. Although Erie Sauder started Sauder Woodworking, a 2,000 employee, $600 million business, he said that the most rewarding thing he did in his life was working with those Paraguayans, Dan Sauder recalls. “That’s when it hit me: happiness in life doesn’t come from things or (success in) business. It comes from serving others.”
Dan Sauder says his involvement with MEDA “has really shaped who I am as a businessperson.” Networking with other Christian businesspeople helps him to “solidify who I am, and how I am, and how I want to run my business. “My why for being in business now is — everybody matters.”
Sharing with the next generation
Michelle Horning heads Goshen College’s business department. She attended her first MEDA convention in 1990, as a senior in college. MEDA staffer Joyce Bontrager asked her to go to Uganda for a week as part of a short project. That visit gave her a deeper understanding of MEDA’s work. Horning eventually served nine years on MEDA’s board. Her academic role includes supporting Goshen students, some of whom attend MEDA conventions. “We want to help them understand that business has the potential to be a force for good, and to see everyone as a person who matters,” she said.
MEDA helps Goshen achieve this goal through its conventions, guest speakers and The Marketplace magazine, she said.
Empowering Kenyan farmers
Jane Maina heads Vert, a Kenyan business that works with 5,000 farmers and exports vegetables to the European Union. Vert was incorporated as a small family business in 2000. In 2016, the company was the first lead firm partner of MEDA’s M-SAWA (equitable prosperity) project.
Many small-scale Kenyan farmers own two acres of land or less, she said. They have chickens, a cow, and vegetables grown for export on these small plots. “They also have to grow the food they eat in the same plot.” MEDA’s support helped Vert teach these farmers to comply with food safety standards, including training and audits. Maina expressed gratitude for MEDA’s work and assured the audience that “whatever you are doing is reaching the intended beneficiaries. That is the job that you have been given, to ensure that what you do counts in the end.” Working with MEDA also helped Vert to see bigger opportunities. The company saw mangos going to waste on their farmer suppliers’ plots.
As a business, Vert was also concerned about over-reliance on European markets. The need to diversify led Vert to get into pulping, turning mango pulp into preserves that it could sell to juice processors in Kenya and abroad. “That meant another revenue stream, both for the farmers and for Vert.” From there, Vert next decided to get into the business of dried mangos.
A new view of money
Early in David Boshart’s pastoral career, he preached a number of sermons pointing fingers at people who “pursue wealth, build businesses, and try to make a lot of money.” But he ended up chairing the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) board as it began a $20 million fundraising campaign to build a new library and some other projects. “I met some amazing people who changed my way of thinking and changed my way of being a pastor ever after.” Boshart, who is AMBS’s current president, described that campaign as “a transforming experience for me, to journey with those people.”
“They had sat through their fair share of soul-crushing sermons by pastors who talked about people who pursue wealth or build businesses. And yet they remained deeply committed to the church, to Jesus, and they wanted to share their wealth in a way that would serve the Kingdom of God.” The lesson for Boshart was that “there is a spiritual vocation in business.” Understanding the value of entrepreneurship strengthened Boshart’s affinity for MEDA supporters. His gift to MEDA was some of his old sermon notes. He held up a stack of torn-up pages, to much laughter from the audience.
Learning to dream bigger
Mary Fehr worked as an impact assessment intern with a MEDA project in Tanzania right after graduating from college.
During that experience, she was convinced by Sarah French — another intern, and later a resource development staffer at MEDA — to bike across Canada when they returned home, to raise money for MEDA. Their original fundraising goal was $1 a kilometer each, for a total of $16,000. MEDA encouraged them to dream bigger, and subsequent goals of $100,000 and $150,000 were surpassed. They eventually raised $323,000.
That encouragement had an impact on Fehr. “I took that with me in life. Every opportunity has come out of another one.”
MEDA’s encouragement for her to dream bigger led her down a path to where she is vice-president of UniFab, a Leamington, Ontario, metal fabricating company. She is now working to take over the family business from her father, Abe. Not everything went smoothly during Fehr’s Tanzanian internship. She saw some of the fraud that can happen in a development project and MEDA’s transparency in dealing with the situation. “In that moment, I truly fell in love with MEDA the way they handled it. Everything they did was so honest, and they were so open. “At that moment, I decided this was an organization that I wanted to continue to be part of.”
A lasting impact in Russia
Art DeFehr’s father was an early MEDA participant. In 1989, Art DeFehr became involved in an exploratory trip to the Soviet Union, where momentous changes were taking place. MEDA served as the umbrella group for the venture. “Under perestroika, there was space for entrepreneurship, and the Soviet Christian community was engaging in these experiments,” recalls DeFehr, a retired Manitoba businessman.
He was involved in organizing four Soviet-wide conferences on business and ethics from a Christian perspective. The response was overwhelming, and people came from all over the Soviet Union, he said. Those meetings resulted in the formation of an association of Christians in business that continues today. Others had the idea to start Christian camps. “Hundreds of these camps in Ukraine are now operating a refuge for people on the move.”
The most consequential outcome of the four conferences was the creation of LCC in Lithuania, a fully accredited, liberal arts Christian university with over 700 students. Other results of MEDA’s influence were the introduction of new forms of agriculture to the steppes of Siberia and Kazakhstan, “which had dramatic results,” and the building of an agricultural equipment factory in Siberia. MEDA even opened an office in Moscow for a time in the 1990s. “There were many disappointments and some successes. … It was a great experience.”