What initially drew me into applying for a MEDA internship revolved around wanting to work abroad again and see if I could find a placement that would give me the skills and opportunities to transition into a career with international development work. However, after applying and having my first interview with MEDA I realized this internship program was not like many of the other I had applied for in the past. The level of professionalism and care by the staff members and the investment MEDA made to provide the necessary resources for us to be most effective in our roles was evident to me from the start. This really drew me into the MEDA internship program and I was lucky enough to be selected.
I had previously served a nine month fellowship for an NGO in Rwanda working at a partner microfinance institution so this was not my first experience living/working in sub-Saharan Africa. I think I went into the internship with realistic expectations of what was expected of me, and what I could contribute during my time frame. So I think having previous experience can be very helpful in the first month of your placement.
The advice I would give someone who is interested in international development work is to focus on seeing the big picture. It's clear that sustainable international development is very difficult work and sometimes projects that may seem beneficial initially end up being unsuccessful. The key is to learn from the many challenges and difficulties you will be faced with abroad and think critically and outside the box on how complex issues can be solved in a way that empowers the local community. Do not think because you have down time or do not feel like you are "making a big impact" that what you are doing is insignificant A few key insights I would give is; be flexible, find opportunities in your challenges, focus on adding value however you can, and stay positive. If an intern does these things I think one will have a successful and memorable internship experience.
Having a strong background in business management was helpful in my internship placement. However, I don't think with my placement and experience working abroad I would say your educational background is the most significant factor, rather your attitude, willingness to learn, and flexibility is vital to success.
With me I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity I received through the MEDA internship program. The flexibility the internship provided me working with Zoona in Zambia allowed me to focus on the need the business had while I was there. This need was in establishing a training program for Zoona's agent network. I was able to work on this during my assignment and after my six months was complete Zoona offered me full-time three year contract to be the lead training officer in Zambia. This has enabled me to get valuable work experience now where I am having a strong impact on the future of the company by making sure new and existing agents are adequately trained on Zoona operational standards to ensure a quality end-user experience. I get to travel about 50% of the time for my current position which I also really enjoy since I have been able to see all the rural far off places in Zambia and soon, Malawi as well. I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity in gaining the necessary skills to benefit me at my current job. I was able to continue working for the company I was placed with and it is the most impactful and rewarding work experience I have ever had.
My most worthwhile experience was being able to build relationships with the 100's of Zambian agents and tellers that operate the Zoona business in Zambia providing improved financial inclusion to the 65% of the population who are unbanked. At Zoona, we want to challenge the status quo in the name of progress. We believe in a "cashless" Africa and are working tirelessly to bring our vision to fruition.
The single most important lesson I learned is to focus on your talents and really try to leverage them in the workplace to add value. I knew I had good interpersonal skills so I focused on building relationships with the agent network which led me to training. Since many of the network already knew me personally it made training easier as they felt comfortable communicating with me whether it was something good or a something that was troubling them.
In retrospect I would have packed more than two bags because after six months I never left the country so I am living a very simple lifestyle. But that is okay with me, most my time revolves around work and building a stronger network of trained agents who will provide better financial services while earning a stable income using our web-based technology platform for money transfers.
Overall, I couldn't recommend the MEDA internship program more. I have worked for a lot of non-profit, governmental, and for profit organizations and MEDA shines among the top. The support we receive as interns is unparalleled to any other internship/fellowship program I have worked for. I especially enjoyed the opportunity to come to Waterloo and meet the great MEDA staff, learn more about the organization, and spend quality time with the other fellow interns. Many of us are still close friends and I have travelled to other countries in Africa to visit fellow interns and share in our experiences over hiking trips, scaling 4,500 meter peaks, and wandering the streets of Stone Town together.
The housing allowance and stipend from MEDA also allows interns to not have to stress constantly about making ends meet so you can focus on your work placement and have a little bit of money to travel around the country you are placed in and really get the full experience. I will always look back and my internship fondly with MEDA and would be very keen to work in a greater compactly for the organization if the right opportunity presented itself in the future.