MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

My MEDA Internship Reflection: "I feel extremely grateful"

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.

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My MEDA Internship Reflection: "I learned so much"

I decided to apply for CIDA's internship program as I was looking to start a career in international development. The program seemed like a great opportunity to gain field experience and contacts which could help me launch my career. MEDA specifically appealed to me as I loved the organization's business approach which I believe is a very sustainable and practical approach to development. I also wanted to gain more experience in microfinance which was the area of focus for my internship with MEDA.

I had worked abroad prior to my internship with MEDA but this experience really offered me the opportunity to gain a ton of professional experience and skills. I learned so much from my fellow MEDA staff and partner organization staff in Nicaragua which really complemented my academic knowledge of development issues.

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Saying goodbye to a beautiful country and some amazing people

b2ap3_thumbnail_Ometepe---My-fav-place-in-Nicaragua.gifb2ap3_thumbnail_Celebrating-my-Birthday-in-Nicaragua-with-MiCredito-staff.gifAs I enter my last week here in Nicaragua as a MEDA intern I thought I would use what is probably my last blog entry as an opportunity to reflect on my overall experience working with MEDA and its partner organization MiCrédito.

My time in Nicaragua has been amazing! I have travelled across the country, visiting beautiful colonial cities like Granada and Leon, climbing volcanos on Ometepe Island, relaxing on the beautiful Caribbean beaches of Little Corn Island, and hiking the beautiful Somoto Canyon. Nicaragua is a beautiful country and I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone who hasn't yet made the trip.

In terms of my internship experience, the thing I have enjoyed the most is being treated like a professional. Although MEDA and MiCrédito staff are always here for support I really appreciated the fact that I was given the opportunity to try things on my own and learn by doing.

b2ap3_thumbnail_MiCredito-Office-in-Managua.gifb2ap3_thumbnail_Interviewing-a-Client-in-Boaco.gifI feel like I have a lot to show for my time here in Nicaragua: I wrote two case studies, conducted gender training, completed over 50 interviews with clients and staff, developed mobile versions of MiCrédito's loan application forms, wrote a new branch proposal, and developed social impact indicators for the organization. I feel like I have accomplished a lot and that I was given the opportunity to do a lot of the work on my own. As a young professional seeking to pursue a career in development that was what I really wanted to get out of this internship - to gain as much practical experience and absorb as much information as possible. And of course to support MiCrédito as much as possible in serving its clients' needs.

On a personal note I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to work with and get to know so many wonderful people here in Nicaragua, especially my coworkers here at MiCrédito. Its staff members have been so welcoming and I have learned so much from them about the Nicaraguan culture, microfinance, and their own lives. They are so knowledgeable and committed to MiCrédito's mission to increase access to financial services for micro and small entrepreneurs so often overlooked by the traditional banking system.

I feel extremely lucky to have had this experience. Although I am excited to get back to Canada and see my friends and family I am sad to be leaving Nicaragua. However, I know that I will make it back some day and that when I do MiCrédito will be going strong.

Muchas gracias a todos mis amigos y compañeros aquí en Nicaragua. MiCrédito y Nicaragua siempre van a tener un lugar muy especial en mi corazón y seguramente regresaré un día para visitarles otra vez en este país bellísimo de Nicaragua. ¡Un abrazo muy fuerte a todo el mundo!

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A New Year With New Goals

b2ap3_thumbnail_National-Stadium-in-Dar-Es-Salaam-Tanzania.gifAfter a nice Christmas vacation where I was able to meet up with fellow MEDA interns Mary, Curtis, and Daniel I'm back to work with Zoona as we begin the 2014 year with ambitious goals of expansion and impact. First, let me summarize the great vacation I had in Tanzania and Kenya.

It was my first time in Tanzania and I was surprised by the development and hyper-activity of Dar Es Salaam, a very different feeling than the capital city, Lusaka where I spend my time with MEDA techno-links partner, Zoona. On my first day there Curtis got tickets for us to watch a big soccer match at national stadium. It was a great experience!

b2ap3_thumbnail_Fellow-MEDA-intern-Daniel-taking-pictures-on-the-summit-of-Little-Meru.gifb2ap3_thumbnail_Me-on-top-of-Mt.-Meru.gifLater we took a trip to Arusha, Tanzania to trek up 4,566 meter Mt. Meru. It was hard, it was fun, and a lot of memories were shared with me, Daniel, and Mary. After getting back down from four days on the mountain I could barely walk but felt great with the accomplishment. It made me realize daily exercise wouldn't be a bad investment for me in Lusaka when I returned.

I finished out my trip spending time with a former work colleague in Nairobi, Kenya. I always enjoy visiting new places in Africa as each country has its own unique culture and idiosyncrasies that are fascinating.

Now, back in Lusaka I have been developing a case study for the techno-links project on agent training methods Zoona has gone through the past four years. This has involved field work, lots of interviews, and disbursing surveys to collect information from agents and tellers. We hope to utilize the case study as a tool for Zoona to better evaluate its training program for agents and make recommendations for areas of improvement.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Zoonas-Katondo-branch-team-in-Lusaka-during-a-field-visit.gifThis will be important as Zoona is planning to expand its agent network from 200 to 600 this year in Zambia. The increase we anticipate will be on par with an increase in customer transactions and demand for financial services among Zambians. As Zoona's popularity has grown, we have seen a steady rise in total monthly transactions. In September of 2012 we had 76,871 total transfers performed, whereas by December we had a total of 122,080.

As we continue to scale our agent network it brings more agent locations to rural areas in Zambia that have few, if any, financial options for sending/receiving money. This is one of the focal points of the techno-links project, and it is good to see the progress we are making in providing more opportunities for Zambians to access financial services in rural areas.
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Christmastime in Nicaragua

b2ap3_thumbnail_Cascada-San-Ramon.gifb2ap3_thumbnail_Corn-Islands.gifI have lived abroad twice before, but I have always returned to Canada for Christmas. This year, with my internship ending in February, it didn’t really make sense to make the trip home to Canada for the holidays so I decided to spend Christmas in Nicaragua. I was extremely lucky that my little brother William decided to come and visit me so that we could spend the holidays together. It has been amazing to have him here with me and to get to show him the country that has been my home for the last 5 months. He also brought presents with him from home which was another major benefit.

I was lucky enough to get to do some travelling over the holidays, spending Christmas in Corn Islands, the beautiful Caribbean islands off the coast of Nicaragua. These islands are full of beautiful white beaches and delicious seafood. I also got to return to the island of Ometepe to bike and climb a waterfall as well as relax on the beach and do some boogie boarding in San Juan del Sur.

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The Christmas that wasn’t?

Normally around this time of year, I am battling snowy driveways, piling on the layers of clothing, and cursing the wind chill. I am also sipping on hot chocolate, pulling out the downhill skis, and decorating a Christmas tree. Despite the odd winter-related inconvenience, I really do love this time of year. But what happens when “this” time of year no longer exists?

Being in the middle of Africa in December, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. While I complain about the “frigid” morning temperatures (of 5 degrees – I’ve become weak), it’s usually close to 30 degrees here in the afternoon. Even though I don’t have to worry about frost bite, I can honestly admit I miss the snow.

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Impact Stories from the Field

b2ap3_thumbnail_myself-Teddy-Sampa-and-Zoona-agent-Chika-Josi-at-his-new-booth.jpgI always enjoy getting out of the office in the busy capital city of Lusaka and visiting MEDA techno-links partner Zoona in the field. Zoona has an expansive agent network totaling over 200 agents located throughout Zambia. Seeing firsthand how these entrepreneurs are being empowered to grow their businesses is inspiring. Not only has Zoona helped increase their incomes and well-being, but it also provides a needed financial service in a country where over 84% of the adult population does not have a formal bank account

Zoona is unique against other competitors in that individuals do not have to create accounts to use and benefit from Zoona services like sending/receiving money, bill payments, airtime purchases, and receiving international remittances. All they have to do is provide their personal National Identification Card (NRC) and they can be served. This makes the barrier to utilizing the services minimal and with Zoona’s Easy, Quick, Safe platform anyone from illiterate rural farmers to Lusaka businessmen can easily understand and appreciate the simplicity of the service. 

This past week I was able to interview five agents along with MEDA M&E Program Manager Jillian Baker. Here are some of the highlights of how this techno-links funded project is making a difference for local Zambian entrepreneurs and consumers:



b2ap3_thumbnail_Constance-on-left-with-Zoona-staff-members-Nuraan-center-and-Memory-right.JPGb2ap3_thumbnail_Marjori-in-her-Zoona-shop-speaking-with-staff-member-Teddy-Sampa.jpgMarjori and her husband Dominque have been operating two Zoona outlets in the Copperbelt region of Zambia since 2009. After being trained and supported by Zoona staff their business has steadily grown. With this income Marjori and her husband re-invested back into the business and also purchased 23 hectares of land for farming to begin generating additional revenue streams. Marjori says her goal is to, “Grow her Zoona business and help others in need.” One way she is already doing this is by taking in 8 orphans to her home and paying their school fees so they can receive an education. 

Constance is a young and talented entrepreneur who after receiving training and support from Zoona has now managed to grow her business to six Zoona outlets throughout the Copperbelt region. She employs 8 female tellers who work at her shops and receive a salary as well as bonuses based on performance. When one of Constance’s tellers was pregnant she gave her three months of maternity leave fully paid. Constance understands the concept that if you treat your employees well it will not only benefit them, but also the business and her customer base. With the income Constance earns from her Zoona outlets she has enrolled in College to study for her Diploma. She also says she enjoys the feeling of independence running her own business brings. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_Zoona-agent-Mercy-at-her-booth-in-Ndola.gifMercy started her Zoona business only 9 months ago. Through training from Zoona, hard work, and direct selling she has expanded her business quickly. She already employs three tellers and recently opened a second outlet in the town of Ndola. She says Zoona has empowered her to think like an entrepreneur. She is now enrolling in College to study Business Management. When asked why Business Management Mercy said, “So I can learn more about how to be a successful business owner.” 

Perhaps the most inspiring part of doing these interviews was seeing the confidence and independence these Zambian entrepreneurs conveyed in every word spoken. This visit only reinforced my views that Zoona is living out its core belief, “we will be at the forefront of developing and empowering entrepreneurs in emerging markets.” Improved incomes for agents, local job creation, and increased financial services for the non-banked.... The list could go on and on. This is a model that works, this is sustainable impact.

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When you are the only forenji…

b2ap3_thumbnail_the-path-I-walk.jpgThis is the path I walk up and down every morning and every evening.

Despite the personal trials I have dealt with as of late, I still find humour and amusement in this daily walk. I’ve become familiar along this path, and as a result have formed the most unique relationships. And to put it bluntly, it’s because I’m the only “forenji” (aka white person).

When you are the only forenji… your name is no longer Emma, it’s “forenj!!!”

When you are the only forenji… it is easy to become friends with the local injera maker, who just happens to be a very sweet, old lady who invites you for a coffee every evening.

When you are the only forenji… the woman selling vegetables and herbs, who also happens to be old and sweet, insists you take some herbs for free, even though you have no idea what to use them for.

When you are the only forenji… the beggars who you give to begin to depend on your donation, which isn’t good.

When you are the only forenji… the woman who sells corn, once again old and sweet, kisses your hand when she sees you after the work day has ended (and it’s really adorable!).

When you are the only forenji… you are kind of like a local celebrity! I better not get used to it.

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The Great Ethiopian Run 2013

b2ap3_thumbnail_My-friend-Fantahun-and-I-post-race.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_In-the-middle-of-the-water-fight.jpgI participated in the Great Ethiopian Run last Sunday – and what a blast it was! Originally a few of my colleagues and I were supposed to run it together, but life got in the way and I ended up running it with a friend of mine from the local gym!

While there were a minority of runners who were racing, this event is much more of a “fun run” than a race. The course was 10km in total, and there were tons of great distractions throughout. We were drenched with water multiple times, which I really appreciated considering the heat! At the halfway mark there were huge speakers playing popular Ethiopian music, and massive trucks were handing out water balloons. As you can probably guess, a massive water balloon fight broke out!IMG_1228 My friend, Fantahun, and I post-race!

The course was flat in some places, but very hilly in others. The sheer quantity of people (40,000 in total!!), combined with the narrow roads (often plagued with pot holes) and (fantastic) distractions actually prevented running in certain stretches of the course, at least for us middle-of-the-pack runners. I really didn’t mind the odd walk break though – racing at this elevation and heat was a bit of a shock!

The race wasn’t timed, but I’m guessing we finished in an hour or so. It was tons of fun and I’m so thankful my friend from the gym ran it with me!

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Hiking through the Blue Nile Falls!

b2ap3_thumbnail_En-route-to-the-top.jpgMy time in Bahar Dar came to an end on Saturday evening. I was back in Addis by 9 pm, and while already missing the lush vegetation, I was more than happy to be back in my own bed.

I took advantage of an empty Saturday morning and arranged to join a tour group to the Blue Nile Falls, a beautiful waterfall connected to the Nile river. The Blue Nile Falls is known as “Tis Abay” in Amharic, which means “smoking water”.

I was picked up in the early morning, and we began our adventure with a 45 minute drive over the bumpy roads of the outskirts of Bahar Dar. From there we began our trek throughout the surrounding mountains, which I LOVED! Hiking is definitely one of my favourite outdoor activities.

It took us about an hour to reach our destination. And then we were able to get a bit closer!

b2ap3_thumbnail_What-a-beautiful-view.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_I-can-see-why-Ethiopians-refer-to-these-falls-as-smoking-water-.jpgAfter passing the falls we hiked some ways longer in order to reach a traditional (read: rocky!!) boat to take us to the other side of the shore. After a short walk back to the car, we were on our way back to the city center.

A quick costume change later and I was on my way to an afternoon conference, and shortly thereafter I was boarding my flight home. Overall, I’d say I enjoyed one awesome weekend!

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The power of microfinance

My feet are muddy, my legs are tired, and the bags under my eyes are growing increasingly visible, but these physical flaws are proof of the incredible (albeit exhausting) four days I have spent in Bahar Dar thus far. As I sit here typing these words in my tiny hotel room, I feel fulfilled.

Throughout this week I have spent an incredible amount of time “on the field”, which basically means visiting our clients in their homes, at their workplaces, or even their place of meeting.

Boardrooms are completely unnecessary when you can circulate under the heavenly shade provided by an overarching tree. And shade really is heavenly when the mid-day African sun is otherwise beating down upon you.

On Tuesday I visited 6 different clients, all of whom have benefited in one way or another from the microfinancial services provided by my organization. Needs are diverse and varied, and may include facilitation of a cooperative or a village saving and loan association (VSLA), or access to an existing bank or local partner microfinance institution (MFI) for access to working capital.

While the benefits our clients receive from these services are also diverse, they can be summed up into two words: improved livelihood.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Belay-and-his-son.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_Egowetet-outside-of-the-cooperative.jpgTake Egowetet, for example. She is a member of a women-only rice cooperative, and her membership has provided her with the ability to wear shoes and send her two children to school (which is imperative to end the cycle of poverty).

Or Belay, who, relatively speaking, is financially well-off. Belay has already acquired the resources required to run a successful rice business. He has recently been linked with poor women farmers, and now provides them with the tools they need to produce quality product, which Belay then stores for them until the ideal time for product purchase. It is a win-win situation for all.

This morning I was on the road by 6 am in order to make a 7 am meeting with another VSLA. This 11 member group has learned the importance of savings through training provided by their group facilitator (who formed the group after receiving training from my organization). While they were previously renting the equipment required to produce local rice seed, their accumulated savings allowed them to become proud owners of this prized asset.

b2ap3_thumbnail_7-am-member-meeting.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_Having-fun-with-the-local-children.jpgBefore we moved on to our next meeting, some local children and I started playing with my camera. These kids are too poor to attend school, and even though they aren’t usually much older than 7 or 8, they are responsible for herding livestock for up to twelve hours per day. Despite the fact it was only early morning, we enjoyed a quick work break together. Their facial expressions transformed from curiosity, to joy, to complete chaotic enthusiasm as we took our photos together, and it was hilarious to watch. It’s moments like these that truly make the loneliness and difficulty involved with packing up and leaving your home behind worthwhile.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Comparison-of-the-quality-versus-non-quality-rice-grain-at-the-FFS.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_Addis-Alem-VSLA.jpgThe rest of the day was spent visiting another VSLA and Farmers Field School (FFS). This VSLA, known as Addis Alem (meaning “new world”), have managed to save over 10,000 birr (divide by 18 for a Canadian currency conversion) in two years.

The FFS is a group formed to share knowledge of best practices and to support one another in times of difficulty. This 24 person group was formed in July, but is already experiencing great success.

The power of microfinance has the ability to change lives for the better using a variety of methods, and the impacts are incredible to witness. The ultimate goal is clear: eliminate poverty – and while quite a feat, it is possible.

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Road Trip!

b2ap3_thumbnail_Teddy-and-I-dealing-with-a-flat-tire-at-the-Congo-boarder.pngI’ve always enjoyed a good road trip and the past two weeks I was able to cover some Zambian countryside! Things like dodging potholes, driving long tracks on dirt roads, avoiding bicycles, stopping for goats, chickens, cattle, and once an elephant never leaves time for dull moments on the road in Zambia.

I especially enjoy having the opportunity to interact with Zoona Agents and tellers supported by MEDA’s techno-links project in Zambia. These are entrepreneurs who are providing a host of mobile money financial services for their communities while also employing tellers to facilitate transactions at their outlets.

Mundia, a Zoona Agent in the small town of Mongu, which is located in western Zambia, employs 18 tellers throughout his 12 Zoona outlets.  Pulling into Mongu after a 10 hour drive I hear people yelling “ZOONA!” as they see our brightly branded vehicle. Cars drive by with the “I LOVE ZOONA” stickers on the back giving thumbs up to us out their window. It feels good to see the impact Zoona is having in the community. 

b2ap3_thumbnail_Training-in-Mongu-with-Zoona-tellers.pngb2ap3_thumbnail_Talking-strategy-with-Zoona-Agent-Mundia.pngThe purpose of the road trip involves me training our tellers and Agents on new services Zoona is providing customers. However, I spend a lot of my time listening to our customers, who are Zoona’s Agents and tellers. Hearing their feedback is valuable for me as I can relay important information gathered from the field to management so we can continue to improve our product and services to the end consumers. 

As I’m driving 10 hours back to Lusaka from Mongu I pass one of our Zoona outlets at 4pm and see a queue of five customers waiting in line. 20 meters down the road a competitor with a company value in the billions has their mobile money shop closed up. Sometimes it’s not resources that bring success and growth to companies, but rather resourcefulness. 

At Zoona we understand our end users needs and create a service that is reliable and easy for them to access (we now have over 225 locations in Zambia). Our spirit of entrepreneurialism has always focused on problem solving (and there are lots of problems to solve here) rather than just pursuing profit. By focusing on identifying bottlenecks and finding creative ways to unlock value for consumers and corporate suppliers Zoona is now growing on average at 20% per month. One of Zoona’s core beliefs is growth, and we are having fun while working towards a common goal of cashless thriving businesses, everywhere. 

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Ready, Fire, Aim

b2ap3_thumbnail_Co-Founder-Brad-Magrath-holding-the-company-on-his-shoulders.pngThe title of this blog is often used by entrepreneurs who are constantly striving to challenge the status quo and welcome change and risk within their business. They view change and risk not as a threat, but rather an opportunity to innovate and grow under-served markets. In the competitive and hyper-evolving mobile money market I like to operate by the quote, “It’s better to have a good plan today, than a perfect plan tomorrow.” 

This is what MEDA techno-links partner Zoona personifies. Leading the mobile money financial transaction movement in Zambia requires taking calculated risks in the quest of pushing the ordinary in the name of development. We at Zoona constantly ask ourselves if we are being REAL… Real to our customers, real to our employees, real to our stakeholders, and real in what we strive to accomplish. If the answer is yes, we move forward. 

As we work to gain traction in growing the mobile wallet product in Zambia, challenges and breakthroughs constantly arise. The key to executing in this type of environment is staying focused and true to your customer. My role in this is to provide our Agent networkb2ap3_thumbnail_Meeting-with-a-Zoona-Agent-to-discuss-how-things-are-going.png with the training tools they need to successfully convert their customers over to mobile wallets. 

Generally speaking mobile wallets are a cheaper, more convenient, and easily accessible service than traditional over-the-counter money transfers. One way I like to break down the mobile wallet is by saying it provides ACCESS.  It is a mechanism through which financial inclusion can be delivered on a mass (and cost effective) scale. 

One example includes Kiva Zip starting a pilot program where entrepreneurs and small business owners in Kenya can get cash funds sent directly to their M-Pesa account to help grow their businesses. There are myriad examples of how M-Pesa has provided improved access for individuals traditionally cut off from savings, insurance, bill payments, and person-to-person (P2P) sending  and receiving of money. This is the scale we are aiming for at Zoona. One step in achieving this goal is the recent partnership Zoona signed with international telecom company Airtel. You can read more about the partnership here. 

Zoona stands alone in one very important way. Our b2ap3_thumbnail_Zoona-men-stand-out-in-any-crowd.pngAgent network has significant working capital to service customers compared to our competitors. Basically, this means when a customer comes to a Zoona shop they can feel confident their financial request will be served, whether they are sending $10 or $500. 

We provide our Agents with the opportunity to access working capital finance (WCF) through a partnership we have with Kiva. This enables our Agent network to have sufficient working capital, service more customers in need of financial services, grow their businesses, and earn more profits. We are confident in the model we have and its potential to scale far beyond Zambia.  We at Zoona know one key to success depends on having a well financed network of Agents to serve the customer’s financial needs.  

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Field Trip

Shortly after I got to work yesterday morning, I was offered the opportunity to spend a half day visiting some clients. For those of you not familiar with the concept behind microfinance, basically, our clients are poor workers, primarily women, who work in the textile or weaving industry. In order to grow their business and ultimately improve their livelihoods, they need access to fair and secure financial capital, as well as financial literacy training in most cases. In third-world countries, this is not so easy to come by – and this is where an organization like mine comes in.

b2ap3_thumbnail_collection-of-hand-woven-scarves-and-shawls.jpgA colleague of mine took me to visit a cooperative of 50 weavers in the nearby village of Shiro Meda. These weavers make beautiful textile products, and on display at the time was a collection of hand woven scarves and shawls.

We interviewed four male weavers to discuss their progress with a new project. Due to a market linkage initiative within my organization, they have recently been linked with a new designer who has access to the U.S. market. Her business is granting them an income increase of up to 75% – 75%!!!!!!!! Imagine how your life would change if your income jumped that drastically from one day to the next. Unfortunately for these weavers however, it means their average pay is so low that one additional contract can make such a difference.

On the flipside, the loss of one contract can also have an equal impact, but in a devastating way. Thankfully, these weavers are living up to the designers’ expectations. They are able to buy quality input supplies in bulk (input prices can fluctuate dramatically by the hour, so it is imperative to buy affordable inputs when available) thanks to secure access to capital, and are meeting the designers’ standards thanks to training.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Weaver-busy-completing-an-order.jpgEven though their dependence on this one contract is high, this is progress being made and a step in the right direction. It is now up to us to continue to source new market linkages and provide additional financial services. In a few years, the savings allocated from this additional income will alleviate these four weavers, and hopefully the entire cooperative, from poverty. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?! While there are billions of people still living in poverty, progress is still progress, even if it’s 50 weavers at a time.

Yesterday was pretty amazing. I usually spend my days writing about how my organization strives to eliminate poverty, but yesterday I got to witness it first-hand. And let me tell you, it certainly reinforced my conviction for what I do.

Oh, and I couldn’t not support the weavers so I had to purchase a half-dozen scarves ;) .

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I expected the worst but found the best

b2ap3_thumbnail_Happy-to-be-in-Ethiopia.jpgFirst things first: Elderly Ethiopian ladies are truly the cutest human beings. They ALWAYS say hello to me and they ALWAYS laugh hysterically when I respond in Amharic. As I walked home from work tonight, I noticed a group of four ladies sitting around a shop and smiling at me as I passed by. I waved, said hello, and asked them how they were, and they chuckled in delight at my broken attempts at their language. I walked up to them to introduce myself and ask their names, and we had a brief conversation about my purpose in Addis. Turns out one of the women was selling injera (a local food), which I had been trying to find for weeks at the supermarket. What a coincidence! I picked up a week’s worth of injera for 6 birr (30 cents!) and said goodbye, and the ladies told me they loved me! Like I said, the cutest.

Speaking of injera, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Ethiopian food. Prior to my departure, a friend and I decided to try an Ethiopian restaurant back home, but to be honest, we were so turned off by the menu that we walked away. Many people warned me I wouldn’t like the food, when in fact, the traditional food is one of the best aspects of life here! I expected the worst but found the best - just another example of why preconceived notions are typically never useful.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Injera-with-shero-wat-and-doro-wat.jpg99% of the Ethiopian food I’ve tried thus far has been delicious. The only thing that turned me off was goat tongue (thankfully Sege, my landlady, understood my aversion!). Utensils are rarely used, as Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hand. If eating a communal dish, a special pot is used to clean your hands before and after the meal.

Last Thursday I enjoyed a special dinner at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant with three other people visiting my organization. One was a volunteer, one was from our headquarters in Canada, and one was from an external organization – and we all had yet to experience a traditional dinner and dance ceremony.

The base of all meals is normally injera, a flat, gluten-free bread made with teff, a local grain:

We ordered a serving of doro wat and shero wat; doro means chicken, shero means chick pea and wat simply means dish. In Amharic, wat is always added after the name of the food if you are serving it as a meal. Each dish was a bit spicy, and the texture is similar to that of a stew.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Ethiopian-dancers.jpgIn addition to the food, we were completely entertained:

A few weeks ago, Sege, my “Ethiopian mother” honored my arrival with the killing of a baby lamb. Although I must admit I was a bit sad about the poor lamb’s fate, it was imperative to respect the local culture and demonstrate thankfulness and appreciation for her generosity.

When an entire animal is killed, the meat is often cooked over a traditional Ethiopian stove:

I must say, the lamb was fantastic, and combined with injera and some rice this was a traditional feast I’ll never forget.

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Celebrating our one month anniversary

It’s been a rocky four weeks with lots of ups and downs, but don’t they say the transition period is the hardest?! While you’ve thrown me for a few curveballs, I’ve already become so thankful and appreciative of your entrance into my life. Yup, it’s been a good four weeks, Ethiopia.

Exactly one month ago today I disembarked flight ET503 at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Equally exhausted and excited, I had no idea what lay in store; I was entering this new chapter as blind as could be. I think this was for the best though, because I had no preconceived ideas and was able to create an impression of Addis entirely my own.

While life can be summed up as harder here, I’ve mentioned before how blessed I feel to be in this place. To be working for a cause I believe in, to learn the in’s and out’s of an entirely different culture, to challenge myself to adapt to such a foreign environment… it’s all so incredible and so enriching.

I can’t believe a month has already flown by. While it moved quickly, a lot happened. I left everything familiar behind and arrived in Addis, started a new job, rented my first house (pictures to come soon!), joined a new church, and met a ton of new people. That’s a lot of change!!! It’s a good thing I thrive off it.

Ironically enough, I was struck by a mild case of homesickness on this 30 day mark. I took a nap to brush if off, and woke up with a renewed sense of assurance that I’m meant to be here. Right now, this is home… my intuition could not have been more clear. Although my time in Ethiopia is limited, I know this is my stepping stone to greater things to come. I know this place will let my potential flourish and ultimately, will be make me a better person.

Ethiopia tests my patience on a daily basis. I still get annoyed with having to disinfect all my fruits and veggies before eating them; too often I find myself staring at my watch and thinking about how salad prep takes 1/8th of the time in Canada. And then reality strikes and I am ashamed for such thoughts. How can I complain about the abundance of food in my fridge when there are dozens of homeless surrounding my home who probably haven’t eaten for days?

Ethiopia has been a wake-up call. We don’t know how blessed we are until we see how unfortunate living conditions can be for others. While my patience is tested, my patience is growing. When I am at my most uncomfortable, my comfort level expands. When I look down while crossing paths with a stranger, as my Torontonian upbringing taught me to do, that stranger says hello and encourages me to be more welcoming.

These are the changes I’ve undergone and the experiences I’ve encountered within my first month in Ethiopia. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.

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The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

b2ap3_thumbnail_Foggy-picture-of-the-coffee-being-roasted-there-was-a-lot-of-smoke-in-the-home-at-this-point.jpgb2ap3_thumbnail_Beans-ready-to-be-roasted-over-fire-done-inside-the-home.jpgAs you may or may not know, Ethiopia is known for fantastic coffee. I’m not sure how I’ll ever be able to return to Tim Hortons in Canada, because this stuff is liquid gold. There’s nothing “instant” about it – coffee beans are roasted over fire, ground up (traditionally by hand), and then brewed – it doesn’t get any fresher than that!

I mentioned we had Eid al-Adha off work a few weeks ago. Well, my gracious colleague Soliana invited me to spend the day at her home with her family. Not only was the lunch amazingly delicious, but I was honored with a coffee ceremony as well! Soliana explained that the non-working women in Ethiopia - the older generation in particular - often enjoy a ceremony three times per day. Most women now work, however, so coffee ceremonies normally occur for holidays or when welcoming a guest to your home. The coffee should be surrounded by grass and served while incense is burning with sides of fruit, nuts, or even popcorn (which is very popular here!). Also interesting is the fact that one pot is brewed for three “rounds” of coffee, no matter the number of guests. Each round is weaker than the former because hot water is added to the mixture each time (therefore, the more people being served, the weaker each round of coffee).

b2ap3_thumbnail_Liquid-gold-ready-to-drink.-The-incense-is-whats-burning--smells-so-good.jpgThis process isn’t for the impatient – it takes about 30 minutes before the coffee is even ready! How many of you at home would be willing to give up your instant for this?! (none, I’m guessing…). But when it’s done – the TASTE! Indescribable. Well, perhaps it’s best described as pure happiness…

I know a few people – including my mum & I – who definitely can’t wait 30 minutes for their morning coffee to be ready. But experiencing this part of the Ethiopian culture is just another reason why moving here has already been such an enriching experience.

I already know I’ll be bringing a truckload of beans and a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot back to Canada – who’s up for a ceremony at my house?! :)

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Life in Ethiopia

b2ap3_thumbnail_My-landlady--I.jpgI have slowly fallen in love with living in Ethiopia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the most challenging change I’ve ever inflicted upon myself.

Ethiopia is a fantastic example of societal harmony. Despite an equal divide between the Muslim and Christian population, each religion offers complete respect to one another. The working calendar respects each set of holidays, which means the employees of Ethiopia essentially receive double the time off work! Last Tuesday was the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, so my gracious colleague invited me to her home for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Another aspect of life in Ethiopia: the culture. Ethiopians are proud to be who they are. Whether through generous offerings of food, supporting the local soccer team, or just general friendliness, Ethiopians want to welcome any “forenji” (foreigner) to their country, because they hope you’ll love it just as much as they do (and yes, I do!). For example, I didn’t make it home from an after-work commitment tonight until well past 8 pm, but immediately upon my arrival my landlady offered me a delicious Ethiopian dinner, plus a glass of wine!

b2ap3_thumbnail_I-named-him-Henry-and-he-is-typically-outside-my-door-every-morning.jpgOther incredible perks of living here include the weather!! Ethiopia has a reputation for offering “13 months of sunshine”, and I can see why! Every day is sunny and hot, but the nights and mornings dip down to about 10 degrees! I love grabbing my fruits and veggies from the local huts on the way home from work – picking up a kilo of avocado for 80 cents is pretty great ;) . Oh, and then there’s this guy:

So yes, there are many positives to life in Ethiopia, but this doesn’t make it perfect.  Moving here has undoubtedly been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m not yet “immune” to the extreme levels of poverty I witness on a daily basis. I must get asked for money at least 15 times per day, and when I do open my wallet to offer a few birr (1 Canadian dollar = 18 Ethiopian birr), I am like honey to bees and am surrounded by others, who are only hoping for a few birr themselves. The health issues are widespread, serious, and gory to witness, and the most disadvantaged are always women, since they normally end up carrying the burden of unwanted children.

While my “issues” do not compare to those facing such poverty, I cannot say it’s easy to adapt to life without a source of continuous power. It is not unusual to be without electricity for a few hours per day, or to lose an internet connection. The internet is my lifeline when it comes to keeping in contact with those back home.

Speaking of home, part of my evening is often spent Skyping or emailing with someone in Canada. When I moved to The Netherlands, I was able to meet new people constantly, since we were all in the same business school together and all spoke the same language. Here, English is a rarity and connecting with people outside of work is much more difficult. Thankfully I have my fellow Canadian here with me (and we enjoyed a great weekend downtown)! For the first time in my life, it’s not unusual for me to experience sleep issues, whether due to my own mind in constant motion, or the outside roosters/dogs/wild animal making noise. I’m always able to make a phone call home and be back to bed within the hour, though :) .

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Surfing in San Juan del Sur, Volcano Boarding in Leon, and Opening a Clinic in Managua

b2ap3_thumbnail_MiCreditos-new-health-clinic-in-Managua.gifThings have really been picking up here at MiCrédito. Everyone here is hard at work on a number of new and exciting initiatives.

Last week MiCrédito opened a health clinic at its Rubenia branch in Managua. The clinic, operated by partner organization AMOS Health and Hope, offers medical exams to clients which include screening for breast and cervical cancer for women and diabetes and prostate cancer for men. The cost of the exam is incorporated into MiCrédito loans, allowing clients to pay gradually for the services provided. So far the response from clients has been overwhelmingly positive! Clients are excited to have access to quality healthcare which is affordable and conveniently located right around the corner from their bank.

I’m also getting ready to go out into the field to start interviewing clients for a case study I am currently working on for MEDA. I love chatting with clients and learning about their experiences. I am also looking forward to interviewing some loan officers and other MiCrédito staff members which will be a great chance to learn more about the inner workings of the organization.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Volcano-Boarding.jpgI’ve also had the opportunity to do a bunch of travelling over the last few weeks, crossing a lot of things off of my Nicaragua to-do list.

I made it to Cerro Negro to go volcano boarding! Nicaragua is the only place in the world to experience this extreme sport which involves sledding down the side of a volcano on a bed of ash. It was an awesome experience and I came out of it with a very attractive ash beard.

I also made it to the beautiful beach town of San Juan del Sur and tried surfing for the first time with my fellow MEDA intern Sarah French. I can see why so many people are addicted to the sport. Although I was only able to stand up and surf once (and very briefly), it was such a rush when I finally did catch a wave and ride it into shore.


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Both in the office and out, my time in Nicaragua so far has been extremely rewarding. The staff members at MiCrédito are such kind and hardworking people and I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to get to know them and the beautiful country which they call home!     

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Giving Thanks

b2ap3_thumbnail_An-old-photo-of-my-grandma-and-I.jpgI had a different topic in mind for today, but I’m opting to postpone it in favour of a themed post to honor today’s Canadian holiday – Thanksgiving! In my house, celebrating Thanksgiving would involve church, lots of time spent with family, friends, and loved ones, and an excessive amount of food - most likely a turkey, green beans, sweet potato, baked potato, and a tasty pumpkin pie or two. My grandma always made an incredible sweet potato casserole. I am missing her AND her sweet potato casserole today.

While I am not ‘celebrating’ in the traditional sense, I am still incredibly thankful for where I am today, both figuratively and literally. I have moved into my new home, and have basically been adopted by my landlady as her “white daughter”. Really, I saw the house on Wednesday, moved in on Thursday, and when I returned from work on Friday she had mountains of gifts for me: new bedding, cutlery, pots, pans… anything I could ever need, and everything I would have had to buy with my own money. The housing director said that in all his years of work, he has never known a landlady like her. While this move has been a bit overwhelming at times, finding a home is what I needed to start feeling a lot more settled here. I will post pictures soon!

I’m so thankful for my new life in Africa. It is changing me, in ways that I like. During a conversation with someone from home the other day, I mentioned I try and keep to myself while walking to work. Now I can’t make the 10 minute trek without stopping to talk to a stranger, or at least receiving a “hello!” from a passerby. The locals and I exchange smiles, waves, and “good mornings!” multiple times. This is quite different from North America, where we try to avoid eye contact with anyone we don’t recognize.

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-requested-photo.jpgCase in point: today I asked to take a photo of a group of boys supporting their local team for today’s soccer match (soccer is life here). Not only were they thrilled to do so, they were ecstatic that this “forenji” (foreigner) could speak limited Amharic. We ended up having a brief conversation is support of the soccer match; my Amharic is broken (to say the least), but they were more than happy to put up with it. In the end, they requested a picture together.

While I may be missing some sweet potato casserole, there’s no other place I’d rather be spending today… HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Whether you’re in Canada or not!

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