Thunder is rolling over the horizon at the start of the rainy season in Suke, a small village in Ghana’s arid north.
Suke is remote, a two hour drive from Wa, the nearest major town. One major road closed for repairs creates a ninety minute diversion along dirt tracks that have collapsed into ditches, some of them barely passable by four-by-four or motorbike.
The village’s women gather in a semicircle in the shadow of a large tree to demonstrate their Talking Books—coloured plastic boxes with 10 buttons, all marked with basic symbols, which they hope could provide a lever to mitigate the fragility of their rural livelihoods and help them to achieve the social and economic empowerment that many women in the region lack.
Thunder is rolling over the horizon at the start of the rainy season in Suke, a small village in Ghana’s arid north.
Two young Canadian women, Mary Fehr and Sarah French plan to spend the summer riding their bikes across the country to raise funds for the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project in Ghana. The two spent more than six months as MEDA interns, Fehr in Tanzania, and French in Nicaragua.
After a year of planning, the 8,710-kilometre ride from Victoria, B.C. to St. John's, Nfld. begins this month. "Neither of us are bikers," Fehr says with a smile, "so we are learning some things about it this year." They hope to average about a hundred kilometres per day and without a support vehicle. Their budget of $8,000 each – which they worked to save this past year – includes ferry fees, the occasional night in a motel and plane tickets from St. John's to Waterloo, Ont., at the conclusion of the summer.
They plan to stop at every MEDA chapter along the way, challenging each chapter to raise $10,000. They also hope to share stories about the GROW program and personal reflections on their time as interns. They hope to inspire a new generation of young adults to become involved in development issues. MEDA's GROW project helps rural women in Ghana to grow soybeans. Through the formation of co-operatives, rural women negotiate a better price in the market.
When Fehr and French finish their summer ride for GROW, they both hope to find work in the field of international development.
In only its second year of competition, a Conrad Grebel University College student team won the Business Case Competition at the annual Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) convention, held this year in Winnipeg on Nov. 8.
The team, headed up by fourth-year student Jono Cullar, an international development major, beat out five teams from other Mennonite colleges and universities from across North America.
"Our team was well rounded in our academic programs," said Jono. "Not only did we have students in business and arts, but peace and conflict studies, accounting, and environment and business."
This was a broader skill set than other teams, comprising primarily business students.
This year's case competition was an actual MEDA project called Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) in Ghana that is working to empower women in soybean production. With a month to prepare, each team was asked to provide analysis and recommendations on MEDA's partnership with five local non-governmental organizations.
In its presentation, the Grebel team told a story through the voice of an entrepreneurial Ghanaian woman to make it personal.
"But we also backed the presentation with a lot of research," said Jono.
"I'm so proud of these students," remarked Grebel president Susan Schultz Huxman, who watched the university teams compete. "The competition is a wonderful way to expose students to the good work of MEDA. The foursome really articulated a smart, inspiring plan to help make the world a better place!"
Expenses for the team's registration and travel were supported by the Waterloo MEDA chapter, a donation from Murray and Yvonne Martin, and donations to the annual Grebel Fund.
Grebel's winning Business Case Competition team induded,from left to right: Elliot Parke, Anneke Pries Klassen, Jono Cullar and Sarah Steiner.
In emerging economies, SMEs play a pivotal role in driving sustainable economic growth and employment. However, "access to capital" has been identified as one of these SME's key obstacles to growth. Venture capital and private equity funds in these economies that invest in local SMEs can play a critical role in bridging investible capital with opportunities in their market.
First-time fund managers face many challenges that prevent them from fully participating in the global sector, most problematic being able to overcome the stigma of being labeled a first time fund and convincing investors beyond home borders of the investment-worthiness of their funds. Funds without an established track record have a tough time making a strong case for international investors.
Structured mentorship is a critical mechanism for imparting knowledge and for exploring ways to build the confidence of institutional investors in a fund manager. Enlightened fund managers are very interested in opportunities to test their fund strategies and plans with a mentor who can be an external and unbiased resource. Fund managers benefit from having an unbiased sounding board for their investment pitches and fund messaging, as well as to review their own fund investment processes and governance. They benefit from having an expert viewpoint on how best to navigate the processes set by investors. Mentors are fund managers who have already travelled down the path the mentee has only just begun. Mentors with extensive sector experience can easily pick out chinks in a fund and point out misalignments, bringing a valued investor perspective. Mentors serve as a strategic sounding board for business and investment strategies and help shape plans.
In 2013, the Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada (GAC), supported the formation of a unique program called Impact Investing in Frontier Markets (INFRONT) to support sustainable development in frontier and emerging markets. Through the initiative, the Government of Canada made a $14.5 million investment commitment and also provided $5 million to launch both a Sustainability Innovation Grant (SIG) and a mentorship program. The INFRONT Global Fund Manager Mentorship Program is an innovative pubic-private partnership between three Canadian organizations – Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), Sarona Asset Management and the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing – and the Government of Canada. It matches seasoned North American venture capital and/or private equity managers as mentors with high-potential private equity fund managers based in frontier and emerging markets.
In the year since the launch of the program, interest in this mentorship opportunity has come from Guatemala, Mexico, Sao Paolo, Nairobi, Phnom Penh, Nepal, Mumbai, Colombo and Poland. While the contributed value varies from fund to fund, value from the mentorship opportunity is aways connected with needs of the fund, and matching those needs with a mentor's experience. By giving back to the industry, mentors are contributing to the long-term sustainability of the asset class.
The INFRONT Global Fund Manager Mentorship Program has built a roster of mentors with a wide array of experiences and skills, and it plans to add to this roster in 2015. Mentors are seasoned private equity and venture capital professionals based in the United States or Canada who have over 10 years of experience managing their own funds in North America and preferably with experience raising capital. The program covers all of the mentors' travel costs.
Sarah French and Mary Fehr are taking a bike trip across Canada they call "Bike to Grow," to raise funds for a project for female farmers in Ghana.
Sarah says, "We are doing this 8,710 km trek because we believe in an NGO called the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA). I went to Nicaragua with MEDA as an intern in 2013/2014 to work on sustainable development in agriculture. I had lived in Argentina with Rotary in 2007/2008 and in Spain 2011/2012 as a university exchange, but in Nicaragua I really got to see poverty for the first time, firsthand."
Sarah adds, "I was travelling to remote areas and interviewing farmers who were in the MEDA project to see the influence the program had on the individuals. I also rented a room from a very poor Nicaraguan family. I was personally touched by the issues they face. Along with poverty, I also saw a huge inequality for females. "
Mary was in Tanzania with MEDA and kept in touch with Sarah, talking about these kind of issues they witnessed and faced. They decided it would be symbolic with two girls biking across Canada to support another MEDA project that focuses on female independence. This project is called Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) in Ghana.
"I fully trust MEDA because I saw the work they did firsthand and the passion that employees have for helping. 100% of all funds are going to the GROW project. Mary and I will be paying for are own airfare, etc. We've already bought our bikes and have been training," says Sarah.
Their travels will be from May 15th 2015 to September 5th, 2015.
More than 500 Christian business-men and women from a half-dozen countries converged at the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg for four days in early November. There, in the shadow of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, participants attending the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) annual convention learned about human rights and "human dignity through entrepreneurship."
While human rights have always been a core value of MEDA, "every convention sets the bar a little higher," said Allan Sauder, president, adding, "This theme hit a chord with so many people. Human rights is always a factor in choosing and shaping sustainable programs that will have meaningful impact at a personal level, often for women, youth and those disadvantaged in their societies."
Plenary speakers included Art DeFehr, chief executive officer of Palliser Furniture, and Stephanie Stobbe, who came to Canada as a refugee from Laos when she was seven years old and is now associate professor in conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College, Winnipeg. Together, they offered "a business case for human rights."
After carefully examining such questions as, "Does practising human rights lead to success in business?" and, "Are human rights consistent with biblical teachings?" they offered no black and white conclusions, but determined there is still lots of work to be done. People need to focus on issues close to home, where they can actually do something, they said.
On Nov. 7, participants were treated to a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where two exhibits were opened for them. In this setting, Ziauddin Yousafzai spoke about human dignity for children and women. The educator, human rights campaigner, social activist and father of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala, said that, although the Taliban stirred up fear and violence in Pakistan, he, at great personal risk, peacefully resisted the Taliban's efforts to shut down schools and kept his own school open. He also inspired Malala to stand up for the right of all children to an education. Following the attack in which Malala was shot in the face while riding a school bus, Yousafzai didn't chose hatred or revenge, but forgiveness, for the attackers.
He shared stories of how, in his own country where 57 million children are out of school and many work in sweatshops, entrepreneurship can be a vehicle through which the dignity of women, children and men can be restored.
His own entrepreneurship is one such story. He said he wanted to be a teacher, but was unable to get a teaching job, so "in 1994, with three students, I and my friend started our own school. Today, we have more than 1,000 students."
"In many societies, women are ignored, treated as property, abused and sometimes even killed in the name of honour. Attitudes can change through education," he said. "My five sisters could not go to school. I wanted my school to be different. I wanted to change the attitude of men to their sisters and mothers."
On Nov. 8, Laura Ling, award-winning journalist and author, told her story of being arrested and held captive in North Korea for 140 days in 2009. She was reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women at the time of her arrest. She said that this "darkest period of my life" taught her how to hold on to hope. "Seeing each day as a precious treasure, an opportunity to make a difference," she said she would treat her guards with compassion and grace. She believes this "practice of intentional gratitude" gave her the hope she needed and can also empower her to continue to be a voice for human dignity.
Jim Miller, president of JMX Brands, which is recognized as one of the top 1,000 Internet retailers in the U.S., used the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume as an example of giving. "Gifts bring depth to the relationship, but the power of the gift is unleashed only if it is shared for the good of the whole community," he said, adding, "Gift giving and receiving is at the very heart of God's story. Our faith compels us to share with those around us and we are inspired to work harder for the good of others."
Trudy Dueck, a businesswoman from Arborg, Man., was grateful to attend the convention. "Often you feel there is no place for business in the church," she said. "Here it is great to be amongst like-minded people and to have the recognition that business too can be a calling."