Dependency or Development?

Our goal as a development organization working with women’s cooperatives in Rwanda is to build their capacity in order to help the cooperatives sustainably grow their businesses. The underlying idea behind capacity building is to help the cooperatives become independent, so they no longer rely on our organization, Hands of Mothers (HOM), for support. Throughout the summer we have implemented a series of trainings and workshops designed to empower the women to create better quality products, find new clients and markets, and become more effective leaders in managing and organizing their cooperative. However, helping to build a sustainable organization from the ground up is particularly challenging when dependency becomes entrenched through an organization’s program design and implementation.

In the past, HOM has sought to help the cooperatives it works with in a way that fostered dependency. Born out of a desire to help, HOM managed cooperative organization and finances, performed tasks for cooperative members when illness or the challenges of poverty prevented the women from selling their products, and focused more on finding customers for the cooperatives’ products than on empowering the women to learn how to find clients themselves. While helping the women in the cooperatives succeed has always been the ultimate goal, the way this goal has been pursued poorly misaligned with the long term goal of sustainability.

As the summer progressed, this mismatch between what our HOM team wanted to accomplish and how HOM had been conducting its relationship with the cooperatives in the past became more and more apparent. For example, Ejo Hazaza (the cooperative that makes jewelry) told us they were interested in switching gears in order to become an agricultural cooperative. Their idea was to raise and sell goats and cultivate mushrooms. They told us their plan at our weekly meeting, and we told them this sounded like an interesting idea and that we were on board to help them accomplish their goal.

 The following week when we returned for our next discussion, they asked us when we were going to buy them the goats. Naturally, we were quite confused, as we never told the cooperative we would buy goats for them. However, because HOM routinely did things for the cooperative in the past, the women thought that when we said we would help them with their idea that this meant we would buy the goats for them. We told the women this was not the case, and we emphasized how going forward the relationship between HOM and Ejo Hazaza would be different – we would no longer do tasks for the cooperative. Rather, we told them our role was to empower them to take ownership of projects and tasks themselves.

At first we found the misunderstanding about the goats startling! However, it is truly not all that surprising given how HOM interacted with the cooperative in the past. As the issue of dependency has become more apparent to us, we have doubled down on our efforts to build the cooperatives’ capacity going forward.

Open Sesame: Building and Sustaining an Agricultural Enterprise in Zimbabwe

The opportunity to work for an organization that focuses on change through a developmental as well as a sustainable business perspective brought me to Zimbabwe: where I work as a TechnoServe Fellow and Volunteer Consultant for the African Agriculture Fund (AAF).

Zimbabwe's current economic as well as financial quandaries present both a warning as well as an opportunity. As an agriculture-based economy that has for many a decade relied on the production of cotton, Zimbabwe has suffered successive jolts in recent years as the global prices of cotton have plummeted considerably. To make matters worse, cotton yields have dried due to unpredictable ground conditions such as droughts and floods.

A makeshift mini warehouse

A makeshift mini warehouse

Along came Sidella, a company that saw the immense value of growing sesame as a cash crop alternative, one that is drought resistant, and requires very little rainfall or fertilizers to yield a bountiful harvest. Moreover, while the price of raw sesame was lower than other commodities such as cotton, soya, maize etc.; value-added sesame and sesame related products (oil, animal feed) were likely to generate greater returns and increased incomes for smallholder farmers. 

The AAF's investment in a portfolio company which in turn invested in Sidella presented an opportunity for me to discover the fundamentals of the sesame market and 'open' them to the world. In the seven weeks that I've worked as a 'VolCon', I've been fortunate to work with stakeholders and key drivers across the sesame value chain in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, right from implementation partners of the AAF, down to the smallholder farmers who initiate the value creation.   

This opportunity is unique in that it seeks to establish a sustainable business while accentuating the developmental impact for the smallholder farmers. In late July, I had the opportunity to travel to one of the remotest and most water-stressed villages in Zimbabwe, some hundred miles from the capital Harare. I had the chance to study first-hand the various predicaments from the farmers, as well as brainstorm some quick-fix solutions for their problems. It is one thing to study about value chains and another to actually start from the base of the pyramid and follow the trail of the grain. My core objectives for this assignment are to understand the feasibility of establishing a full-fledged enterprise built around the export of value-added sesame to the world market, as well as to develop an actionable business plan for Sidella going forward.

My biggest takeaway so far from my fellowship is to never discount the power of the value chain. It is what drives synergies in achieving developmental impact, and without it, no business can remain sustainable in the long term

I'm grateful to the Blakeley Foundation for affording me this opportunity and look forward to producing a summary report at the end of my fellowship. 

 

 

 

 

Update from Nicaragua

Its Nicaraguan Revolutionary day here on the 19th commemorating when the Sandinistas took Managua, overthrowing the US backed regime in 1979. Now the national holiday shuts down most businesses and busses flood into Managua for speeches from the President Daniel Ortega and his wife, the Vice President, Rosario Murillo. 

Moving on however, the bureaucracy involved with our project continues to frustrate. I worked here last summer as well in a more commercial, purely private sector investment driven role and encountered some of the same issues but now working directly with different government entities the paperwork and approvals are stifling. As our project hopes to develop a training facility in conjunction with a university built out of the project I worked on last summer, you would think the government would be all for such private/public collaboration that would help their universities but we have to deal with questions over when these students are paid who gets that revenue and items like that. Much less focus on how this project could be scaled and help increase the human capital in the renewable energy sector, something almost nonexistent today.  Nonetheless, it has progressed, just not at the pace we had certainly hoped for and by the time I return to the US, I'm quite certain I won't see its completion unfortunately. 

Innovative Disruption in India

We at the Centre of Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE) have been hard at work over the past few weeks. Before I give you a breakdown of each project I have been involved in, let me provide some background about CIIE and its purpose.

CIIE helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into viable businesses by incubating, accelerating, mentoring and funding innovative start-ups. CIIE believes that entrepreneurship has an unmatched ability to bring about disruptive change in India and engages with ventures across technology, energy, environment, agriculture, healthcare and affordable technology. With its affiliation to the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, startups not only receive support from CIIE but have access to the IIM Ahmedabad alumni network, professors, events and much more.

So here is what I have been up to:

1) The Indian Innovation Growth Program: The IIGP is a joint effort by various private sector corporations, government departments and CIIE. Selected startups are placed in an intensive support program to help them refine their ideas, strengthen their business models and provide them with necessary business skills. The program is hosted by CIIE and IIM Ahmedabad. The program first exposes the startups to IIM professors who lecture them on assorted topics such as decision making under uncertainty, financial modelling, unit economics and much more. I was fortunate enough to sit in on a number of these lectures too. Thereafter, startups meet with mentors at CIIE. I was privileged enough to be one of these mentors with the help of Tapish Bhatt (Blakeley Fellow - 2014). Together we mentored and advised numerous entrepreneurs. We dived into the details of their ideas, identified problems, proposed strategy and provided general support. The hours were long but the experience was incredibly rewarding. Although our sessions would continue past 10pm day after day, I felt energized by the reward of feeling like I contributed and helped ambitious individuals on a mission to do remarkable things.

2) Innocity: Short for Innovation City, Innocity is a pilot program developed by CIIE to help support entrepreneurship in India and those startups that are not housed within CIIE itself. Here startups and entrepreneurs can register for sessions on a specific topic rather than an extensive program. Therefore, entrepreneurs can attend sessions on topics that they feel they are lacking or in need of. Myself and Tapish jointly led the module focusing on Customer Development and guided entrepreneurs through various frameworks designed for new ventures specifically. We also applied these frameworks to their businesses to help them validate their ideas and business models. Below is a picture of Tapish and I leading the Customer Development session:

3) IIMAvericks Initiative: This is another program developed by CIIE but is focused on IIM Ahmedabad students, both current and alumni specifically. The IIMAvericks initiative funds recent alumni that are pursuing a startup venture and incubates them for a period of 2 years. Incubatees are provided with a platform to work on their businesses while being financially supported, housed within CIIE buildings and allowed access to continuous mentoring and guidance. The initiative is also aimed at current IIM students who have business ideas and are interested in entrepreneurship. These individuals also receive mentoring and network access as well as dedicated summer internships that allow selected applicants to test their idea viability and conduct market research over the summer under the guidance of CIIE mentors. Throughout my time here at CIIE I have taken up an advisory/mentorship role and host sessions with IIMAvericks whenever they want to brainstorm, tackle an obstacle or refine their business models. It is both rewarding and challenging. Challenging because every idea is different and separate from sector to sector. I have to adjust and be flexible in every session according to the mission which has been a great skill I have gained through this experience. 

It has not been all work - On the weekends I have made it an objective to explore and I have had the opportunity to see some amazing sites like the Gandhi Ashram and the Step-Well of Adalaj to name a couple.

The Gandhi Ashram was Gandhi's residence for 12 years while he planned and led his efforts in India's Independence Movement. The national monument displays scripts, portraits, artefacts and much more that provide deep insight into the humble but incredible courage this man had. The Step - Well of Adalaj was built in 1498 and is an octagonal shaft five stories deep surrounded by beautifully sculptured pillars and walls. On the day I went, rain poured down, making the experience that more amazing and tranquil.

Until next time,

Dylan :)   

Strong Network of Branch Offices, More Opportunities for Financial Inclusion

Strong Network of Branch Offices, More Opportunities for Financial Inclusion

The Branch Office of a small MFI is nothing like your local bank’s branch. There are no tellers, advisors, or bank staff to greet you when you walk in - that’s because rarely do clients walk in! Because Field Officers serve clients essentially "at their doorstep", or in their villages, the Branch Office is more of a home base and back-end processing center for staff. For Vaya specifically, ...

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Update from Colombia: CCC and Nonprofit Consulting Models

Already at the halfway point in my internship at Compartamos con Colombia (CCC), I’m overdue to share more details about the organization itself and the work I’m doing. Compartamos has a unique model—leveraging private sector expertise to solve social sector challenges. What makes it different from other market-based approaches is its multi-firm arrangement. The organization was founded as the corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy of fifteen companies in Colombia (many of them multinational) with expertise in strategy, finance, law, and other professional services. Volunteers from these firms work as consultants on a pro-bono basis on specific projects for Colombian nonprofits.* The role of CCC is to connect the nonprofit and private sectors, adding value through strategic analysis and producing the final consulting deliverables. Compartamos’ projects fall into three categories: capacity-building (its core), CSR, and social innovation.

From day one at Compartamos, I was assigned to a capacity-building project, working to support an organization in the healthcare and disability space that is looking to reevaluate its strategic focus, financial sustainability, and corporate governance as a family foundation.
 
Lesson 1: Consulting forces you to learn about new things. 

This may sound obvious, but as my first foray into a consulting environment, I was pleased by the nature of project development. The first phase of the project is diagnostic, involving desk research and extensive interviews with stakeholders and informants to understand the current state of the organization. I had no background in healthcare or disability, and even less so on the Colombian healthcare system. However, my initial research for the project proved a much-welcome introduction to the Colombian context. Healthcare is guaranteed to all by law in Colombia, but there are of course technicalities that mean self-employed workers pay three times as much, you must be affiliated with a health care provider for a designated period to receive certain types of care, etc. As the U.S. Congress fights to reverse the Affordable Care Act, Colombia is going through a healthcare reform of its own—replacing its list of enumerated guarantees for a broad-based approach with limited exceptions. 

Lesson 2: All nonprofits are (sort of) created equal.
 

A colleague shared this Nonprofit Organizational Life Cycle, which I found helpful in categorizing NGO development. Though organizations vary vastly in their focuses and cultures, they often have more management-level characteristics in common than not, and identifying where they fall in various categories can help streamline solution creation. In preparing the diagnostic, I referred to previous projects developed for other family foundations and healthcare organizations, which shared notable patterns and insights. 

This was especially true for the corporate governance component of the project, in which the organization faces the familiar challenges of transitioning from its founding members—whose differences of opinion are very personal as brothers/parents/uncles—to an independent board of directors. Though it doesn’t quite translate, I found one interviewee's explanation of moving the board from the dining room table an appropriate image. This frankness surprised me, though it demonstrates those we spoke with are deeply invested in the organization’s work and not afraid to share its flaws in order to help fix them.

Lesson 3: But business solutions do not necessarily equal NGO solutions. 

The multi-firm model has the potential to avoid the pitfalls of many nonprofits, but presents its own challenges. The strategy is based on principles of competitive advantage—if each firm contributes its professional expertise, CCC can provide top-tier consulting services to nonprofits at an affordable price, helping to advance the professionalization of the nonprofit sector in Colombia. However, this same arrangement means that firms (and more specifically volunteers) who are trained in and spend the vast majority of their time working on for-profit issues may have trouble translating that knowledge to the social sector. This apparent paradox is much-debated, and notably criticized by Michael Edwards, author of Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World and formerly of the Ford Foundation (itself founded as a family foundation). 

One of the greatest challenges with this project has been working with and aligning expectations of private firm participants. They are all recognized as top in their fields and have previous pro-bono experience, but may be accustomed to auditing multi-billion dollar energy companies or analyzing investment deals. Finance is finance, but context matters. If anything this has affirmed the value of my degree (a Master of International Business specializing in business for social impact) as distinct from that of an MBA, and has made me wonder whether a more rigorous selection and/or training process for volunteers is necessary for an organization like Compartamos to generate efficiencies and scale.

While nonprofit capacity-building remains the core of Compartamos’ work, as the organization celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, it is broadening its scope to include more CSR and social innovation work according to the changing social sector landscape. Internationally, “social innovation” is all the rage, and while there will always be nonprofit management challenges to solve, these new focuses present opportunities for CCC to innovate both internally and externally as it and the sector mature.
 
Next time, an example of social innovation in action. 

*I use nonprofits loosely here to refer to the social sector.

 

Entrepreneurs in Rwanda, The Future of This Beautiful Country

Hi everyone!! I am TAJI (Daiki Tajima), a Master of International Business (MIB) student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I started my summer internship in an NGO called African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC) in Kigali, Rwanda from the end of May and about 4 weeks have passed. I would like to share some of my experiences.

African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC) was founded by Ms. Julienne Oyler (CEO, Yale MBA) and Ms. Sara Leedom (COO, Oxford MBA) in 2012. AEC supports entrepreneurs in Africa to grow their business by providing workshops, consulting services, low cost loans, etc. Based on its annual report for 2016, it has worked with 231 entrepreneurs to help them create over 2,672 jobs. AEC currently operates in Rwanda and Tanzania but aims to expand their operations into 5 countries in Africa.

AEC’s Rwandan affiliate is called Inkomoko Business Development Ltd. “Inkomoko” means “beginning” or “origin” in the local language in Rwanda called Kinyarwanda. Currently there is a staff of about 30 people in Inkomoko. They have experience in accounting, taxation, banking, SMEs support, NGOs, and others. Some of my colleague are pursuing their master or PhD degrees while working. The Inkomoko staffs are full of diversity in terms of gender, nationality, religion, etc, and I was impressed by their warm welcome.

My role in AEC is to do the business assessment and consulting to clients, whom Bank of Kigali has chosen as its project called ‘Urumuri Initiative’. Bank of Kigali chose 50 entrepreneurs in which the winners of them can access to interest-free loans and I am in charge of 4 of them for assessing their businesses. My clients come from different sectors and businesses such as a pharmacy, a landslides alert system, and an IT business incubator. Feeling the passion of Rwandan entrepreneurs is really exciting for me.

Let me introduce one of my clients. Jean Luc Rwamasirabo, did his undergraduate and masters degree in India majoring in computer engineering. He established his own startup company called AgaciroSoft which provides IT solutions especially for agri-business. He supported some coffee business company to develop its website for expanding the exports. He is currently working for developing an IT based warehouse data management system and an app for recording the coffee testing results. I felt utilizing ICT has a lot of potential for improving agriculture in Rwanda in terms of efficiency, productivity, and access to the markets.

Through a partnership with UNHCR, AEC runs a program to develop business skills of Burundian and Congolese refugees, which will encourage self-sufficiency and poverty reduction in refugee populations in Rwanda. I had a chance to visit a poultry farm by a refugee entrepreneur, Salvator, originally from Burundi. He has 600 chickens and produces 13,000 eggs per month. He told me that he would like to contribute to solving the nutrition problems of people living in rural areas of Rwanda.

Job creation through supporting Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) is extremely important for poverty reduction. This applies not only in Rwanda but also in most developing countries and I am very glad to be part of it. Although my summer internship period is just 2 months, I would like to contribute to AEC as much as possible in order to gain a lot from my experience here. I would like to keep sharing my days in this beautiful country, Rwanda with some additional blog posts.

Greetings from the Pearl of Africa!

After hours of travel from Entebbe airport through the dusty roads of Kampala, Mukono, and Jinja, I finally arrived in Mbale in the eastern part of Uganda, the Pearl of Africa. The next day, I started the morning having tea with the local Ugandan staff that I will be working and sharing lives with for 10 weeks. That very day, I found myself grappling with how Ugandans view and manage time. We were spending more than half an hour greeting one another and having tea together before getting to work, and it is considered a crucial part of their work. The concept of time in Uganda is very different from that of the US or Korea (my home country): Uganda, a country with an agricultural orientation views time in terms of seasons or stretches of work routine, not in terms of seconds and minutes. During my time here, I have observed many times that things start later than scheduled, whether they be office meetings, field visits, or community trainings. Keeping track of time is a strange concept here and people cherish building relationships more than being on time and “productive.”

It was not only their time concept that struck me. Many other aspects of Ugandans’ lives were new to me, and I learned that from appreciating their ways of life truly begins community-based development.

The organization that I am working with, Discipling for Development (D4D) is a community-based development organization focusing on empowering people in rural villages with knowledge and skills. One of the D4D’s projects being carried out in the villages is to make sure that the households have "14 points of a healthy home": drying lines, a plate stand, fences, a kitchen with a raised cooking stand, a bathing shelter, a granary, a rubbish pit, a clean compound, fruit trees, a pit latrine with a tip top, a house for animals, a garden for vegetables, and clean water. Unlike other NGOs that provide relief such as blankets and food, D4D focuses on identifying the resources that the communities have and building on those resources for community development. Some people who only wanted tangible things left, but those who remained have seen much progress in their lives over the past years. Still, many people in the villages are not sensitized enough to realize the importance of those basic things. They do not build latrines, just spread their laundry on the grass, and do not have rubbish pits. So, we are continuously educating those people on the 14 points to improve their own homes.

One of the 14 points of a healthy home: a latrine with a tip top. 

One of the 14 points of a healthy home: a latrine with a tip top. 

By using the existing resources that they have, people in the villages see themselves able to empower themselves and better their own lives. For the rest of my internship with D4D, as an overall evaluation on the development projects that have been implemented so far, I will be conducting a research more in depth on the impact that the D4D work has had on the communities.  

Women’s Empowerment and Community Development Challenges in Rwanda

This summer I am interning with an organization called Hands of Mothers in Kigali, Rwanda. We work with women’s cooperatives on helping to build their capacity with the goal of each cooperative becoming a sustainable, independent, and viable business that can generate income for the cooperative members and their families. Hands of Mothers works with three cooperatives: Ejo Hazaza makes beaded jewelry, Twiyubake makes handcrafted leather sandals, and Baho raises kuroiler hens and sells their eggs.

Each cooperative is based on the idea of empowering women through income generation, while providing members with a network of support and teamwork. Premised upon the idea of poverty alleviation through economic empowerment, Hands of Mothers seeks to build the capacity of each cooperative in order to become self-sustaining. Currently, all three cooperatives rely on support from Hands of Mothers and grant funds for their operation, and each faces unique challenges on the path towards sustainability and growth.

Through group discussions and interviews with cooperative members, the Hands of Mothers team spent the first couple of weeks learning about the needs and challenges of each cooperative. None of the cooperative members speak English, so our discussion was translated through our Kinyarwanda speaking staff. Being unable to communicate directly with cooperative members certainly made connecting with them challenging, and taking time for translation made our discussions quite slow. Nuances are often lost in translation, and it frequently took a couple of tries to successfully exchange ideas. This experience further developed my own patience, and it served as a unique opportunity to begin to understand the challenges our participants faced as well as challenges surrounding empowerment within the wider development context.

 All of the members in each cooperative are living with HIV/AIDS, so difficulties surrounding health were routinely and unsurprisingly a common focus of our discussions. However, a deeper dive on this topic revealed to us that health challenges extended beyond the obvious issues surrounding sickness and access to medicine. Our group discussions frequently focused on the link between poor health and transportation problems. Most of our participants cannot afford to pay for a bus or taxi to get to the cooperative for work. Many have to walk far distances – some walk 2-3 hours. For a healthy person this would very difficult; for people living with HIV/AIDS, their poor health compounds the exhausting effects of walking so far.

During our group discussions, participants also expressed to us that members frequently do not show up for work. For some it is the issue of transportation. However, for others it seemed to be a lack of motivation and lack of commitment to their work stemming from the reality that as of now, the cooperatives are not generating enough income to be sustainable or to pay their members an adequate salary to survive on. Our goal as an organization is to build the cooperatives’ capacity so they can generate income and lift themselves out of poverty. However, it is difficult to instill a sense of empowerment into a cooperative that is currently unsuccessful.

While each cooperative faced similar challenges surrounding health issues and lack of success, our team found that each group was at very different stages in their own development. Ejo Hazaza was having trouble marketing and selling their jewelry, Twiyubake was not making high quality sandals or selling in enough places, and Baho was not making a profit on their egg sales. Addressing each cooperatives’ needs while working to build their capacity is going to be a challenge for us going forward. For example, it may be a simple fix to contact customers and find new markets for Ejo Hazaza or Twiyubake to sell their products in. However, if we find markets and customers for them, it does not build their capacity.

Going forward, our idea is to provide a series of trainings to address some of these issues. For example, we plan to teach members how to find new markets on their own. However, we realize this will not be simple. If some members cannot pay for transportation to get to the cooperative to work, it will be difficult for them to pay for transportation to explore new markets and connect with clients after our trainings are complete. This is just one small example in a myriad of challenges we found. However, to me it demonstrates the complexity of implementing a development program when participants are constrained by the realities of poverty and poor health. Nevertheless, I am optimistic about the opportunity to make progress this summer, and I am looking forward to developing solutions that meet the needs of our participants by focusing on empowerment and finding ways for cooperative members to successfully help themselves.

A Buffalo Today, A Thriving Business Tomorrow

A Buffalo Today, A Thriving Business Tomorrow

My work at Vaya is well underway. In fact, today I reached the two-week mark! The work thus far has been fascinating, not only because of all I have learned about the evolution of microfinance - in India and around the world - but also because of the opportunity I have had to learn from industry leaders with many years of experience, to witness day-to-day operations, and to meet the very clients microfinance institutions (MFIs) like Vaya serve.

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Navigating the Bureaucratic Maze

Solar Project - Puerto Sandino (Volcano in background)

Sitting here in Granada on yet another cloudy afternoon. Its the rainy season down here to the forecast inevitably includes a few hours of thunderstorms each day that roll through each afternoon.  Nevertheless the first 13 days down here have been both frustrating at times yet also rewarding to see the results of past efforts over the last year. The picture above is from the first commercial sized (12.5MW) solar project in operation in the country that was still in the planning phase when I was down here last summer. Since then we've been working with a technical university, Universidad Tecnológica La Salle (ULSA), to develop a curriculum for solar construction and maintenance that would allow students to use our site as a hands on training location in conjunction with their classroom studies. For solar project developers it represents a means to lower project costs, taking advantage of lower labor costs compared to the current practice of bringing in European EPC's. For Nicaragua, it is an opportunity to give its students real world experience and gain a foothold in a industry that has exploded across Central and South America in recent years. Yet despite an obvious win-win situation, navigating the bureaucratic maze of approvals and process has been stifling. Strategizing who should be the lead on government requests and grant applications takes up hours of meeting time rather then moving the project forward. Nicaragua has slowly crept up the "ease of doing business" rankings in recent years in an effort to attract more FDI, and while this has been successful to some degree, stagnation and resistance to change continues to prevent programs like ours from being implemented quickly. The government has been actively promoting the development of renewable energy and I hope both the solar project and our education platform (if implemented) will show the need to further expedite change, allowing universities and private sector players to be more adaptive to their respective needs.  

Sitting here in Granada on yet another cloudy afternoon. Its the rainy season down here to the forecast inevitably includes a few hours of thunderstorms each day that roll through each afternoon. 

Nevertheless the first 13 days down here have been both frustrating at times yet also rewarding to see the results of past efforts over the last year. The picture above is from the first commercial sized (12.5MW) solar project in operation in the country that was still in the planning phase when I was down here last summer. Since then we've been working with a technical university, Universidad Tecnológica La Salle (ULSA), to develop a curriculum for solar construction and maintenance that would allow students to use our site as a hands on training location in conjunction with their classroom studies. For solar project developers it represents a means to lower project costs, taking advantage of lower labor costs compared to the current practice of bringing in European EPC's. For Nicaragua, it is an opportunity to give its students real world experience and gain a foothold in a industry that has exploded across Central and South America in recent years. Yet despite an obvious win-win situation, navigating the bureaucratic maze of approvals and process has been stifling. Strategizing who should be the lead on government requests and grant applications takes up hours of meeting time rather then moving the project forward.

Nicaragua has slowly crept up the "ease of doing business" rankings in recent years in an effort to attract more FDI, and while this has been successful to some degree, stagnation and resistance to change continues to prevent programs like ours from being implemented quickly. The government has been actively promoting the development of renewable energy and I hope both the solar project and our education platform (if implemented) will show the need to further expedite change, allowing universities and private sector players to be more adaptive to their respective needs.  

Hello From Ahmedabad, India

Upon landing in Mumbai before catching my connecting flight to Ahmedabad, the first thing I noticed was a huge screen in the terminal that was promoting the upcoming cricket match that India was playing that evening. To my delight, it was South Africa. This was exciting for me as I know that a head to head cricket match between South Africa and India is always a huge deal for both nations. 

With my internship starting the next day, I was introduced to my summer colleagues with fresh wounds - South Africa had lost. However, at a small expense to me this served as a great ice breaker. 

The city of Ahmedabad seems like total chaos at first and is a shock to the system. In my first auto ricksaw ride to my apartment, I found myself sharing the road with other auto rickshaws, cars, motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, dogs and even cows. All this happening while the sound of people honking and hooting comes from every direction. Not to mention the heat. The only way to give you some kind of comparison is to ask you to take a hair dryer, put it on high and point it towards your face. Seriously, that's what it feels like. 

Growing up in Durban, South Africa I am accustomed to Indian food. However, the variety I have seen and experienced so far has blown away all my expectations. Every day seems to introduce something new with a different taste. 

The only thing topping the flavor and the hustle bustle of Ahmedabad is it's people. Every person I have been in contact with has been kind and cheerful. Although conversations are more often than not in broken English, there is always a smile shared.

India has been a great experience so far and has already added so much value to my life. I'm truly grateful for this opportunity and cannot wait to discover what the rest of my trip has to offer.

Until next time.

Dylan

 

 

 

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Sitting in my living room, checking email and preparing for the week ahead, I glanced up to see a perfect rainbow forming over the mountains. Five minutes later, it was gone. A friendly reminder from the skies that while these ten weeks are filled with meetings, excel spreadsheets, and everyday tasks, I must not take for granted this unique opportunity to spend a summer living and learning in Colombia.

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A Summer of Skilling India .....

Eventful.  That’s the word that comes to mind when I look back at my summer. When I met Jerry and the other Blakeley Fellows earlier this April, I thought I had a solid plan – to work with a crop based microfinance not for profit in Bihar, in Northern India. With 15 days left to go, there was a massive heatwave in North and Central India, with temperatures going up to 120°F; a drought and an outbreak of encephalitis. The monsoons had failed, so had the crops and with that, the microfinance rollout we had planned.

The next two weeks, I was back home in Bangalore, for my sister’s wedding when I bumped into Surga. Surga is the founder and CEO of iSTAR, a SME working in the skill development space in Bangalore. Twenty minutes and a coffee later, I walked out of the café hired as her Executive Assistant. She had been looking for someone who wanted to do a ‘bit of everything’ and loved working in ‘messy situations’, for the next few months to execute few projects on hand.

                                                        Ambasamudram, Tamil Nadu

                                                        Ambasamudram, Tamil Nadu

 

Surga is more of a friend than a CEO. I know her since 2010, when I joined her firm as a founding employee. I was the ideating guy in a startup that had 4 people – 2 founders, an office assistant and I. I had also worked on content, training and fundraising for them, intermittently between 2013 and 2015, before I came to Fletcher. Having an opportunity to work with iSTAR again was like homecoming – to see something that you once created grow into a flourishing enterprise is a joy that is inexplicable. From having no physical office in 2010, iSTAR had grown into a swanky, three floor office building that had over sixty full time staff, thousand trainers and worked in 8 states, skilling around 60,000 students. And I was going back to a much bigger, better organized enterprise than the garage-startup I had left a couple of years back.

 

                                   The Team at iSTAR, Bangalore

                                   The Team at iSTAR, Bangalore

By way of a brief introduction, iSTAR works at the at the skill gap that exists in the Indian economy. Coming from an academic setting characterised by outdated concepts, rote learning, poor infrastructure and underpaid, underqualified teachers; young students are unable to find gainful employment in a buoyant economy that demands superior skill sets. In a country that adds 10 million people (which includes 4 million graduates) to the workforce every year, less than 2% receive any sort of training. This means what should have ideally been a demographic dividend is unrealised, because the labour force of the country is not adequately trained.

iSTAR attempts to fix this skill gap through its product iLAB – a tech based e- learning platform that offers interactive, gamified pedagogy to students, delivering a skills based curriculum designed in consultation with industry leaders and recruiters. This in-college skill lab is closely linked with each semester of undergraduate and graduate education, and we provide recruitment services to students who have completed all our certifications. Our low capex, B2B model ensures scalability and replicability while our innovative revenue model based on attracting existing stakeholder spend on skills trainings ensure profitability. Since 91% of our students come from low income backgrounds, our skills training is an effective poverty alleviation intervention that have increased monthly disposable incomes through livelihood creation.

                         Our mobile and computer based curriculum

                         Our mobile and computer based curriculum

                 Lessons and Assesments Available online

                 Lessons and Assesments Available online

Coming back to my summer escapades, I decided to take up Surga’s offer and reported to work in early June. I spent the first day taking stock of the ‘mess’ I was supposed to deal with. Broadly, I was expected to handle two lines of work, simultaneously. The first one, was to expand our iLAB product to tier 2 towns, on a pilot basis, as we wanted to increase the reach of our interventions and target semi urban populations. The second, was to raise money for our scaled up operations.

How, When, Where and What I would do was left to me entirely – and this entrepreneurial spirit of the organization is what I love the most about it. Occasionally, Surga would check in with my progress but otherwise, I was on my own time and place, with everyday seeming like a marathon.

                        Karnatak College, Dharwad, our first pilot site

                        Karnatak College, Dharwad, our first pilot site

The first two weeks of June went in identifying potential candidates for our pilots, and involved extensive travel. I visited about 24 colleges in 6 cities and we zeroed in on 4. 2 were in Northern Karnataka (Dharwad and Badami) and 2 were in Central Tamil Nadu (Tirunelveli and Ambasamudram). As a personal habit, whenever I get to travel on work, I make sure to be touristy around the city I’m visiting and explore its cuisines. None of these cities disappointed me – From the mouth watering Tirunelveli halwa (Wikipedia calls it a sweet, gelatinous flour based dessert – but it quite never captures the magnificence of the sweet!), to crispy murukku (again, for the benefit of the uninitiated – a savoury, snack), and Dharwad pedas – my taste palate was pampered. I also had an opportunity to visit the breathtaking Badami Cave Temples, testimony to human skill and might – a series of sculptures and paintings carved inside a huge, monolithic hill, in 6th Century AD!

                                                     The Cave Temple, Badami

                                                     The Cave Temple, Badami

I spent most of June and early July travelling to our pilot sites, drafting MoUs and getting the necessary approvals for the courses. I had an excellent operations team working out of Bangalore that supported me in critical areas like empanelling vendors for tech support, screening and recruiting freelance trainers, training the trainers, updating the content – lessons, assessment etc. and procuring hardware. After writing papers and exams in Fletcher, it was quite exhilarating to be back to leading a team and getting things done out there! 

We piloted skills training for 4 job roles:

  1. Financial Analyst
  2. Mutual Fund Agent 
  3. Retail Sales Associate
  4. Voice Based BPO Call Operator 

We had an encouraging enrolment of 1700 (610 in their final year) students across the four pilot sites. As I write this blog now, they would have completed 2 months of training, with 3 more to go. We also tied up with 23 companies who will recruit the graduating students this December. By late July, the pilots were running seamlessly and I  could formally hand over the project to the Operations team. 

                                           Financial Analyst Program Training, Dharwad

                                           Financial Analyst Program Training, Dharwad

Fundraising is never a fun task. And before I began work on that, I decided to take a week long break and spent time at home.

                 Murukku - a fried, savoury that is a staple evening snack in Tamil Nadu

                 Murukku - a fried, savoury that is a staple evening snack in Tamil Nadu

I went back to work 1 August and started preparing for our Series B funding. The thing with fundraising is – it requires tons and tons of data and oodles of charisma. Unfortunately, both of them are mutually exclusive! Anyone who works with data can vouch for the fact that it leaves you tired, bored, grumpy and the last thing you want to be doing is meeting your investors over coffee and dinner, talking about something you’ve obviously never heard of, until that moment. But raising $3 million calls for superhuman efforts.

                                      Retail Sales Associate at Ambai Arts College, Ambasamudram

                                      Retail Sales Associate at Ambai Arts College, Ambasamudram

                                           Brihadeeshwarar Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

                                           Brihadeeshwarar Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

It was great fun for me, because it felt like 2010 all over again. Surga, I and the other co founder were at the drawing board – furiously debating and discussing how we would structure the deal. Unitus Seed Fund’s Board had approved an initial due diligence for this investment and we had to supply them with mountains of data – student and college numbers, tracking data about salary, geography, number of lessons/courses we had, number of exams, number, industry and job role break up of recruiters, how many laptops/mobiles/tablets and projectors we had, whether our trainers had minimum educational requirements and so forth. While collecting and checking the integrity of this data was one thing, the more interesting aspect was structuring the deal itself. How much equity would we give them? How would it affect our Board structure, voting rights? When would the equity be infused – what classes of stock to give? All of this meant heated arguments more than convivial discussions. On an ideal day, we’d be shouting at the top of each other’s voices, trying to convince the other, until food or coffee arrived to calm our souls.

On 16 August, Surga and I pitched our Series B requirement at USF’s Bangalore office. The presentation itself lasted only about 30 minutes, but we were grilled with questions for the next 3 hours. Late evening on the 16th, when we were out for dinner, we got an email from USF. They wanted to fund us! As exciting as the news was, this meant more questions, more data and more work. Since I will be heading back to school in ten days from now, we decided to have a fundraising task force that would do the groundwork from now until December, when the deal is expected to close, while Surga and I will work over email and Skype to draw up the term sheet.

Looking back, while I tried to work with someone and someplace new, in the weird ways of life, I ended up working with people I’d known very well, for a long time. Perhaps, it is for the best. Yet again, this summer, I realised how much I love working with people, leading teams, being on the field and getting things done. My personal faith in social entrepreneurship and career interests in working in the intersection of business and government, needless to say, have augmented exponentially. Coming back home to India, travelling to many cities, meeting the aspirational young minds of my country has been a source of joy, learning and pride. We have to be doing something right, if it works this well. And if it works this well, it will all be right in the end.

Sai Krishna Kumaraswamy

Doing Microfinance Right – My Summer Experience with BRAC Uganda

 

“Why do you like BRAC?” The short, translated answer that came after a pretty long and enthusiastic discussion in the local Kakua Language among the 16 women of different ages but all in bright-colored dresses was not a surprising one. “No one would give us the capital we need for our businesses but BRAC.” I was visiting a newly formed microfinance group of BRAC Uganda’s Koboko Branch in Northern Uganda. BRAC Uganda Microfinance Ltd. had started its journey in 2006, but this group that I was visiting was in operation for only a few months. The women in the group had very small businesses of their own – some grew vegetables, some sold eggs and biscuits, some were in brewing business. This was the first time they had taken any loans from a microfinance institution and they were, understandably, both excited and anxious.

Group meeting of BRAC Uganda's microfinance clients

BRAC on the other hand, have been doing this quite successfully for a long time. Starting as a small post-war rehabilitation operation in the newly born Bangladesh in 1972, BRAC grew to be one of the largest NGOs in the world. BRAC now operates in 12 different countries across Asia and Africa; taking its years of experience from Bangladesh in implementing successful models in various development programs such as health, education, microfinance, and community empowerment into other developing countries. Before Fletcher, I have been working in BRAC’s microfinance program in Bangladesh. This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to work with BRAC’s microfinance team in Uganda.

Me with the group members

Uganda is BRAC’s largest and fastest growing operation in Africa. With 147 branches all over Uganda and more than 180,000 borrowers served, BRAC Uganda’s microfinance program is one of the biggest in the country. While it is still expanding its operation in more and more remote regions, BRAC Uganda’s microfinance program is matured and confident enough to try out new products and services to meet the various needs of its clients. There is an ongoing pilot project that uses mobile money to collect loan installment from small enterprise loan borrowers, over the summer the microfinance team designed and started implementing a Credit Life Insurance product, and there is talk of starting a VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association) Group Loan pilot project and an Agricultural Loan product soon. I was mainly involved in developing and implementing the Credit Life Insurance Product – fine tuning the product specification and designing the capacity building module for frontline staff. This product offered an opportunity of managing portfolio risk for BRAC as well as providing social protection to its clients through a Life Insurance product that is linked to the loans they borrowed. I also helped out with primary analysis of VSLA Group Loan pilot project that seeks to minimize cost of reaching the poorest and hard to reach populations by providing loans to entire voluntary, self-managing, community-based savings and loan groups for out-lending to individual group members. Whether these pilots become successful or not, it is always nice to find an organization that is not afraid to try out new things and constantly strives to learn how best to serve its client base.

BRAC staff members taking a little quiz during the training session

Because the introduction of a major new product, such as the mandatory credit life insurance, requires comprehensive training and capacity building activities for all front-end managers and staff, I had the fun opportunity of visiting different BRAC offices for training activities, travelling all over Uganda – from Gulu (North) to Kabale (South) and Fort Portal (West) to Iganga (East)! It was amazing to experience the difference in weather, geology, culture, languages and lifestyle in different parts of Uganda. I also spent a few days in Kenya and Rwanda before leaving the region. Among the three countries, Uganda definitely feels less touristy (despite all the natural gems scattered across the country), more chaotic and economically poorer. This is just my feeling, but the people in Uganda also seemed more relaxed, laid back, and a little less obsequious to the light skinned foreigners.

Places I've been to this Summer in Uganda

While I enjoyed the current political stability during my time in Uganda, I was in Arua, a place close to the Uganda-South Sudan border in the North, when the fighting between the rival armed groups broke out in Juba, South Sudan. A number of our BRAC colleagues in South Sudan were able to escape from the violence and fled to Arua, the nearest BRAC regional office in Uganda to the South Sudan border, where we were staying. It was a very tense couple of days as we did not know what will happen to the rest of our colleagues who were trapped in Juba unable to escape. Thankfully our colleagues were unharmed and BRAC was able to evacuate its staff from Juba as soon as the cease fire were in place on July 11th.

All in all, this was a summer full of new experiences and amazing memories. Now that I have left Uganda as my summer internship ended, I feel a strange longing for the messy city of Kampala that reminded me of home (Dhaka, Bangladesh), a weird need to have another crazy boda-boda (motorcycle) ride up and down the hilly roads, and most of all, I miss the people with smile in their faces and dance in their feet. In my heart, I know I’ll be back again.  

Fighting Frost and Chill in Chile

I have now been the most southern that I have ever been. We went to two site projects in Rancagua, a region south of Santiago that is mostly composed of farms and old school huasos. Both sites were using technology to reduce the damage that frost causes to crops and thus farmers' incomes and livelihoods.

The first farm was one of the largest in the region at 1000 hectares. They grow fruit; we drove past plenty of avocado and clementine trees, as it's winter in the Southern Hemisphere. This technology was more complicated than the second. It involves artificial intelligence and drones to identify areas in the field where frost is most threatening due to low temperatures. Water is then used in this machine above to create heat that is distributed throughout the field through a system of cables.

The second technology was more of something that someone without an engineering background would come up with. It's a giant fan that gets pulled through the field behind a truck with a heater attached to it so it distributes hot air and prevents damage from frost.

Both of these projects are in their initial stages so it is difficult to say how effective they will be in the long run. The ultimate goal is to maintain their crop yield in the face of changing conditions, in this case, increased frost. It seems that most of the projects that FIA runs have been quite successful in achieving their goals within individual cases. It will be interesting to follow FIA's work and see how they broaden the scale of this model and bring these effective technologies to more Chilean farmers.

My work continues as I prepare a report on which technologies and information systems FIA and Chile could use to better protect Chilean farms against the impacts of climate change. 

Pathways to Sustainable Food Security in Southern Malawi

It's hard to believe that I am already in the third week of what is proving to be an incredible, challenging, eye-opening, dynamic, and enriching experience with Project Concern International (PCI) in Malawi. This summer I am supporting the mid-size NGO, that hails from San Diego, as a Humanitarian Assistance Fellow. Broadly speaking, my role is focused on helping implement Njira, a large multi-year USAID-funded integrated food security project in Southern Malawi. 

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Entrepreneurship in Central America

Hello Blakeley Blog,

I just finished my first two weeks with TechnoServe in Managua, Nicaragua. TechnoServe is an International NGO that works to improve the lives of business owners and farmers. Their motto is, "Business Solutions to Poverty." TechnoServe works throughout Latin America, Africa, and India. 

I am working closely with a project called Impulsa Tu Empresa - in English "Boost Your Business." Impulsa Tu Empresa is a business accelerator program to help grow small and growing businesses. Entrepreneurs entering the program do between $20,000-$2,000,000 USD in sales per year and on average have 14 employees.

Broadly, the program works like this: Entrepreneurs first work with TechnoServe "technicians" to develop a growth strategy. This lasts about three months. Then, these technicians work with the individual businesses on implementation. This is called "aftercare." The program is one year long. Most of the 2015-2016 cohort is just finishing up. In this region, the program is running in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. 

Officially, I am part of the TechonServe Volunteer Consultant Program. TechnoServe calls these people "VolCons." My consulting assignment is to work with their Central American offices on their entrepreneurship strategy for the region. Over the next two months I will be traveling around the region talking to entrepreneurs about their experience starting and growing their business in order to recommend the best intervention strategies.

This past week, however, I got the chance to join another project team to see the work TechnoServe is doing with smallholder dairy farmers. This project is called GANE and is in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many of the farms we visited were located around the city of Wappy. We talked with farmers about GANE and challenges facing smallholder famers in the region. TechnoServe works throughout the supply chain. This meant that we also met with microfinance institutions, cooperatives, a mayor of a small city, and cheese and yogurt producers. I am not a dairy expert, so it was interesting to learn about things like incentivizing "trazabilidad" ("traceability" - tracking cattle with ear tags), and strategies for optimizing pasture quality.

Overall, being in the field was a great experience. I met some of the people TechnoServe works with got a better feel for the operations of the organization.