Sunday, 13 July 2014

5 things I didn’t know about Ethiopia

I have never been the most organized person. But moving abroad for 6 months is a big deal so I decided to get serious and write out a list of “must do” tasks before I left. Alongside buying currency and a first aid kit, one of the other things that didn’t get ticked off the list was researching Ethiopia.

Here are 5 things I didn’t know before I came to Ethiopia (but wish I had)

1. You have to give or take 6 hours

I knew in general Africans take a slightly more relaxed view of time than we do in the West. No bad thing. However after several very confusing conversations I learnt that Ethiopia has a different method of timekeeping altogether. Their clocks start at sunrise, which is around 6am. So when someone asks you to meet them at 4am to discuss a project update, they actually mean 10am – a much more sociable hour to hold a meeting. Ethiopia also has 13 months in a year; 12 months of 30 days and an extra month which mops up the remaining 5 or 6 days. That is why people here proudly point out that Ethiopia has 13 months of sunshine. A travel agents dream.

2. Cash is king

What I learnt at business school I witnessed first-hand in Awassa. Our evenings were characterised by trying to hold briefing meetings in the hotel in the pitch black, as the lights would go off every 5-6 minutes. I’m told power cuts are common*. This wasn’t ideal but we could live with it. Not so easy was when we tried to check out of our hotel to find they didn’t accept credit cards, only cash. Unfortunately the power cuts had also knocked out all of the ATMs in the city. Driving around at 6am looking for working ATMs isn’t the best start to the day. In the end we left without paying and one of the local World Vision Managers had to come and pay our bill the following day.

3. American is more widely spoken than English

There are several languages spoken in Ethiopia, Amharic being the official language. So translators are highly valued. There have been a number of occasions whilst out in the field when I’ve asked a question only for it to get translated from English to American, then American to Amharic and finally from Amharic into the local dialect. So asking a farmer how many children he has can take a few minutes, and end up with a Yes or No answer. I admit this says more about my lack of proper pronunciation than the general populous, but I write as I see. Thanks to Itzbeth, my VisionFund colleague, travel companion and English-American translator I got through the first week.

4. Ethiopians love coffee and REALLY love sugar

I knew Ethiopians were big coffee drinkers. Legend has it coffee was first discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia. So it was no great surprise to find people drink a lot of coffee here. In fact having launched a coffee business, aroamaah!, last year this was an ideal place for some “market research”! What surprised me was the amount of sugar Ethiopians consume with their coffee. Typically coffee is served in very small cups. Imagine buying a large Starbucks latte and dividing it between 8 friends – that’s about the size of a regular coffee here. Then imagine adding 5 or 6 large spoonfuls of sugar and you’ve got yourself a standard Ethiopian coffee. Any dentists looking to set out on their own, this is the place to be.

5. All taxi drivers support Arsenal FC

I get a lot of taxis in Addis. The roads here make driving in London look pedestrian. So I meet a lot of taxi drivers and I am yet to meet one who isn’t an Arsenal fan. Some of the drivers have very little English but can name the Arsenal starting XI from the last time they won the league. Which says a lot for their memory as well as loyal following! Now when I get a taxi I drop the names of a few famous Arsenal players into the conversation and find I can save 20-30 birr off the fare. Thank you Thierry Henry.

* I tried to post this blog yesterday but I couldn’t. Apparently there had been a power cut.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Getting out there

General advice when travelling - take a few days to acclimatize. No more so than when you find yourself at high altitude; and at over 2,300m Addis Ababa is the 3rd highest capital city in the world. I had 24 hours.

Landing in Addis at 6am on Sunday morning, I spent a day sleeping and taking in some “traditional” Ethiopian culture such as lunch at the Beer Garden Inn in Bole. At 7am Monday morning we were on the road.

I was visiting a number of field offices (or ADPs, Area Development Programmes) with Itzbeth, a VisionFund colleague from the US and my guide, mentor and travel companion for the week. We had a World Vision vehicle and driver who for the next 5 hours expertly negotiated pot holes, felled trees and stray goats. Leaving us to enjoy some incredible scenery on the way to Awassa.

I was immediately taken by Awassa. The tree-lined streets full of people, traders, market stalls and Bajajas (tuc-tucs). The place is beautiful in a noisy, dusty, dirty kind of way. I was very obviously not in London any more.  Spent some time exploring the city with Itzbeth. Walking along by Lake Awassa, the small bars and street food stalls gave a buzz to an otherwise tranquil setting. We later found out the lake is known as the ‘love lake’, which explained the abundance of couples we passed.

Lake Awassa aka the "Love Lake"

What I like about visiting new places is that everything is eye opening.

One evening in Awassa I went out on my own for a walk early evening. Outside the cathedral was a crowd of beggars. A woman called out to me with her hands held out. I walked on at first, as its not encouraged to give money in these situations. She called again and I looked at her, smiled and shook my head. In response she gave me one of the biggest grins I’ve seen. Another stark contrast from London, especially at 8.30am on the underground.

The next few days were spent visiting the ADPs. Talking to the ADP Managers, Development Facilitators and Community Volunteers, it was interesting to hear about the work they were doing and how the technical approaches developed in Head Office were actually delivered on the ground. With Itzbeth taking the lead, I was able to simply listen and learn. It’s refreshing being in a situation where I’m not seen as the expert or expected to have all the answers.

We visited a coffee farmer called Jomo, whose farm near Abaya was in a hilly forested region. The 4x4 could only take us so far, the last mile we had to reach on foot. Struggling up a thick mud track we passed a group of boys playing with a makeshift football. I joined in and before I knew it, the boys and half the village, were following us up to Jomo’s farm. It was only later that we discovered they were actually Jomo’s children, all 17 of them! It was fascinating to see the farm and talk to Jomo about the challenges he faces and his hopes for the future. Having set-up a coffee business last year it was brilliant seeing first hand where the coffee beans start their journey.

Our volunteer bodyguard on the way to a coffee farm in Abaya

The next day we visited another ADP several hours drive from Awassa. One of World Vision’s key economic development approaches are the formation of village Savings Groups. In a Savings Group, a group of mostly women from the same village will save up to 10 birr (about 30p) every week. After 12 months they will hold a graduation ceremony where each woman receives their share of the savings back. The groups have their own committee, bye-laws and lending policies. We were fortunate that as we were visiting another coffee farm, women from the nearby village were holding their first graduation ceremony. We spoke to the women, asking them why they joined the group and what difference it has made. Hearing of the impact being part of the group has had on their ability to provide for their families and childrens' education, and in turn what that has done for their own self esteem, was inspiring and really quite humbling.

Graduation Day at a Women's Savings Group in Quacha Bira

My time in Africa has only just started but I’m excited about what the coming months have in store. More to come soon.


Monday, 2 June 2014

A long way from London

Firstly a bit of background and to clear up any confusion from the title of the blog. I am not actually sunning myself on safari with a group of friends. Although that would be nice.

So what am I doing?

After almost 5 years working as a management consultant in London with PwC, I decided to take 6 months out to follow my growing desire and calling to work in development and social impact (hence the ‘Social’) in Africa (the ‘Safari’ bit).

I have been talking about doing something like this for a while, but it’s always been the wrong time. I’m too busy right now and taking time out will affect my career. I realised these were excuses not reasons. They helped me justify taking the easy decision of carrying on doing what I was doing rather than making the bold decision to do something different. Looking back it does not seem a particularly bold decision after all.

So now I am just starting out, working in Ethiopia for the first 3 months and after that…watch this space!

My first African sunrise and my first ever blog post

Why Ethiopia?

I knew I wanted to work with social enterprises and in microfinance. But I had no idea where to start.

Having studied business and spent all of my working life in professional services, I am a big believer in the potential of markets. For me market-based approaches represent the best way to truly transform the lives of people living in poverty. It empowers people to change their own futures rather than depending on the generosity of others.

John Drayton the founder of Ashoka puts it best

It is either coincidence, or as my HTB Church connect group will tell me, by design that I ended up starting out in Ethiopia. In short I met the CEO of a client whilst interviewing for a consulting project, then bumped into him 2 months later at a talk on Social Impact investing where over a beer I made an off-hand comment about being interested in microfinance. He just so happened to be best mates with the CEO of an MFI and was having lunch with him that weekend. Several emails and a coffee later and VisionFund International found a role for me supporting their economic development projects in Ethiopia.

A bit about VisionFund…

VisionFund is the microfinance arm of World Vision, a large Christian humanitarian relief and development organisation. Their mission is to improve the lives of children around the world living in poverty. They are the largest children’s charity in the world.

So here I am in Addis Ababa, swapping Banks and Black Cabs for Coffee Farms and Bajajs.

This blog is my way of keeping a record of my time in Africa; the people I meet, places I see and the experiences, conversations, challenges, lessons, thoughts and mistakes I make along the way.

My objectives scribbled on the back of a receipt

On a final note…

A mention has to go to my good friend Polly who is on her own amazing adventure in Doha, and shares her experience and musings on her blog followyoursunshine. I love the name and it gave me the inspiration to start my own blog. If I have half as many interesting encounters to blog about as Polly, I’ll be happy.