Wednesday, June 11, 2008

It's funny how quickly plans could change

About a month ago I made the decision to move on from my job as a recruiter with Accent. A week later, on May 21st, I got an email from Elizabeth, in TechnoServe’s Swaziland office, about a project they thought I could help with. Elizabeth and I spoke that Friday, I spent the weekend reading some orientation materials and guidebooks on Swaziland, and the next Tuesday I was committed to the project. I leave for Africa this Sunday, and will spend four months working for TechnoServe (TNS) and then spend some time traveling around the region before returning to New York this November.

I'm going to Mbabane, Swaziland to help establish a business center that will help sugarcane farmers access resources and services to improve the quality and yield of their crop, and gain access to markets for their products. My job will be to launch an office - called The Business Place - that will provide a suite of services under one roof where small farmers could walk in and get the help they need. The Business Place (TBP) exists in urban areas in other southern African countries – namely South Africa and Botswana; this will be the first franchise in Swaziland and the first rural-oriented TBP office. If it's successful, the rural model will be rolled out to other locations; it has the potential to have a very large impact on addressing poverty in the region. The goal is to help turn these sustenance farmers into commercial farmers.

My work will be through TechnoServe -, a US-based nonprofit organization that works in developing countries to provide business solutions to foster economic growth and combat poverty. TechnoServe is the largest development agency working in Swaziland and has a five year contract with USAID to launch a number of initiatives in the country. (More on their work and approach in the country in a future post.) I'll be working with their employees and members of a bunch of other local groups to help get TBP up and running. Elizabeth – my manager for the project – has been in Swaziland for over a year to set the groundwork for launching TBP and she’s been bringing me up to date through calls and emails, and starting to introduce me to a number of the people and organizations that I’ll be working with.

The whole thing is fantastic. The work sounds interesting and challenging, and the opportunity to spend some time living, working, and traveling in Southern Africa seems exotic and exciting.

While very different, in two big ways the work with TNS has a lot of what I’m looking to do, and the organization reminds me of Bike & Build.

First, there’s the dual mission of providing service opportunities to volunteers through a unique experience, coupled with the social/humanitarian impact of the programming. I think that the both of these elements were what attracted me to start Bike & Build, and the foremost element that sustains the involvement and commitment of everyone who’s involved now. It’s one thing to be doing socially worthwhile things or having fun, and it’s fantastic to be doing both at once.

Second, the people involved in TNS have seemed pretty dynamic. In my limited contact with them so far (and with the DC TNS office), everyone’s been sharp, energetic, welcoming, and committed to their work and the charitable development mission. In fact, the lady who told me about TNS is a two-time Bike & Build alum who worked with TNS on a three-month project in Rwanda. I’m excited to meet and work with the staff and other volunteers.

(A bit of background… there are 16 full-time employees in the Swaziland office – both locals and expats, plus around a half dozen volunteers at any given time. Most of the business staff and volunteers come out of the big management consulting firms like Bain and McKinsey, and I think that there’s a lot that I’ll be able to learn from them in the next four months.)

It’s been great to have the well wishes and support of friends and family. My boss at Accent gave me a chain of beads that have traveled to a number of very spiritual places in India and have been blessed by quite a few holy people, which will keep me safe and protected. Members of loan operations departments at a number of foreign bank branches in Manhattan have said prayers on my behalf. Friends have been supportive with excitement and kind words, and those who have traveled extensively have emailed tips regarding the pros and cons of different malaria medications. And despite multiple requests by my parents to pack extra sunscreen and take an extra tetanus shot (just in case… you never know when you could use it), I could tell that they’re excited for me and, maybe, even a bit jealous.

Sunday night I fly out of JFK. I have a long layover in London, and hope to make a quick stop at the Tate Modern, before another overnight flight to Johannesburg. From there, it’s a quick flight to Manzini, Swaziland, where I’ll arrive mid-day on Tuesday. Wednesday morning I’ll hit the ground running; I have an 8:30 meeting with members of the groups I’ll be working with to lay out plans for the next four months.

I can’t say that I ever thought I’d be in Swaziland, but after ramping up on the project, reading about the country, and talking with a few people who have been there, it sounds like a great place to be. I plan on keeping this page updated with stories and photos from Africa. Keep checking in!


Asher said...

we'll be thinking of you in guatemala. and let me know if you're looking for company in london and i can hook you up.

Socheata et Co. said...

This is so fantastic! You're going to have the time of your life. What an adventure. We'll be keeping tabs on you.