Wow…I forgot how hard this is. The last five weeks have pretty much been a blur since I hit the ground in Boreda, Ethiopia to launch Nuru’s new country project here. It is an exhilarating adventure, but the challenges can be a bit overwhelming at times.
I have had several people ask me, “What in the world do you do there everyday? Isn’t it a bit boring after the fast pace of the Nuru Kenya project?”
Actually, there’s an overwhelming amount of tasks that need to get accomplished. I have been focusing my efforts here in four main areas: establishing administration infrastructure; building logistics infrastructure; completing a situational analysis as part of the needs assessment for the Monitoring and Evaluation team (M&E); and recruiting, identifying, and beginning to work with potential early Nuru Ethiopia leaders. Here’s a little insight into my day-to-day:
Establishing Administration Infrastructure
We’ve had to carefully navigate an insane number of bureaucratic obstacles in establishing the legal structure of Nuru Ethiopia. Initially, we had thought that establishing Nuru as a foreign investment/private company in Ethiopia would be the best approach; after learning agribusiness models are not allowed as foreign investments, we quickly abandoned that idea. Then, we began the long, grueling process of establishing Nuru Ethiopia as a Non Governmental Organization (NGO). Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of two incredible operators, Asrat Tadesse in Addis Ababa and Oliver Subasinghe in Washington, D.C., we were able to secure the NGO license for Nuru Ethiopia from the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Agency (CSA) in just under nine months – finishing the process in August right before I arrived in Ethiopia.
Building Logistics Infrastructure
Starting a project in Ethiopia requires that we figure out basic logistics support since our team will be working remotely in the rural highlands of the Gamo Gofa Zone in southern Ethiopia. Here are a few of the challenges I have been working on:
Boreda is a very remote woreda (a municipality equivalent to a Kenyan district) up in the mountains above Arba Minch, a large town in southern Ethiopia. Compared to Kuria (the Nuru Kenya project site), the distances to and from our new project site and out in the field are a good bit further to overcome. To get to Boreda, you must fly into the capital (Addis Ababa), stay the night, catch a flight to Arba Minch the next day (as long as they have enough passengers to not cancel the flight), stay the night again, and then ride or drive three hours up into the highlands. Public transportation up to the highlands and back is scarce and unpredictable. Most days there is a bus that goes up and one that comes back – and schedule for that bus is anyone’s guess. Once you get up there, you can’t just walk to the field to meet families. The population density is lower in Boreda than it is in Kuria, and the terrain is tougher to navigate.
Looking ahead, we are going to need to purchase one vehicle and a couple motorcycles to be able to travel to and from a central location and out into the field with our Nuru Ethiopia staff. Purchasing those vehicles will be a bureaucratic nightmare, so I decided to figure out a way to get around without my own vehicle for right now. Thankfully, there’s a saint down in Arba Minch (literally – the guy’s a Catholic priest) named Father Paddy who has graciously allowed me and my rag-tag start-up team to use a vehicle from the mission in Arba Minch for the time being.
Where to live? We are planning to build a compound in Boreda woreda to act as a central support hub for our international staff. To do that, we have to secure a plot of land, figure out how to get materials up there, draw up plans, get them approved by the various appropriate ministries, identify and hire a trustworthy and competent contractor to manage the construction of the project, and complete construction before the Scout Team arrives in February 2013. Good news is that we are making great progress on all of those tasks. The government has been really helpful in donating a plot of land to us. Plans have been submitted and approved, a materials contractor has been identified and contracted to start mobilizing construction materials from Zefine, Soddo, and Arba Minch, and a trustworthy foreman has been identified and hired. Construction should start by late October 2012.
Until the compound gets completed, I need to stay somewhere. I go between a rinky-dink hostel called Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place ($12/night and very cozy indeed) in Addis and the Catholic Mission in Arba Minch as a guest of the famous Father Paddy. Father Paddy is a legend in southern Ethiopia, and he is directly enabling the early success of Nuru Ethiopia. Not sure what I would do without his incredible generosity as he has given me a room to crash in, a vehicle to borrow, and a couple of his staff to contract with for short-term operations. Most importantly, he has selflessly encouraged his #2 guy, Asrat Tadesse (who I mentioned earlier), to think about working for Nuru. Asrat currently runs ICDP, the community development arm of the Catholic Church in Southern Ethiopia. Father Paddy recognizes that Asrat needs to continue developing as a leader, and he saw that Asrat’s role at ICDP was not challenging him enough to continue growing, which is why he encouraged Asrat to consider working for Nuru. More on Asrat later.
Classic economics teaches us that competition is beneficial for a society because it produces efficient markets that drive quality and inspires innovation. It ensures that consumers get the best value for their dollar – or birr here. Well…that’s a bit of a problem here because competition is pretty much nonexistent in the larger industries of Ethiopia: airlines, banks, telecomm, etc. since they are all government controlled. Nowhere is the lack of healthy competition more painfully apparent than the telecomm industry. There is one telecommunications company in Ethiopia – Ethio Telecomm – and the government owns it. Service is patchy around the country, SIM cards are tightly controlled and documented by the government, and consumers wait in long lines for hours just to buy airtime for their phones. This monopoly is a classic case of the consumer suffering because of the absence of competition.
I had two communications tasks when I got here: get a good phone and figure out how to get internet access anywhere in the country. The first part was relatively simple. When Aerie and I did our first site survey here in November 2011, a VSO buddy of his stationed in Ethiopia just gave us his SIM card to use while we were here for the site visit. “Trust me,” he said. “It is WAY too complicated for you to try to get a SIM card here for just three weeks. Just take this one.” Well, at the end of the site visit, he decided to give it to us, and I have kept it since. So phone…check.
Internet – another story. The best option for now is to get the USB mobile internet sticks like the Safaricom sticks we use in Kenya. I experimented with one that a buddy of mine at Mr. Martin’s had, and it seemed to work well enough. So the next day, I went to the only Ethio Telecomm shop in this part of Addis and proceeded to wait in the “Disney World” length line to buy my own internet SIM card. An hour later, I was talking to an employee at the shop about my options. We agreed on a package that he told me would work in any area that got cell reception, and I signed some paperwork. As we finished, he said, “Do you have your two passport photos?” “What passport photos?” I asked. “You need two passport photos to get a SIM card for internet,” he said as he stared at me. “Of course you do,” I thought. At this point, the Ethiopian government has more photos of me than my mother does. I went back out into the street to a random express photo shop, waited two hours to get a photo taken, got two printed, went back across town to the Ethio Telecomm, waited an hour in line, and delivered the photos to the tech guy again. “Great,” he said as he took the photos, finished the paperwork, and handed me a receipt with a tiny card. “What’s this?” I asked. “This is your contract. You now have internet and a SIM card.” “Yes, but where is the USB stick?” I asked. “Oh, you have to buy that in a different shop – we don’t do that here,” he said. It was nearing the magic hour of 5 p.m. – when I knew shops would close. I slowed my breathing. “Listen dude, I need a little help here. I have been patiently trying to get internet access for one entire day now. Please work with me here. There must be something you can do.” He looked around as if the Gestapo was about to walk in. “Hold on a minute,” he said as he got up and walked out. He came back in, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a brand new USB stick. “1,300 Birr ($73), and don’t ask any questions.” I knew they were about $65 on the market. “Fine,” I said. I paid and walked out. I finally had internet! (Two weeks later, I would find out that the USB stick doesn’t necessarily work in remote off-the grid areas just because there is cell reception; but that’s another story for another time.)
Completing a Situational Analysis for the M&E Team
One of my primary functions here is assisting Nuru’s M&E by collecting available data on pre-existing conditions in the Gamo Gofa Zone for our Situational Analysis, which is the first phase of Nuru’s Needs Assessment. This analysis involves various qualitative research techniques including conducting Key Informant Interviews (interviewing government officials, NGO, and Community Based Organizations operating in the area, religious officials, and households); collecting local stories and sayings that will inform the design of parts of our Leadership Program process and curriculum; hiking all around local communities and mapping out the areas the community leaders show me; collecting GPS data for key locations, landmarks, and boundaries; and collecting general infrastructure information for the areas we plan to operate in.
Before I left for Ethiopia, M&E Manager Jamie Frederick gave me an extensive training on the proper templates and methodology in the collection of data for the Situational Analysis. It was an effective, well thought-out, idiot-proof training (to ensure that this idiot didn’t mess it up) that has made the execution of the analysis go fairly smoothly here over the past couple weeks.
To execute the Situational Analysis, I have been working with a great, energetic guy named Yohannes Ethiopia (yes, that is really his second name). Yohannes is a student at the Arba Minch University studying Anthropology and is currently on break. He is fluent in English, Gamogna (mother tongue of the Gamo Highlands), and Amharic, and in the past, has worked as a translator for various western organizations and researchers. He came highly recommended to me, and after working with him for two weeks, I completely understood why: Yohannes is highly intelligent, humble, meticulous, and inquisitive; he has become my translator, language instructor, and good friend.
Yohannes and I have built a great working relationship: I train Yohannes in effective interview methodologies and computer skills, he trains me in language, and we both laugh at my attempts to speak Amahric (I once tried to ask one of the government officials what his name was; instead I asked him what he wanted to eat for lunch.). Yohannes has been critical to the execution of the Situational Analysis – translating surveys, conducting interviews, and uploading data to templates we need to send to the M&E Team. He has a unique way of making interviewees of all ages and genders feel completely at ease and comfortable in answering questions. I have also begun to train Yohannes to translate the Multidimensional Poverty Assessment Tool (MPAT) into Gamogna and Amharic in preparation for the Scout Team M&E Fellow to carry out the MPAT here in Ethiopia next year.
Identifying and Recruiting Potential Leaders for Nuru Ethiopia
One of the most critical missions on my plate here in these early days is to identify, recruit, train, and develop potential leaders for Nuru Ethiopia. This breaks down into two main categories: high-level leadership for Nuru Ethiopia and foundation leaders from the communities where we will be working.
High-Level Leadership for Nuru Ethiopia
Our big idea is to identify and onboard the top leaders for Nuru Ethiopia with the capacity and raw skills already in place to manage a country level project and to utilize their skills to build our work from the beginning. Specifically, the top leaders I am referring to are the Country Program Director, the Finance Director, and the Income Generating Activities (IGA) Director. We have decided to post job descriptions online, screen applications, interview the most promising candidates, and then select the best ones to fill these initial positions.
The first position we filled was the IGA Director, and we chose Asrat Tadesse. Aerie and I have had our eye on Asrat from the time we first met him during the site survey in November 2011. He is an extraordinarily impressive servant leader who possesses two Master degrees and over 20 years of management experience in international development and entrepreneurial ventures. Asrat initially joined us as a contractor and had shocking success in his first role – securing Nuru’s NGO license in Ethiopia in just under nine months when others told us it would be impossible to get a license at all with the current administration’s stance toward western NGOs. Asrat then began working with me as a Senior Advisor in helping set up the early infrastructure here for the project and then accepted the IGA Director position. Asrat is a passionate entrepreneur with a strong vision to help the people of Ethiopia rise from poverty on their own. He’s an incredible leader with a proven, vetted track record. And on top of all this, he’s just a fun guy to work with.
After screening many top-notch applications for the other two top management positions, Asrat and I came to Addis for four days to interview the top four applicants for both the Country Program Director and Finance Director positions. To be continued…
Potential Leaders from the Community
We are looking to identify 10-12 promising potential leaders from the “kebeles” (neighborhoods, like sub-locations in Kenya) that we will be working in by the time the Scout Team arrives in February. The Scout Team will train and work with these leaders as candidates to fill early management positions in the Leadership Program, the Agriculture Program, and the M&E Team as we conduct the Agriculture Needs Assessment and co-create the Agriculture model between February and August of next year.
I’ve spent several days trekking around the highlands of Boreda with potential leaders of Nuru Ethiopia. So far, my absolute favorite days have been executing parts of the Situational Analysis with these promising candidates during our field work in three kebeles. They have been walking the boundaries of their kebeles with me to help me create accurate maps. These leaders vary in training and background – government workers, village leaders, ex-health workers, recent university graduates, NGO workers, respected farmers in the community, and more.
Along the way, we have been having a great time talking with farmers and racing each other up steep climbs to the top of peaks (I generally lose). The landscape is breathtaking, and the people are beautiful and unbelievably generous. The attitude is so unique here. The poverty conditions are stark, but neither the leaders nor the farmers ever ask me for anything as I move about in their fields from village to village. Instead of asking for handouts, they constantly offer to give me gifts from their own scarce resources: a roasted ear of corn, a piece of sugar cane, or some fried barley. I am humbled by their selflessness and by their pride and determination as a community to overcome the daily challenges they face. We certainly have our work cut out for us here – perhaps fighting challenges even greater than the ones we face in Kenya – but I have a strong hope for our work in the coming months and years because of the brightness and strength I see in the eyes of every leader and farmer I have encountered in these early walks. And hope is a strong foundation from which to build lasting change…