Marshall’s Musings

[Marshall, a former investment banker, stayed at the Cherokee House for six weeks between May and July 2013 and interned with Joshua, a credit union, and Selam Technical and Vocational College. He will start Harvard Business School in the Fall.]

June 2013

Has it been five weeks already?!?

Though it seems like just yesterday I touched down here in Addis fresh from an exhilarating first experience on the African continent down in South Africa, I have only one week left in Ethiopia. I guess there’s something to that old cliché about time flying when you’re having fun.

I have truly enjoyed learning about the history, politics and culture of Ethiopia, a country I knew relatively little about up until just before my trip. From eating injera (a spongy flatbread and the local staple) to (badly) dancing in the style of the Gurage ethnic group to going mad celebrating in the streets after the Wallias beat South Africa to get one step closer to the World Cup, I have been blessed to receive an immersive experience. Although I appreciate that the CGB guesthouse provides far nicer accommodations than those found in all but the most upscale parts of Addis (thanks Asni and Hanna!), I do feel that my experience has been “local” and that I have been far more than a tourist popping in for a brief visit.

Part of the reason for this great experience has been the wonderful people I have had a chance to share my time with – from the Cherokee staff to the eclectic group of visitors who are regularly dropping by the house (ranging in age from 16 to 60). Our discussions have ranged from small talk about the travails of Addis traffic (which is truly atrocious) to fascinating conversations about the process needed to set up an NGO in Ethiopia and helpful suggestions whenever someone’s work placement is causing problems. Whenever I am back in the States and become distressed by the vacuity of contemporary culture, I will be able to think about the good being done for the truly needy by folks at the CGB house and crack a little smile.

The geography of Ethiopia is another reason I have enjoyed my time here so much. Due to its elevation, Addis’ mild climate belies its proximity to the equator. The elevation and the terrain surrounding the city afford lots of interesting hikes and spectacular vistas nearby. Furthermore, I was able to travel to the monolithic churches of Lalibela in the Northern part of the country to see even more unique landscapes and get another dose of Ethiopian history.

Though I have had a ball here during much of my stay in Addis, a major part of my Ethiopian experience is absent from above – the experience working with my partner organizations.

The work I have done has been interesting, and I have had the pleasure of helping two organizations that are clearly helping to improve people’s lives both in Addis and elsewhere in Ethiopia. The income generating activities unit (IGA) at Selam Children’s Village provides funds to help run multiple orphanages and vocational training facilities, and Joshua Multi-Purpose Cooperative has provided life changing loans to hundreds of its members, who might not otherwise have access to financial services. That said, there have been plenty of bumps along the way and, while I do think I will have made a positive impact on these organizations overall, I would be remiss to think that I will accomplish all that I thought I would when I first touched down here in Abyssinia.

I have had several hurdles to overcome in my work here – both due to my own experience (or lack thereof) and also the challenges of working in a foreign culture.

One of the issues I have faced is that in previous work experience I have served as an outside investor or advisor. In these roles, data generally either exists and can be used for analysis or is not available – there is no awkward middle ground where data may exist but is dependent on connecting with the right person in the organization. Thus one challenge I have had with my placements here in Ethiopia is figuring out exactly what data exists – especially data that can be used by non-Amharic speakers or at least translated with minimal effort. So not only have I had a new experience trying to pry around my partner organizations to try to figure out what data is available for use in my analysis, I have had to do so in the context of a very different work culture than I am used to. There has also been a bit of a language barrier and though my colleagues all speak decent English (it’s certainly better than my Amharic) I still find myself in the middle of my fair share of miscommunications – times when I think that I will get something that never materializes, etc.

Given some of these limitations, I have had to temper my initial desire to provide these organizations with some grand strategic direction (which may have been wishful thinking on my part in the first place). I am still trying to improve these organizations but started to focus much more on day to day process oriented improvements to enhance efficiency. For instance, it seems that the IGA at Selam is still quite reliant on paper files to keep track of many of its orders – and what digital data does exist is balkanized and saved on a variety of PC hard drives; I am trying to centralize the data collection on the firm’s server in order to facilitate better inter-department communication and to allow for more complete analysis to be done once all the relevant data is in one place. This seems like a very simple solution that has been used by just about every US organization I have ever worked with; however, I am almost embarrassed to admit, that it took me a few weeks to realize just how inefficient current practices were – I had to go from thinking “what data do I need?” to understanding “why can’t I get the data I would like and wouldn’t life be easier for everyone if I could?”

I am now focused on finishing out my time with my partners in a productive manner and hope to leave them with useful suggestions that can improve the basic efficiency of their organizations going forward. I am confident that I will have at least a slight impact that lasts as I make suggestions to improve processes and hopefully leave them with skills they would otherwise find difficult to acquire (for instance I have created a guide to help teach a variety of Microsoft Excel skills and am giving a training to some Joshua members tomorrow).

While I may not end up achieving everything I set out to with my partner organizations, I can be satisfied with my trip on a holistic level. I have developed a greater understanding for working across cultures and have also gained some on the ground insight into the types institutions that help nations succeed. Oh and I also had a great time! All and all not too shabby.

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