4 April 2009

Here in Ethiopia, I’ve come to discover that holding an economics degree is often more of a liability to me than an advantage. Mostly because people, upon hearing this fact, expect me to know things about the economy. It’s no use telling them that my degree is a bachelor of arts, thus excluding me from all those just-kill-me-now-and-get-it-over-with sorts of subjects like finance and accounting, or that many of my degree requirements were fulfilled through fuzzy conceptual courses in fringe areas like behavioral economics and sports economics. In fact, if anyone actually came to me with a problem about economics in the traditional sense, I’d be limited to solutions involving tradeoffs between guns and butter, or production of “widgets.” Firms under my counsel would have a choice between advancing either militancy or obesity, or trading in units of merely theoretical value providing no discernible use to society (though I hear some people on Wall Street have done quite well in the latter).

One way in which my economics degree has benefited my Peace Corps experience, though, is by thrusting me into the fascinating, challenging, and greatly rewarding area of small business promotion and income-generating activities (IGA). One of my biggest and longest-running projects within my community has been working with a group of people living with HIV to start and manage a local mill, or wofcho bet, in order to establish for them a steady source of income and promote self-sufficiency and thus self-esteem.

My initial visits to the group found them discouraged over the recent failure of their chicken farming project and questioning their ability to work as people living with HIV. They were eager for an opportunity to start over again, but many were beginning to grow skeptical that their efforts could create anything with long-term viability. Yet watching the steady stream of traffic passing on the large transit route beside their site, rural farmers hauling enormous sacks of grains and other dry goods into town for grinding, had given them the idea that a mill in that location could be successful.

I worked with the group and the coordinator of their umbrella organization, RINA, to write a grant proposal, which we presented to Peace Corps and to the zonal and regional level government HIV prevention offices. The proposal being accepted and the necessary funds being secured, we moved forward in establishing the new mill. RINA collected bids for machinery, materials, and associated transport and labor costs, as well as facilitated the necessary approvals and licensing from the local government business office. The participants in the project elected leaders and set forth rules and expectations for governance of their group. I met with an instructor of business management at the technical college to develop a curriculum for teaching the group and equipping them with the basic skills necessary for running a small business. The 23 participants, 17 female and 6 male, then received training covering basic business concepts, market management, operations management, and basic accounting principles.

For a period of a month, milling equipment and associated materials were purchased and installed at the project site, improvements such as concrete floors were made to the existing building (formerly a chicken coop), and electrical wires were run to the site for powering the mills. During this time, I wanted to make sure that we installed as many business management structures as possible up front in order to prevent the sort of failure the group experienced with their chicken farm. I used resources from various international NGOs to put together a questionnaire that would help the group think through issues relevant to their enterprise, make the necessary decisions, and put together the necessary plans. Over a series of often lengthy meetings, we discussed issues of pricing, marketing, labor, and budgeting, ensuring that these issues were sorted ahead of time, before any one of these concerns became the downfall of the whole business.

In early January, the mill finally opened. In my first visit to the see the mill, the building was lined with waiting people, the yard filled with their grazing donkeys. I talked with one customer, an energetic farmer wearing an emerald green jacket, colorfully patched Gojjami cloth shorts, and a floppy straw hat, the wide brim of which framed his dark, weathered face like a lion’s tawny mane. He complimented the fine quality of the powder produced by the mill, much finer than that obtained from other local mills. He remarked on the convenience of the mill’s location, right on the route from his village into town, and praised the site for its cool shade and the abundance of grazing land for his pack animals. Shaking my hand, he promised to recommend the new mill to people throughout his village.

The mill had been doing good business for just over two months when I learned from the participating group members that they had yet to receive any payment in return for their labor. From the project’s earliest planning stages, I had preached the importance of putting a solid plan in place for profit distribution, project reinvestment, and savings, so I was shocked to hear this grievance now. I began insisting to RINA’s coordinator that we resolve this issue as soon as possible, before group members lost any and all motivation to work at the mill. I saw this as the last big piece of my technical assistance that remained to be given, to help the group develop this sort of financial plan in order to promote the project’s sustainability into the future. Due to various other engagements and responsibilities on the part of RINA’s coordinator, it was not until a month later that our vital discussion on these issues was held, but the result was what I believe is the outline of a viable financial plan for the enterprise.

On the Saturday following our discussion, I had joined the sea of people walking down to the big weekly market when I found myself beside two of the women from the mill group. Smiling brightly, they told me that they had received that morning their payments for three months of work, and they were on their way to buy food with it. They told me it was all because of me that they had this money to spend, and I responded that, rather, it was the payment they deserved for their hard work. It was an incredibly rewarding moment for me to see in action the achievement of our project’s ultimate goal: the empowerment of people living with HIV to support themselves through solid, sustainable jobs.

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