Enough apologizing. On to the update that you may have already given up waiting for. While I was in LA in late September/early October the #1 question I was asked most was:
- ha. where do I EVEN begin? AND how can I even try to answer that question fairly? uhhh well here's my attempt to sum up the meat and potatoes of the happenings of this PCV's experience. For the sake of your reading attention span and my writing stamina, i'll do my best to cover the last 8 months in the next few posts.
- My Peace Corps Volunteer Sector: Small Enterprise Development (SED)
- The grassroots approach. Essentially, SED volunteers partner with local NGOs, associations, or communities to help the local artisan / farmer / small food stand owner improve and grow their business. Which in turn will help improve livelihoods, boost economic activity, so on and so on.
- My PC Site: the "urban" town of Miarinarivo
- I love Miarinarivo! So the first week after we arrived in country, our PC SED director Madame Lucie (who is the most MOTIVATING and HARDWORKING person I've met) interviewed us and placed each of the 8 SED volunteers in our sites according to site needs and volunteer experience. I lucked out. Miarinarivo is not your romanticized Peace Corps "grass hut" sleepy village setting. Although I would have really liked to experience "roughing it" for the next two years, I can't complain about the electricity, running water, and hub of other expats to share the experience with.
- Miarinarivo is 88km (2 hours by taxi brousse) away from Antananarivo (a.k.a. TANA) the capital of Madagascar. Why is that so crucial? Because practically EVERYTHING can be found in Tana. Where do you get a decent mattress for cheap? - Tana. Where can you buy orange juice? - Tana. Where can I get this fixture to repair my toilet? - Tana. Get the point?
- Miarinarivo is also the capital of Itasy (which would be like the Sacramento of California) so it's pretty much like the administrative decision center of region. All the offices of different Malagasy Ministry Offices (our US equivalent of Departments) are convenient 10-15 minute walks from my house. As a chief-de-lieu, or regional capital, Miarinarivo also has a bank. Impressive. I know. As you can imagine. Banks are not omnipresent as they are in the States. And having a selection of different banks is pretty much reserved for the major towns in Madagascar. I guess Miarinarivo is big, but not yet Major.
75% of the community are salaried employees, 15% farmers. In contrast to most other Malagasy communities where 95% of the community are rural farmers. So although I'm not really living a Manhattan lifestyle in this urban community. There are more people who earn their living from paychecks from municipal offices rather than selling rice or corn. Here's a fun fact: Even though 75% of the community takes home paychecks every month, ONLY 5% of the community own a bank account. Why? Most people cash in the paycheck and hide the money in their "magic mattress" at home. Interestingly enough, the common belief is that people typically do not have enough money to open an account; so they need to save for it. In the meantime, it's mattress time.
- My SED Counterpart Organization: PROSPERER
- http://www.madagascar-tribune.com/Lancement-du-programme-PROSPERER,3596.html A little background about PROSPERER for those savvy French speakers. As I mentioned earlier, every PCV is partnered with a NGO, organization, or community. So I was lucky again and have been partnered with PROSPERER. Believe it or not, that's actually an acronym ... in French. Simply translated: "Programme to support the rural businessman to help the overall economy of Madagascar".
Prosperer is a 7-year (2008-2015) Malagasy government programme aimed to help rural businesses. It's funded by IFAD (Int'l Fund for Agricultural Development) - an $18Million loan to be exact to the Malagasy government. They work in the 5 poorest and most densely populated regions in Madagascar. They have business consultants in each region who go around on orange and blue Honda sportbikes and serve as the "doctors" of small and rural businesses. 1) They identify small businesses that need help, 2) they do a diagnosis - what products do you make, where do you sell, basics, 3) they give recommendations and help set up trainings to treat the "symptoms". so that could be trainings in Financial management, Marketing, Quality and technique (for the artisans), and most importantly teaching the culture of savings and loans.
What does that all mean for me?
Well I'm a guinea pig. At least I'm not alone. 2 other volunteers in my region share my "tester" pains. We are the first PCVs to be partnered with this organization. Prosperer requested volunteers to help their mission and in exchange pay for our housing. Not complaining. I definitely could not afford the rent on my PC salary.
Lessons from a guinea pig. Each Prosperer business consultant works with an average of 30-90 small businesses monthly. With the help of PCVs they were hoping we'd help double that number. Woops. I don't think so. 1. We are not that fluent in Malagasy.... yet, and 2. PCVs are prohibited from riding motorcycles ... we're not very mobile. So they're learning to scale down their expectations of us. :( Now we have an understanding that each volunteer will focus on 2-3 groups (not 30-90) phew!
- My Projects So Far: English Business Club w/ PROSPERER, Electrification Project for 2 rural villages, Researching for a Telecenter and an artisan boutique for the region.
English club -- Geeze. I can't tell you how many times people ask me to teach them english in Miarinarivo. Sometimes it's not very polite either - "When are you going to teach me English? I'm free tomorrow" Somehow everyone thinks oh yes, American - you are a certified English teacher. So I often politely decline and explain thy need to find a PC Education volunteer. I can only deal with business. So I've created a Business English club with the people in PROSPERER and practice talking about business issues in English. Last week - watching and discussing the documentary FOOD, INC. Very interesting documentary about the American food industry if you haven't seen it yet. It was also a very interesting platform for cultural exchange between organic malagasy foods and processed american foods. I'm no longer surprised that my stomach turned inside out for a whole day when I was back in the States. My body got used to eating organic.
Electrification Project -- Lately, this project occupies about 80% of my week. About 14 km East of Miarinarivo you can find a rural community of granite sculpting artisans. They are the Cooperative of SA.SI.VA.MA. - Sary Sikotra amin'ny Vato Mariampoana (Rock Sculptures in Malagasy). They are 250+ and need electricity to improve production quality and quantity. I could go into this for days, but I won't. bottom line i'm searching for a cost effective and appropriate solution. The national electricity company JIRAMA quoted the project to cost about $55,000 USD. yikes. Given the turbulent politcal times in Madagascar many funding resources have been cut .... which makes this project challenging. So I'm looking into cheaper solutions like renewable energy sources --- solar or wind powered.
I try not to get too overwhelmed by the estimated cost of this project. My boyfriend, Rudy, has been such a cheerleader and motivator to not lose hope. So thanks to him, I haven't lost the fire and passion to find a way. Have you heard about Windmill Will? If this 14 year old in rural Malawi can make it happen for his community, then this 23 year old US university graduate can too.
All right. I suppose that's a spoonful for today. Another to come soon...
Mandrapiahoana.... SEE YOU NEXT TIME!