THE BLOG

An African Internship -- Working Outside My Comfort Zone

12/13/2013 03:46 EST | Updated 02/12/2014 05:59 EST

I am one of the 'lucky ones' -- a young person who fell into a career they loved and believed in without much thought about it.

In November 2012 I was working with a credit union in Alberta as a communications coordinator. I loved the co-op movement and really believed that grassroots, member-owned institutions could be a tool for sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

Three years into my career I traveled to Uganda as a volunteer with the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) to discover how agricultural and financial co-operatives are drastically improving the lives of hard working farmers. That mission, "Telling Our Story Uganda" affected me in a profound and personal way.

Returning home from Africa I was empowered to tell students and colleagues about what I had seen -- a

co-operative business model that supports the dream of building a better world. My presentations in gymnasiums and conference halls shared stories from northern Uganda of people I had met who were overcoming civil unrest and adapting to climate change through co-ops.

While I loved my communications career I found that the satisfaction from my day-to-day work did not measure up to the satisfaction I gained from writing and speaking about my Africa experience, so I started looking for something new.

Almost immediately, I came across a marketing officer internship position offered by CCA -- the same organization that I had traveled with previously. I didn't know if I had a shot but in August 2013 I applied. Everything happened so fast. I sent in my application and by the end of the week I knew I had a month to pack up my life and move to Malawi.

The job description with CCA's partner organization, the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives (MUSCCO), highlighted all my favorite tasks from past work experience:

• financial literacy facilitation

• community outreach

• marketing campaigns

• corporate publications

When I arrived in Malawi at the end of September I hit the ground running. I found myself working closely with another intern doing community outreach with women and youth, under the guidance of the MUSCCO Business Development team. The goal -- to help Malawians access financial services through Savings and Credit Co-operatives (SACCOs).

Less than 20 per cent of the people in Malawi have access to any type of savings or lending products so from a marketing perspective, there is significant room for growth. Some NGOs in Malawi have helped form Group Saving and Loan Associations (GSLAs) which encourage 10-30 people to save what little they can together and take turns making small loans to each other out of their collective savings. The loans are used to buy mosquito nets, livestock, pay school fees and much more.

One of MUSCCO's goals is linking these GSLA's with SACCOs to magnify the impact of these saving and lending efforts. The results lead to income-generating activities, women's support groups, agricultural study circles and a better socio-economic status for SACCO members and their communities.

As a CCA intern I help to offer trainings to increase general financial literacy in the villages. I help promote financial services and I work with the other intern to make sure they are accessible to everyone -- men, women, youth, the rich, the poor, those living with HIV etc.

I spend many days at a time in farming communities, meeting SACCO members and getting their testimonials for marketing and outreach initiatives. I work with SACCO managers and boards to design new demand-driven services and address challenges for growth. My trips to the field are definitely the highlight of my work here.

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Lacey Chyz doing the intern dance.

I'll admit that some days when I'm in the office I feel underutilized. In Canada we work at such a fast pace -- I came from a full time career with lots of publications, events and community partners to manage. But being an intern is an opportunity to gain experience when you're new to a field, and while I have some experience in marketing and communications, things work very differently here, I have a lot to learn, and I am definitely working outside of my comfort zone much of the time. While proving yourself as a young woman in a foreign country can be challenging at times, I am proud when my ideas translate into action plans for small SACCOs.

There is not one single sliver of my soul that would change this opportunity. I left my credit union career with nothing to go back to yet that has opened so many doors for my future. It will be hard to leave Malawi, the warm heart of Africa but I am thankful to CCA for steering my career in the right direction and affirming that what I'm doing with my time and talents really does make a difference

I like the work I am doing here and I like my Malawian colleagues, but I also know that an internship like this should never be a long-term position. In fact, development is one career where the goal is to work yourself out of a job. I know that in the future there won't be a need for volunteer positions like mine because each SACCO and community will be self sustaining thanks to their long term partnerships with CCA.

By Lacey Chyz, CCA marketing intern in Malawi.