So far I have been sharing the fun and adventurous part of the Engineers without Borders (EWB) Fellowship in my written and video blogs. For my final blog post I wanted to focus on the actual work I have been performing in Zambia, since it has taken up 80% of my time here and since I am sure you all would like to know WHAT I actually came over here to do.

The great (and somewhat nerve-wracking) thing about a professional fellowship is that the startup environment of most of EWB’s social enterprises allows for an introduction into fields, projects, software applications, etc. that most of us have never been exposed to before. For example, movement outside of your ‘professional comfort zone.’ One of the long-term fellows (Yue Ma), also working at Rent to Own, and I have come up with the term “Professional Development Bootcamp” to define this process, which should hopefully give you an idea of the level of challenge and growth I was fortunate enough to experience.

Rent to Own is at a pivotal place in terms of its growth. They have been successful in setting up and operating ten offices across Zambia.  They have secured serious investors and established professional relationships with organizations across the globe. They have an attractive model that is nearing the place of scalability and the horizon looks bright.

“75 per cent is much better than zero.”

My role was to work mainly on projects that would serve Rent to Own in obtaining scalability. In just five short months the leadership team trusted me with an array of projects ranging from:

  • Assisting with scaling initiatives;
  • Putting together a governance document for the board of directors;
  • Leading the BCORP certification process;
  • Trying to source an inventory management system;
  • Mapping sales processes;
  • Developing work instructions;
  • Assisting with sales and petty cash reconciliations;
  • Putting together an application for a solar license; and,
  • Organizing a request for quotation for a call centre for the new PAYGO solar business line.

None of these projects were directly related to my role at WSP, in fact I would say 90 per cent of my work in Zambia involved things I had never done before or felt confident doing, which was a very good thing. Although I was anxious in the beginning, I soon realized that even though my projects didn’t lie within my specific skill set, as a high capacity individual with lots of energy and the support of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable team, I could deliver 75-90 per cent functionality. As Rent to Own CEO Jeffrey Schidegger always reminded me, “75 per cent is much better than zero.”

While the majority of the work I did was challenging and rewarding, for me the most exciting project I was able to be a part of was the PAYGO solar business unit.

Kabwe Presenting d.light Solar Home Kit

In 2016 Rent to Own made a decision to partake in the electrification of rural Zambia by developing a new PAYGO business line to distribute solar products. One of the first products they have chosen to distribute under this business line is the Pay-as-You-Go D30 home solar system from d.light. The kit has three home lights, radio, torch (flashlight) as well as the ability to charge small electronics such as cell phones. Clients are able to purchase the system with no commitment fee and make monthly installments towards paying it off in a time period that works best for them; which typically ranging from six to 24 months. In the event that a payment is not made, Rent to Own is able to remotely shut off the system until a payment has been received. In February I was lucky enough to spend a day with our field agents and field officers in Chibombo where they presented the solar kits to a group of farmers attending a CFU Zambia event. This time in the field was the perfect opportunity to put into context the impact of my work at Rent to Own. Sometimes when just sitting in the office working on a document, attending a meeting, or mapping a process, it was easy to lose track of this. Being in the field allowed me to see where my work inserted itself into the PAYGO project, as well as into Rent to Own’s overall ability to positively impact the lives and communities of rural Zambians.

I found the biggest hurdle throughout my fellowship was often myself. My lack of confidence in my ability to be of assistance, my perfectionism, my politeness in being worried about interrupting or annoying team members when I required support, my fear of failure, etc. Once I quieted or shelved these obstacles, I was really able to move my projects along and serve Rent to Own. That being said, I encourage each of you take some time to reflect and make sure you are not standing in your own way. Growth, be it personal or professional, happens outside of your comfort zone and the only one preventing you from stepping out is you. Trust me, once you put a foot on the other side, there will be a crowd of people ready to assist, support and cheer you on in your new endeavor(s).

Reflections before leaving Zambia

As engineers, advisors, technicians and scientists who understand today’s complex and interconnected world, we believe that people and innovative ideas are key to creating lasting positive change. That is why WSP has partnered with Engineers Without Borders Canada to support the following programs: Professional Fellowship, Engineering Change Labs and xChange.

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