Accion Ambassadors Blog

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Home Away From Home – It Begins Here!!!

It was 5:30am GMT when I left home for Kotoka International Airport, Ghana, en route to Nigeria to serve as an Accion Ambassador for 3 weeks at Accion Microfinance Bank in Lagos. As it was my first time in Nigeria, I was excited on my assignment as well as my visit. My arrival to Lagos so far in the last few days is what I will call my “home away from home” – because it is. I am thankful to God for a safe trip and also timely departure by the Aero airline. Because I had never been to Nigeria, I had an open mind, and I know it will be an experience I definitely won’t forget anytime soon. You will see why.

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How the Internet saved my Ambassadorship

The hope I had to go to Dar Es Salaam while writing my fist post is now all faded. Long story cut short: I’ll have to wait until next time to visit beautiful Tanzania, as my proud-to-be-Tanzanian friends call it. However, readers, please thank God for the Internet. That amazing invention allows you to be in a place without actually being there. I know this doesn’t make much sense, but  bear with me for a second.

First, let’s talk about the project I was supposed to be working on with my fellow Accion Ambassador Sifael Ndandelathe Smart Campaign Certification project. The scope of this project makes it essential for a person to be on site to be able to assess the compliance of a microfinance institution with the seven client protection principles. Indeed, the chore of the Smart Campaign Project is to really make sure that microfinance institutions keep their clients’ needs at the center of their activities. You are therefore assessing the interactions between one institution and its clients: from the policies that direct that relationship to the practice of it. This calls for an immersion into the relevant environment in order not to miss out on a lot of acting forces.

However, what if you are not able to make it to that relevant environment for some reasons? (In my case the reason is quite simple: being a Senegalese trying to go to Tanzania ABSOLUTELY requires you to have a referred visa which means that your visa application can only be processed in Tanzania and that can take months).  Well, you have your savior THE INTERNET to allow you to do at least some of the job.

  • Skype: As an incomplete substitute to a face to face conversation, you have this amazing software application that, besides hearing a voice, allows you to see the facial expression, hand gestures with which a word was said to give you a fuller understanding of a context.
  •  Viber and whatsapp:  All you need for these is an internet connection and you are free to speak with or text your interlocutor as much as you want.  I believe these are perfect ways to coordinate meetings: they are fast plus they are excellent informers (when your message is received and seen, you know it is received AND it is seen)
  • VoIP phones: These are my favorites so far. While the two above requires both you and your interlocutor to have an internet connection to be able to speak for free, with VoIP phones not only do you speak for free (well you just need to pay your internet bills), but the person you are talking to doesn’t need to have an internet connection. For the conservative ones (like me), VoIP phones are just like normal phones, even better – and I have access to one in the Accion Ghana Hub office!

These three have been my best buddies, allowing me to speak with my project partner as well as the relevant people to assist on the Client Protection Principles self-assessment of one of our partners.  They are not without their challenges (number one being access to good internet connection in the first place) but they do offer a new dimension to international collaborations. Now, human beings, let us further our hologram technologies to be able to teleport ourselves and then we can fully enjoy the benefits of international collaboration without major challenges! (Always wishful thinking!)  Continue reading

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Hannah Fosu’s success in Accra’s Tudu market

For those who were lucky enough to travel on the African continent and experience a real African market, Accra’s Tudu market is no exception to the vibrant environment you are faced being in any one of them. Tudu market is one of the main markets in Accra, offering business activities ranging from clothing to vegetable selling all along a wide and long road, which, now that I am thinking about it, doesn’t seem  wide anymore with its numerous street vendors and car drivers trying to make their ways through.

A view of the busy Tudu Market.

A view of the busy Tudu Market.

In the middle of the smell of fuel and honk noises, voices of merchants trying to attract customers or customers trying to bargain products, is a lovely 3 by 4 meters shop decorated by a colorful mix of different kind of clothing materials, with Hannah Fosu as a proud owner.

Hannah Fosu

Hannah Fosu

Hannah Fosu is one of the 1112 clients of EB-Accion in Tudu Market. She is a joyful woman around her forties, married with a 22, 16 and 9 year-old sons, and she has a twin sister that often comes to help her run her activities (they look exactly alike by the way). When she moved from the central region of Ghana to Accra twenty-five years ago, she used to carry a bin with few pieces of clothing materials on her head along the street of Tudu market to sell them in order to make enough money for herself and sister, “now, look at me, I own this shop and my business is doing good”, she adds with a proud voice.

She has been a client of EB-Accion for four years now and that partnership has helped her in a lot of ways:

  • Upward trend loans: She started with a small loan of 3000 ghc in 2010 and now she is in her 7th six month-loan cycle with a current loan of 35 000 ghc.
  •  Business expansion: “With EB-accion’s loans, I am able to travel to Lagos, Cotonou, Dubai and China to buy more goods for my shop”, she joyfully tells us. She was also recently able to buy a new shop to expand her business. “I am receiving clients from Kumasi, Cape Coast, the Central region so I need a bigger shop”, she says.
  • Children’s education: In addition, she was able to put one of her kids and three of her relatives’ kids to university. “We also own our own house. We started building it 5 years ago and now we are just left with the roof”, she adds.

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Traffic and Microfinance in Lagos, Nigeria

Last Sunday, I set foot for the first time in Lagos, Nigeria, accompanied by my two great supervisors, Francis (from Uganda) and Kwashie (from Ghana ).

What a busy and lively city, was my first reaction after the 45 minute flight from Accra.

We landed to the Lagos’s Murtala Muhammed airport (MMA). MMA is a bit larger than the Accra Kotoka airport, and, according to the federal airports authority of Nigeria (2006), it is the country’s busiest airport with nearly 900,00 passengers traveling through the domestics and international wings in just a three month period. Some construction was taking place to expand the airport when we arrived, mainly to the parking lot. The city of Lagos is among the most populated cities in Africa with a population of approximately 21 million. I was in awe when I realized that the population of Lagos is almost equal to the population of my whole country, Cote d’Ivoire, which has approximately 22 million people. Lagos is made up of a collection of islands connected by bridges. You can see a multitude of transit buses called “danfo” or “molue” (like the troto in Accra) getting people from one end to the other, but also intriguing are the keke napep tricycles on the same straight roads where others wait at bus stops.

One thing that surprised me as soon as I got into the city, was how some churches and mosques are very close to each other, only separated by one street, in some cases. And, I was even more surprised when registering for a mobile sim card, I was asked to specify my religious affiliation.

Generally speaking, the financial service industry in Nigeria is very developed, with many established banks and financial institutions. I was pleased to see how the Nigerian financial institution, United Bank of Africa (UBA), where I interned last year from the Dakar office, is leading the market in Lagos with its many branches throughout the city.

But, more importantly, I was there for the Training Need Assessment (TNA) of staff in the Nigerian microfinance industry, the project that I have been working on from Accra since I arrived. It was here that I would brave the intense traffic of Lagos to conduct the assessment. The TNA consists to gathering information around the training needs of select heads of staff from leading MFIs in Ghana and Nigeria. Then, that information is used to develop new programs, customized mainly for middle management, to address the needs that were identified in the TNA. The goal is to strengthen and develop the skills and capacities of the staff at local MFIs. Better staff lead to better operations, and that is good for the clients.

The methodology for the first part of the project is pretty simple: either send the online survey by email, conduct a phone interview, or, interview the MFI staff in person. It is the latter that brought me to Lagos. As we all  have experienced, face-to-face interaction is the best means of communications. In just five short days, I visited seven different Nigerians MFIs (including Accion partner, Accion Microfinance Bank), and  interviewed staff from all areas of their work: the heads of  the Human Resources department, the Operations department, and the Credit department, and the Branch managers of four institutions. Everyone I met with was very accommodating to the project and provided great input from their personal experiences and job priorities related to their own training needs and those of the MFI in general. At some places, I was faced with additional security measures, because of the latest attack in Abuja. Roads and streets have written names, signs and numbers to ease your driving, although when driving in Lagos traffic, patience is key.

After a very fruitful five days experiencing life, traffic and microfinance in Lagos, I left and headed back to Accra. Now it’s time to get to work on consolidating all of the information I collected … Continue reading

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From bad luck, to a promising experience

After three weeks of numerous emails exchanged, incommensurable support received, hope, frustration, despair and then hope again, I finally made it somewhere to fulfill my responsibilities as an Accion Ambassador. Looking back at the whole situation, I am thankful that I experienced the difficulties I have in obtaining my Tanzanian visa to be able to work in Dar Es Salaam with the Accion partner Akiba Commercial Bank. Indeed, while I am still waiting for my Tanzanian visa to be issued, I am now in beautiful Accra, working with the Accion Capacity Building team on a Training Need Assessment (TNA) project for some of Accion’s MFI partners in Accra and Nigeria with my fellow Accion Ambassador, Marie Florence Koikou. If everything goes on the right track (i.e. my Tanzanian visa is issued and there is still time for me to go to Dar Es Salaam), I will get to visit two countries in one summer, and the more thrilling part is that I will get to work on two exciting projects: the TNA in Ghana and my initial project in Dar Es Salaam, with Sifael Ndandala, another Accion Ambassador, focused on certifying Akiba for the Smart Campaign Certification Program (I will post more information on this on the forthcoming posts).

I already spent one full week in Accra and every day I am feeling more and more in love with the city and its people. It is similar to my hometown of Dakar, but at the same time very different. When being driven from the airport to the Accion Hub Office in North Labone by the very friendly Accion driver, Johnson,  I found myself surprised by the greenness of the city. I also realized the my fellow Senegalese have much to do to make their roads reach the level of development in Accra, especially in terms of infrastructure. According to the World Bank most recent country statistics, Ghana’s GNI per capita surpassed Senegal’s by more than $500, its poverty headcount ratio is at 28.5% compared to that of 46.7% in Senegal, and on top of all this: Accra is becoming the most stable business destination in West Africa. My fellow Senegalese, we have some roads to build.

My feelings were reaffirmed when I went on a road trip last week with Johnson. I was headed to five different microfinance institutions in Accra to kindly ask them to share their valuable inputs about the training needs of their staff (oh yes, no easing task, especially when you are three weeks late). We spent about four hours on the road, driving from one institution to another, and along the road, bought ourselves some sweet oranges from a lovely lady. (It was the best orange I have ever eaten — very nicely peeled and cut in an efficient way that allows you to get all the juice out of it — and I also got the chance to practice the very little Twi I had learned). We took the George Bush Highway (yes, a highway named after U.S. president George Bush) to Adema, where the furthest MFI on our list was located, and then drove back to Tesano for the nearest three, and then through Achimota for the remaining two.  Along the way, Johnson kindly showed me the Flagstaff House with its modern architecture, Accra Mall (one of the most modern malls in West Africa), the biggest Shoprite in Accra, the huge maroon buildings that serve as dorms for the University of Ghana, the well-designed Ghana Telecom Institute, the busy Osu market place, and to nicely close the list, the Kwame Kuruma Museum. Also, moving from one institution to another gave me a sense of the development of the microfinance industry in Accra with its numerous institutions and number of clients enrolled. I am keen to find out more about the sector as I keep working on the TNA project.

It was a lucky day for me as I got to combine work and limited tourism. Only one sentence to conclude this post: Not getting that Tanzanian visa four weeks ago was not that bad of a situation after all. Continue reading

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Meet Esther from Agbogbloshie

Located in Agbogbloshie suburb of Accra, the Agbogbloshie market is as lively and busy a market as the ones that I am most familiar with, like that of Adjame in Abidjan or the HLM in Dakar. The vendors are calling you from everywhere to come see their products. There, you can find everything from sanitary products to fruits and vegetables, and from textiles to electronic gadgets. Even though the same market suffered a fire last year, vendors still manage to run their businesses successfully.

Meet Esther Ansah, a friendly, courageous and determined woman who sells cosmetic at the Agbogbloshie market. Esther works alone in her small (2 meters square) stall that she rents for around 170 Ghana Cedis (GHC) per the year. Even though she has been in business for 20 years, she only recently started working with Accion partner EB-Accion to get a loan. She told me that four years ago, “my business had exponentially grown. Before, I only had few products to sell, but now, with EB-Accion loans, I am able to diversify the products I am selling and earn a big profit.” The excellent relationship and the great benefit she earns from working with EB-Accion has led her to her third loan of about 5000 GHC (around $1600).

Esther Ansah in her stall.

Esther Ansah in her stall.

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Back to the land of the ancestors: My first impressions of Accra

Akwaaba – Welcome to Ghana Gateway of Africa” was written right at the arrival board in Kotoka airport in Accra. I am from the Akan tribe of Ghana and from the history, many years ago a part of the tribe migrate to Cote d’Ivoire, my country. It’s probably the reason why three Ghanaians told me in the same day that I very looked like a Ghanaian when I clarify to them my nationality. The first time I went to visit Accra was in 2007 in a one week summer camp. From what I heard people said, and by being one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, I prepared myself to see some changes from my last visit. Moreover, studying in the US , it’s actually my first time going to work in an English speaking African country being myself from a french speaking country.  Therefore, it is a great excitement and emotion I had to come back to the land of my ancestors and to experience the impact of micro-finance in this country.

I began my 6-weeks as an Accion Ambassador in the lively capital city of Ghana at Accion’s Africa hub office and training center. Indeed, after I landed to Accra airport, I immediately noticed all the billboards of the big banks (GT bank, ECOBANK, UBA) and mobile phone companies (AIRTEL, TIGO, MTN) in the arrival hall of the airport. After some fingerprint scans and inspection of my travel documents, I was done with the immigration process and directly exit to a full parking lot. However, if you ever need a new SIM card, a friendly vendor who deals with SIM cards is sitting right in front of the bureau of exchange next to the baggage claim inside the airport. Continue reading