Big Men

Big Men Documentary

Photo courtesy of

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Toronto’s hot docs, showcasing some of the latest and greatest in documentary filmmaking.

I saw the premier of Big Men, which tracks several actors through the exploration and exploitation of oil in Ghana. Private US investors, Kosmos Energy, the Ghanaian Government, militant insurgencies in Nigeria, and Exxon Mobil each play a part in the scramble for oil. As you watch the disparate groups clamour to get a piece of the pie, the film continually challenges the audience to think critically about the role of greed within our society.

Following the screening, director Rachel Boynton did some Q&A with the audience. She had lived and breathed Big Men for the past six years. One of her ideas stayed with me long after the session…

The film engages two types of people:
People who are desperate for the things they need (Ghanaian citizens) and
People who are driven by ambition (Western investors)
Although they may act in very different ways, their behavior is driven by a fervent need to be “Big Men,” as in powerful and wealthy individuals.

What I like most about this film is that it does not tell a simple story of good and evil. Rather, it entwines greed, poverty, politics and culture to help us discern the global pattern that we are weaving and inevitably responsible for.

A side note about Resilient Reality blog: The hiatus was due to some East African travels and Vancouver visitations. I’ve now relocated to Toronto but will continue to blog about my experiences in Ethiopia, potentially Tanzania and Kenya, as well as some Toronto tidbits. The frequency of posts will pick up!


Danakil Desert in Pictures

IMG_9210The cruelest place on earth1

Car driving through danakil desert

Camels in Danakil

Danakil depression IMG_9418Danakil Desert Bubble

IMG_9556 IMG_9594

Guards with Guns

Devon in Danakil Desert

Lake in Danakil

Boiling Sulfur Lake

Salt Miners in Danakil DepressionSalt Miner Danakil with CamelDanakil Camels with Salt miners

Danakil white desert salt water field

1 National Geographic

Fighting Fistula

Last month my roommate Katy persuaded me to join her on a visit to the most advanced Fistula Hospital in the world. Before meeting Katy, I had never heard of Fistula. Being well informed about maternal health issues, Katy knew this was an important visit, one that we could not pass up.

First I had to understand what Fistula was. With a little googling, I discovered that 5% of childbirths result in obstructed labour around the globe. Obstructed labour occurs when the baby gets stuck, and can eventually cause Obstetric Fistula: a tear in the mother’s birth passage where urine and/or feces flow uncontrollably. The tragic result is a woman debilitated by her condition, emitting a repugnant odor. She eventually becomes ostracized from her husband, family and community and remains in a state of isolation. Some die.

In many developing nations, pregnant women acquire Obstetric Fistula because of impoverished rural environments and the low status of women. Nine thousand women in Ethiopia develop fistula annually. The statistics are distressing but the reality is that the pioneering Hamlin Fistula Hospital offers hope and renewed futures for affected women. My visit, accompanied by the lovely and knowledgeable Sisay, revealed a calm facility in the heart of cacophonous Addis Ababa. The hospital grounds were decorated with flowers. Patients drifted down forested paths, an aura of tranquility surrounding them. During the tour, I observed the post-op ward, maternity room, craft shop, Oprah Centre, physiology unit, and patient classroom.

Hamlin Fistula Hospital

photo courtesy of Hamlin website

As we wandered the spacious property, Sisay divulged nuggets of information. I learned how dedicated the hospital was to treating patients holistically. Some examples…

–       95% women return to their previous lives after fistula surgery; however, the remaining 5% are persuaded to undergo a second and much more life-altering surgery. The surgery changes them to excrete externally into a bag that they must carry with them at all times. As women cannot return to their villages, the hospital permanently hires them as nurses. I saw at least seven nurses working industriously, their bags discretely hidden beneath their neat red aprons.

–       Surgery and treatment is entirely free for patients. This improves the likelihood of women traveling from extreme rural locations to Addis Ababa

–       Occupational therapy and group discussions are used to lift the stigma and shame women are burdened with prior to surgery. At the craft shop, I purchased several hand woven baskets that pay directly to the patient who made the item

–       A midwifery education program is in its fourth year. The program trains rural midwives who will live in far-reaching communities to permanently strengthen maternal health

–       To symbolize restored dignity, women that have completed recovery are given a new dress and paid transport home

One woman I saw on our walk hobbled past us with an awkward gait, aggressively swinging her left leg forward every second step. Sisay commented that she had been abandoned in a shed for three years before arriving at Hamlin, suffering severe physiological injuries to her legs and feet. She had occupied Hamlin for the past three years and would eventually move on to their long-term rehabilitation centre. Her story is included in the bestseller Half the Sky (Katy highly recommends it!)

Hamlin Fistula Hospital

photo courtesy of Hamlin website

I guess one of the strangest and sobering realizations is the knowledge that if Katy or I ever bear a child and have complications, we will never have to suffer from fistula. Fistula can be prevented. Fistula was eradicated from the United States in 1880. It is a condition from history. If I have an obstructed labour, there will be doctors surrounding me and a c-section performed immediately. Fistula is a reality that I will never know. For this reason and the positively radiant tour of Hamlin, I contributed to their deserving hospital.

You can learn more at their website

Building Resilient Livelihoods

In the rural areas of Amhara, rice farmers live a hand-to-mouth existence. Having enough money to afford inputs for farming, school and household expenditures, particularly before harvest time is a significant challenge. Farmers are often forced to sell rice during harvest season when prices are low, which endangers their livelihood and hinders their income potential. As farmers are without savings habits, any surplus income earned following harvest is squandered at the local Saturday market on drinks. This was the previous experience of thirteen rice farmers who, with the assistance of Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), formed a group known as Addis Alem Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA).

MEDA’s Intervention

Gizaw, Community Facilitator

Gizaw, Community Facilitator

In 2011, Gizaw, a rice farmer, received MEDA’s training on the benefits of saving and how to form a VSLA within his community. The training covered topics on saving, credit, managing risk, and resolving conflict. MEDA also provided Gizaw with the necessary materials to start saving, which included: a savings box with two locks, thirteen passbooks, four plastic plates, and a bookkeeping ledger.

Addis Alem VSLA

Gizaw recognized the vulnerability of his livelihood and the serious lack of saving in his community and as a result, established the Addis Alem VSLA. In Amharic, Addis Alem means “new world,” or “appreciating what new thing you have,” which reflects the farmer’s change in mindset towards saving. Gizaw led the formation of the group and trained the thirteen members on VSLA methodology. The VSLA collectively agreed to each save three birr and one birr weekly for the regular savings and social fund respectively. Regular savings is used towards small loans to members and investment, while the social fund is used for emergency purposes. After one year of weekly saving, Addis Alem accumulated 2000 Birr inregular savings and 547 Birr in the social fund.

Unlocking Entrepreneurship

The group decided to invest 2000 Birr from their accumulated savings into two plots of land. They planted rice and expect the harvest to generate 15,000 Birr in earnings, including next year’s collected savings. Addis Alem plans to store the rice for up to six months and sell the crop when the price of rice is high. Farmers have the confidence to store their rice because the risk is shared between members and the business is an additional stream of income. Previously, members never stored rice because they required cash for monthly expenses. Addis Alem’s investment overcomes the frequent need for cash by using regular group savings to support costs. In addition, members have realized other benefits from group saving including a reduction in community disputes, improvement in social life, and renewed interest in microfinance institutions.

Addis Alem VSLA Group

Addis Alem Village Savings & Loan Group

Members say…

“We care for each other. If a member gives birth or is sick, we will use money from the social fund” – Addisie, VSLA Secretary

Alamrew, VSLA Member

“We benefited remarkably from VSLA. We understand that our livelihood is dependent on agriculture and there are risks associated with nature such as hail and flood. In such cases, we can take out our savings and use it for household consumption. Without VSLA, there would be no way for us to pay for our living expenses” – Alamrew, VSLA Member

Building Resilient Livelihoods

The most enduring impact of Addis Alem is how it has changed members’ perception of saving. Before VSLA, members never saved but now each member understands the importance and necessity of saving. They have experienced how saving positively impacts their farm, family and future. Consequently, the group plans to continue saving and investing in the coming years:

“In the future, we hope to increase our rice production and own milling equipment so that when our children grow up, they will have something to develop our business with. Our children will see how we saved and they will learn from our experiences and be able to expand our business further”

VSLA Group 2

Sustainable and Replicable Impact

Addis Alem demonstrates how Ethiopian farmers can build group trust and combine resources to save and invest productively. Since Addis Alem is self-managed, it will continue to save and invest in the years to come, functioning independent of MEDA. Moreover, MEDA has replicated the VSLA model by forming fifty VSLAs in one year. The rapid establishment of VSLAs can be attributed to MEDA’s simple, non-bureaucratic and low cost approach to forming savings groups. MEDA’s involvement ends after one year, and 98% of VSLAs have agreed to continue saving autonomously, ensuring sustainable impact. Through MEDA’s intervention, VSLAs can form quickly, establish trust, build savings habits, and ultimately strengthen income potential and develop resilient livelihoods.


Memorable Meskel

Meskel celebration priests

Two months too late, here are my brightest memories of Meskel

meskel celebration priests

Meskel is the Orthodox Christian holiday commemorating the finding of the True Cross on September 27th

Man selling meskel crosses

Necklaces bearing the archaic cross are sold by the handful

Meskel Demera Bonfire

The Demera, a towering structure akin to a Christmas tree, is the centerpiece of the plaza

Ethiopian friend and canadian

My Habesha (Ethiopian) friend accompanied me to the ceremony in the city centre’s aptly named Meskel Square. Having a local take you to cultural events is infinitely better. They offer additional information on otherwise enigmatic symbols, and they are essential to helping you leave an arena brimming with thousands of Habesha trying to exit at the same time.

Priests at Meskel

Queen Helena meskel

Perched atop her float, Queen Helena finds the True Cross in the 4th century.

Meskel Candle

The haunting music rises in a steady crescendo, as thousands of people light candles, putting any rock concert filled with lighter-wielding fans to shame

Meskel crowd with candles

Meskel demera bonfire

The climax of the celebration is marked by the burning of the Demera. Smoke blankets the arena and the cloud swings in my direction. The surrounding netela-clad mass shriek in excitement. The smoke favours our section. An unmistakable sign of good fortune. Fireworks crackle two rows in front me. Meskel square is the mother of all fire hazards. But, for at least a moment, I am enchanted. Spellbound, I board Queen Helena’s float to find the True Cross with Ethiopia

The 5 Cs of Credit in Development

Field Staff in the Rice Field

In the field, literally

Working with consultants has its perks. Not only do they offer a fresh analytic perspective, but they also provide advanced industry knowledge. Most recently I was introduced to the “5 Cs of credit approval” applied to rural entrepreneurs in developing Ethiopia. Each “C” is used to assess whether a loan applicant is eligible for credit:


When evaluating an applicant, it’s essential that the individual is trustworthy, honest and reliable. You must determine their willingness to repay and entrepreneurial zeal. The challenge here is to gauge their proclivities through indirect questions:

  • Cross-check references – credit and repayment history (if available), reputation among the community, partners, customers, suppliers, family relations, employees (punctual wage payments)
  • Extract examples of the applicant resolving strenuous circumstances in the past (think job interview)
  • Compare their lifestyle and spending habits to income level
  • Distinguish their degree of openness in answering questions

The majority of owners do not keep a formal record of their financials, forcing the loan officer to depend on the individual’s oral account of the business. To evade false information, verify numbers with competitors and speak with the applicant on multiple separate occasions. If the character is questionable, rejection is the only reasonable decision.


Assess the business’s capacity to repay. Primarily, the cash inflows and outflows are the lifeblood of the company. Without cash or profitable operations, the company will fail to repay. Management, technical and labour capacity also contribute to the health of the business. Examine:

  • Seasonality
  • Income statement – operating profitability
  • Cash flow statement – monthly operational debt service ratio (operating cash / debt payment; 2 and higher indicates a strong candidate)
  • Sensitivity analysis (ie: reduced sales, higher input costs)
  • Other sources of income
Ethiopian Children

Family needs can impact an entrepreneur’s ability to repay

Most if not all small and medium enterprises deal in cash. Credit is seldom used but informal lending is practiced. Typically, cash is the critical factor. Incorporating household expenditures in the income statement is advisable to be conservative. Businesses with less than 6 months experience are unlikely to be approved. In the case of microfinance loans, analyzing the character and capacity to repay is enough.


Less important than Character and Capacity, Capital refers to what is financing the business. Basically, a balance sheet:

  • Assets: cash, accounts receivable, fixed assets
  • Liabilities: debt, accounts payable
  • Equity: Family contribution (equity)
  • Current ratio, liquidity ratio, level of indebtedness

Typically the more equity, the better the indication that the entrepreneur is committed to the success of the business (although my supervisor argues the opposite – anyone know a study on whether equity or debt financing is more correlated to default?). Most applicants lack debt so the balance sheet is simply constructed by plugging for equity.


Assets the applicant is willing to pledge to the borrower in order to secure the loan. Obtain the market, historical, marketability and psychological values of the assets like buildings, land, equipment and vehicles. Certain assets, regardless of their actual worth, can be advantageous to secure because of their perceived psychological value. For example, a processing machine may have a low resale value but in seizing the machine, the processor cannot conduct business thereby motivating them to repay responsibly. Surprisingly, assets tend to appreciate in value because of Ethiopia’s high inflation. A well-used year old machine may be worth more today than at the time of purchase. Collateral can be a make or break factor for banks because collateral ensures the bank will recover the costs of default. Unfortunately, if entrepreneurs lack brick (or other non-mud) buildings, it is very difficult to obtain a loan. To overcome insufficient collateral, banks can partner with a third party through a credit guarantee agreement. MEDA has one such agreement with an Ethiopian bank.

Christian monastery painting

Religion can impact business operations. In Ethiopia, some applicants choose to not work on the (plethora of) religious days. Others, mostly Muslim, do not take loans because of the interest rate.


The external environment impacts the applicant. Market factors, economic indicators, inflationary risk, competition, politics and legislation, and other conditions should be taken into account.

Spices in Bahir Dar Market

Entrepreneurs should have access to markets and current commodity prices

Applying the 5 Cs

I’m working with a bank and two loan applicants and will post about it soon. The descriptions above are brief, and are simply intended to be a starting point and guiding structure to appraising a client.

Business Plans in Bahir Dar

Last week I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to the orderly and refreshing Bahir Dar. The sweet Lake Tana air and busy Bajajs welcomed me on my drive to the Summerland Hotel (which I would warmly recommend – just don’t sleep under the blanket or eat their chicken sandwich)

Lake Tana

Desset restaurant on Lake Tana

Honeymooners come swoon by the lake’s shallow banks, while the city booms with the industrious sounds of construction. Sometimes I have to blink a few times and recite to myself I am in Ethiopia. I am in Ethiopia. And I have to stop from thinking except that this place looks nothing like it! Flowers in a multitude of colours I could not begin to name freckle the city’s wide boardwalks. Bright bertukans (oranges) and mooz (bananas) radiate bountifully from the market stands. Bahir Dar is a breath of sprightly air.

Lake Tana and garden

As I visited Bahir Dar for MEDA purposes, I had the pleasure of meeting the field staff. I also received the pleasure of eating a sheep, which I saw as a lifeless lamb in the office garden at 10, a carcass being skinned and sliced at 10:30, and scrumptious morsels on a bed of injera by 12:30. The concept of eating something so connected to a living thing disturbed me but not enough to deter me from the tender meat. The experience revealed some truth of what we eat when we consume meat. For the staff, the slaughtered lamb was a symbol of celebration in moving to a new office.

Cooked Lamb with Injera

As for my assignment, I can not express through writing how thrilled I was to work on a business plan for Ato (Mr.) Belay, a rice processor. Ato Belay is investing in improved processing equipment, not only to increase his production but also to benefit farmers. My Ethiopian coworker, Alem, and I interviewed Ato Belay to collect his financial data. I was so delighted to put my accounting skills freshly acquired from business school to work that I stayed up all night making elaborate financial statements and projections. Only to discuss the statements the following morning with Alem and have them reasonably simplified. After finalizing the business plan, Ato Belay sent the business plan to the local government office. He hopes to get approved for increased land acquisition in order to support his soon-to-arrive new processing machine. I sincerely hope the proposal is sufficient. Ultimately, Ato Belay will be responsible for creating financial statements, which is why MEDA intends to train rice processors in bookkeeping.

Rural Bahir Dar

Rural Bahir Dar – Village Savings and Loan Association members

Flowers in barbed wire

Flowers growing along the office compound barbed wire. Ethiopia intertwines beauty with brutality.