My name is Blake Reynolds, and for the next few weeks I will be travelling to Malawi as part of the Canadian Co-operative Association's Management Coaching Program!

Thanks for stopping by as I prepare for, travel to, experience and finally bid farewell to the 'Warm Heart of Africa'!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Malawi Memories

It was a looong day Friday, flying from Malawi to South Africa to London early Saturday morning.  We rested a bit, and set out on Saturday to enjoy a walk around a bit of London on what was for some of us our only “free day” before our Sunday debrief and our flight home Monday.

Though we were all beginning to set shift our thoughts towards heading home, it was a great experience to sit with the groups from Ghana and Uganda as well as we six from Malawi and hear a bit about their own experiences in comparison to our own.  The funny thing is it may have been an opportunity to help in some way in Africa that intrigued me, but I feel I have a much better understanding…and appreciation…of the vital role that Credit Unions/SACCOs play in the economic development of developing nations, and the importance of the CCA’s role in that development.  Without SACCOs, the majority of the population in these areas do not have the means to save their money or get access to loans.  SACCOs provide a way for the people of a community or workplace to truly look beyond today and own their own future.  It feels good looking back and knowing I helped contribute to that.
The process of collecting my thoughts, and moulding my pictures and experiences into meaningful stories can be a challenge, but is one I accept wholeheartedly. Life goes on both here and there, and part of me is as glad to get back to my role as Husband and Dad as much as part of me keeps thinking back to what I have just taken part in.
I’ll be updating my blog as I share my experiences throughout the year, and as I prepare for the return trip this time in 2012.  I really appreciate you following along and allowing me to share my journey with all of you.  Please be sure to check out some of the other great blogs by some of the other coaches as well!
As I get back to work here at OMISTA Credit Union, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited the warm heart of Africa, to have experienced some the wonderful sights and sounds of Malawi, and to have met some many wonderful, inspirational people that I will always remember in the Warm Heart of Africa!
Until next time,

Thursday, February 3, 2011

ZICOMO Malawi!

This afternoon our three Malawi groups convened at MUSCCO for some recollection and discussion.  It is interesting to hear the similarities and differences in regards to not just the SACCOs, but also the members in the North, South and Central regions of Malawi.  At the MUSCCO offices we met with the wonderful staff there one last time.  We were treated out to a farewell supper at a nice restaurant and were thanked for our contributions to MUSCCO and the SACCO movement.  It feels like we really made a difference, and I believe we may have done just that.  There were lots of cameras around as everyone tried to capture this final evening as our "rookie" Malawi Group.
It’s funny how certain experiences can form such a bond between people.  We are only a group of six in Malawi and I am proud to have been selected to for the program.  I have made so many new friends I can hardly keep track, but that does not mean I will forget a thing,  I will truly miss the wonderful MUSCCO staff here and will certainly keep in touch.

Swanzie & Laurie

Scott, Swanzie, Me & Lillian


Karen, Yasmine & Larry
Tomorrow we will get on a plane for a short ride to Johannesburg, and then what I am anticipating will be a gruelling 12 hour flight to London.  There we will join the Ghana and Uganda teams for a bit of a debrief.  I am looking forward to seeing those friends again and hearing all of their exciting stories.    I am sure their journey has changed them as much as it has me.  I can honestly say there are some things I will not see the same way again.  Our three groups have participated in something that not everyone can say they have done, but more Credit Union professionals should really consider being a part of.
As we prepare to travel to the airport, more than ever I miss my wife and three awesome boys.  In the past month the Moncton area has received over 150 cm of snow, and even though it may be a stark contrast to the "+30 at pool side" here I don’t think I have ever had this much anticipation about coming home.  Now that I am on my way, Monday can’t come soon enough!
See you in London.
Zicomo Malawi,
for all the wonderful memories!

Two Amazing Weeks!

Thank You...and you...and you...and YOU!
First off, thank you to Paul, Tammy, Nathalie, Stephanie, Trisha, Allison, Christine, Barb, Corey and Lisa.  Your kind notes have been a real blessing and have made me feel pretty good knowing that people at home are thinking about me.  These days it takes a bit more effort to actually sit down write a letter to someone and it has been so very much appreciated over the last couple weeks.  Without the support of all my awesome fellow employees and the leadership at OMISTA Credit Union, I certainly wouldn't be here in the first place!
It was an interesting day yesterday, as my comfort levels were certainly pushed at the city market.  I don’t have that “bartering skill” that many seem to have, and even in my home town I hate shopping…so needless to say I did my best, almost certainly over paid for what I got, and probably felt some disappointment over my cowardice and lack of useful trading skills.  One thing I did learn for next time is to bring lots of ball caps, as Erin was able to trade hers for something the vendor wanted me to pay 1,500 kwacha for!
Back the hotel we managed to meet up with Laurie and after waiting out a brief but powerful downpour we decided to walk down to what has become our favourite eating establishment: Don Brioni’s.  It was an interesting walk, as the sloped dirt side streets serve as the perfect conduit for some interesting rivers (like real rivers) pouring down into the drainage systems along the main road.  We asked one local man  how we should cross and he replied “It’s no problem, just walk across”…which he proceeded to do just that..with water up over his ankles.  When I noticed him on the other side pouring water out of his boot, I decided to talk a more circuitous but dryer route.
As it was our fourth visit, we were welcomed by name and told about some fantastic new appetizers he had concocted...delicious!  We bid farewell to Don and his wife’s fine establishment and made our way back to the hotel.  It was a weird feeling as I started to pack a few things and realised I would soon be leaving this beautiful country with so many more things I wanted to experience.  That of course, is balanced by my anticipation of seeing my awesome family after what has surely been a rough 3 weeks.  Without their support and the support of my friends and other family at home, I truly could not have done this.
We made our presentation to the Auction Holding Employees SACCO this morning.  They are a pretty healthy SACCO with good leadership at both the board and management levels so it’s difficult in some ways to make many suggestions.  But that being said, our observations and suggestions were very well accepted, and it was sad to say good bye to these wonderful people.
Erin & Grace
Grace gave us a beautiful memento of Africa which I will always cherish, and then it was time to go.  I can’t wait to see the future updates on how this SACCO has progressed.  After Auction Holdings, we managed to steal a couple minutes to visit Fodya one last time and wished Rita and Brian the best for themselves, their families and their SACCO.
This afternoon we will re-joined with our other Malawi teammates at MUSCCO.  As we were already in Lilongwe, we were able to have an extra day with our SACCO which was very nice.   I’m really looking forward to hearing about their own adventures and stories, and perhaps sharing a few of my own.
Wow, what a couple weeks!
Are we leaving already?  What an amazing two weeks!  When you arrive in Malawi, it’s laid back vibe makes you feel like you have all the time in the world.  “Malawi Time” really does sneak up on you.  Unfortunately this second week, the realisation dawns on you that there are things left to be done, places left to be seen, adventures yet to be had and stories yet to discovered…and time suddenly is not on your side.
I will probably get one more post in before we begin our journey to London and leave this beautiful country.  12-hour flights are not exactly “blogger friendly”, but will no doubt give me lots to write about!

Until next time,


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Auction Holdings Ltd. Employees SACCO

We started our day at Auction Holdings Employees SACCO.  They are a “common-bond” SACCO, which means that they serve employees of Auction Holdings Limited, but also employees several tobacco processing plants.  “Common-bond” is a safe way for a closed bond SACCO or Credit Union to begin expanding its membership base, without being completely open-bond.
Auction Holdings is in the process of moving to a computerized banking system, which is being implemented there and at 5 other SACCOs in the country.  It’s a very exciting time as currently most SACCOs are completely paper-based which can be very time consuming to many different employees from tellers right up to managers.  We started the day with Patrick who is the SACCO accountant.  In addition to managing the current paper-based accounting, he also supervises the two tellers.  Like the employees of Fodya SACCO, much of Patrick’s day is spent reconciling entries and struggling to keep up with increased workload Auction Holding’s increase in membership has brought. 
We were able to speak with the SACCO Manager, Grace, who had actually visited my part of Canada through the CCA Women’s Mentorship Program!  Grace was able to spend time with the fine folks at Valley Credit Union in Nova Scotia and I think they would be proud of the influence they have had on Grace’s management.  Grace recognizes the need for increased marketing and the importance of a concise strategic plan.  It was easy to tell that the SACCO board has tremendous faith in Grace as a manager and I only hope that we have such a positive influence on their SACCO.
I was also fortunate to speak with Auction Holdings SACCO’s newest employee, their IT person Macdonald.  Macdonald is tasked with guiding Auction Holdings Employees SACCO through the transition from paper-based to a computerized banking system.  The amount of preparation and enhancements to the SACCO’s infrastructure is more than significant but Macdonald seems willing and able to take on these challenges.  It was also nice to just talk with another IT geek, though I think Erin was getting a little bored!
My favourite part of our SACCO visits has been speaking with the members.  It is such a rewarding experience to hear their stories of how the SACCO has impacted them and hear them speak about their thoughts regarding what the SACCO is doing great and what they might change if they could.  I believe the true measure of how a SACCO or Credit Union is doing is not just assets or profit, but also the opinion of the members who use its services.  In all these cases Auction Holdings seem to be doing very well.
We wrapped up the day with Mike and David from the board taking Erin and I as well as the staff out to an “asian fusion” (Erin’s term, not mine) restaurant called “Blue Ginger”.  It was a great evening and it was a lot of fun to talk about Canadian weather and culture from their perspective.  From explaining how we move around in -30 Celsius temperatures to whether Canadians are “all from the same tribe” to “Why we day ‘Hi’ to everyone”, it was a lot of fun to share a bit more of Canada with our wonderful hosts.
As we were leaving, it struck me that I am really starting to appreciate the people of Malawi.  There is a true sense of pride they have in being, and remaining a peaceful country.  As Canadians, we feel overall that we are a friendly nation, but I think we pale in comparison to the openness and kindness in the face of adversity that so many Malawians display. 
It’s not hard to see why Malawi truly is “The Warm Heart of Africa”!
Until next time,

Monday, January 31, 2011

Relaxing, Running and Reggae

Sunday was actually was a pretty early morning as we wanted to catch Laurie and share some breakfast before she and Dickson from MUSCCO headed south to Blantyre.
Afterwards I grabbed a rare nap and spent some time catching up on my blog.  I took a quick dip in the pool and got ready for the rest of the day. 
After a late lunch we decided to walk to find a local private school where a friend of mine who has been here previously said there was some Ultimate Frisbee going on.  It was a long walk (when you are not sure where you are going) but we managed to get there eventually.  The challenge is that on a map all the streets are named but in real life most of them are not as people don’t refer to them anyway.  The residences in the area had high fences and guard dogs etc. but that afternoon it was pretty quiet.  About 100 metres from the site someone stopped and offered me us a ride, but since I didn’t know where on the campus I was going it was a good idea regardless.
Once we got there, I threw on my shoes and jumped on the field.  It was +30 and VERY muggy but it was cool to play with some locals and ex-pats from 8 or 9 different countries.  Once the games came to a wind-sucking and sweaty end, we took a tour of the school.  It was a slightly informal tour as the gate we came in was locked so we wondered around looking for an exit.
We were already near the golf course, so we made are way down to the “Black Missionaries”, a Malawian Reggae band who was playing on the concert grounds there.  The music was great and fortunately with Reggae it really doesn’t matter if some songs are in Chechewa as it’s the melody that takes you away.  There might have been a couple thousand people there but I am pretty sure we were the only two ‘mazungos’. 
We enjoyed the music for a bit and were asked to join in some dancing by a mellow Rastafarian guy and a few kids.  The 3 kids turned to about 13 and it was so much fun!  We gave them some Canada pins and took their pictures which they could not get enough of, but I think some of the crowd was busy taking pictures of Erin and I and all the kids dancing!   It was a really good time that I won't soon forget. 
We should all at least once in our lives know what it’s like to be the minority, and hopefully realise that like through the eyes of children, it really doesn’t matter much at all...and it’s always fun to dance!
Until next time,

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Our trip to Lake Malawi

Eye Openers
On Saturday, Erin and I decided to travel east to Lake Malawi, just outside of the town of Salima.  It was an interesting start as the driver picked up his friend to come along with us, but we’ve learned to ‘go with the flow’ and it was nice to have another person sitting in the back of the car who could point out little points of interest.
I have to say the drive was a real eye-opener.  As 85% of the population live in rural areas, it was very humbling to see the dichotomy between rural and urban living, especially after spending the first week in the centre of Lilongwe.  Cows, goats and chickens are common either at markets or crossing the street, and there was no shortage of tomatoes and maize (corn).

One thing that I found very interesting is the use of bicycles.  Not as personal transportation but as a business venture.  Our driver Daniel pointed out that many town residents will buy a bike, place what looks like a reinforced bike rack on the back, add some padding and ‘presto!’ bike-taxi.  We even saw one passenger on the back calmly reading his paper while the driver peddled away!  It was an hour-and-a-half drive, but it was really worth it.

Lake Malawi
When we asked to be taken to Lake Malawi, we really didn’t know beyond that we'd see "the lake".  We were actually taken to a Sunbird resort, and since we were staying at a Sunbird hotel in Lilongwe were given full access to the grounds.
The beach was very nice.  It's so big in fact, that from the shore it’s difficult to tell that the body of water in front of you is actually a lake.  Even along the beach it was common see fishermen with their dug-out canoes fishing Chombo.  One fisherman brought is catch right up the beach and into the hotel kitchen....fresh.
The one downside is the water itself.  Even though we saw Americans and locals splashing in the waves, Erin and I were good little Canadians and stayed on the beach as we were told not to go swimming in the lake by our doctors.  It was relaxing nonetheless and I was a bit tired as we headed back into town.
Now, all week I have seen large catches of chombo tied too, and hanging off the wipers of mini-buses, so I wasn’t completely surprised when our driver and his friend began tying the fish they had bought to the mirrors of their little Toyota!  I guess it beat bringing them IN the car…

Wrapping up the evening with MUSCCO
We finished off the evening catching up with Laurie, who had spent the first week in Uganda and will be spending the upcoming week in city southern of Blantyre.  We went out for dinner with Sylvester and Dickson from MUSCCO.  It was an informal dinner and it was very easy to chat with the two of them, and was great to listen to their stories and insight into Malawi.  Those two men are so important to the SACCO movement and because of that the economic recovery of the country.  With the government having limited resources to aid its citizens, SACCOs and co-operatives allow Malawians to begin taking control of their savings and own their own future.
Dickson, Laurie, Erin and Sylvester
 Until Next Time,


Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wrapping Up at Fodya SACCO

Our first 'Report Presentation"
We finished our last day at Fodya SACCO.  We were met by a smiling Oscar, as well three of the other four board members: Gilder, Wilson and Frederick.  One of the toughest part of presenting is when you are not sure what exactly sure what your audiences expectations are.  However once we got started things rolled along smoothly.  We gave our praise for a job well done to date, and gave our observations and experiences pertaining to several areas such as Security, Membership, Lending and Technology.  Fodya is a fairly young and fairly small SACCO, but they have a lot of good ideas, complimented by a strong board and wonderful employees.  Sometimes as a small SACCO or Credit Union with big ideas, the most important thing is to map out where you want to go, but then also assess what the steps are along the way as sometimes the ultimate destination can seem a frustratingly long ways off.
We were able to get a preview of the interim software that the Alliance One IT guy (who is also a loyal member) created for Brian and Rita and I have to say I was impressed!  I really feel it will help free up the time they need to get out and promote their SACCO, as both have great ideas to increase their membership. 
We presented Oscar, the board president with our CCA certificate of participation, and I gave him a copy of OMISTA Credit Union’s Annual Report as well as a ball cap.  I think he was happier with the cap as he didn’t even take it off for the pictures!
Erin & I with the Fodya Board of Directors
(left to right) Wilson, Gilder, Oscar and Frederick

Fodya director and E.Eng

We were bought lunch at the manager’s cafeteria and I have to say the food was pretty decent.  We asked Frederick what should someone new to Malawi do experience some local culture, as we have been in town all week and would like to see a bit more of this beautiful country.  He was very excited to point out a few points of interest which I hope we will get over the next week.  We are hoping to visit Lake Malawi this weekend, and catch a popular Malawi band called “The Black Missionaries” who perform reggae in both English and local Chichewa!
As it is the off-season, we were able to tour a part of the huge tobacco refinery with Frederick, who is an Electrical Engineer there.  He told me he got his degree at a technology college here in Malawi, and that he is very proud to be an important part of his company’s plant.  He said he was even more proud to be on the board of Fodya as he feels he is able to really help its members save money and build a financial future because otherwise they would not be able to.
Good Bye to Fodya!  We'll miss you!
Brian and Erin inside Fodya SACCO
We walked back to the branch and said our good byes to Rita and Brian.  Brian coyly explained that he was not there yesterday because his wife gave birth to their second son!  He proudly showed off pictures of his wife and sons, Wisdom and Wonderful, and it made more a bit more sad to leave all the people at this wonderful SACCO.  We are planning to stop by briefly next Thursday so we can present the hard copy of the report as well as a flash drive of the electronic report, some sample policies and some pictures of our Fodya adventures.

We ended our work day back at the MUSCCO offices chatting with Swanzie about youth programs.  They have a clean slate, but are hoping to explore youth savings clubs (very successful in Ghana), as well as potential financial literacy programs for schools and leadership camps to help educate young people about co-operatives and SACCOs.  There are many different programs across the country, so my goal is to put these people if possible in touch with Swanzie or at least point her in the right direction.  It’s neat to see how the “co-operative and credit union movement” can so easily and effectively cross borders!
Until Next Time,