TransCanada’s EWB secondees embrace their new roles and soak up experiences in Africa
It’s not every day that your employer serves you fried caterpillars with lunch.
But it’s what TransCanada employee Tim Hirtle recently ate while working with Forest Fruits Ltd., a company that produces Zambezi Gold organic honey and provides a sustainable income to more than 6,000 beekeepers in rural Zambia.
“They make lunch every day for all the workers. The owner’s wife is a nurse, so she makes sure to balance the nutritional content of the lunches throughout the week,” says Tim. “I totally just ate fried caterpillar with lunch today.”
Not surprisingly, he’s also eaten a lot of honey since he started working with the company.
Tim is one of two TransCanada employees, along with Leanne LeBlanc, seconded to Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) until December, with postings in Lusaka, Zambia, Tamale and Ghana, respectively.
TransCanada recently renewed its partnership with EWB to bring the partnership to a five-year, $545,000 total. The unique partnership includes the secondment of 10 employees to EWB projects for six months each in order to help tackle the problem of persistent poverty in Africa.
As this year’s secondees, Tim and Leanne wasted no time in tackling the challenges of their new roles while they soaked up the sights and culture of Africa.
Forest Fruits — combining social responsibility with business
Arriving in Zambia “seriously messed up with jet lag”, Tim checked into a hostel for some much-needed sleep before exploring Zambia’s capital city Lusaka, a major urban centre for commerce and government with a population of about 1.7 million.
He is now settled along with other volunteers in a three-bedroom condo, with the chance to meet lots of locals during his transit to work in crowded public vans.
“It’s good knowing that I’m helping a company that supports others,” says Tim. “Forests Fruits combines social responsibility with business, which is why Engineers Without Borders is helping them meet the future goal of buying from 10,000 beekeepers.”
Currently, Tim, who is a project manager at TransCanada, is helping improve the company’s parts inventory and will also provide coaching. He is creating a hands-on training program to help employees differentiate the various oils, lubricants and fluids used at the processing plant.
In the coming months Tim will travel to Mwinilunga, near the Zambian border with Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Forest Fruits purchases Zambezi Gold honey from rural beekeepers.
“In Mwinilunga, honey has been harvested using traditional tree-hung bark hives for hundreds of years. The remoteness of the area ensures the honey collected is organic and means beekeeping is the only significant source of income,” he explains.
Off to a comfortable start
Meanwhile, Leanne’s transition to Africa was impressively smooth.
After the long transcontinental flight, Leanne arrived in the teaming city of Accra, greeted by the in-country HR manager for EWB who was “all smiles and open arms.”
“She introduced us to the currency and taxi system, set up our mobile accounts, delivered us without getting lost to our guest house and took us out to a trustworthy restaurant where we could enjoy a first, fear-free taste of Ghanaian cuisine.”
From Accra, Leanne headed to the city of Tamale, a central hub of Ghana’s northern region with a population about 530,000.
“There are a lot of amenities, but it is much smaller and less intimidating than Accra,” she reports. She is living in small compound in a good neighbourhood where she rents a two-bedroom unit with one of her teammates. It may not have hot water or television, but it does have a fridge and friendly neighbours, which are two big wins for Leanne.
“There is a Ghanaian family of four also living in the compound, so even though we have our own space, there are always locals around to keep an eye on us and make us feel at home. It is the best of both worlds and a comfortable scenario for me as a working professional.”
Hitting the ground running
It didn’t take long for Leanne, a communications specialist, to immerse herself in her work with EWB’s Governance and Rural Infrastructure (G&RI) team. Within the first few weeks in her new role, she was on a local Tamale radio program discussing the EWB mission in Ghana with residents of Tamale.
“The venture leader for G&RI is a big part of why I’m so happy with this placement. He is a strong leader and has a vision for his team and a strategy on how to achieve it. They are definitely a high-performing group and one that I’m excited to be a part of,” she reports.
Leanne is working with the Tamale Metropolitan Assembly, part of the municipal government structure in Ghana, helping assess solutions to improve communication between the assembly and local residents.
“My job is to complete an analysis of the current environment and make a recommendation on the best ways to create open dialogue between the two groups,” she says.
“Entering into a job that is aligned with my skill set has made for a smooth transition into work in Africa. A lot is new and challenging but the concepts are familiar and that sets me up to feel confident in what I’m doing, which for me is critical.”
A little less familiar has been the commute to work. Leanne has traded Calgary’s MacLeod Trail traffic for herds of wandering goats and guinea fowl, mango trees and a short ride in one of the many ‘shared’ taxis that travel the major roadways in Tamale.
“It’s exactly as it sounds — you share the taxi with whoever is going the same way you are. My ride to work is about five minutes and costs me 70 pesewas . . . or 35 cents. It is amazingly convenient and inexpensive.”
Testing out the local cuisine
While it might not be quite at the same level as Tim’s fried caterpillars, Leanne has also been trying the local fare with delicious results.
“My first meal in Ghana was ‘Red Red’ — white beans in a spicy tomato sauce with a side of fried plantains that comes with either fish or chicken. It is delicious! I have also tried Banku, a doughy ball of fermented ground maize, which you pull chunks from and soak in a stew. It’s a bit messy but luckily, it’s considered appropriate to lick your fingers between each bite.”
“What I have enjoyed most so far are the roadside fruit merchants who will happily carve you a fresh pineapple or mango and ask you about your day. Eating fruit at home isn’t going to be the same after this.”
Connecting back to Canada
Stay tuned to our blog over the next few months for more updates about Tim and Leanne’s adventures in Africa.
Read our previous post about Tim and Leanne’s preparations to head to Africa.