TransCanada’s 2013 EWB secondees report on their experiences in Africa
It’s only a little more than two months since TransCanada’s 2013 Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) secondees Leanne LeBlanc and Tim Hirtle returned to Canada, but one thing they already miss about Africa is the warmth. While both LeBlanc and Hirtle admit they miss the warm weather they experienced during fall and winter in Africa, it’s the warmth of the people they miss the most.
“I miss the warmth of the people in Ghana.There is a genuine care for your wellbeing there,” LeBlanc says. “Whether it is insisting that they drive you home, stranger or not, because a torrential rain storm is about to start or calling you in Canada to make sure you survived your 36 hour trip back to Canada, Ghanaians care openly and sincerely for others.”
Hirtle adds, “People were ridiculously friendly. Greetings in Zambia start with ‘Hi, how are you?’ and everyone is actually interested in the answer. The people really cherish their family and friends.”
LeBlanc and Hirtle are TransCanada employees who were seconded (or temporarily loaned) to EWB for six months beginning last summer and spent four of those months in Ghana and Zambia, respectively. After finishing their secondments in December, they spent some time travelling in Africa before returning home in January.
TransCanada has a unique five-year partnership with EWB that began in 2011. It includes a financial investment in EWB of $545,000 over five years, in addition to the secondment of 10 employees to EWB projects in order to help tackle the problem of persistent poverty in Africa. With two employees seconded to EWB each year, typically contractors are then hired to fill the roles of the TransCanada employees in the interim.
On the path to lasting change
LeBlanc and Hirtle both agree that the work EWB does in Africa is essential, and that the role the secondees play is meaningful.
“EWB’s strength is people on the ground working in Africa. There are some amazingly dedicated people,” Hirtle says. “Before working for the EWB, I generalized them into hands-on charity work in Africa. After my secondment, I think they are on the right path to making change by influencing the systems that allow poverty.”
“They need us,” says LeBlanc. “For all that EWB has in passion and dedication and knowledge about international development, they are short on some of the professional skills needed to effect lasting, meaningful change. There is a significant role for us to play in helping them achieve their visions for our global future. And it is really special to be a part of it.”
Drawing on professional skill sets
LeBlanc, a communications specialist, was able to put her professional skills to use with the Tamale Metropolitan Assembly, part of the municipal government in Ghana, helping assess solutions to improve communication between the assembly and local residents.
She says, “I completed a needs and feasibility assessment on a communications tool that the Ghanaian government was looking to roll out at the community level.” She also completed a framework for implementing the tool successfully and guided her EWB venture team through a rebranding strategy.
“Currently, it isn’t common practice for the people of Ghana to express their opinions on community needs to their government and have their voices heard,” LeBlanc explains. “My venture is working to build leadership capacity at the municipal government level, enabling officials to be leaders in their communities and to value resident input on their projects. It was all about collaboration and mutual respect and understanding.”
Helping small businesses
Meanwhile, Hirtle worked with Forest Fruits in Zambia to help improve the company’s maintenance and parts inventory and provide coaching. He found the most rewarding part of his role was training the process workers.
“These guys are smart, just not trained. After some coaching, they saw the value in planning and it was rewarding to see them scheduling work at the beginning of every week versus their normal style of dealing only with emergencies,” he says.
Hirtle was a project manager at TransCanada until this month when he and his wife decided to take a break from work to fulfill a lifelong dream to travel the world indefinitely.
His project management experience came in handy for him in Zambia. During his secondment, he also worked with AgBIT, an agribusiness organization that helps small businesses, giving them support to increase their odds of success. Hirtle worked with a small peanut butter and chutney business to help them identify their cashflow and prioritize which areas to focus their growth. He also helped AgBIT establish its business systems and plan for success so that the organization can be self-sufficient, instead of relying solely on donations for funding.
Although they had many successes during their time in Africa, it wasn’t always easy settling into a new country, culture and working environment.
For one thing, LeBlanc and Hirtle both say that they had to learn to accept a slower pace of work – and life – as everything and everyone operates on “Ghana time.”
“Naps in the office and two hour lunches were normal,” LeBlanc explains.
Hirtle says he developed an appreciation for the things people see as basic needs in Canada. In Zambia, he shared a three-bedroom apartment with seven other EWB workers, just like living in a university residence. As Zambia has rolling blackouts and their apartment had water issues, sometimes they would go for days without water.
Hirtle reminisces, “Seven people, one toilet, no water.”
LeBlanc says she also had regular issues with electricity, water and the cellular network not working – sometimes all at the same time. But for her, she also dealt with the issue of trying to gain respect and establish credibility in an environment in which women are not always considered equals.
In addition, she was in a position where she had to refuse special treatment and social status based purely on the colour of her skin.
Despite the difficulties they experienced, LeBlanc and Hirtle stress that they enjoyed the secondment and are grateful that TransCanada and EWB were able to give them the chance to experience a different way of life and use their professional skills in meaningful roles.
Introducing the 2014 secondees
TransCanada recently selected two new candidates, Michael Pohlod and Alexis Halabet, for the 2014 secondment with EWB set to begin this summer.
Pohlod, a risk and regulatory analyst at TransCanada, has a passion for volunteer work and has done personal volunteer work in parts of Central and South America and India in the past. Halabet, an environment advisor at the company, is eager to head into the journey with an open mind and hopes the experience is challenging and humbling.
“I am going to embrace everything,” Halabet says. “I know it is not going to be perfect and I am not expecting it to be perfect.”
For the next secondees about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, LeBlanc and Hirtle have a few words of wisdom to pass along.
LeBlanc says encouragingly, “Be confident. You have a wealth of experience and knowledge to contribute.”
Hirtle says, “Don’t stress over it. People live there, so can you. Learn about the country, its history and geography before you go. It will make for a richer experience.”
As a last reminder, he says, “Don’t spend all your time with expats. The locals are much more fun!”