Project OPTIMA has been setup by Challenges Worldwide volunteers working with Rainland Timber in Kitwe, Zambia.
OPTIMA stands for Organic Propagation Through Independent Micro-franchise Agents; we want to help our fuel efficient, clean cooking stoves organically propagate throughout Zambia by utilising a micro-franchising business model.
Deforestation is a critical issue in Zambia. Our solution, known as Project OPTIMA, has the potential to let Zambians overcome this environmental disaster and the first step to success is your help. What is project OPTIMA? Organic Propagation Through Independent Micro-Franchise Agents. In the developing world, micro-franchising business models have seen significant success. They empower the grassroots level of society to take ownership of providing commonly used goods to consumers everyday. We developed the idea of using this model from existing cases in Zambia, such as MTN and Airtel network providers, who have seen success selling mobile phone credit from the urban jungles to the deep rural bush. Even the government owned corporate giant ZESCO use a micro-franchise business model in Zambia.
Our aim is to select agents such as women’s groups to sell the stoves and wood fuel to their local community. For the pilot scheme we will create a micro-franchisee package for each agent, which will include:
“So what exactly will you be doing in Africa and what precisely does a team leader do?” These are questions that I have been asked many times before, during and after my placement. It’s also a question that I asked myself a lot before I boarded my flight to Lusaka, Zambia to be a team leader with Challenges Worldwide.
I knew I wanted to volunteer abroad whilst building leadership skills that would be useful to my learning and development as a consultant. After some intensive googling I came across Challenges Worldwide and thought it was a perfect match. Challenges Worldwide is a pioneering social enterprise that offers volunteers the opportunity to work with small to medium sized enterprises on 12 weeks placements. It was everything I was looking for in a volunteer placement; building upon my consultancy experience to lead a team to deliver sustainable changes. As I excitedly submitted my application little did I know the adventure I had just signed up to?
Being a team leader is both incredibly challenging and rewarding. One of the main challenges I faced was adapting my management and training style to the different personalities, experiences and cultures. This was especially true for delivering the weekly Chartered Management Institute (CMI) learning sessions. These sessions were an excellent opportunity for volunteers and team leaders to be trained to an internationally recognised standard on core consultancy skills. However, as a facilitator it was often challenging to cover the basic business fundamentals whilst keeping those with business experience still engaged. I learned to link the theory and tools with how I have used these in my job as a consultant. I also ensured that CMI classes were interactive through group discussions, activities and exercises that combined useful practical learning with vocational training
As much as we had many challenges, we also had many successes. One of my proudest moments was watching the Mid Programme Review (MPR) presentations. At the MPR presentations the teams present on their work to date in their enterprises, including their challenges, successes and findings. To add to the pressure they were presenting to a panel of industry experts including the Department for International Development (DFID) who would ask questions and provide feedback. As much has the team had prepared and practiced in advance everyone was nervous as presenting to a room of 50 isn’t an easy job, especially to a panel of experts! However there was no need for all the nerves as it was an excellent day and as a team leader it was an amazing opportunity to reflect on the progress and growth of the volunteers. To see how much they had learned and achieved over such a small period of time was incredibly rewarding.
Through my experience as a team leader I have enhanced and developed many skills that are hugely transferable to my job as a management consultant. Prior to this placement I would have called myself a good manager, but not a leader. However, the role as a team leader is essentially a free, intensive, three month leadership training course. It has taught me so much about leadership and the importance of developing and inspiring.
This experience has also being incredibly rewarding from a cross cultural experience. By living in a host family and having a Zambian counterpart it was an amazing opportunity to be fully immersed in the local cultural and ways of life. This has helped teach me the importance of cross cultural differences and truly highlighted the needs to be adaptable, flexible and understanding. Yes, every country has different cultural norms and approaches which can be daunting as well as frustrating – but these differences should be embraced and celebrated. This is an incredibly important skill in today’s interconnected global world.
I equally learned the importance of admitting when you don’t know the answer. As a team leader you generally do get bombarded with questions from bus routes, exchange rates, supply chain theory to even the chances of rain today (and I am most definitely not a weather woman!). To be a good team leader you don’t need to know everything – realistically we are still volunteers and we are learning as we go the same as the team. If you don’t know the answer – that is fine – you just need to work through the problems logically and ask for help when you need it. In a group of 42 there are always going to be other people that can help and support you and that you can learn from.
I still can’t quite believe that my three month placement is over. It has been one of the most challenging, frustrating, enlightening and rewarding things I have ever done. When I applied I thought it would be a great opportunity to gain real life leadership experience and enhance my CV whilst experiencing a different culture. Little did I realise how much I would truly learn and that it would spark new career interests. I plan to continue within consultancy, with much more of a focus on training and learning and development. In working with Challenges Worldwide, I’ve learned that leading and managing volunteers is hard work, but rewarding. I would recommend this programme to anyone wanting to explore their leadership potential while discovering the beauty and diversity of Africa.
Why did you choose to apply to Challenges Worldwide for your Saltire placement? What was it about ICS and Challenges which appealed to you?
I was looking to gain business skills in a challenging environment, away from the standard office type job. I was looking for something more adventurous, where my actions may have a greater impact than in a standard internship.
When you applied, what did you hope to gain from a Challenges Worldwide placement?
I was looking to gain early stage business experience in growing an SME. I wanted to gain exposure into how to build business plans, keep accounts, market and sell a product/service at grassroots level.
I was seeking to be in an environment that fostered an entrepreneurial spirit working and living with individuals of different cultural backgrounds but with a shared interest for sustainable development of social enterprises.
How did you find the pre-departure process, eg fundraising, training, preparations, and the support you received from Challenges and ICS throughout the pre-departure stage?
The pre-departure process was fairly straight forward. Challenges were helpful with vaccinations and there was plenty of support for the fundraising aspects. There was definetly a strong community with the UK mentors before we departed, this started with the two day briefing with CWW in Edinburgh and continued through groups in social media.
Can you summarise your placement and how you found living and working in another country and culture? What business did you work in, what was the host experience like, how did you find working with a national counterpart, and what did you learn from these aspects of the programme?
My placement was with Green Heat Ltd (www.greenheatinternational.com) who are biofuel specialists implementing onsite solutions to convert human and agricultural waste into sustainable sources of energy. I acted as a business and engineering consultant, exploring enterprise avenues in developing biogas and briquette production.
Working and living in a foreign non-western culture was extremely exciting. I was motivated throughout the entirety of my programme, largely due to my personnel interest in the companies work and the openness of the company directors Gabriel Okello and Vianney Tumwesige.
Working with a national counterpart had it’s pros and cons. It was a great opportunity to be immersed into their a local community but there were differences in work ethic and academic backgrounds. These difficulties were mostly overcome after the first two weeks by dividing tasks up and setting realistic targets. We went on to become a successful little unit.
What was your highlight of your placement?
1) Researching an alternative agro-waste kilning technique and developing a business proposal that would be pitched to the carbon Bureau of Uganda for a carbon trading scheme involving 8 of the largest flower farms in and around Kampala.
2) Visiting the final school a government funded initiative with Green Heat to install 10 fixed dome biogas latrine digesters. Please see the Seed Development Award video below:
What was your biggest challenge during your placement? How did you overcome this and what did you learn from this?
My biggest challenge at the early stages of the placement was ensuring a consistent communication link between myself, my counterpart Rachael and the company directors. I could see from other members on the programme they were completing excellent business/marketing/sales plans but were struggling with their host company to get the key messages across and implement such plans.
I dealt with any potential communication gaps by organising a weekly meeting with my counterpart and company directors every Friday afternoon to do the following:
To keep the meetings exciting and motivating we changed the venue most weeks and one of us organised a social event afterwards. Venues and activities included:
Macare University – with tour of research facilities
The garden of my homestay with meal and pool tournament afterwards
Kampala’s Rugby clubs – lively pork barbeques!
Shearaton Hotel – swimming pool
Chinease resturants – (Gabriel loved Chinese food from studying in Beijing)
These meeting and events created strong ties and were key to my continued working relationship with Green Heat upon returning to the UK.
Now that you’ve had time to reflect on your placement, what impact has it had on you and your personal development? Did the placement have an impact or benefit for your business, counterpart and /or host community?
A massive impact no doubt. Personally I gained the experience/confidence to start a business (Riverbank- see below). My counterpart, Rachael gained the marketing experience she was seeking. My host company have grown extensively now employing 40 members of staff full-time and winning numerous contracts including the following:
An extra 10 government funded latrine biogas digesters which have now been installed in Ugandan schools
Since graduating, I co-founded Riverbank, a creative communications business to improve the outreach of Engineering and Ecology based projects. Our first business proposal was presented by the CEO of Green Heat at the prize giving ceremony for the seed development award in Nairobi, Kenya. Riverbank have been working with Green Heat ever since to enhance the information outreach of their products and services.
Our site is not quite live but a a little more information can be found here:
When is does go live it shall be here: