Posted By: Katie McIntosh on June 23, 2011
Katie McIntosh is a Queen’s School of Business alumni, who graduated with a B.Comm and a Certificate in Corporate Social Responsibility in 2010. She is from Markham, Ontario, but loves to travel. She is currently living and working at a microfinance institution in rural Sierra Leone for eight months.
I am a new addition to the Queen’s Commerce blog, so please check out my bio if you would like to know a bit more about me. I began an 8 month internship working at a microfinance institution in Kabala, Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone at the beginning of April, 2011. The internship is part of the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) International Youth Internship Program (IYIP), which helps post-secondary graduates to gain practical experience in development work. Through this program, CIDA funds Canadian NGO’s to hire interns who work with their partner organizations in various developing countries. My internship is with a Canmore-based Canadian NGO called CAUSE Canada, which funds and operates programs in Central America and West Africa. CAUSE Canada has a partner institution in Sierra Leone called the CAUSE Canada Sierra Leone Partnership, which launched the Salone Women’s Empowerment Trust (SWET), a registered microfinance institution, a few years ago. SWET is the program I am interning with, although I am also closely connected to CAUSE’s other programs in Kabala, in particular the Women’s Integral Empowerment Program, which aims to build the capacity of women to become more effective leaders, businesspeople and caregivers in their homes and communities.
SWET’s mission is “to improve the quality of life of economically active poor and marginalized women in Sierra Leone by offering sustainable financial services from an integrated community development approach”. It does this by operating business training and support classes to businesswomen within the rural communities of Koinadugu District, and offering select participants of these classes microcredit to grow their businesses. With the help of their SWET loans, many women report the growth of their businesses, as well as an increased capacity to support their families by contributing towards the costs of food, school fees, medical expenses, etc. SWET has seen substantial growth within the past few years, and it continues to grow with a recent expansion to Kamakwie, Bombali District. Operational challenges here are vast, including poor road conditions (especially in the rainy season), high illiteracy rates, high energy costs (because the office runs on a generator), and higher rates of illness and death than are seen throughout the developed world. Much of my role at SWET is to help build the capacity of the organization and its staff to operate sustainably in the long-term. I also help to write reports and beneficiary stories and to cross-check loan applications and accounts.
Although it is certainly not for everyone, I am really enjoying my experience here in Sierra Leone. There are numerous personal and professional challenges involved in working in a developing country, but that is what I love about it. I also value the relationships I am building, the lessons that I am learning and the new ways in which I am applying my knowledge and skills. I am finding the skills and the method of thinking that I learned in Queen’s Commerce to be very useful in both understanding the organization I am working with and finding ways in which I can help to build its capacity. For example, my knowledge of how to create and analyze an income statement has helped me to revise SWET’s loan application forms to better analyze the long-term sustainability of its clients’ businesses. Given that my career interests were more related to economics and international development than the more traditional directions of accounting, finance or marketing, at times I feared that I was taking the wrong degree. The truth is, however, that a business education can give you valuable preparation for a variety of different careers. I continue to find the knowledge, skills and way of thinking that I learned in Queen’s Commerce, as well as the people that I met, to be very valuable to my personal and professional development.