Externship at the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA)

Niha, a Senior Associate Consultant in our Boston office, reflects on lessons learned during her global development externship in Ethiopia.

Last year, I participated in Bain’s externship program, moving to Addis Ababa to work at the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). It was my first time in Ethiopia, and I was excited to experience its vibrant culture, beautiful landscapes, and world-renowned coffee. Most of all, I was eager to join ATA, an organization known for its dynamic, results-oriented approach to agricultural development.

In many ways, my externship far exceeded my expectations. I worked with caring and driven colleagues at ATA on important issues in agricultural microfinance. I trekked in the breathtaking mountainous terrain of northern Ethiopia. I forged close friendships with warm and welcoming Ethiopians and adventurous expats from around the world. But I also encountered challenges that transformed my understanding of working as a foreigner in global development.

I joined ATA’s Rural Financial Services team, a group tasked with increasing farmers’ access to financial services. During my time there, our team was focused on helping microfinance institutions (MFIs) offer micro-loans to farmers to purchase fertilizer and chemicals. Due to liquidity issues in the financial system, credit for farmers without collateral was limited, and the loans that were extended were in the form of paper-based vouchers that were frequently lost or misused. We worked with various financial institutions to try to increase lending and envisaged a new, electronic process for credit issuance that would avoid the pitfalls of the paper-based system. I spent much of my time helping to bring several major MFIs on board with this idea and initiating a procurement process to help them access the technology to issue credit electronically.

While I was excited about the work and inspired by my colleagues, I found that my ability to contribute as a foreigner, and short-term visitor, was limited. I didn’t speak the language, fully understand the Ethiopian cultural context, or have the credibility of a native Ethiopian in the eyes of our stakeholders. These challenges meant that I was often poorly equipped to do the operational work I found so exciting – from running meetings with government stakeholders to being helpful at the trainings our team ran on the new agri-input credit system. Though I had hoped to spend my externship doing on-the-ground, implementation work, I realized, my skills – and those of many of the consultants I knew in Ethiopia – were useful in a different way.

With a background in strategy consulting, I was able to identify structural problems in the financial system and collect and analyze data to propose solutions. For example, in thinking about how to design a catastrophic risk insurance initiative in Ethiopia, I studied international examples and proposed a preliminary structure for such an insurance fund. I was able to draft compelling materials to communicate potentially thorny issues to reluctant stakeholders. And I could help my teammates plan the work they would execute on – for instance, thinking through how to run a survey of rural farmers.

I found the work both meaningful and interesting. For rural farmers, access to better agricultural inputs can significantly increase productivity, and therefore income. In an incredibly poor country, this can make an enormous difference in living standards. And it was fascinating to join meetings with leaders of the nation’s largest banks and microfinance institutions, where I observed a surprisingly nascent financial system – there was no national credit bureau, stock market, or insurance for farmers, who comprise the majority of the nation’s population.  Organizations like the ATA are much needed.

My externship was a transformative experience that pushed me to think about the career I will find most rewarding and impactful – and it cemented my passion for working in public service.

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