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Engineers Without Borders


WSP is excited to partner for a second year with Engineers Without Borders (EWB)! Meet Janelle de Vries, Geomatics Proposal Office Lead from Calgary, Alberta. Janelle embarked at the end of September 2016 on a journey that has taken her to Toronto (for EWB training) and then to her fellowship in Zambia until March 2017. There are more ways to follow our Engineers Without Borders fellow this year via social media (Instagram and Facebook) and Janelle’s blog (both written and video) can be found on Janelleinzambia.ca.


Top 5 Lessons Learned from Living and Working in Zambia

May 17, 2016


#5: Time is a matter of perspective

In Canada, our lives tend to be planned out. Things like conference calls and meetings can fill up our calendar, giving each day a sense of order, timeliness, and predictability. In Zambia, meetings are often initiated by one person saying to another “hey, do you have a minute?” Days can often take quite unexpected turns and being able to adapt becomes an important skill to have. Outside of work, time is also more of a relaxed concept. In Zambia, there is no sense calling an end to a nice lunch out just because you have other plans. The mentality is more about being flexible, embracing spontaneity, and enjoying each moment for what it is.

Something as simple as rain can cause market vendors to unexpectedly close up shop


#4: You don’t need long to have an impact

I arrived in Zambia excited about the experience in store and eager to take on new challenges, but also somewhat skeptical about how big of an impact I could really have in just a few months. I left Zambia really feeling like I made a big difference in helping to better position Rent to Own for its next stage of growth, and in bringing additional clarity to operational decisions. From my perspective, there are two main ingredients to creating a lasting impact in a short amount of time: proper planning and the right attitude. Proper planning is required to ensure the scope of your assignments is feasible and you aren’t, for example, spending your few months making minor contributions on a project that will take a year or longer to complete. It is important to also bring the right attitude. That is, to strive for humility, to think outside the box, to work hard and give it your best effort, and to enjoy what you’re doing.


#3: Local involvement is key

To create systemic change in an international development context, it is essential to involve the local people.  As westerners, we can bring the right skills and attitudes to the table, but if our work is not accepted and embraced by the local people, it might all be for naught. Nobody understands the communities and their challenges the way the local people do, and for this reason locals are often the best champions for international development initiatives. Locals also have the best understanding of how best to do business in their communities. For example, a westerner might not appreciate the nuance that in Zambia, friendliness and relationships often trump things like credentials and professionalism. Finally, the more locals that can be involved with a particular initiative, the more jobs can be created and the lower the unemployment rates will be.


#2: We really don’t “need” very much

Living in Zambia really helped put in perspective the juxtaposition of needs versus wants.  Electricity is a good example of something that is often taken for granted in Canada, but in actuality it’s more of a “want” than a “need.”  In Zambia, people either make do with frequent power outages or they live without power entirely, and they’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. Similarly, objects that are almost a given in Canadian households such as televisions, microwaves, and proper toilets are not so in Zambia. For many Zambians, the only real “needs” are meals, good health, a place to sleep, and closeness with family. Everything else is an added bonus. To give a business example, things like thorough and accurate industry data are often expected in Canada, to help us set benchmarks and make good decisions. But we don’t actually “need” this data. In many cases in Sub-Saharan Africa, this data doesn’t exist yet business owners are still able to strategize and build successful businesses without it.

Housing in Sub-Saharan Africa tends to be very simple


#1: We are all the same

Different people may have different values and beliefs but at the end of the day whether we’re Zambian, Canadian, or of another nationality, we are all human beings. Just like Canadians, Zambians care about the people they’re close with, laugh at funny jokes, get frustrated in traffic jams, etc.  I don’t know if this was so much of a “lesson learned” for me as it was something I gained a new appreciation for. Just because Canadians are, on average, more educated and with access to more amenities, that doesn’t make us better. If we can help unlock the potential of the Zambian people, and the people of other developing nations for that matter, the growth and development possibilities are endless.

All Rent to Own staff, including Zambians, Canadians, Australians, Americans, and Dutch, enjoyed a little cake and ice cream one Friday afternoon


Thanks again for reading! If you’re interested in hearing more, or if you have questions or would like to exchange ideas, feel free to reach out to me any time by phone, e-mail, or LinkedIn.  And stay tuned for a webinar summarizing the highlights of Rent to Own and my experience, as well as for more information about the 2016 edition of the EWB Fellowship.  I’m looking forward to staying involved with EWB now that I’m back in Canada, and doing what I can to help realize the full potential of the WSP-EWB partnership.



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