Fellow John Tull volunteered in Rwanda in 2009 where he assisted farmer cooperatives with establishing milk-chilling plants to preserve the output from the farmers’ dairy herds.

The TechnoServe Fellows Program (formerly the Volunteer Consultant Program) is a unique platform for business professionals to contribute their skills in the fight against poverty. From its inception during a family conversation in 1996, the program has grown to engage more than 1,000 Fellows.

Fellows are characteristically young professionals from leading management consultancy firms and graduate schools all over the world, who take on three- to twelve-month assignments in support of TechnoServe’s mission. Some others instead form the ‘grey-haired’ cohort, with much longer working experience. While there are tell-tale hallmarks of a TechnoServe Fellow assignment – commercial focus, technical rigor, high energy, and innumerable field visit opportunities – no two assignments are exactly alike.

Motivation to join  

For most people in international development, “going to the field” is a welcome and energizing experience where theory meets practice and concepts are tutored by context. My journey started with a barely articulated urge to contribute my knowledge and expertise from two decades of private enterprise in the tech sector in Asia. In this former corporate work, I launched new products and networks into emerging markets from China to Fiji, and had become aware that their benefits were realized almost exclusively in urban areas. I sensed that business expertise could be applied to pressing issues in remote communities, in the right circumstances.

The opportunity finally arose, once our two daughters had graduated and yet another high-tech megamerger had upended professional life. My insightful spouse told me: “You know you want to do it: get started.” I decided to get started by doing my homework – literally. From mid-2007 I spent the next 18 months in a master’s program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., their first-ever Kiwi graduate, I’m told.

As I much later discovered – after reading Rick and Wendy Walleigh’s terrific memoir, From Silicon Valley to Swaziland, on crafting a similar path toward an “encore career” – education and research are great investments but the key questions remained unanswered: What next? Where to?

John Tull found the Fellow experience to be humbling, as the support and guidance he provided turned out to be bidirectional.

Most traditional aid organizations I visited around D.C. had few suitable roles for me; their focus tended to be relief or charity, which didn’t fit well with what I wanted to contribute. It was only through working my way down a list of SAIS alumni contacts that I happened upon someone working for an organization called TechnoServe. Within 30 minutes of my first visit to the TechnoServe headquarters office, I found myself casually offering a year of volunteer work. One month later, bags packed, my spouse and I swapped our brown Australian landscape for the green rolling hills of Rwanda.

What did I do?

In my initial Fellow role in 2009, I was advising the East African Dairy Development project (EADD) in Rwanda, established in 2008 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. EADD was organized as a complex collaboration of expert partner organizations to support 179,000 dairy farming households across Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda – ultimately affecting 1 million people. Working with a dozen or so large farmer cooperatives, principally in the remote Nyagatare region near the Uganda border, the project aimed to help each co-op set up a milk-chilling plant to preserve the highly perishable output from the farmers’ large dairy herds. This would enable them to become consistent suppliers of quality milk to the major factories for Inyange, the dairy company, that were located far away in the capital city of Kigali. These were huge investment decisions for the farmers – a typical 3,000-5,000 litre stainless steel chilling plant and all its equipment and housing often amounted to an $80-$100,000 investment.

This combination of community engagement, technical training, marketing, financial planning, capital investment analysis, and operational support proved to be quite demanding. One of my tasks was to help the TechnoServe team – five bright, mostly post-graduate business advisors led by a seasoned project manager from Kenya — to develop their own capabilities for handling negotiation, complexity, and contingency management (such as unexpected weeklong power outages). Our main mission was to get the first six of these milk-chilling businesses launched and operating.

To escape being trapped as price-takers from passing traders, the farmers needed to become reliable suppliers. That way the co-op could strike more contracts within Inyange directly and attract a tanker truck to collect their milk daily, regardless of road conditions. Reliability of supply would improve the farmers’ negotiating power to obtain a better price. Further, the project design theorized that the chilling plant would become a local business hub that attracted related services, such as farming inputs, retailers, and trucking providers, in turn prompting financial services providers to extend their networks to local households. This would prompt significant job creation and income stimulation, generating a new level of broad local economic activity that could continue after the end of the project.

What was it like?

In addition to delivering a program of skills training, process development, and preliminary investment analysis, I marshalled my limited French and a handful of Kinyarwanda phrases to take active roles in several of the earliest business planning meetings. A teammate convinced me this would be “leading by example.” I experienced it as more “learning by example.”

For instance, at an early stage in the project, we met with a co-op in a humble school-house setting, to direct them on the intricate final planning stages of building their 5,000-liter chilling plant. I’d printed off a few copies of the detailed one-page Gantt chart to share with my two TechnoServe colleagues to help them lead this pivotal meeting. After an hour of discussion that seemed to be going nowhere, the co-op treasurer quietly reached out, took away a copy of the plan from me and started poring over the project plan with her colleagues in a huddle, making corrections and taking the lead back from us to develop what ended up a much more feasible plan. Lesson learned.

The learning and insights from this experience easily outweighed minor inconveniences like 6am starts on the road and long delays due to bureaucratic holdups. I relished the moments when, for example, the co-op leadership committee brought their marketing plan to life, or a ribbon-cutting ceremony when all of the training, planning, and loan applications led to a new business opening its doors. Memories of beautifully terraced volcanic slopes and long lines of kids cheerfully trouping to school are also etched in my mind.

Being a Fellow is what you make of it

I discovered that TechnoServe is as entrepreneurial internally as it is externally. Former CEO Bruce McNamer and my regional director Kindra Halvorsen had advised me: spot something useful, collect the evidence, push the envelope a little, and then create a scope to try something new. After my experience in Rwanda, I put forward a plan and in no time at all I was pursuing a second year as a TechnoServe Fellow, working with teams in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Ghana, advising on team capabilities, skills, and management systems. I also spent six months in DC in 2011 to help the HQ team relaunch the corporate knowledge management platform, and to develop a new approach to business consultant training that we rolled out globally by year-end.

Each experience as a TechnoServe Fellow was positive, productive, and professionally reinvigorating – spanning seven countries and 24 months. It led to continued work with TechnoServe in various roles and helped me realize the subject for my PhD dissertation. I continue to actively recommend the Fellowship adventure to other ‘grey hair’ colleagues I think can contribute.