By Caitlyn Zachry, MPP ’13
Every June, the Center For Social Value Creation and the Center for International Business Education and Research team up to provide a Sri Lanka half-internship volunteer consulting experience for University of Maryland MBA and MPP (Masters of Public Policy) candidates. Students spend two weeks on-site in Sri Lanka working with social impact clients, and ultimately deliver actionable recommendations to their clients as well as stakeholders including USAID, VEGA, and IESC.
1) Watermelon juice is delicious.
2) How to eat crabs using only our hands and teeth as utensils. (As a byproduct, we also learned to provide great mealtime entertainment!)
3) In a competition of coral reef vs. kneecap, coral reef wins.
4) That consulting work can be very enriching, rewarding, enjoyable… and a little bit exhausting (but in a good way!).
Our time in Sri Lanka so far has flown by, and we cannot believe that tomorrow will be our last day working with our client. We have been working with BIZ+, a grant administering organization that is a collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Land O’Lakes, Inc., and Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA). BIZ+ was created to encourage the development and growth of small and medium enterprises in post-conflict regions (in the north and the east) in Sri Lanka. The program has over $14 million to allocate in grants for eligible businesses, and additional funding to provide technical support for grant recipients. So far, the program has signed one grant agreement, with an ice factory located near the Northern Province’s capital city, Jaffna. Numerous other businesses are at different points in the application process, ranging from inquiring about the application to awaiting a signed grant agreement.
Since arriving in Sri Lanka, we have had the opportunity to travel quite widely — from our starting point in Colombo to Vavuniya, Jaffna and Mannar for work, and to Kandy and Trincomalee on weekends. During our work trips, we have been visiting businesses that seek funding from BIZ+, including the ice factory, a crab processing plant, and a garment factory. Once there, we toured the facilities and asked questions of the business owners based on information gathered from our review of their concept notes, auditor reports and full business plans. Following each visit, we formulate recommendations for what conditions the business should be required to fulfill prior to signing a grant agreement. In the case of the ice factory, for example, BIZ+ required that the company hire a certified bookkeeper and put a payment voucher system into place, in addition to fulfilling other conditions.
The work has been fascinating, because BIZ+ faces a challenge in that most businesses seeking their support do not employ sound accounting or record-keeping practices. From what we have learned so far, it appears that this is not uncommon in post-conflict regions here. The lack of information means that the sustainability and viability of businesses can be unclear, but most business owners are eager to learn how to improve their companies. Fortunately, our colleague says we’ve been asking the questions he wanted the answers to (but didn’t know how to ask), and we will be providing him and another employee with capacity building training tomorrow — so, hopefully we can help BIZ+ to strike the proper balance between due diligence and funding deserving companies (even if they may need a little help making their business case).
Although we have been formulating technical assistance plans for businesses and completing evaluations of Business Development Services (BDS) providers, it hasn’t been all work. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, and we have been fortunate enough to try a wide variety of new foods (and juices!), and meet many friendly business owners and other locals. We also got to visit the beach in Jaffna, spend an afternoon snorkeling in Trincomalee and enjoy a fresh crab lunch at a proprietor’s home. Overall, we have enjoyed our time in Sri Lanka immensely — the learning experience through work and simply being somewhere so different from home has been invaluable… And that’s all for now, because we need to get back to preparing deliverables!
–Caitlyn & Sergio