life lessons from being an international volunteer

10 Apr 5 Life Lessons I Learned Volunteering Abroad

By Cheikh Ahmed Dicko, Business Support Officer for EQWIP HUBs Kumasi, Ghana

I decided to volunteer in Ghana with Canada World Youth and Youth Challenge International‘s  EQWIP HUBs project in 2017. It was the entrepreneurial aspect of the project that ultimately lead me to apply for this experience. I’m originally from Côte d’Ivoire, so Africa is special to me and I knew I would be contributing to the potential of a continent close to my heart. I signed on for a year placement in Kumasi, Ghana,  a dynamic country rich with a diverse culture and friendly people. It is also one of the fastest growing economies in Africa[1]Working in commerce, I felt I could offer my experience to support young women and men in launching their businesses, and I felt I could also learn from the opportunities and challenges of being an entrepreneur in Ghana.  

My entire year as a volunteer with EQWIP HUBs was filled with amazing life lessons. Here are the top five: 

#1: Embrace change

Traveling to a new place, and especially volunteering in a new country, is exciting but challenges your worldview. With everything being so different it’s tempting to surround yourself with things that are familiar; however, doing so means you will miss out on what the local community and culture have to offer. In Kumasi, I had to learn the different social and cultural norms, along with the local language. While there are many individuals within the HUB and throughout Ghana that speak English, the most common dialect spoken in Kumasi is Twi and Ghanaian’s love when an expat tries to learn even a few words. It will also make your life easier when you go to the market or use public transportation. 

The food was an experience in itself. It is relatively inexpensive on the street, 10-15 cedis or less than $5 for lunch. The most popular dishes are Fufu, Kenke and Jollof rice. My favorite was Banku-tilapia, which is a mixture of cassava dough, served with soup, stew or a pepper sauce and fish.  

Additionally, in Ghana, it’s very important to respect hierarchy in bureaucratic environments and take the time to build relationships. For example, not calling someone by using their professional title (Doctor, Director, Chief…) can be considered disrespectful. Having started my career in Canada as a commercial representative for three years, I was used to less formal business relationships with my supervisors and it was a bit difficult for me to adjust to this new reality. As well, addressing your elders using a title like ‘Senior man, Uncle, Auntie, Boss or Chief is perceived as a sign of respect and not necessarily a term of endearment reserved for family and friends. 

During my year in Kumasi, I kept an open mind and discussed with my Ghanaian co-workers ways to learn about their culture and how to adapt. This allowed me to have a full and enriching experience. 

#2: The importance of understanding  

Coming to the project with an open mind created many meaningful exchanges as innovation flows both ways. My daily interactions with youth at the HUB or in the community taught me a lot about their visions and aspirations for the future. Young people are ambitious and are actively looking for the support and resources they need to achieve their dreams, but they feel held back by traditional paternalistic approaches to development. Volunteering in Ghana as a Business Support Officer was a great way to learn about the barriers that local youth face when starting their business. Entrepreneurship is that much more important since access to decent employment is very limited and most young people must rely on their own personal savings with little or no support from financial institutions.
Spending time with local youth throughout this process allowed me to better understand their needs and how I could best support them in their entrepreneurial journey.       

#3: There’s always more to learn  

Volunteering with EQWIP HUBs was a great way for me to learn and improve my business skills. I am a business graduate from the University of Ottawa but the EQWIP HUBs project has shown me that education goes beyond the classroom. During my time as a volunteer, I had the opportunity to help organize the Youth Innovation Fund (YIF) competition. The YIF is EQWIP HUBs’ start-up capital funding initiative that helps young entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. This experience allowed me to hone my project management skills because I was involved in coordinating workshops, recruiting facilitators, and finding relevant mentors for the youth.  

life lessons from being an international volunteer

#4: Real change is possible 

One of the goals at EQWIP HUBs is to elevate the trajectory of youth and create value and opportunity for them. Their foundational employment training helps young women and men develop soft skills such as collaboration, communication, and cultivate a problem-solving mindset to prepare them for the job market. They then participate in entrepreneurial training that prepares them to take their business idea from a concept to a viable product or service. The idea behind the YIF is to empower local young men and women to pursue business opportunities. EQWIP HUBs youth participants are encouraged to practically apply the lessons they learn in the entrepreneurship training to launch their new venture. I was very excited to support them in this process and the positive change in them was apparent as they saw their idea through to fruition. 

For example, in Kumasi, a young woman approached me and told me that she was good at cooking and catering for family and friends’ events but was not confident in how she could turn that skill into a profitable business. After our initial conversation, we sat down and researched successful catering businesses in Kumasi. We visited some of them to learn about their successes and weaknesses and helped her strengthen her business plan. Following this analysis of the competition, she did an assessment of her own strengths and weaknesses. She had the talent of cooking and organizing catering for events, but she was spending most of her earnings renting catering equipment. By applying for the YIF, she was granted $1000 of seed capital to purchase her own catering equipment. This allowed her to use what she was spending on equipment to develop marketing material and acquire new customers. Today, she is making a living from her business, Cherizel’s Kitchen, and is hiring her friends on a part-time basis to support her in catering events.  

life lessons as an international volunteer

#5: Life begins outside of your comfort zone 

The most important aspect of volunteering abroad for me, was the person I became in the process. As a business graduate, volunteering abroad gave me the international management skills to work in a diverse and multicultural environment. Today, I feel much more confident in my ability to start and pursue a business here in Canada and back in West Africa. I know I can also use these skills I developed abroad to secure employment with companies doing business in Africa or internationally. Before this experience, I, like the youth participants I worked with, would not have felt I had the ability or the experience to pursue these opportunities. 

Overall, while the change may seem small – one young woman or man at a time – we are helping change the spirit of Kumasi and Tamale through the youth who walk the streets. We are supporting young women and men to take charge of their futures and they, in turn, are injecting new life into their communities. EQWIP HUBs legacy at the end of the project will be a movement of young people, at home and abroad, that are equipped with the resiliency and skills to take on every opportunity and turn challenges into profitable ventures.  

I invite you to be a part of this legacy. Volunteer today with EQWIP HUBs and help young entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into a reality. Change a life. Change yours. 

volunteer, youth

EQWIP HUBs is powered by Canada World Youth and Youth Challenge International and is funded, in part, by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada. Learn more about the project here.

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