Professional experience of a lifetime

Cale Ettenberg, former EWB Fellow, shares why 2017 was one of the most interesting and remarkable years of his life.

My fellowship in Nairobi came to an end back in December 2017. For over a year, I worked as the product manager at FarmDrive, an EWB venture working to ensure smallholder farmers in Kenya can access credit to improve their farms. While it was a challenging experience, it was equally rewarding, and I loved every minute of my time working in Nairobi.

After returning home from Kenya, I had the privilege of attending EWB’s national community conference, xChange 2018, in January to share my experience and inspire others to apply for a placement with the next round of EWB fellows. It was interesting to drive from Montreal, QC to Hamilton, ON within a few weeks of returning to Canada. The last time I had taken a road trip upon arriving in a new place was when I started my fellowship in Kenya.

My FarmDrive colleague Kelvin and I drove to Bungoma, Kenya, near the border with Uganda, for some farmer training. Our initial plans to leave in the early afternoon had been foiled by transportation issues typical of working in sub-Saharan Africa, which is how I found myself driving for the first time on Kenyan roads as dusk fell over Nairobi. For those of you who have never driven on a highway in sub-Saharan Africa, you are missing out on a very special brand of chaos. Lanes and traffic signs exist, but they don’t matter.  It is a giant free-for-all where cars, trucks, motorcycles or goats heading towards oncoming traffic are not to be feared, but to be expected. My colleague sat in the passenger seat while I dodged trucks, matatus (minibuses) and the occasional cow as we headed across the country.  As darkness fell, the frenzy increased.  Street lights were non-existent and everyone had their high beams on all the time. Oncoming traffic became just a blur of multiple headlights flashing towards us, and more than once we ended up driving on the shoulder of the road to avoid an inevitable collision.

We made it to our destination, and as the year went on, my placement with FarmDrive presented me with even greater challenges and achievements than mastering the highways of Kenya. I joined FarmDrive as product manager to help the venture find scalable solutions for their model. Farmers use FarmDrive’s mobile SMS platform to submit data about themselves and their farms – what they are growing, their expenses, their revenue, biological data and more. All of this data gets entered into an algorithm, which produces a credit score to help a farmer apply for and secure loans.

The pride I felt after navigating the busy Kenyan highway pales in comparison to the pride I feel about my work with FarmDrive.

When I started at FarmDrive in November 2016, the venture had 180 active loans and had met all of the farmers using their platform. The team could visit all of the farms to determine their exact locations, which could allow FarmDrive to make use of high quality climate and topographical data. This data can strengthen the predictive value of a farmer’s score as local environmental conditions affect crop yield. However, visiting every farm registered on the platform is unsustainable when you’re aiming to reach tens, or even hundreds of thousands of registered farmers.

With a background in geomatics engineering, I helped FarmDrive improve their SMS platform to better identify the location of farmers. This would allow the inclusion of more precise geospatial data in the FarmDrive algorithm, even as the number of farmers grew by the thousands.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was building a strong appreciation for how external geospatial data would only be useful if it could be tied to a more precise farmer location. I worked hard to build the team’s critical thinking related to using the available environmental data sets, and tying it to real-world users on their farms. User-friendliness and good system design had to be considered and implemented to collect accurate data for credit scoring and, ultimately, encourage loan repayment through SMS.

My work started with paper prototypes of questions to be incorporated into the SMS platform for farmers to answer and ended with a new algorithm that could analyze data farmers entered to determine their location. Fortunately, I had the help of two EWB junior fellows who supported the design and testing of the SMS updates and algorithm. We visited countless farmers to confirm the accuracy of the algorithm in determining a location by comparing the result with true GPS data.

Twelve months later and the capabilities of FarmDrive’s platform – the crux of their business model – has improved. But the work is not over. The team will continue to iterate and strengthen their platform.

I feel so lucky to have been a part of that process. I also feel humbled by the hard work that FarmDrive’s founders Rita and Peris and the rest of their team have committed to building the venture to where it is today. When I think back to that wild ride I took when I first arrived in Kenya, the pride I felt after navigating the busy Kenyan highway pales in comparison to the pride I feel about my work with FarmDrive.

Sharing my experience with prospective fellows at xChange this year was a privilege. I got to help channel the passion and energy of other members of the EWB community toward this eye-opening opportunity to create change in the world. It was also a bittersweet moment as it reminded me that my fellowship is truly over. But Kenya and EWB will continue to be in my heart and impact my professional and personal decisions for years to come.

As I embark upon this next phase of my life, I will always be thinking of my friends and family back in Kenya. Although the Atlantic separates us, we will remain connected and we will live our lives a little bit different because of the moments we shared, and how we learned from one another. If you are reading this, apply to be a fellow. It will be one of the most interesting and remarkable years of your life.

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