By J. MICHAEL DEAL | Uptown News
How many American bankers would volunteer to advise a farmers’ cooperative in a remote Mozambique village? Lynda Swenson did, even though her assignment involved a two-day journey from the capital in a jeep down a dried-up creek bed that turned into a river in the torrential rain. Despite finding no hotel, no electricity, just huts made of reeds, Swenson gushed, “What a great experience! Such an opportunity to understand the sacrifices that farmers are making to improve their lives and make a better world for their kids”.
Swenson, a long-time Hillcrest resident, realized that she “wasn’t ready to not work” when she retired from her banking career 12 years ago. She felt compelled to somehow find a way to “give back” some of the professional knowledge and experience she had gained from her first-class education at UC Berkeley and Loyola of Chicago and her career as a banker and finance specialist.
Swenson’s inspiring story began when she became interested in international work after being recruited to work on U.S. foreign assistance projects in Eastern Europe toward the end of her banking career. She enjoyed her consulting assignments in Prague and Warsaw and saw helping firms in emerging markets as a way to give back.
After retiring, Swenson’s “second career” as a pro bono expert began with a volunteer assignment helping credit unions in Ukraine. For the past 12 years, Swenson has volunteered on average every other month — more than 70 assignments in total — in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The assignments are typically two-three weeks in duration.
In her Mozambique assignment and many others across Africa, she was amazed to see how passionate the villagers are about the opportunity to learn how to improve their businesses. They would walk hours to come to class and then walk back. That experience was “a real turn-on for me.” She explains that the poverty she has seen in Africa is “so unbelievable — just heartbreaking.” But she is encouraged by the progress she has seen and is optimistic about the prospects of U.S. foreign aid’s stated goal of ending the need for aid to exist.
The personal connections she has made last well beyond the time frame of her volunteer assignment. Swenson remains in contact with dozens of the people she has trained over the years via email and Skype, keeping up on their enterprises’ progress and their families. The deep friendships she has developed include having at least two babies named after her.
Swenson does what she does because she wants people to have a better life… not that they should want to immigrate to the U.S. She recalled one instance when her translator startled her when he intervened and pulled (slapped) her arms down when a mother came close to let Swenson hold her baby. The translator later explained that if she had held the baby, the mother would have disappeared, thinking that Swenson would take the baby back to the U.S. with her in the hope that she would have a better life.
Through her advisory and training activities, Swenson has helped strengthen the business operations and financial management of cooperatives, community-based financial organizations, and private companies. These assignments were organized by a variety of international non-governmental organizations implementing U.S. foreign aid programs.
As a commercial lender, Swenson explains the importance for her of understanding the business needs of prospective clients of the organizations she was asked to assist. That has meant learning about the french fry business in Lebanon, fish farming in Malawi, and chicken feed in Tanzania — which involved learning the different feed mixtures for broilers, layers, and chicks…. “I never knew!”
In Malawi, she developed a P&L statement for maize farmers and showed how it was a horrible crop after one analyzes their sales, overhead and costs of production. Swenson asked the farmers why they grow maize and learned that they had always planted it as a staple crop, something that had been taught and handed down from their fathers and grandfathers. She helped them see how expanding into fruit and vegetables and fertilizer sales would generate cash to help achieve greater food security as well as cover the expenses of other basic necessities. By drilling down, she helped them become more profitable.
Swenson also has found it very rewarding when she has had the opportunity to go on repeat assignments with the same client. It doesn’t happen often, but in Mozambique, she has been able to work with Zembe (a university professor, agribusiness owner, and former Pioneer seed representative). Zembe has started his own seed company focusing on heirloom seeds. And now his son is taking over the business.
Not only has Swenson examined a number of enterprises she had never come across over the course of her career, she had never worked with co-ops in the U.S. either. She has come to love the contributions they are making (both farm co-ops and general business co-ops) to local economic growth. Swenson had to study up on co-ops, but now her volunteer assignments call for her to teach the principles of cooperatives and conduct lessons on a range of their organizational management issues.
Back home in the U.S., Swenson describes her experiences and that has inspired her mother and friends to donate funds… for bikes in one instance so that the women in a village didn’t have to walk such long distances. In another case, friends raised funds to buy and send used, peddle-power sewing machines…that the villagers use nonstop based on the business opportunities that Swenson had identified. Swenson also speaks to local Rotary clubs any time she can.
In 2016, Swenson’s remarkable dedication to volunteer service was recognized when she received the “Volunteer of the Year” award from the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance in Washington, D.C. Swenson’s experience is a great example of how baby boomers can find rewarding ways to contribute past retirement.
— Michael Deal is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Philadelphia Citizen, Next Avenue, the Solutions Story Tracker, and on his website Democracy4Change.org. By highlighting compelling stories of ordinary citizens making a difference, his writing strives to motivate others to become involved internationally or in their communities, states, or the nation as a whole. He is a member of the Solutions Journalism Network. His career included 28 years with USAID as a Foreign Service Officer. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.