When we think of computer engineers, we usually picture them writing code in air-conditioned rooms full of wires and sockets — not on farms in rural communities in Africa.
So what went through the mind of Carl Wahl, an IT specialist turned agriculture expert, when he decided to make the switch ten years ago?
It almost seems like Wahl was destined to land the job. His first assignment was supposed to be a math teacher in Malawi, but on the day he got the acceptance letter, he discovered a pinched nerve in one of his elbows and couldn't move his hand at all. When he had it checked, the doctor said he needed surgery — and therefore had to turn down the teaching job.
Months later, he received another call from the Peace Corps, this time for a volunteering opportunity in Zambia, where Wahl was to spend the next three years doing agricultural work on the ground.
One may wonder what someone whose undergraduate background was almost exclusively in IT could possibly contribute to agriculture.
Wahl however argues it’s not like he didn’t have a clue about what he was getting himself into: he grew up on a farm and therefore knew a bit about the trade, and he returned to Michigan to pursue a graduate degree in agriculture before volunteering again for the Peace Corps and then landing a job in the same sector and also in Zambia.
His second volunteering post was with Concern Worldwide, where having been a former volunteer and his experience on the ground in the country strengthened his qualifications for his current position.
"I was hired because they were actually able to see me and see what I did. I think it's a lot harder when you're far away or you're just a blip on the computer screen," he explained. "You start with the experience where you're figuring out how things work or how to get your hands dirty and understand how people really live. But then you have to formalize it, like though a masters [degree] or some advanced studies because it helps you sort of make what your experience is to something understandable to a broader audience."
All these will also help prove you're not some "fly-by-night," he added.
Learning on the ground
While Wahl may have known a bit about the sector when he started, he admitted it wasn’t easy in the beginning, especially if you’re working in a place with very different cultural beliefs and already deep-seated agricultural traditions.
For instance, when his team introduced a feeding program for kids in a community, wherein parents were told what food and how much of it they should put on their children's plates to make sure they were well nourished, no one responded and followed the program for months.
Wahl said they were all puzzled and were banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out what the problem was, until some community members finally told them about feeding children in separate plates was against their cultural beliefs, thinking it will make the kids “selfish.”
Another time, they introduced a new farming method that was easy to understand and implement for the Concern staff, but not for local farmers.
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Such experience led Wahl and his team to give the farmers a "very loose framework" to carry out their work: "We're like, these are the tools, but there are a lot of ways to adopt this technology … It sounds weird; it's like you're trying to encourage something like chaos in terms of how they are practicing their farming ... but I've learned that the best thing I can do in my job is encourage them to do that, and get out of the way."
He said they are currently trying to come up with a more systematic approach to help people experiment on their own.
First world problems
Wahl doesn't really have a normal day at work.
He splits his time between four different locations, and he multitasks. One day he'll be at the computer working on a data-gathering tool or going through training materials for agriculture; another day he'll be out in the field talking to farmers and learning what's working and what's not; or he'll be in the capital, Lusaka, working on policy issues with other NGOs and government officials.
Other times he talks to donors, explaining to them the local context, why they can't always look at the numbers in measuring impact, and why they shouldn't expect an initiative that worked in a certain area will work everywhere. If they want bang for their buck, he always says, spending a few million dollars to reach 10 million people just isn’t going to work.
Getting donors to understand this and trust you is quite tough, Wahl noted.
Despite all the troubles though, which at times can get frustrating, he admitted, this aid worker still enjoys the work and digs the relaxed work environment in Zambia.
"Problems are really fundamental. You don't go home and hear people say 'ugh, my cable is down' or 'the Internet was kind of slow today'," Wahl said.
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