Realities of being a student-led organisation: challenges and rewards

As fans of this blog (and CDI) may know, CDI is a student-run organisation based at the University of Cambridge. This means that students lead, ideate, implement, and evaluate the projects – all in collaboration with (you guessed it) more students from universities based in Dar es Salaam.

Being a student run organisation comes with its challenges and rewards:

Being based in Cambridge

CDI volunteers are Cambridge-based for most of the academic year leading up to the 2-month project summer, because of academic commitments (and mysterious University residence requirements).

This sometimes limits our understanding of how we can align project activities to the local context before the two month summer.

As an example we can refer to the publicity for the Into Business (ITB) Seminar Series. In Summer 2018, the Entrepreneurship Project piloted the ITB Seminar Series which consisted of stand-alone seminars during which high-profile Tanzania-based businesspeople teach business skills from writing a CV to business registration law.

To advertise each seminar, the team initially relied heavily on paid Facebook and Instagram adverts – few attendees found out about the seminars through these. Instead, most found out through WhatsApp. This may be down to how WhatsApp dominates Tanzanian communication. Had the Entrepreneurship team more time in Tanzania to pilot social media publicity strategies, they could have realised this sooner and streamlined publicity earlier.

Experiencing genuine cross-cultural collaboration with KITE Dar es Salaam

CDI’s volunteers collaborate very closely with KITE Dar es Salaam (KITE DSM) – another student-run charity consisting of university students at university across Dar es Salaam. Together, both CDI and KITE DSM ideate and implement the summer projects.

The level of cross-cultural collaboration between UK and Tanzania based volunteers is very unique and rewarding. Yes, your standard 3-month corporate internship will probably see you working with people from different cultures and countries. However, we are a student-run organisation. When something goes wrong during the summer, we can’t turn to our ‘line manager’ to fix the problem – we are our own managers. When we visit high-level stakeholders such as government ministries, we do it together, without the safety net of a ‘supervisor’ watching us in the corner. What’s more, we are working on high-stakes issues: during the summer we aren’t simply doing ‘presentations’ or ‘secondary research’ or ‘consulting’ from a desk like you may find even in the most competitive internships – we work with real people every day and their welfare is at stake. This level of responsibility creates a genuinely collaborative working relationship between us, as the pressures of the situation make us genuinely rely on each other to make things work. What’s more, this often creates genuine friendships between UK- and Tanzania-based students.

The Education Project is based on a foundation of collaboration between CDI and KITE DSM volunteers, as well as with local partners. Since its inception, the project’s direction and strategy have always been defined as a team – whether a school visit or survey is being conducted, you can be sure to find both UK and Tanzanian volunteers standing side by side to achieve the goal of radically improving the impact of education for young children across Dar es Salaam.

Annual changes in Executive Committee and volunteers

Every year, almost all of CDI’s volunteers change as we recruit a new Executive Committee (August-September) and new volunteers (December-January). This is because, inevitably, us students will go on to do other placements or graduate from university.

Doing our best to make sure that the next volunteers know the history of their projects (a process we call ‘handover’) is therefore crucial, and is taken very seriously as many handover documents meticulously detail previous decisions, meetings, recommendations for the next year etc. (my handover document was a total of two months in the making!)

Ensuring a seamless handover can be difficult because of its time-consuming nature, especially during the busy end-of-summer period when we are interviewing Executive Committee candidates, ramping up the Monitoring, Learning and Evaluation (MEL) of projects, and doing other necessary preparations to make sure our projects can continue running after the summer.

However, we always find a way to make it work, through the help of our peers and sometimes a coffee (or two, or three…) from our favourite cafe haunts in Dar es Salaam.

A steady supply of innovative thinkers

Student turnover, however, brings a major advantage to CDI as an organisation: annually, we recruit new cohorts of volunteers with fresh perspectives. Beyond bringing in unique project ideas, it allows us, as an organisation, to retain objectivity and clear judgement about how projects can be improved and when they should be decommissioned.

For example, in 2015 the WaSH team piloted the Flexigester, a flexible biodigester. The idea behind this was to produce biogas from waste produced by the simplified sewerage system. This biogas would be stored and sold back to the community as cooking fuel, while the sludge output would be processed into biofertiliser that could then be returned to the land. This was the world’s first integrated simplified sewerage and biogas network; in December 2015 we confirmed that a small amount of combustible biogas was being produced by the Flexigester. As successful as it was at that time, the 2018 team was also aware not to be swept up in focusing too much on the novelty of the combined simplified sewerage-biodigester system without considering the real benefits it brought for the community, and, in light of such an assessment, the Flexigester and the Biogas Project itself were decommissioned in Summer 2018. 

The ability to take risks and learn from them

In being run by students who are guided by advice from experts and stakeholders and who have not yet been jaded by the world that exists around them, CDI as an organisation has the ability and the nerve to take risks. Through the monitoring and evaluation inherent in our organisation’s model, we have the ability to continually improve our project and shift our focus year on year to better impact the lives of the beneficiaries and communities with whom we work.

For example, in 2016 the Health Project implemented the Afya Yetu project, which aimed to improve the health of the Vingunguti community by providing access to health products such as sanitary pads, water-purification tablets, and fortified flour at subsidised prices. However, in 2017, we found that Afya Yetu did not make the health products significantly more affordable than those which could already be bought at local markets and government pharmacies. Some health products offered by Afya Yetu such as sanitary pads were already easily affordable or distributed for free by the local government. 

But that’s okay – now that the Health Project team knows this, it has begun to narrow its focus onto areas where it can make a significant impact, like non-communicable disease awareness: in 2018, following recommendations provided by volunteers on CDI’s Research Team, the Health Project launched a non-communicable disease TV and radio awareness campaign with Tabibu TV and Sibuka FM.

In 2019, the project decided instead to focus instead on female sexual and reproductive health, as the KITE DSM team felt that this was a better route to follow this year. Although the project has changed its aims many times, the Health Project is a good example of one of CDI’s strengths in being a student organisation – considering voices on the ground in Tanzania, shifting the focus to accommodate the findings, and implementing a project that will have the largest positive effects that we can achieve.

Limited time to train volunteers

Being very (very, very, very…) busy with academic commitments, CDI’s volunteers can commit only little time to volunteer training before the project summer. This restricts opportunities to learn new skills that are immediately crucial for project implementation from day 1.

Sometimes, volunteers can feel overwhelmed once they arrive in Tanzania, maybe even unprepared. However, many quickly find that what they learned in the volunteer training workshops is useful in equipping them with prior knowledge and skills that is useful to navigate them through their first few weeks in Tanzania.

Leveraging the University of Cambridge

CDI volunteers, being University of Cambridge students, have access to an impressive network of contacts within the University of Cambridge. We have been able to leverage these contacts for fundraising and consulting purposes.

For example, the founders of CDI worked with Cambridge Judge Business School to produce the Entrepreneurship project’s flagship initiative – the DAREnterprisers course. Also, Trinity College Chapel has also kindly allowed CDI to host its epic annual fundraising concert there!

The willingness of these other University bodies to collaborate with us in part stems from a belief in the power of students to drive forward positive changes in society. Indeed, in the words of the founders of CDI – ‘university students…can offer more than free labour – they can bring fresh solutions, kickstart new initiatives and become a reliable partner for governments and communities in the developing in the developing world’.

In conclusion, what can we learn from my long (and bracket-laden) ramblings? Yes, we face challenges as an organisation, and yes there are limits to what students can do. However, we have no shame in admitting this; we run on a culture of honesty. Nevertheless, the rewards are far greater than the challenges because as young, driven, and ambitious students we have a certain energy and determination to push through these challenges that (at least I believe) is unfortunately lost as time goes on.

In a world that seems to pessimistic nowadays, be it about climate change, politics,  whatever, perhaps it takes the starry-eyed optimism of students to see us through the darkest challenges society faces.

CDI is just one example of the power of students to do this.

By Anand Talwar, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Officer 2018/19
Anand is a second-year student studying Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) at St. Catherine’s College.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s