More than 60 years after it was originally formed to assist Mennonite dairy farmers in Paraguay, the scope and size of projects that MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) is involved in have grown consistently.
The organization that used to be based in Winnipeg has also spread its geographic wings as well. For instance, within $35 million to $40 million in typical annual capital spending, current large projects take place in Jordan, Senegal and Myanmar.
MEDA has long concentrated on assisting small and medium-sized businesses — mostly in impoverished regions of the world — to build sustainable enterprises. Among other things, the organization is especially attentive to helping establish commercial links, such as more structured relationships between farmers and retail markets.
Its new CEO, Dorothy Nyambi, was recently in Winnipeg to meet with MEDA supporters and talk about her perspective on international development and how MEDA fits in.
While that first project in Paraguay — where the dairy that was established remains and is one of the largest in that country — was borne out of the concern from successful Mennonite communities in Manitoba and a handful of U.S. regions for the new Mennonite community in Paraguay, it did not take long for the organization to broaden its scope.
Over the years, it has helped 103 million families in 62 countries, where its efforts have created jobs and helped build commercial networks that have left positive impacts on entire communities. It now has about $250 million worth of projects on the books for the next five years in partnership with organizations like Global Affairs Canada, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a number of other national and international development agencies.
MEDA typically leverages additional support of between three and seven times the amount of resources it contributes.
Nyambi, who practised medicine in her home country of Cameroon as well as other parts of Africa, Asia and eastern Europe while she worked as a medical doctor for the U.S. Peace Corps, said one of the things MEDA is now more attentive to is the support of women.
"Development financing is changing," she said. "Another thing that is changing... is how we intentionally reach out to women and make sure women do not get left behind."
Nyambi knows first-hand the community-building strength that businesswomen can provide to an otherwise impoverished region.
"I come from a line of successful and strong women," she told the gathering of Winnipeg MEDA supporters.
Her widowed grandmother was able to get herself out of poverty, and made sure her three daughters were educated. In addition to growing cassava to feed the family, her grandmother started growing other crops that she could sell at market as well.
"It never ceases to amaze me," Nyambi said. "When the MEDA opportunity arose, I saw similarities between my grandmother and what MEDA is trying to do."
Brent Kroeker, the chairman of MEDA’s Winnipeg hub, said the organization’s efforts to facilitate and expand markets for entrepreneurs around the world is a model that works.
"It seems like there’s no shortages of examples where the old model of direct government-to-government aid did not work out so well, where funds did not necessarily end up where they were intended," Kroeker said. "This is a more direct approach."
MEDA’s headquarters moved from Winnipeg just over a decade ago, but Kroeker said there remains strong support for the organization here, as there is in Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
Winnipeg bioscience entrepreneur Albert Friesen, a director and former chairman of MEDA’s board, said its resources have grown steadily over the years.
And while the organization might once have relied almost exclusively on the casual goodwill of its supporters — including many well-known and successful Winnipeg Mennonite business people — about 10 years ago it started to engage professional fundraisers and that has made a difference.
"For instance, there was one American supporter who regularly donated tens of thousands of dollars, which was great," Friesen said. "But then it was recognized that he was also contributing $1 million to another organization. He was asked if MEDA was one of his favourites. After adding that professional fundraiser, it really started to climb."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.