From Downtown to Nigeria in three short weeks

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September 24, 2002 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Julie Swenson
Julie Swenson

How an ad in a St. Thomas newsletter took one columnist halfway around the world

I've taken a break from the shoes at Off Fifth, and I'm writing to you from an Internet Caf in Kaduna, Nigeria.

Don't get any visions of me kicked back with an iced latt and a wireless keyboard balanced on my lap under a mango tree. No, dear reader, an Internet Caf in Nigeria is a plain affair. There's no coffee in sight, the equipment is ancient, and needless to say, Saks is nothing but a distant memory to me now.

So what's a wimp like me doing in a place like this? I'm working with the local fish sellers to help build their businesses.

Really, I'm not making this up. Three weeks ago, I responded to an ad in the University of St. Thomas Pathways Newsletter. Land O' Lakes is always seeking volunteers for their Farmer-to-Farmer program, funded by the United States Agency for International Development. They place all kinds of business professionals in developing countries to help build local economies. Two weeks, six shots and a handful of malaria pills later, I'm on my way to

Nigeria.

Over the last year, Land O' Lakes and USAID have sent 49 volunteers to Nigeria, and three of them have been from UST. Nigeria is chaotic and dirty, and you have to keep your wits about you. But it's definitely safe, and the people are the warmest I've ever met. I'm having a ball learning how to live like a celebrity. The villagers literally mob the truck when we visit. They all want to touch a white person, and the little children are actually pretty frightened until I teach them the head-shoulders-knees-and-toes song.

But that's in the rural villages. In town, where I'm spending most of my time, it's much different. People are very friendly and formal. Every conversation starts with, "Hello Miss Julie, how are you feeling today? How was your sleep last night? How is your mother? How are your children?"

I then explain that I have no children and they freak out. Everyone is married with many children here...like, six to 12 children. Then they ask if I will marry a Nigerian, and they suddenly know all the good bachelors in town. It's like having an entire country of busybody Great Aunties -- not at all different from my personal army of Scandinavian aunties who are way too interested in marrying me off.

The trip is also turning out to be one grand adventure in marketing. Imagine trying to teach fish-sellers -- who only speak Hausa and don't see a lot of Americans -- about product differentiation, target markets and communication tactics...in the midst of stray goats, cats and kids in a chaotic dirt-floor market.

You have to distil what's really important really quick. Even though they work in a primitive retail environment, these fish-sellers aren't dumb. They are the most progressive and dedicated entrepreneurs you'll ever find. They want all the same things my clients back home want. They want to earn an honest living and grow their businesses. The Nigerian fish-sellers embrace new ideas immediately and will do whatever it takes to implement them. It's inspiring and fun to be around. I'll really miss having such great clients.

On the other hand, I won't miss the Nigerian food. I've been living on a steady diet of steamed rice, Coke, fried plantains, French fries and toast. I brush my teeth with bottled water and don't leave my hotel room without applying massive amounts of Deep Woods Off and industrial-strength sunscreen. Oh, and it's hot -- really, really hot.

So all told, does this sound like

a good time to you? Are you looking for an adventure to stir things up a little? This program is always looking for volunteers, with

expertise in a million areas. A few of those areas are: agriculture, finance, business development

and marketing.

To get more information, visit the www.landolakesidd.com website, e-mail Tim Bergstrom at tberg@landolakes.com or call him at 651-634-4289.

It's truly a once in a lifetime opportunity...unless, of course, they charm you into coming back, which is just what I'm going to do!

Global consultant Julie Swenson (julie@abbaspr.com) owns Abbas Public Relations.