Volunteering to Build a Better Malawi

Volunteering to Build a Better Malawi

Tetra Tech's Belinda Li spent two years supporting Engineers Without Borders Canada’s Malawi Water and Sanitation Program

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014 - 8:00am

Tetra Tech’s Belinda Li took the management and facilitation skills she gained at Tetra Tech to Malawi—and brought back a new perspective on working with clients.

Early in her career, Belinda left her position as a junior environmental engineer and volunteered for Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada’s Malawi Water and Sanitation Program. A confluence of opportunity, Belinda’s strong consulting skill set, and timing took her to Malawi for almost two years to support the program’s mission of strengthening governmental and institutional capacity to manage sustainable water and sanitation services.

In spring 2014, Belinda returned to Tetra Tech’s Canadian solid waste management practice, where she works with municipalities and large institutions planning how to manage their waste through diversion strategies such as recycling and organics programs. She designs models and conducts estimates of materials for decision making and target setting for waste facilities. She also helps clients communicate with stakeholders for the roll out of organics collection.

The skills Belinda gained working in Tetra Tech’s waste management practice allowed her to immediately contribute to improving the way drinking water services are delivered in Malawi, specifically to outlying communities.

Belinda was part of an EWB team helping Malawi district government field staff pilot methods to gather information and use resources more effectively. Projects included developing and testing tools to collect information and return it to the office to eliminate lost data, and building staff capacity for using collection forms and entering and managing data.

“We spent quite a bit of time figuring out what work norms are in Malawi, and these offices in particular, and how people generally see their role,” said Belinda. “It was important for us to understand what they think their role is and what methods they use, instead of coming in and saying ‘we have the answer.’”

“It took a lot of trust building so they would be comfortable engaging in the troubleshooting process, which is really similar to client relations work we do at Tetra Tech,” she continued. “Ultimately working on how a system can change and how operations can change is much the same, whether you’re in Canada or Malawi.”

Belinda brought significant facilitation, communication, and change management skills to her position in Malawi—skills she gained through her work at Tetra Tech. After evaluating the existing processes and determining which would be open to change, Belinda’s team facilitated meetings to determine which low-cost water management techniques a district office would like to include in guidelines that would be distributed across its service area.

“In Malawi, I didn’t know the context of the water delivery system and had to ask a lot of questions,” Belinda said. “I had to learn the culture and the way people operated. This has benefitted my work back in Canada, as I have a new insight into understanding our clients’ systems and internal cultures.”

Belinda has parlayed her experience global working in different political and cultural environments to build strong local relationships with stakeholders at various institutions she works with throughout Canada. She says her time in Malawi reinforced the importance of not bringing her own assumptions to a project. Instead she works to get input from every level of a client’s systems and processes, from implementers through executive staff.

“A lot of waste-planning work we do at Tetra Tech is communicating with stakeholders and managing change as communities move toward sustainable solutions,” Belinda says. “This is precisely what we were doing in Malawi.”