Open for Business A grant from the Endeavor Foundation allowed Yoko Koyama ’19 and Maren Lundgren ’18 to open a store in Cameroon that will fund transportation for local children to go to middle school in a neighboring town.
“I learned a ridiculous amount from the practical challenges of adapting to a new environment and starting a business. The experience was invaluable.”
— Maren Lundgren ’18
In summer 2017, Yoko Koyama ’19 and Maren Lundgren ’18 traveled to Cameroon to continue a project started a previous summer by Amirah Ndam Njoya ’16 and Jenna Biegel ’17. Njoya and Biegel were funded by the Endeavor Foundation, while this summer’s follow-up visit by Koyama and Lundgren was paid for by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Now that Yoko and Maren are back on campus, we caught up with them to ask a few questions about their experience in Cameroon.
Tell us about the project you did.
Maren: Our main project was to build a small store in rural Mandetkene, Cameroon. The project idea came from a recent alumna, Amirah Ndam Njoya ’16, who happens to be from that region of Cameroon.
Two years ago, Amirah and another W&L alumnus, Jenna Biegel, went to the same area to do camps and water quality testing. While there, they noticed a problem: The local school stops at fifth grade. Many students are ready to go on to middle school, but to do this they have to go to the next town over. It’s expensive, so this is a deterrent. Together with the Parents’ Council of the school, Amirah and Jenna worked to find a potential source of income for the town. Since there was no store in the town, they decided they wanted the school to have a store, with proceeds used to send kids to middle school. Yoko and I were brought in to help execute this idea, which we were only able to do with the support of the Parents’ Council and the local government, and with Amirah’s guidance.
While in Cameroon, we also did two kids’ camps. The first, which took place in Foumban, focused on engineering principles; the other used music and other activities to get to know the people of Mandetkene and build their trust.
How did you go about conducting the project when you got there?
Maren: While we held the engineering camp in Foumban, we took note of what stores there were like. We noted items sold in shops similar to the one we were building, and we noted the prices of those items. We eventually did a survey of residents of Mandetkene, going door to door and talking about shopping habits. We took the results and met with a local supplier to finalize the inventory list and place the initial order. We priced items, hired a shopkeeper and a guard, created financial notebooks and a store manual, and held training for the Parents’ Council and shopkeeper. All of this was done while regularly meeting with the Parents’ Council to get their input. Finally, we stocked the shelves, set up the store and opened. There was a big ceremony with the region’s mayor, member of parliament, and media.
Q. What was the most fulfilling part of the trip for you?
Yoko: It would definitely be the engineering summer camp, which I planned very carefully with my advising professor, Dr. Joel Kuehner. I was amazed by the kids’ creativity, initiative and craft skills.
What was your favorite experience?
Maren: I have two favorite experiences from this trip:
1. Opening day of the store. It was so rewarding to see countless hours of work finally come together.
2. A night when we crashed a soirée, became guests of honor, and ended up dancing on stage with our neighbors.
Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Yoko: Getting used to not having running water.
What were your impressions of Cameroon?
Yoko: I really enjoy the nature and all the inconveniences I wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise.
Maren: This is hard to answer in a paragraph. Cameroon is a country I’d heard stories about my whole childhood because my mom went to school there. After being there, I developed an appreciation for the incredible diversity of the country. Having visited the metropolises of Yaoundé and Doula, the Western mountains, the beach and the northern plains, I got to see many landscapes and meet many people. I was struck by the differences in daily life from region to region. To learn more, check out our blog here.
Q. Who served as a mentor to you this summer, and what have they taught you?
Yoko: Amirah Ndam Njoya ’17 (our host) served as our mentor. Without her, we wouldn’t have been able to do ANYTHING in Foumban. From grocery shopping to commuting to our work locations, Amirah guided us throughout the project.
How do you think this project has enriched your overall educational experience at W&L?
Maren: This project allowed me to combine both of my majors (global politics and business administration) and apply them to a real life situation. I learned a ridiculous amount from the practical challenges of adapting to a new environment and starting a business. The experience was invaluable.
What are the most important takeaways from the research to share with the university audience (and beyond), and how do you plan to do that?
Maren: The two most important takeaways from the experience were that having a locally driven initiate is critical, and that time is relative. Scheduling only matters to an extent. We will be talking to the Development Economics class, talking to GenDev (the micro-finance group on campus), and hopefully doing some other CIE events.
Q. What have you learned at W&L that helped you in this endeavor, and what will you bring back to your life on campus?
Yoko: At W&L, I learned the necessity of careful planning and having a day-by-day schedule. Unfortunately, I caught traveler’s diarrhea three days after my arrival in Cameroon and our whole schedule ended up delayed by a week because of that. For the camp I designed, if it was not for the detailed planning I made with my professor, it wouldn’t have been carried out successfully.
I have brought the diligence of my daily life in Cameroon back to Lexington. All house chores were more difficult in Foumban since we didn’t have a stable supply of electricity and we usually didn’t have running water. Life at W&L will definitely feel easier now that I have adapted to the “manual” way of life in Foumban.
Q. Has this experience impacted your studies or future plans in any way?
Yoko: Yes. WATER WATER WATER! It is such a luxury that we can drink from the sink on a daily basis and have clean water to cook, brush our teeth, etc. People in Foumban are used to not having clean drinking water all the time, and I wonder if we should just leave it as it is, or is it our responsibility to show people that there is another world in which we have access to clean water every day?
I have been in touch with Kanetoshi Oda, the chairman of a leading water treatment company, regarding a potential future project with the company Poly-Glu in Foumban. Also, I will be having a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Yaounde, discussing possible funding from the Japanese government. I have never thought about water this seriously before in my life. This summer taught me what the way of life is for the majority of the population on this globe.
I learned that I can work towards a solution (for water treatment) as an individual, and that I am privileged for having access to information and learning that could lead towards such a solution. However, unfortunately, I still do not know my exact future plans at this point.
Q. Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?
Yoko: It adequately reminds us that we are privileged, and ignorant of many things happening in the other parts of the world. W&L students would become more aware of our responsibility as global citizens and for what purposes our knowledge is meant to serve.