By Ellina Kushnir, Rotary Program staff
In 2015, Pieter Koeleman from the Rotary Club of Campbell River in Canada traveled to Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, for the annual West Africa Project Fair. Throughout the week-long event, Pieter was immersed in local culture, visited and participated in Rotarian-led service projects, learned about local priorities and gathered information about projects for his club to consider supporting. Pieter also struck up a friendship with the host district’s Governor, Marie-Irène Richmond Ahoua, whose passion, vision and hospitality evolved into a long-term global grant partnership. We asked Pieter and Marie-Irene to share their story.
What interested you about the project fair in Abidjan? Why did you attend?
Pieter Koeleman: With 20 years of experience in international service, a mailing with information about the West African Project Fair (WAPF) caught my attention. Knowing my long-term interest in West Africa, its communities and culture and people, my wife Beja encouraged me to attend. This experience became particularly special when my son Mark decided to join me on the trip.
How did your friendship evolve into an international service partnership?
Marie-Irène Richmond Ahoua: It was my great pleasure to first meet Pieter and his son Mark at the 10th annual West Africa Project Fair. We had a very international group with project exhibitors representing clubs from all 15 West African countries and our 25 international visitors from Canada, Great-Britain, Turkey, Mauritius, Reunion, and Rwanda, and the U.S.
Our host team created an event where local and international Rotarians formed friendships over shared meals and networked over service projects. This outstanding opportunity allowed international Rotarians to lend a hand to West African clubs so that we can achieve our humanitarian projects. The months following the Fair were vital: we exchanged many communications building trust and discussing service, which led to our ultimate collaboration on a global grant.
Pieter, how did you and your club select a project to support?
PK: I brought home a lot of information about different projects seeking international partners, which I shared with my club’s World Community Service Committee (editor’s note: commonly known as International Service Committee). We were interested in supporting a large-scale, impactful effort. The District 9101 Public Toilets Project, initiated by Marie-Irène, proposed to provide 300 latrine blocks, each with two latrines, throughout the 10 countries in District 9101. The total project cost was set at US $1.3 million. After presenting about the projects I brought back, my WCS Committee and club voted to partner on the Public Toilets Project given its large-scale impact. I consulted with the Rotary Foundation’s Regional Grants Officer for District 9101 and then began coordinating with Marie-Irène. Marie-Irène’s passion and the friendship we formed during the WAPF fueled our commitment to this effort.
How did you find additional international partners to support the project?
PK: After our club committed to serving as the primary international partner on the project, I volunteered to be the primary contact on behalf of what would soon be many international partners. I set to work right away:
- First we worked with the host club to scale back the project: reducing the number of latrine blocks, number of countries, total project scope into a more manageable approach;
- Then I began soliciting support from other clubs and districts for this major proposed global grant project.
How did your two clubs work together?
MIRA: Since I have a personal relationship with Pieter and because we can fluently communicate in English, I have done much of the liaising on behalf of the host club in Abidjan. Andre N’Guessan Kouame, Chair of District 9101’s Water and Sanitation Committee, serves as the primary contact for our host district because he holds a PhD in Water and Sanitation and is a technical expert in the field. Andre and I communicate regularly, and I then coordinate with Pieter and our international partners.
What types of challenges did you need to overcome to work well together?
PK: We had to manage our expectations and remain optimistic and determined as we redefined the project scope and diligently sought additional international support. It takes dedication and consistent outreach to secure partners for projects, but I knew I was well positioned to accomplish the task. I learned many lessons throughout the lengthy process:
1. Gaining international support takes time
- I personally visited clubs throughout Vancouver Island to present on the project, answer questions, and secure support;
- I reached out to my fellow West Africa Project Fair international attendees for their support, and for support from their districts;
- Simultaneously, Marie-Irène pitched project proposals to some of her international friends.
2. Consistent communication
With the host club – Whenever our international partners expressed concerns or raised questions, we regularly requested additional information from the host club. Communication was sometimes challenging because of our language barrier. We sent messages in English together with a Google translation in French, responses from Andre arrived in French and in English from Marie-Irène. In general, we managed to navigate these challenges through consistent communication.
With The Rotary Foundation – From the start, we frequently communicated with our Regional Grants Officers in the Foundation who offered insightful guidance on preparing the application and then the remittance of funds.
With fellow international project supporters – After nine months, I had secured funding commitments from 10 Vancouver Island clubs, the Mid-Island Group (representing 30 clubs), four clubs and two districts in the USA, one club and one district in Australia, and three individual Rotarians who had also participated in the WAPF. All the supporters received regular news and updates about the project status and application process.
3. Patience, Perseverance, and Optimism
- Our first global grant draft was submitted to The Rotary Foundation in December 2016, a year after the initial partnership commitment was established. The Foundation requested additional information, which was quite time consuming for the host to add to the application. Marie-Irène’s offered continuous reassurance and communication on this progress.
- Obtaining the necessary signatures for global grant authorization took much more time than anticipated. An updated grant application was submitted in May 2017, and we received the Foundation’s official approval letter in early June! The project is now underway.
4. Remember the Goal
My goal was to raise US $20,000 here on Vancouver Island. In the end, we raised US $22,937! We are so grateful to District 5020 for the US $15,000 DDF contribution, our Australian club/district partner who provided US $7,350, District 9650 (Australia) who provided US $10,000 in DDF, many club and individual donations. The project, totaling US $165,882, will provide many public spaces, including markets, bus and train stations, and health stations, access to safe and sanitary toilet blocks and hand washing stations.
Now the construction phase of the project begins. It is extremely important that our communication with the host district stays active and timely. I will continue to send regular updates to all of the international project supporters to keep them informed of our progress and eventually our results.
MIRA: We are very grateful to Pieter and his devotion to Rotary and this project. Thank you to Pieter and all of our partners for their support and help, for their understanding of this vital stake we have been facing for many years, and to TRF staff for their guidance and assistance. Mr. Daniel Kablan Duncan, Côte d’Ivoire’s Prime Minister, has been very complimentary of this international partnership. Through our humanitarian commitment, we empower communities, strengthen Rotary’s image and recruit passionate members with a shared dedication to service.