A New Approach to Trust

Story by Erin Burba ⎜ Photo by Ashna Singh

When I decided to move to Tanzania for my second co-op, I had very little foundation for and understanding of what was ahead. I knew next to nothing about the country. My new boss couldn’t tell me exactly what kind of projects I would be working on, and he was honest in telling me about the challenges of operating in Tanzania’s solar energy market. My solo travels had all been to Western, English-speaking countries, and my trips to more unfamiliar places were always heavily structured and accompanied with school support. I was finally hitting a stride with my social life and mental health, and I was terrified that neither would survive such an interruption as half a year on the other side of the world. Still, I recognized that the co-op with Sikubora was an amazing opportunity, and I hated the idea that I would allow fear of the unknown to dictate my life and limit my experience based on my perception of safety. The bravery/FOMO got the best of me, and I moved to Tanzania where I would live for the next seven months.

When Sikubora approaches people interested in purchasing a solar energy system for their home, it is assumed that this will be the first formal loan of the customer’s life. The scarcity of formal financial institutions and generally informal, piecewise nature of employment in Tanzania lead many people to have little to no documentation of their financial activity. In traditional financial institutions, a person with no formal bank account and no proof of employment would almost definitely be denied the opportunity for a loan. And yet, Sikubora routinely grants multi-hundred dollar loans to this population.

This year, I’ve run into many personal and professional situations where the foundation for taking the next step was anywhere from minimal to unstable. I acted with a less-than-confident degree of certainty. At Sikubora, my boss, my coworkers, and I pooled small and scattered pieces of evidence in favor of people’s abilities and trusted that they could produce an outcome that was comparable to one founded on conveniently aggregated, straightforward evidence. It was not a perfect method. Some situations looked riskier in hindsight than previously assessed. But we accomplished so much more than we would have if we only acted on obvious foundations and straightforward paths. Trust empowered us to try.

The credit approval process at Sikubora was designed to compile these scattered pieces of evidence in favor of the customer’s responsibility and financial activity into a real foundation for loan eligibility. Completing the credit application with a Sikubora employee establishes our relationship with the customer as one built on honesty and trust: if they can provide accurate personal information, we can work to create mutually beneficial opportunities. Piecework, farming, self-employment, and the endorsement of local leaders are respected and recognized with similar weight to formal employment and banking. System shut-offs and loan defaults are not automatic, but rather something we avoid through compassionate displays of moderate leniency and active customer relations.  We found that once we identified a customer as responsible and trustworthy, and recognized that with a loan, the customer works hard to maintain that identity and adhere to the terms of repayment.

Starting my co-op at Sikubora, I was tasked with familiarizing myself with the company’s resource tracking software and enhancing it with new reports and utilities. It took some time to become familiar with the tech stack, but I learned what was required to be competent in my position. I listened to my coworkers in the all-company meetings and started working with them to identify and alleviate pain points in their work. A few months into the co-op, I designed and built a complete inventory tracking system. Then, my boss started giving me non-technical tasks, like working on the financial model and writing funding proposals.

This experience of doing my co-op in Tanzania has already had an immense impact on how I think about my life, approach my goals, and address challenges. At the root of each change is my new approach to trust. Despite the demands of my classes and the anxiety of securing my final co-op, I have found myself more relaxed, more resilient to adversity and stronger in standing up to my fears and avoidant tendencies. I can recognize that I’ve made it through every challenge up to this point, and with that, I can trust myself to find a way through the next round. I’ve started focusing more on my habits and default systems than on my goals, finally able to trust the compounding effects rather than worry about immediate results. My willingness to trust others – personally, professionally, emotionally – has a much more liberal foundation.

I don’t know what my life would be like if I never let myself act with less than complete confidence. I might still be in my hometown, or at least still in Kentucky. I definitely wouldn’t have moved to Tanzania, nor would I be applying for co-op positions that I feel are a reach for my skills and experience. If the folks at Sikubora never took a risk on granting someone a loan for a solar energy system, a lot of responsible, hard-working Tanzanians still wouldn’t have reliable electricity in their homes. I don’t know what the future holds. But in the present, I can act in a way that validates the efforts of my past self with trust in my future self.

When I decided to move to Tanzania for my second co-op, I had very little foundation for and understanding of what was ahead. I knew next to nothing about the country. My new boss couldn’t tell me exactly what kind of projects I would be working on, and he was honest in telling me about the challenges of operating in Tanzania’s solar energy market. My solo travels had all been to Western, English-speaking countries, and my trips to more unfamiliar places were always heavily structured and accompanied with school support. I was finally hitting a stride with my social life and mental health, and I was terrified that neither would survive such an interruption as half a year on the other side of the world. Still, I recognized that the co-op with Sikubora was an amazing opportunity, and I hated the idea that I would allow fear of the unknown to dictate my life and limit my experience based on my perception of safety. The bravery/FOMO got the best of me, and I moved to Tanzania where I would live for the next seven months.

When Sikubora approaches people interested in purchasing a solar energy system for their home, it is assumed that this will be the first formal loan of the customer’s life. The scarcity of formal financial institutions and generally informal, piecewise nature of employment in Tanzania lead many people to have little to no documentation of their financial activity. In traditional financial institutions, a person with no formal bank account and no proof of employment would almost definitely be denied the opportunity for a loan. And yet, Sikubora routinely grants multi-hundred dollar loans to this population.

This year, I’ve run into many personal and professional situations where the foundation for taking the next step was anywhere from minimal to unstable. I acted with a less-than-confident degree of certainty. At Sikubora, my boss, my coworkers, and I pooled small and scattered pieces of evidence in favor of people’s abilities and trusted that they could produce an outcome that was comparable to one founded on conveniently aggregated, straightforward evidence. It was not a perfect method. Some situations looked riskier in hindsight than previously assessed. But we accomplished so much more than we would have if we only acted on obvious foundations and straightforward paths. Trust empowered us to try.

The credit approval process at Sikubora was designed to compile these scattered pieces of evidence in favor of the customer’s responsibility and financial activity into a real foundation for loan eligibility. Completing the credit application with a Sikubora employee establishes our relationship with the customer as one built on honesty and trust: if they can provide accurate personal information, we can work to create mutually beneficial opportunities. Piecework, farming, self-employment, and the endorsement of local leaders are respected and recognized with similar weight to formal employment and banking. System shut-offs and loan defaults are not automatic, but rather something we avoid through compassionate displays of moderate leniency and active customer relations.  We found that once we identified a customer as responsible and trustworthy, and recognized that with a loan, the customer works hard to maintain that identity and adhere to the terms of repayment.

Starting my co-op at Sikubora, I was tasked with familiarizing myself with the company’s resource tracking software and enhancing it with new reports and utilities. It took some time to become familiar with the tech stack, but I learned what was required to be competent in my position. I listened to my coworkers in the all-company meetings and started working with them to identify and alleviate pain points in their work. A few months into the co-op, I designed and built a complete inventory tracking system. Then, my boss started giving me non-technical tasks, like working on the financial model and writing funding proposals.

This experience of doing my co-op in Tanzania has already had an immense impact on how I think about my life, approach my goals, and address challenges. At the root of each change is my new approach to trust. Despite the demands of my classes and the anxiety of securing my final co-op, I have found myself more relaxed, more resilient to adversity and stronger in standing up to my fears and avoidant tendencies. I can recognize that I’ve made it through every challenge up to this point, and with that, I can trust myself to find a way through the next round. I’ve started focusing more on my habits and default systems than on my goals, finally able to trust the compounding effects rather than worry about immediate results. My willingness to trust others – personally, professionally, emotionally – has a much more liberal foundation.

I don’t know what my life would be like if I never let myself act with less than complete confidence. I might still be in my hometown, or at least still in Kentucky. I definitely wouldn’t have moved to Tanzania, nor would I be applying for co-op positions that I feel are a reach for my skills and experience. If the folks at Sikubora never took a risk on granting someone a loan for a solar energy system, a lot of responsible, hard-working Tanzanians still wouldn’t have reliable electricity in their homes. I don’t know what the future holds. But in the present, I can act in a way that validates the efforts of my past self with trust in my future self.