10 things I learned from being Project Manager

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I’ve just arrived back in the UK after 6 weeks as Project Manager in Mbarara. I’m very sad to have left Uganda, but now that I’m back home, I’ve had a chance to reflect on some of the things I learned this summer…

 1. Our model works

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A library reorganised by EPAfrica Project Workers.

As a Project Worker, it’s hard to get a sense of the impact of what you’re doing – you don’t know if your projects will have the intended effect or if they will last after you leave. Visiting our graduate schools and seeing how their exam results have risen since investment has shown me that our work has a huge impact in our partner schools. My fellow Mbarara coordinator, Ben Simpson, wrote a blog post about how one Mbarara school has been progressing since investment.

2. There is huge need for what we do

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Comparing graduate schools to schools which haven’t received investment reveals a stark difference, as Luke Picknett, Chairman of our Board of Trustees, discusses in his blog post. The potential partner schools I visited were often extremely needy, and in fact there are many more schools in need of our help than we are able to work with. But there’s lots of reasons to be hopeful, because…

3. East Africa is full of incredible people

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From the headmistress who’s built up her school from scratch, to the engineer who offers us free construction advice year after year, to the teacher who puts in extra hours to help his struggling students. These people are changing the face of East African education through their dedication and kindness, and being able to meet and work with such inspiring individuals was a huge privilege.

4. There’s no single recipe for a successful EPAfrica school

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I’ve just written a blog post about this. Our partner schools in Mbarara this year are hugely varied – they range from 180 to 750 students, and some are very needy while others are better-resourced. But visiting our graduate schools and seeing how varied they are too has shown me that many different types of school can thrive with our investment.

5. East Africa is changing fast

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It’s only been two years since I was a Project Worker, but Uganda has changed hugely in that time – the roads are better, more students are studying IT, and transferring money by mobile phone is the new norm. East Africa is changing at an astonishing pace, and we’ve got our work cut out for us if we want to keep up! That’s why it’s a good thing that…

6. EPAfrica is constantly adapting its model

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As a Project Worker, you’re told that EPAfrica is always adapting its model, but only when you’re involved over the long term do you get to see this process happening. A great example is the Innovation Seed Fund, which is new this year and which will hopefully encourage the Project Workers to try more unusual and innovative projects in their schools. But there are lots of other developments which happen behind the scenes – whether in how we decide to allocate central pot money, or in how we communicate with our East African stakeholders. What makes this especially exciting is that…

7. As a volunteer, you get to be at the forefront of this change

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One of my favourite things about EPAfrica is the power that it gives to its volunteers – if you have a great idea for improving the charity, you can make it happen. This is true for all our volunteers, but it’s especially true as Project Manager, a role which places you right at the heart of all the action. You’re the person in charge on the ground, so you’re responsible for implementing new ideas, seeing what works and feeding back to everyone else – that’s a pretty huge responsibility! Which leads me on to…

8. EPAfrica gives its volunteers great amounts of responsibility

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Again, this is true for all our volunteers – investing £1800 or £2700 in a school is a big responsibility. EPAfrica doesn’t micro-manage its volunteers, and whether you’re a Project Worker or a Project Manager, you’re given a lot of autonomy. You feel this particularly strongly as Project Manager, when you’re responsible for the safety of a large group of people – it’s a bit scary at times, but also an amazing challenge.

9. Being Project Manager is a great opportunity to develop your skills

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I’ve learnt a huge amount from being Project Manager. Admittedly there are some skills I probably won’t use again, like a detailed knowledge of water tank construction and rainfall rates in South-West Uganda. But I’ve also developed lots of transferable skills. Leadership, managing people, making decisions under pressure, problem-solving, negotiating, working to deadlines – the list goes on. Being Project Manager provides an unparalleled opportunity for self-development. It’s also a lot of fun, because…

10. Our volunteers are amazing people

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It turns out that if you’ve decided to give up your summer, put months into fundraising, and tolerate long-drops for 10 weeks in order to help out an East African school, you’re probably quite a nice person. Getting to know the new batch of Project Workers and supporting them through their projects was undoubtedly the best thing about being Project Manager. They are all fantastic people, and working with them for 6 weeks has been an absolute pleasure!

Ellie is the 2016 Mbarara Project Manager. She was a Project Worker at Shuuku Vocational Secondary School in 2014 and coordinated in Kisii and Kakamega in 2015. She has recently graduated from Oxford where she studied Classics and hopes to start a masters at LSE in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. This summer she hopes to learn to cook.