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Wash & Grow! project volunteer, Henrik, shares how he was inspired to volunteer and the benefits of volunteer work

Author Henrik Suikkanen 

Wash & Grow! project volunteer, Henrik, shares how he was inspired to volunteer and the benefits of volunteer work.

How I became interested in the Wash & Grow! project

With education in Economics and a background in consulting and sales and education, I’ve worked on a variety of projects in Finland and Northern Europe that aim to make the construction industry, cities and infrastructure more sustainable. To develop a deeper understanding of these challenges globally, I wanted to broaden my perspective. Sub-Saharan Africa, and more precisely to Kenya is of great interest - a region which will have a major impact on the future of the planet ecologically, socially and economically.

I was immediately interested when I heard about the opportunity to do volunteer work for Wash & Grow! through Aalto University’s Creative Sustainability programme. The project is a clear link to very important challenges, like food security, health, equality and economic empowerment and the project has a very concrete grassroots impact.

Learnings and inspiration from volunteer work

My aim as a volunteer was to support the financial management, social media and event planning as well as consider continuity the project after the initial funding period.

Volunteer work in a totally new context can be planned to some extent, but it is very important to be able to adapt to the local circumstances and various situations. As this was my first time in Kenya, the support of the more experienced team with all the practicalities like transportation, accommodation, insurance and so forth was invaluable.

Even though the Wash & Grow! project is to build just 26 new toilets in Makueni, the additional aim was to find a scalable model to build similar kinds of toilets for other homes and villages.

What inspired me most during my volunteer work period was to meet and work with people who are so committed to finding ways to make the concept work and to improve the sanitation and food security of the many. One of my many ahaa-moments was that solutions to improve the situation can be very practical and don’t require sophisticated imported technology.

Everyone involved was very committed to this goal: not only delivering the promised number of toilets, but to support building capabilities in the field that would allow more toilets to be built using local expertise.

Benefits of doing volunteer work

Although I am a beginner doing volunteer work, I would like to share my thoughts about the experience.

Volunteering is also a lot about exchange and learning. There are different kinds of volunteer work so it is important to consider how to organise your work so it creates additional value for the project. Personally, I feel that I learned a lot of valuable things about the actual content (sanitation), the local culture and volunteering as a concept. This all makes me a bit better equipped for future endeavours.

As a volunteer and newcomer to any project, it is valid - and valuable - to raise questions. Topics such as whether the resources could be more efficiently or if a volunteer is doing work that a local worker would do better. That said, volunteers are absolutely critical for many kinds of projects.

Short- and long-term benefits

Based on my experience, here are a few things to think about if you are considering doing volunteer work:

Volunteer work should be a combination of applying your existing skills and learning new ones. For this project, one very practical outcome was a tool built on Google Sheets to help keep track of expenses and budgets in different currencies in real time. By using my existing skills, I was able to add value by creating structured templates for workshop planning and fundraising.

The key for success is to establish longer-term relations between the volunteers and the project as all parties (the volunteer and the project owners) should benefit in both the short and long term. The trip to the field in Makueni was very rewarding but it was only a part of the work.   

A long-term benefit for the project is that after returning home, I’ve continued to work on sustainability and continuity aspects to ensure the new ways of ecological dry sanitation can be further developed after the Wash & Grow! funding period ends.

I whole-heartedly recommend volunteer experience to everyone!