Inam Teja was part of the 2019 – 2020 AKFC International Youth Fellowship cohort and was placed with Accelerate Prosperity in Khorog, Tajikistan.
Accelerate Prosperity is a global initiative of the Aga Khan Development Network, aiming to foster inclusive economic growth with a focus on youth and women in rural and semi-rural areas. During his Fellowship, Inam’s work primarily involved investor relations, but he was also involved in some communications work. “I think I was the only native English speaker on the team,” he said. “I did a little bit of everything, whatever needed to be done.”
When his Fellowship ended in February 2020, Inam planned to travel around Tajikistan and Central Asia, slowly making his way back to Canada. But the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his plans. As flights were pushed back, Inam started to volunteer at Ilmhona, a local organization whose name means house of science or house of technology.
Ilmhona is a technology skills accelerator school, offering various courses and training in areas like graphic design, application development, and programming. “It was founded by a few local friends I met in Tajikistan, and it’s a very new organization, founded in 2018. When I started volunteering, it was just to help my friends out with writing some grant proposals. I was only the fourth person on the team,” Inam said.
As flights became delayed further, Inam decided to stay in Tajikistan to work at Ilmhona, first as a Fundraising Specialist and now as their Chief Financial Officer. “I immediately felt like part of the team there,” he explained. Inam describes it as a young and exciting organization with a clear vision, where everyone is dedicated to building the organization. In his time there, he has witnessed and been a part of Ilmhona’s remarkable growth. “Now, our team has 16 people,” he said. “We started with running two courses and now we have eight running in parallel.”
Aiming to solve the lack of economic opportunity in Tajikistan, Ilmhona is trying to make a shift from exporting low-skilled labour to importing high-skilled jobs. “Tajikistan is one of the top countries in the world in terms of remittance to GDP ratio,” explained Inam. “Young people leave Tajikistan en masse to Russia or the Middle East as migrant labourers because there aren’t enough opportunities to have high-paying jobs in the country.”
By engaging in the digital economy and building digital skills, Ilmhona hopes to improve job opportunities for young women and men, and provide an alternative to emigrating. With a recent launch of a commercial arm, Ilmhona now offers its graduates opportunities to work on projects for local and international clients. “Oftentimes, this will be their entry-level junior position job, where they’ll be working with more senior developers in our network. It also gives us another revenue stream, so we can be a little more sustainable instead of constantly relying on grant funding,” said Inam.
Having always been interested in having an international career and having pursued global studies in university, Inam credits his Fellowship experience as an introduction to living in a different, local context and doing something impactful. “The Fellowship was a way to be in a place where I could learn about the world and get a better understanding of humanity, being in a place where I was out of my comfort zone and experiencing and exploring in a way that I couldn’t do in Canada,” he said. “I want to do things that matter to people, but I also want to learn about myself. I want to learn about humanity, and what it means to be a global citizen. I’ve had great opportunities to have that learning and I’ve met incredible and inspirational people.”
Working for Accelerate Prosperity and Ilmhona not only led to professional growth for Inam, but also spurred personal growth and reflection. “For one, patience is important – things move at a different pace here, so I had to learn to navigate and negotiate with that,” he said. While the language barrier was not an issue as most of his colleagues spoke English, cultural references and different communication styles were also things he remembers adapting to.
Inam’s experience of moving to and working in Tajikistan has also informed his approach to development work. “As a foreigner working in Tajikistan, I had to learn to be a supporter rather than a leader,” he said. Having grown up in Canada and having always taken charge in group projects, Inam said that his general instinct has always been to be the decisionmaker. “But that’s not how I want to be in terms of doing development work,” he said. “I’ll provide critique and share my opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s not my place to be the decisionmaker. For development to be sustainable, it needs to be led by people who understand the context and who are living with the issues and solutions.”
To aspiring fellows and those interested in working in development, Inam offered some words of wisdom:
The best advice I can give is to go into your experience with an open mind. Be willing to learn. Acknowledge that there are going to be moments that will be difficult but reframe them as growth opportunities. Roll with the challenges and treat them as learning opportunities. The unconventional path has led me to an amazing job, so be open to doing things.