Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

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Information: What’s It To Ya?

As I near the end of my 3-year contract with EWB, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I know. I’ve spent the past several months transitioning with my successor, Miriam Hird-Younger (who writes this fantastic blog). The transition involves showing her the ropes of the management position, passing off relationships within the sector, giving her gradual responsibility over running the team and emptying my brain of all the little facts and anecdotes I’ve gathered over the past three years about agriculture in Ghana. So, what do I know?

I’ve documented a lot of what I know on this blog: failures in the development sector, what drives performance within the government, how to think about change strategies and more. There are big things, like the on-the-ground realities of multimillion dollar development projects, and small things, like contact information for district directors. But which parts matter? Which parts should I focus on transitioning, and which can I allow to get lost? Which parts will help us achieve the changes we wish to see in the sector, and which are extraneous information? This is what I’ve been pondering.

I’m a big believer in context; I think it’s one of the things that sets EWB staff apart from many other well-meaning development workers. What are projects really accomplishing? How do farmers feel about it? Why are extension agents taking part? What changes do they really want to see? What actually spurs behaviour change among farmers or government workers? We take the time necessary to find out what things are really like on the ground, then use that context to inform our work. It’s both tactical, as it builds our credibility with bigger players in the sector, and strategic, as it allows us to design our strategies in line with ground realities and real forces for change.

So how do we get context? The AgEx team has tried several different ways:

  • village stays (4-7 days)
  • living with farmers (several months)
  • immersion periods (1-2 months, usually with lots of travel)
  • field research (several weeks)
  • immersion in district offices (several months or years)

Each of these different info-gathering methods has a cost. It’s usually not monetary – we never pay more than a few cedis for fuel money – but we cash in some of our social capital, accrued over the past several years of EWB’s work with districts. There is also the opportunity cost to the team, as a staff member spends time gathering information rather than creating change. As I see it, there are three main categories when it comes to cost:

  • extractive – short-term, low-trust relationships, more “Q&A” style – high cost
  • back-and-forth – long-term, high-trust relationships, more “conversation” style – low cost
  • being in the right place at the right time – priceless

As you can see, it costs us more to get information in certain circumstances. So, what are we getting for the price we’re paying?

These different info-gathering methods also get us different types of information. Field research often leads to the “usual” answers. It’s hard to go beyond that without taking advantage of a high-trust relationship, either our own or through an extension agent. Conversely, the longer we stay in one place, whether with a farmer or in a district office, the more we build trust and unlock access to “insider info” and deeper insights.

So what?

These insights are definitely more interesting, and therefore more rewarding to find out. But does this really make a difference to our change strategy? What’s wrong with the usual answers? What types of information are we actually missing that will inform a better strategy, and how will we go about filling these gaps? We need our info-gathering methods to be more tailored to the actual information we seek to gain. And, we need to be willing to pay the cost – it has to be worth it.

But even as I write this, I question what I’m saying. Do we really need to be so targeted? Looking only for certain things, ignoring all the rest? Some of the best stuff I’ve learned has been during “in the right place at the right time” moments, like being part of a district staff meeting, or out on an extension visit unrelated to my direct work objectives. As I said above, I’m a strong believer in context, and I believe it’s what sets EWB apart. But it’s not just good luck. Being conscious of what we can expect from different info-gathering methods will help us tailor our learning opportunities to be in the right place at the right time.

What do you think about the value and cost of information? What experiences or learning have most shaped your work? Was the learning experience carefully crafted, or were you simply in the right place at the right time?

Imagine 2036

Hi folks,

Tis the season – the fundraising season, that is! And in this season, I like to share with you a little bit of what inspires me to be here after almost 3 years. Please read my campaign below, and feel free to go to the site and donate to my campaign. If you don’t have money to support me, I also accept encouraging comments, personal emails and care packages!

Thanks for all your love and support,
Erin

Those who know me will agree that one of my strongest values is fairness. My whole life, I haven’t been able to handle it when THINGS. JUST. AREN’T. FAIR. When people jump in line ahead of you. When one person gets a bigger “half” of a snack (good thing we employed the “you cut, I choose” rule in the Antcliffe household!). When men earn more money than women for the same work. When the country you’re born in determines most of how your future will play out.

I see a lot of unfairness in my work as the AgEx Team Leader in Ghana. After 2.5 years, I’ve even become desensitized to it a little bit. But then something happens, and that fairness value blows up inside of me – it’s just not fair! Like when I see how easy it is for me to get a visa to visit Ghana, and how difficult it is for a Ghanaian to visit Canada. Or when I see children show up to school but the teacher doesn’t, thereby depriving those students of their right to education. Or when the women at the office are expected to serve the workshop lunch to the men, but never the other way around.

Often I hear, “but Erin, life’s not fair“. No kidding. But does that mean we should accept inequalities and move on with our lives? I don’t think so!

Hakim, Maliki and Wekaya

My dream for 2036 is for fairness. I dream that every child in Ghana today, like Hakim, Maliki and Wekaya in the photo above, will have access to the same opportunities as their equals in Canada. I dream that hard work will determine one’s success more than the circumstances of one’s birth. I dream that getting ahead doesn’t mean pushing others down. I dream of a world that presents fair and equal opportunities to allow every member of the next generation to prosper.

I will spend every day of my life working for fairness. This is a value I will always hold, whether I’m working in Africa or Canada. Please join me in working toward my dream of fairness by making a contribution to my campaign.

Update from EWB’s MoFA/AgEx Team

Hi blog readers,

I recently wrote an update for our alumni about our latest work on the AgEx team, and I’d like to share it with you too! You can find it here. (After an hour fighting with WordPress about embedded MailChimp html, I am admitting defeat and providing the link – I hope you’ll check it out!)

Please enjoy, and get in touch if you have any questions, comments or you want to work for us! ;)

-Erin

New Publication: Future Agricultural Models

I’ve just added a new Agricultural Extension team publication to the “Publications” tab on this blog – head on over to take a look!

This excellent paper was written by AgEx team member Miriam Hird-Younger (who also happens to have a fantastic blog). It’s a great overview of some of the current views on global food systems and recommendations for how EWB can engage going forward. In a nutshell, there is no consensus about the “way forward” in agriculture. Some people promote high-intensity commercial farming, others encourage organic, while still others support small-scale producers.

EWB does not have the answer (or the expertise to ascertain an answer) to this highly complex problem of ongoing food production. But I believe it’s important to stay on top of the debate and make sure that we continue to ask ourselves, “what type of agricultural model are we working toward?” It would be a shame to look back in 20 years and realize that although we were promoting human development, it was at the expense of the long-term sustainability of food production in Africa.

So head on over and take a look at this thought-provoking paper! Link is here.

On Leadership

It’s been several months since I’ve written here. There have been ups and downs and rough patches, but I haven’t felt compelled to share these with the wider world. Just suffice to say it’s been a bit crazy around here since November.

Loyal readers will remember that I was writing last year about my EWB team’s strategy development process. A lot has changed since I last wrote, but I’m not going to try to summarize all of it today – I’m sure it will keep changing at a rapid pace. Instead, I want to write about my personal reflections on this process.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on our strategy lately, and on my role in developing it. I’m now a Team Leader for the Agricultural Extension (AgEx) team in EWB. With this leadership role comes a lot of responsibility, and I’ve been learning a lot about what kind of responsibility I thrive with and where I think I fall short. For example, I love the administrative responsibilities of managing a team. I also love the opportunity to invest in the personal and professional growth of every member of my team. Those aspects of my job are thrilling! I am also thrilled by thinking about the “big picture” of the sector we’re working in and how we’re making change in that sector. But that is also where I struggle the most.

I was told when I took this role that one of my challenges would be developing a strong vision and leading people toward it. That prediction has proven to be very true. I am someone who has always excelled more at poking holes in ideas than in building them up myself. I always chalked it up to a lack of creativity, but there’s more to it than that. My naturally critical mind can think of a million different ways for a project to fail. That makes it pretty damn hard to design a solution that I truly believe in, and even harder to sell it to a whole team of people who are here to commit years of their lives to realizing that vision.

Our team has landed on a ~20-year vision of an agricultural extension sector that is innovative, coordinated and customer-service oriented. We’ve imagined a competitive market where extension service providers come from the public, private and civil society sectors to meet the needs of different segments of customers (farmers) to promote socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. We see quality being added to these extension services at many points, from training and education, to a strong management structure, to well-developed field tools and approaches, to a strong enabling policy environment. And this vision has me PUMPED UP!!

But how do we get there? That’s where it gets a bit more messy. To dig into that question, our team has been designing a Theory of Change (see some great posts on Theory of Change by Duncan Green from Oxfam). We started by identifying 8 key changes that need to happen in order for our vision to be realized, then worked backward to understand the steps needed to realize these changes. We are still working on that part, but the hope is that the Theory of Change will define where our team needs to work in order to realize our vision in 20 years.

So we have a strong vision, we have a Theory of Change, now we need to get started. And this is where I get stuck. How do we, the five members of EWB’s AgEx team, create the change we want to see in the extension sector? There are seeeeeerious challenges ahead. Most of the major changes in the agric sector are created by those with money, power, political influence, or (more often) a mix of all three. We have none of those things. So how do we change the system?

We need to build a solution. Not just a theory, not just our assumptions and hypotheses, but an actual work-plan for how to move forward. Where should I post the new staff I’ll be getting in June and September? Who can they work with? Will their placements be based on learning, or experimenting, or scaling, or influencing? What about the staff on the ground right now? Who are the most influential partners we should be working with? How do we get others to start thinking about extension in the same way we’re thinking about it? Questions swirling in my mind… and very few answers.

Now, back to my struggles as a (non-)visionary leader. What does this mean for my ability to lead my team toward our exciting-yet-difficult-to-attain future? (Stick with me, I’ll land soon.)

I remember someone asking me a few years ago about my Principle of Leadership. At the time, I stammered and mumbled and generally had no idea. But the question has stuck with me and now I know my answer: my strength as a leader is defined by my ability to leverage the strengths of my team. This is really the principle I rely on in all situations. I have some strengths, but I also have lots of weaknesses, and it is only be relying on my team that I am able to bring the best out of us as a whole.

I look to Robin for bringing unbridled passion for the public sector and making sure we always connect our work to poor farmers. I rely on Miriam to bring insights and approaches from her background in development studies. I lean on Siera for a connection to current field realities from being embedded with extension staff and farmers. I depend on Don for his selfless work ethic and insane networking skills to find new partners for our team.

I am grateful for all of these people, and all those I have worked with in the past in EWB. There is so much talent around me, it’s overwhelming! I feel privileged to be in a position to harness all this potential and move us toward an impactful change in the agricultural extension sector. I may not be leading the way with my vision, but I have no doubt that we’ll get there. How could I, when I have an amazing team-ful of talents at my fingertips?

Dancin’ up a Storm!

We currently have the best neighbours on the planet. Everyone is super-friendly, and the kids are plentiful, cute and speak enough English to get along with. They are tons of fun! Ben recently revealed that he has a guitar, so that’s the current favourite thing to do. They love listening to Ben play, and the love dancing along to the music! This one little guy, Wuntira, is particularly energetic in his dance moves. He knows how to get down! He was making me laugh hysterically the other day, so I decided to film his dancing and post it on the internet. What else? You can also see his little sister, Nasara, trying to copy his sweet moves. Just another day in Tamale!

Also, if you haven’t had time yet to check out my Perspective for EWB’s holiday fundraising campaign, please take a look. I would really appreciate your support!

Enjoy!

Challenging Perspectives – Extending a Hand Up

Challenging Perspectives is EWB Canada’s annual holiday campaign to combine fundraising and outreach. You can also read my Perspective below here and make a donation. Click here to browse some of the other perspectives.

When I first came to Ghana in March 2010, I lived with a host family in a village called Zuo. The head of the family is a farmer named Salifo. He is more educated than most of his neighbours. He can read and write in English and do simple math. He is a teacher at the local kindergarten, a community health volunteer, and helps run the local shea butter soap production group.

My friend Salifo

But when it comes to farming, Salifo doesn’t do well. One day last summer, I sat down with him to analyze his farm from the previous year. He’d grown 3 main crops: maize, rice and groundnuts. I asked him how much money he’d spent on growing these crops. From his memory, he listed out precise figures of his investments in seed, fertilizer, tractor services and labour. I wrote each number down under the corresponding crop. Next, I asked him how many bags he’d harvested from each crop, and the price he’d sold them for. Again, he listed the numbers from memory, and I wrote them all down. Finally, we arrived at the crucial step, the one he’d been avoiding: calculating his profit.

Maize: -293GhC

Rice: -204GhC

Groundnuts: -4GhC

In total, Salifo had lost 501GhC (about $375) on his farm that season. And that doesn’t include his own time and labour.

Why did Salifo lose so much money? There are three contributing problems:

  1. His farming skills and knowledge are poor. Salifo may be an educated man, but he doesn’t know how to get the most out of his farm. He needs to learn about the basic techniques that will improve his productivity: use improved seed, plant in rows, apply the right fertilizer at the right time, and respond quickly and appropriately to pests and disease.
  2. He doesn’t have a business mindset. Salifo is so many things, as I mentioned: a teacher, a community health worker, a volunteer, and a farmer. But he is not a business man, at least when it comes to his farm. He needs to learn some basic business skills: record-keeping, marketing, profit calculations and decision-making.
  3. He can’t control nature. Alright, this one isn’t his fault. He lives in an area with poor soil fertility and unreliable rains. But this means his risk management skills need to be even better – he cannot rely on his rain-fed farm to sustain his family.

This is a tragedy. Thousands, if not millions of farmers in Ghana are suffering from these same skill deficiencies. But there is a solution: effective agricultural extension services.

Tahiru, an Agricultural Extension Agent, giving advice to farmers in Wamale

In order to profit from their farms, farmers need at least 2 things: 1) information on how to farm, and 2) business skills. Agricultural extension provides both of these things. (They also need input and output markets; see EWB’s Agricultural Markets team’s work for more!)

Traditionally, the government has hired Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) who go out to the villages to teach farmers about new technologies and practices. However, with new Information Communication Technologies (ICT) such as video and mobile phones, there is room for innovative new solutions to increase the reach and impact of extension services to farmers.

Ultimately, effective extension services come down to farmer behaviour change. This is an area where EWB has both experience and expertise. Drawing on our history of success with the Agriculture As a Business tool, we are developing new tools and approaches to improve technology adoption and behaviour change in farmers using innovative new technologies. Check out some examples here and here.

I know many of you have supported my work in the past. I sincerely thank you for that – your donation has made a difference! I have personally stepped up my commitment to the cause this year by becoming the Manager of EWB’s Public Sector Agriculture team in Ghana. I am asking you to also step up your commitment by contributing this year to my fundraising campaign!

Your donation to EWB will allow us to keep exploring and developing these tools to help farmers like Salifo to make a profitable living from their farms. I personally believe that we are making an impact through our work, from the farm right up to the policy-makers. But we need your donation to keep it up! Whether $5, $50 or $500, your donation will make a difference.

To make a donation, please visit my Perspectives page here.

Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!

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