Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

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Happy Farmer’s Day!

Last Friday was National Farmer’s Day in Ghana, which is a national holiday to celebrate farmers and their role in the country (it’s a big role!). Everyone enjoyed the day off – except Agric staff, who were working their butts off!

Each district holds a Farmer’s Day celebration in one of the villages. This year our celebration was in Dunyii, a small village on the road heading east out of Tamale. There were tons of plastic chairs, canopies to shade people from the sun, a microphone, loudspeaker, etc. – all the trappings of a formal engagement.

The day started off early with staff getting to the site to set everything up. The “big men”, including politicians, government workers, and heads of local NGOs, started arriving around 9am. The day was kicked off around 10am with some welcome speeches and music/dancing/drumming by a local cultural group. It was great!

There were a few other speeches, and prizes were awarded to several farmers in the district. These prizes include Best Metro Farmer (the overall best prize, including a bicycle, cutlasses, roofing sheets, Wellington boots, a radio, fertilizer, and other goodies), Best Woman Farmer, Best Youth Farmer, Best Agric Staff and Best ___ Farmer for all kinds of crops – Yams, Maize, Soya, Cattle, etc. It was a wonderful day!

After the formal celebration ended, we cleaned everything up and headed back to the office, where food and drinks were served to celebrate and appreciate the staff. Then everyone took off early to watch the National Farmer’s Day Awards on TV (yeah it’s a big deal!).

The purpose of Farmer’s Day is to celebrate farmers. It’s a tradition that’s been happening now for 26 years. I think it’s a great idea. But sometimes the real focus of the day – the farmers – gets lost in the politics. This is indicative of a larger sentiment throughout MoFA, which is becoming more and more influenced by political figures and programs. But really, the purpose of MoFA and what I’m working to promote is to SERVE FARMERS WELL.

A gallery of photos from the day is attached. Have a look!

Happy Farmer’s Day!!


Why I’m Here

A friend recently wrote me an email in response to my appeal for funds with EWB’s Challenging Perspectives campaign. He identified an inner conflict: he felt he should donate out of obligation to our friendship and feared that he would be ostracized if he didn’t, but was having trouble personally connecting with my work in Ghana. To donate, he felt that he should really believe in the work that EWB is doing (and I’m doing, through EWB) and be able to get behind it 100%. I most definitely agree!

This is exactly the kind of conversation I want to start with my Challenging Perspectives campaign. Why do we feel obligated to donate to charities when we really know little about what they do? How can charities make people FEEL something and personally connect people to their work? It’s a struggle on both sides.

In response to this email, I wrote back answering 3 questions:

  1. Why am I here?
  2. How am I feeling about it?
  3. What am I working towards?

Below is the email I sent back to my friend. I hope it answered these questions for him, and I hope it will for you too. Either way, leave a comment and let me know what you think!

1.   I’m here because:

  • I feel fortunate to have been born to an affluent family in a developed country and hate that it means I have so many more opportunities for happiness and success than so many other people in the world – I want to work to decrease global economic and “opportunity” disparity
  • I feel guilty about being born in Canada and feel I have a responsibility to help others
  • I believe we live in a globalized world where we’re all connected and will have deep impacts on how others live, whether through our consumer habits, environmental practices or political policies
  • I think change IS possible in developing countries, specifically in Ghana from having spent time here, and I want to help create that change
  • This is a pretty cool job that gives me good professional experience and is developing a lot of skills that I value (management, leadership, critical thinking, communication, etc.)

Salifo and Hussain, father and son. I dream the son will have more opportunities than the father.

2.   How I feel:

  • Frustrated that change happens so slowly
  • Unmotivated by some circumstances in Ghana (sexism, racism, kids not going to school, etc.) and some of the people I work with
  • Incredibly motivated by some of the other people I work with (one of whom is an AEA who is hopefully coming to the EWB conference in January!)
  • Love for my EWB teammates and lucky that I get to work with such cool people
  • Hopeful that we are making some incremental changes and the pace of change is increasing as we gain experience and credibility

Our awesome Rural Agriculture team (miss you Meg!)

3.   What I want to have happen:

  • MoFA does a better job of serving poor farmers in Ghana, which is 80% of the population in the north. This means helping farmers to improve their farming techniques and help people to see farming as a business instead of a way of life (a lot of people are like “my grandfather farmed, my father farmed, I farm but I don’t have a job” – it’s not seen as a viable “career” to be a farmer, even though you can get rich if you have a good commercial business plan!). This will require MoFA to have excellent extension staff that go around and visit farmers to help them manage this mindset shift. MoFA is a government institution, so it is here to stay, and it already has a wide network of field staff in place, making it a great partner to work with if we want to reach a high number of Ghanaian farmers. But there are a lot of reasons right now why MoFA isn’t doing the best it can for farmers.
  • MoFA is slowly becoming decentralized (which is good), meaning each district will get to choose their own work, manage their own budget, decide which development projects are best-suited to farmers in their district, hire the best staff and fire the worst, define their own culture. Right now it’s the opposite: everything is decided at the national level and pushed down to districts, which often means projects are ill-suited to the local conditions or won’t benefit farmers, implementation is poor, there are not enough resources to do everything that’s asked of the district staff, there is low motivation and low ownership over work.
  • In order for decentralization to happen, MoFA needs to have technical, managerial and operational capacity. They’re pretty good at the technical capacity (knowing technical stuff about agriculture to spread to farmers, like research findings, new technologies, improved seeds and fertilizers, etc.). This is mostly what they learn in school (“agric college”) and what MoFA has traditionally focused on. They are less good at the managerial and operational capacities.
  • I want EWB to help improve these capacities through developing managers (lots of ways to do this – management training, fellowships like the one I talk about in my Perspective, one-on-one coaching, sharing management resources, etc.) and developing operational capacity (improved supervision, budget management, work planning, scheduling, staff motivation, computer and reporting skills, culture of learning from experience, etc.). These are things that EWB is already good at and we have a clear value-add to districts.
  • The challenge in all this is developing initiatives that work for one district (specific) but can be scaled to many districts (general). There are lots of questions here: are we satisfied with just helping a few districts, one at a time? or do we want to achieve wide-scale change? Is it possible to create this scaled change without reducing the quality of what we’re doing? What other mechanisms already exist that we can use to scale these ideas?

Dry season tomato farmers near Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region

Our team is in the middle of a visioning/strategy design process so a lot of questions will be answered in the next month about what we’re working toward more specifically. We’ve recently had a bunch of people leave the team and we’re small now (only 5), so we need to re-tune our ambitions to what we can realistically accomplish with these resources. That said, we’re asking for 3 more volunteers to be added to our team in March so we can get more manpower to enact our vision.

And that’s where your donation comes in. Seriously, it’s all about the money. Without money – most of which comes from donations at EWB, since we have a hard cap on what % of our budget we’ll take from CIDA so we can remain independent and advocate against the Canadian government when necessary – we can’t realize these changes. We’re a pretty small organization in terms of number of staff in Africa, but we’re punching above our weight in terms of influencing higher-up development big-wigs. This is happening in Canada too, with awesome stuff happening lately with advocacy and CIDA. I am often critical of things EWB does, but I’m happy that it’s encouraged in the organization’s culture to be critical. That’s how we try to do the right things.

Anyway, I obviously believe this is an organization that’s headed in the right direction and making some much-needed changes on the ground. And if I’ve convinced you that’s true, then I would love for you to donate!

But no pressure. SERIOUSLY. Don’t donate because you are my friend, or my parents’ friend, or because I keep emailing you, or because other people have donated. Donate because you believe this work is important, change is needed and EWB is doing it well.

Celebrating Salah with Ayesha and Namawu, two of my favourite friends in Tamale!! Seriously, these girls are awesome!!

P.S. A small update on my Challenging Perspectives campaign: I’m currently in first place for the most funds raised! I’ve raised $2105 out of my goal of $5000, thanks to everyone who’s donated so far. So if you haven’t donated yet and you connect with what I’m doing here, please consider making a donation to my campaign! https://perspectives.ewb.ca/erinantcliffe


What’s your Perspective?

“What does poverty reduction look like? How should it be done? What’s an engineer’s role? You likely have a perspective. So do the people creating pages on this site. They want to challenge your perspective by sharing theirs. They believe in EWB’s systemic approach to addressing the root causes of poverty. Intrigued? Read their perspectives. And if you suddenly see things a little differently, make a donation to EWB.”

This year, EWB is trying a new type of holiday campaign. Instead of focusing solely on donations, they’re challenging peoples’ perspectives. Each EWB member is encouraged to write their perspective and post it online to get people thinking critically about development. If you agree with the perspectives, you are encouraged to donate to EWB.

I’ve written my own perspective and posted it here. I’m also posting it below. Please read it with a critical eye and think about your own opinion. If you agree with me and want to support my work, please visit the donation page here. Even if you can’t donate, please leave a comment and share your own perspective!

Thanks for reading!

It’s 6am in Tamale, Ghana. I’m sitting at the picnic table in my living room, typing on my laptop while the morning prayers from the adjacent mosque blare through my windows. The sounds of roosters and the smells of morning cooking also waft in. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s part of life in Ghana, a country built on agriculture.

Engineers Without Borders Canada has been working in Ghana for over 5 years with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. We believe that the 80% of Ghanaians who are rural farmers can move from subsistence to prosperity.

But the Ministry of Food and Agriculture is a difficult place to work. Funds are insufficient and usually released late, staff is unmotivated, and ownership over problems and successes is low. There is a strong desire to help farmers, but few resources to do so.

Over the past year I’ve had the privilege of leading the DDA Fellowship, a program for District Directors in the Ministry. These Directors lead their field staff to deliver extension services to farmers such as technical support, market information and business training.

The Fellowship brought together eight strong Directors to create an environment of sharing and collective problem-solving, as well as offering management and leadership training. The goal of the Fellowship was to create a strong network of district “Change Champions” that will start taking control of the problems they face in their districts and improving the services offered to farmers.

The DDA Fellowship

Last year I participated in EWB’s World of Opportunity campaign. Thanks to so many generous donors, I raised over $6000. This amount is huge for a single fundraiser, but looks small in contrast to EWB’s overall budget. However, this amount allowed us to run important programs like the DDA Fellowship, for which the entire budget was about $3500.

My perspective: your donation makes a real difference.

Dickson Ankuga is the Director for Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo district, a remote district in the Northern Region of Ghana. Dickson is one of the DDAs who took part in EWB’s DDA Fellowship. Over the past 6 months, Dickson has taken control of one of the biggest problems in his district: fertilizer availability. The idea was born during a DDA Fellowship session on learning from data. Using data collection and analysis, Dickson is tracking the supply and demand of fertilizer and noting when shortages occur. With this information in hand, he will be able to get ahead of next year’s shortages by ensuring stock is in place before the demand skyrockets. This will mean that farmers can buy fertilizer when they need it, bumping up their yields and greatly improving district food production.

Problem-solving session at the DDA Fellowship

I’ve been working with EWB in Ghana for 9 months now. Over that time, I’ve seen incredible growth in our team’s strategy, as well as strong results. We’ve worked with Agricultural Colleges to build entrepreneurship into the curriculum. Our short-term volunteers spread out across northern Ghana this summer to implement Agriculture As a Business training for rural farmers. And through it all, we’ve learned from our successes and failures about what works and what doesn’t so that we can continue to improve. None of this would be possible without your support.

I’m here because I believe change is possible. I believe this work matters and I believe that EWB is making a difference. The world of international development is messy, but we are delivering innovative solutions to complex problems and changing the way people think about development. That is why I’ve committed to working for an additional 2 years with EWB in Ghana.

But I need your help. Building strong district leaders is just one example of how EWB uses your donations. In this year’s Challenging Perspectives campaign, all of the funds raised will be channeled to our work in Africa.

So if you believe in supporting organizations that use money wisely, learn from experience, have the ability to work with both farmers and funders, and invest in African leadership, please consider making a donation to EWB. From my perspective here in Ghana, I see the impact of your donations every day.

Click here to donate to EWB’s work in Africa.

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


Agriculture As a Business

This is a bit of a monster post, sorry! But I haven’t posted for a few weeks (which was how long it me took to write this whopper) so I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m especially looking for lots of comments, questions and feedback on this one. So find a quiet space, a few minutes, and dive in!

Update: quick acronym check!

EWB = Engineers Without Borders Canada (the organization I’m working for)

AAB = Agriculture As a Business (the tool EWB has developed)

MoFA = Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Ghanaian government)

AEA = Agricultural Extension Agent (the field staff for MoFA)

FBO = Farmer-Based Organization (a group of farmers who work together, like a co-op)

The main product of EWB’s last few years of work with MoFA is the Agriculture As a Business curriculum. As I mentioned in a previous post, AAB is a field tool for AEAs (Agricultural Extension Agents) to help them to develop stronger, more business-minded FBOs (farmer-based organizations). The AEA takes the tool to the field and, over the course of 10 meetings with the FBO, builds the group’s capacity to run their farms as businesses. The tool consists of 10 laminated cards containing facilitation questions, tips, stories and photos to lead the AEA through the following topics:

  1. Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
  2. Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
  3. Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
  4. Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
  5. Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
  6. Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
  7. Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
  8. Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
  9. Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
  10. Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.

The Cheshei Suhiyini Women's Group

Building strong FBOs is a big trend in agricultural development these days. For one thing, it’s easier for businesses and extension agents to reach all farmers if they’re organized into groups. For another, FBOs are more likely to undertake semi-commercial or commercial farming, which contributes more productively to national food security – another big concern. Finally, NGOs and donor projects love to work with FBOs because they can reach more farmers and count them as beneficiaries of their projects. All in all, there’s a big push for districts right now to build lots of strong FBOs.

Aside from the “trendiness” of FBOs, farmers can actually gain huge benefits by working together in a group. First, farmers are more likely to share their problems and solutions with each other in an atmosphere of collective knowledge and learning. Second, farmers can do many things more effectively as a group, like buy inputs or market their produce in bulk. In particular, they can save tons of money on transportation costs when getting goods to and from the farm and market. Third, it’s way easier to get credit for an investment to expand your farm business if you apply as a group. Banks are way more comfortable giving a loan to a group, where members can hold each other accountable for repayment, than to an individual farmer. Fourth, illiterate farmers can reap huge benefits by banding together with a literate friend who can read, write and keep records for the group. Finally, as I mentioned above, groups are far more likely to get regular visits from an AEA than individual farmers, simply due to time constraints and the number of farmers each AEA is responsible for (which is around 3000).

The AAB curriculum addresses all of these benefits and encourages the group to take advantage of them. AAB starts by building the strength of the FBO itself, encouraging members to meet regularly and contribute dues to their bank account. Then it moves on to the more technical business training, including budgeting, planning, marketing and record-keeping. Throughout the program, the AEA is seen as a “facilitator” rather than a “trainer” – the group is encouraged to discuss issues and come to their own conclusions. There is no “right answer” that the AEA is leading the group towards; rather, the group is in charge of making a plan that best suits their strengths and weaknesses.

Each card takes the group through what is called the “Action-Learning Cycle”:

  • Reflection on a story, proverb or photo about the topic.
  • Analysis of the topic. ie. What is the benefit of keeping good records?
  • Planning based on the group’s analysis. ie. who will keep the records, what will be recorded, where will the records book be kept
  • Actions to carry out the plan.

This process allows the group members to engage with the topic and internalize the learning through taking immediate action.

A participatory budgeting exercise using local materials

So, AAB is awesome. Right?

There are still 3 main issues that our team is grappling with around AAB: Quality, Sustainability and Scale. I’ll tell you a bit about each one.

Quality

One of the biggest concerns of most EWB volunteers who are implementing AAB in a district is quality. Are field staff using the tool correctly? Are they giving the group enough time to answer questions and create plans? Are the group members really getting the concepts, and are they going to change their behaviour as a result? These are all important questions if we truly want to have impact with this tool. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ensure quality at any level. The MoFA field staff all have varying capacities: some are master facilitators, while others can barely read English. It also depends on their motivation and desire to help their farmers. Are they carrying out the activities because someone told them they’d be docked pay if they didn’t, or do they truly see the value in the program and want their farmers to get the most out of it? Usually the answer is somewhere in the middle. EWB can’t go to the field with every single AEA to every single AAB meeting; if that was our plan, we should just be implementing the program on our own. Instead, we have to face a certain loss of quality when we hand the program over to MoFA and believe that they can continue to understand and improve the program.

That said, while the team has temporarily put a hold on changing any of the content in the tool, the quality can still be improved. Would this question on this card be more impactful if we asked it a different way? What if we rearrange the order of the cards? Should we bring outside actors in to meet the group, such as banks and input suppliers, or rely on them to take initiative? What if we added a card on Managing Assets, or Value Chains? The quality of the tool itself has reached a point where it’s “good enough” – we are willing to spread it widely and believe it will have good results – but there is always room for improvement.

An AEA facilitating an AAB meeting

Sustainability

The second biggest challenge of AAB is sustainability. Right now we are concerned with sustainability on a district-by-district level. Most NGO projects will come into a district, use field staff to implement a project, then finish the project and get out, hoping the impact has taken place. But EWB wants the AAB tool to be used in the long-term by district staff, even after we leave. This requires a fundamental shift in the way districts normally interact with NGOs. We are trying to get district staff to take over the AAB program themselves, filling the role of the EWB volunteer to support the tool.

At first, we tried to attain sustainability by simply leaving the district and seeing whether AAB continued without us. The result was that most districts stopped using AAB after a certain amount of time. Without EWB there to encourage and support the program, districts were unable to sustain AAB. Why was this happening? In some cases, there just wasn’t enough will in the district to sustain AAB. But in other cases, even though the staff wanted to continue the program, they didn’t exactly know how. So EWB volunteers looked objectively at the roles they themselves were playing in the district, and externalized these roles. By clearly articulating what is necessary to support AAB, it makes it easier for the district to take on these roles and sustain the program. There are four main roles:

  • Leadership: provide a vision and maintain a focus on FBO development while holding staff accountable
  • Scheduling: plan, schedule and set goals with AEAs to achieve their AAB targets
  • Backstopping: monitor AEAs in the field, provide useful feedback and invest in their professional development
  • Reporting: track AAB progress, collect data on present and past AAB groups and feed back data for AEAs’ learning

Now we are trying to encourage officers in the district to fill all of these roles and hoping it will lead to AAB sustainability in that district. But we are already running into some management and logistical barriers that reach beyond the decision-making power of the district, so we’ll have to wait to see whether this model can be successful!

A woman drying parboiled rice in her compound

Scale

The final challenge is to build a successful scale model for AAB. At first, the vision was to have a copy of the AAB tool in the hands of every field staff in Ghana. But after some time, it became clear that this approach won’t work. AEAs need proper training and support to successfully implement AAB. The scale-up plan would have to be a bit more realistic. Next, we moved on to the idea that the “principles” behind AAB could be scaled to every district in Ghana. The principles were summed up as the following:

  • AEAs are regularly developing groups (beyond formation) – this means letting the group drive their own development by having the group take decisions and act on them;
  • AEAs find ways to get the group analyze their farms as businesses (budgeting, marketing, record-keeping, etc.);
  • AEA learns about promoting agric as a business and is able to refer to decisions in their regular work.

However, it was difficult to imagine just what this scale-up might look like. We are still working on this at a National level, but don’t yet have enough traction to bring it to every district in Ghana.

Finally, our current sort-of scale-up model is the idea of creating “model districts” that can be learning centres for other districts in Ghana. The vision is to make some districts kick-ass, including a whole host of changes beyond AAB, then get other districts to come and learn from them, thus spreading AAB all over Ghana. This model still has to be really worked out, but this is a great chance for input! What do you think of this idea? What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that we could face? Is this a good way to invest our resources, or should we focus on hitting more districts at once?

The Kpanman Kawuni Song Women's Group

The tricky part is that even though the AAB curriculum is finalized (to a certain degree), there are still a lot of improvements to be made. Let’s think of the AAB curriculum as a “product” that EWB has developed. We’ve spent a lot of time doing research and field trials, revising and refining that product. It’s still not perfect, but we think it’s at a stage where it’s “good enough”, meaning that we’re pretty confident that the delivery of this product will benefit farmer groups. We can call this stage “product development”. However, now that our product is finished and we’ve offered it up on the “market” (telling MoFA districts about it), we’re finding something startling: no one wants to buy our product! That is, no one is knocking on our office door asking for AAB (with the exception of one district in the Upper East). So what happened??

Ben has been reading a lot about the idea of “customer development” lately, and thus I’ve been hearing a lot about it. It’s an interesting idea. In a start-up, instead of just doing product development, you have to do customer development. This means taking your product to customers early on, asking them whether or not they would buy it, and if they wouldn’t, what features would make them buy it. It’s an iterative cycle of product and customer development, with the two going hand in hand to provide lots of feedback along the way. By the end, you should have a product with a ready market that is desired by your customer base (or maybe even beyond). What you DON’T want is to CONVINCE your customer that they want to buy your product, or tailor your “sell” to each different customer. This is shooting yourself in the foot, because unless you have time to handhold each customer through the sales process, you won’t be able to sell your product on a wide scale.

This seems to be the case with AAB. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely excitement around AAB at the district level – my Director can’t stop raving about how important and useful it is for his staff. He’s made it his AEAs’ “number 1 priority because developing strong FBOs is our core MoFA work” (at least until he gets an urgent call from the Regional Director). AEAs rave about how they used to hear the phrase “agriculture as a business” and didn’t know what it meant until EWB put a tool in their hands. Farmers love the interactive meeting style and are dedicated to implementing their projects. The more they use AAB, the more bought-in they become to the impact of the program. But are they willing to “buy” the product? – put their own brains, money, time and other resources toward making it work?

We did consult our customers along the way (MoFA staff and farmers), but I think at a more select level (only the ones that were easy to work with). We handheld every district we’ve worked in so far through the process of adapting AAB, convincing them to take it up, tailoring the program to suit their needs and filling gaps until they were willing to make the commitment themselves. As a result, we have a product that doesn’t have a strong pull from the market, and we find ourselves pushing it instead. (Who is our market anyway, farmers or MoFA? And do market mechanisms really exist in this environment?) If we were a company with profit as our bottom line, we might take one of a few options: keep iterating, put more resources into marketing, or scrap the product. Patent archives are full of great products that never “made it”, even if they’re brilliant. But we’ve seen AAB work, if only AEAs would use it. We’ve put lots of resources, both human and financial, into the program so far over the past 3 years. And really, it hasn’t been that long yet, only a few years; we know real change takes time. But what are the go/no-go criteria for a program like this? How long do we keep refining and marketing our original product? When do we decide to move on to something else, something possibly more (or less) impactful? How (and when) do we take that decision?

So help me out: where should we go from here??


Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s that wonderful time of year when Canadians stuff themselves with turkey and pumpkin pie: Thanksgiving. Even though I won’t be home to celebrate this year, I wanted to take a few moments to give thanks for the things in my life.

10 Things I’m Thankful for in Canada:

  1. My family
  2. Vegetables
  3. Access to clean water & food, sanitation, infrastructure, etc.
  4. Racial anonymity
  5. Some semblance of gender equality
  6. Really good internet
  7. A developed economy and strong governance
  8. Access to education
  9. Healthcare
  10. Cheesecake

    Thanksgiving last year...

10 Things I’m Thankful for in Ghana:

  1. My Zuo family
  2. Ghanaian hospitality (which is unrivaled around the world, I’m sure!)
  3. My usually-stable health
  4. Having Ben here to work with and support one another
  5. Strong communities
  6. The amazing, dedicated MoFA staff I work with every day
  7. Living life outdoors
  8. Stone lager
  9. The best job in the world
  10. My amazing EWB team-mates!

...and Thanksgiving this year!

I’m so lucky to have loving people in my life, both back in Canada and here in Ghana. This morning I went for the first time in 3 weeks to visit my family in Zuo. I was welcomed by huge smiles and cries of “Pumaaya!” (my Ghanaian name) as I pulled my moto into their yard. It’s such a wonderful feeling to be welcomed into their home, which feels like my home too. A lot happened in those 3 weeks, including the welcoming of a beautiful new baby girl, Anifa, into the family (photo below).

Mariama and baby Anifa

Later today I will be surrounded by different people, my Canadian friends, as we gather at a local restaurant for a Ghanaian Thanksgiving dinner. I am so grateful for all of these people who are here to love and support me, through good times and bad, while I find my way through this Ghanaian life.


Learn more about EWB

Hi everyone!

This is a quick post to share with you some recent materials put together by EWB’s National Office in Toronto.

The first item is a GREAT article in the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) publication, Engineering Dimensions. You can access the link here – jump to page 40 and check it out! (Nice work Allison!)

The second is a video that was recently produced about our Agric team in Ghana (that’s my team!). I mentioned AAB in my last post – there are some more details here.

Enjoy!


What am I doing here? – Part 2

Hello beautiful readers! Last week I introduced you to my general work here in Ghana. This week, I want to share a bit more about the specific change I’m trying to create in MoFA.

As I mentioned before, I’m working at the Tamale MoFA office, otherwise known as the Metropolis Agricultural Development Unit (MADU). The office is made up of about 20 Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), about 8 Metropolis Agriculture Officers (MAOs) and 1 Metropolis Director of Agriculture (MDA) along with some support staff. All together, these people are in charge of serving all of the farmers in the greater Tamale area with information, advice and expertise on anything and everything related to agriculture!

This is a tough job, given the logistical constraints that districts often face such as lack of funding, means of transport and weather conditions. The job is made even more difficult by the high illiteracy rate among Ghanaian farmers and by the commonly held attitude that farming is a way of life, not a business. Together, EWB and MoFA are working to change this attitude and put more profits in farmers’ pockets.

Learning

The first job of any EWB volunteer is to learn. The first several months of a placement are a very steep learning curve, incorporating lessons about MoFA, farming, politics and life in Ghana. EWB volunteers spend more time at a district-level office than many other development workers, meaning we are often approached for our knowledge on how a district functions. Having an intimate knowledge of the strengths and challenges of a MoFA district is essential to our work, since we are trying to change the way MoFA interacts with farmers. In order to remain humble and constantly check our work against reality, we must be in a mindset of constant learning!

AAB

One focus of our team’s work for the past 3 years has been developing the Agriculture As a Business (AAB) program. AAB is a field tool for AEAs to help them to develop stronger, more business-minded FBOs (farmer-based organizations). The AEA takes the tool to the field and, over the course of 10 meetings with the FBO, builds the group’s capacity to run their farms as businesses. The tool consists of 10 laminated cards containing facilitation questions, tips, stories and photos to lead the AEA through the following topics:

  1. Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
  2. Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
  3. Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
  4. Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
  5. Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
  6. Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
  7. Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
  8. Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
  9. Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
  10. Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.

The AAB tool was developed over the course of about 2 years and over 500 field visits, during which our volunteers observed and experimented with facilitation techniques, approaches and content. The current version of the curriculum was finalized in Fall 2009 and in the past year was rolled out in over 10 districts, thanks to the amazing crew of Junior Fellows we had working with us last summer. We still have to do a ton of learning on what’s working and what’s not, but now we have a wealth of data and experience to pull from. Way to go team!

As for me, I’ve been helping the MADU to implement AAB since I arrived in March. I was the third volunteer to work on AAB at MADU, which meant I had some catching up to do. But since that time, I have trained the entire staff, accompanied them on field visits, and helped them through the first iteration of a MADU-led (as opposed to EWB-led) round of AAB groups. Way to go MADU staff! Now, my work is to set up a sustainability plan at the MADU so they can continue the program on their own, without my support. This is a tough task when so many projects are competing for the staff’s time and attention, but I am constantly reminding them not to let the “urgent” get in the way of the “important”!

I’ll write in more detail about AAB in a future blog post, including why it’s important to strengthen FBOs and why AAB is an effective tool to do so. Keep an eye out for this soon!

SLAM

This catchy acronym stands for Systems, Leadership and Management. It’s a new strategy we’ve been developing over the last few months on our team. After seeing some systemic barriers to AAB success in districts, we’ve decided to tackle some of the management challenges in MoFA. We’re still very much in the research phase of this strategy, but the whole thing is based on the belief that better-managed districts result in improved performance for farmers. There are a lot of smaller hypotheses that we’re testing, revolving around topics such as non-monetary incentives for performance, leadership development, improved supervision and learning from data. My job over the next several months will be to run “mini-experiments” to test some of these hypotheses. Basically, it’s a search for the biggest bang for our buck: what can we do with the fewest resources that will have the greatest improvement in MoFA performance?? It’s a loaded question, and one that I’m excited to explore with you over the next few months and years!

Alright, that’s the quick summary of my specific role in my district. As always, let me know if you have any questions or want me to write more on a specific topic. And keep an eye out for the next few posts where I’ll be diving into both the AAB and SLAM strategies. Thanks for reading!


What am I doing here? – Part 1

Alright, enough of this fluffy stuff. It’s time to get down to business. I want to finally answer the question you’ve all been asking: What are you actually DOING over there??

I’m going to answer this question in a series of posts over the next few weeks. I’ll start out with the basics, then dive deeper into the “what”s and “why”s behind what I’m doing here. After all, that is the name of the blog!

So let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean to work for EWB in Africa?

My work is divided into 4 main areas: Partner, EWB team, Canada connections and Personal (in no particular order – no, health does not come last in the priority list!). Let me tell you a bit more about what I’m trying to achieve in each of these areas.

Work with my Partner

Our team is partnered with MoFA, the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The purpose of this ministry is to increase food security by providing extension services to farmers, including technical knowledge, business advice and skills training. Ghana is divided into 10 regions, each with a regional-level MoFA office, then each region is divided into several districts (the number depends on the size and population of the region), each of which has a district-level MoFA office. EWB is working with MoFA at all of these levels – National, Regional and District. I am working at the Tamale District office and also occasionally at the Northern Regional office (which is also in Tamale).

We work with MoFA because MoFA works with farmers, which is the majority of the poor rural population in Ghana. These are our “target beneficiaries”, if you want to use the development lingo. Working with MoFA allows EWB to reach a wide number of farmers thanks to MoFA’s well-established extension network. However, MoFA is also constrained by a lot of issues common in developing countries. Some of these issues are beyond their control, such as donor constraints and lack of funding. But there are other issues that can be addressed, like motivation, management skills and staff capacity to do the work.

Our goal is not to add additional programs to MoFA’s plate (which is what most NGOs/donors do – design their own programs and use MoFA as an “implementing agency”, taking them away from the work they’re supposed to be doing). Instead, we are working to strengthen the core MoFA extension work – helping farmers to improve their farms and put more money in their pockets. This means embedding ourselves in MoFA’s offices and working alongside the staff to address everyday issues, as well as encouraging them to have a long-term vision for the work they’re doing.

Work with the Agric Ghana EWB team

The Agric Ghana team is currently made up of 6 African Programs Staff (APS) and 3 Professional Fellows (ProFs) from EWB’s Professional Chapters in Canada. We work closely together, communicating often even though we are spread out across 2 regions in northern Ghana. Once a month we come together to work as a team for a weekend. During these meetings we work on team strategy including planning, evaluating and changing our programs, work to share what we know with others, do some professional development and have a whole lotta fun! These meetings are great for keeping us on the same page as a team and enhancing the work each of us is doing. We also give and receive coaching with other members of the team to help each other set goals and grow. It’s a great environment to work in – I love this team!

Canada Connections

Believe it or not, I actually consider it work to keep in touch with Canada! I do this because otherwise I would never prioritize time to write in my blog, or take photos to send to the National Office in Toronto. But I think one of the most important things we can do as APS is to let other people know what we’re doing. All of you reading this in Canada have an enormous amount of information at your fingertips, and a huge potential to use this information for outreach to the Canadian public and advocacy to the Canadian government. So let me help you by telling you what I know!

I am also partnered with two of EWB’s student chapters in Canada, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo (go W’s!). My job is to keep them informed about what’s going on with the Agric Ghana team and give them resources to help with their programs, from fundraising to member learning to outreach. And of course, we want to develop some awesome personal connections between EWB’s African programs and Chapters. Can’t wait to work more with these amazing guys and gals!

Personal

Finally, I have some personal goals for my time in Ghana. These include things like health and fitness, happiness and motivation, keeping in touch with my friends and family at home and making time for personal and professional development. For example, I’m really good at building trust with people, but I need to work on how I use that trust in group situations. I’m also working to become a better manager. And of course, I’m trying to eat my 5-10 servings of veggies every day! (Though it’s virtually impossible here… man, I never thought I would miss salad!)

I hope that gives you a good overview of what it’s like to work for the Agric Ghana team. In the next post, I’ll tell you more about what I’m actually doing with MoFA. Until then, please send your comments and questions my way and I’ll do my best to address them in the coming posts. Thanks for reading!

WATERLOO GANGSTAS UNITE
We take our jobs very seriously.

Gone fishin’

My family recently came to visit me in Ghana and we went on a whirlwind tour. See the photo highlights below!

We started in Accra, the capital of Ghana:

Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra

Sunset from the Rising Phoenix in Accra

Then we flew up to Tamale, my home base, and visited my village, Zuo. First we all learned about getting water:

Dad fetching water from my Polytank

Blair carrying water (this is a ridiculously small pail - small girls could kick his butt!)

Mom pumping water and putting on a show

Then we brought out the gifts – lots of books and educational materials:

Mom in "teacher mode"

Blair showing Imman how to use crayons

Me helping Wekaya to write her name

All kids love crayons!

After that we headed back down south to visit the Cedi Bead factory:

Glass beads ready for firing in their clay moulds

And the Akosombo Dam:

Nerding it up at the Akosombo Dam, Ghana's major electricity source

Before some rest, relaxation and swimming at Aylo’s Bay:

Blair reading on the "floating" (ie. sideways) dock

Next we headed to the beautiful and remote Volta Region on Ghana’s eastern border:

Isolation and beauty at Biakpa Mountain Paradise Lodge

We hiked along a river to reach these falls

The popular Wli Falls near Hohoe, reputedly the highest falls in West Africa

Learning how to wash by hand (requires concentration)

Next we headed to Cape Coast, Ghana’s former slave trade capital:

Cape Coast Castle, one of the hubs of the West African slave trade

Cape Coast shoreline

Fishermen pulling their nets into shore

And we wrapped things up in Elmina, another former slave trade town:

Elmina fish market

Elmina Castle

Blair and Ben helping some fishermen pull their canoe onto shore

The beautiful beach at Elmina Bay Resort

It was a wonderful vacation! Thanks for coming Mom, Dad and Blair – you’re very brave :)

Now back to our regularly scheduled program…


What is Development?

Hakim is six years old. He was born in a village. He is the youngest of 4 siblings – his mother was pregnant 7 times, but had two stillbirths and one child who died after 2 years. Hakim wears old, worn-out hand-me-down clothes most days, only donning a formal smock for special occasions. He gets so dirty playing outside every day that it’s probably good he doesn’t wear nice clothes. He doesn’t like to wear shoes, preferring instead to run around the village barefoot. He is talented at entertaining himself, as are most village children. He plays with old plastic containers, a ball held together with twine, a few plastic trinkets that were gifts from a visiting Japanese aid worker. Hakim is usually an incredibly happy kid, smiling and laughing like there is a joke only he knows. But sometimes he hits his cousin and gets in trouble, then he sulks around the compound with his head down. He only knows a few English phrases – “Good morning” “How are you? I am fine, thank you” and “Photo!” – along with the numbers and alphabet that we’ve been practicing. Still, Hakim and I can sit and talk for hours, he jabbering away in Dagbani, me responding in English. He started going to the village school this year, but the teacher is often absent and the quality of education is very low. His family can’t afford to send him to a better school in Tamale, so he will have few opportunities to learn beyond what this local primary school can offer. There is a health clinic in the village, but the health workers are often absent and besides, his family can’t afford regular healthcare. Hakim will grow up going to the farm with his father and uncles. He probably won’t move away from his village, and if he does it will be to another village close by. Hakim will get older, marry a village girl, have children of his own. One day he will have his own farm. The fact that he could be something other than a farmer will probably never occur to him. Don’t get me wrong, he will have a happy life, full of family and community and food and love. But he will have very few opportunities to change his future from the path he’s currently on.

Hakim

Theo is six years old. He is the son of a former employee at my MoFA office. I met him when his mother came in one day to visit. Theo was born in Tamale, but spent the last 2 years in England while his father completed his Masters degree. He has a younger sister, but no other siblings. Theo is immaculately dressed in cute little-kid overalls and lace-up running shoes. He and his sister are running around the office playing with those toy microphones that make your voice echo. He is a sneaky little brat, stealing his sister’s toy and making her cry. When I ask if he stole it because he doesn’t have toys of his own, Theo straightens and proudly replies, “I have hundreds of toys!” Then he gives the toy back and he and his sister are friends again, smiling and running off together. He speaks perfect English with a British accent. He went to a good school while he was living in England, and will attend private school now that he’s back in Tamale. His family can afford it, as well as good healthcare, travel, sports and other opportunities. Theo will finish primary school, junior secondary school, secondary school, then probably get one or two university degrees. He will grow up knowing that he can be anything he wants to be – doctor, lawyer, accountant, astronaut. There are no limits to his future, he will decide his own path and determine his own happiness. Who knows where he will end up?

———-

This is the Ghana that I’m living in. There are rich people and poor people, farmers and doctors and NGO workers. The people from the south rarely see the north, and the people from the north don’t often go down south. People take life as it comes, and seize every opportunity that comes their way. But in Ghana, as in the rest of the world, the circumstances of one’s birth are the highest determinant of one’s future, give or take a little luck.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

———-

When people hear the name Engineers Without Borders, they think of building bridges and roads and wells. Of course, these are important elements of any country’s infrastructure and many people suffer when they’re not in place. But building is only one piece of the puzzle. We must ask ourselves: what is the purpose of a well? The answer: to provide people with safe drinking water. Now, what elements need to be in place to fulfill this purpose? Yes, we must build it – that is the most obvious answer. But who will test the water to make sure it’s safe? Who will fix the well if it gets broken? How will spare parts be delivered to the village? Who will make sure the pump is properly maintained? And who will pay for this maintenance? Who will pay for the well in the first place? If a donor pays for it this time, who will pay for it next time? Will money ever be allocated from the government to build new wells, or will they always just rely on donor aid to pay for it? Who manages the distribution of water sources in this area? Does the government know about the well? Do other NGOs operating in the area? What it someone comes to the same village and wants to build another well, who is in charge??

Building a well is simple. Providing people with safe drinking water is complex.

———-

There is a round of applause and self-congratulations by the members of this farmer group – they have just completed training in Agriculture As a Business. Over the past 9 weeks, they have explored topics such as business planning, marketing, record-keeping and loan preparation. The AEA, Mustapha, has done a great job of facilitating their learning and has high hopes for the group. I am sitting beside him in my yellow rain pants, sticking out like a sore thumb in these village surroundings. Suddenly, a man turns to me and says something quickly in Dagbani. I turn to Mustapha for him to interpret: “They want to know if now that they have completed the program you will provide some financial assistance.” My heart sinks. I respond forcefully “No!” and the man looks down. “If you are still asking me for financial assistance, then you haven’t understood the program at all. This program is all about doing more with what you already have. The question shouldn’t be ‘what will you do for us?’, but ‘what can we do for ourselves?’” Mustapha translates, then another man speaks up: “he says they have already started doing more research to figure out the best time to sell their vegetables at the market, and they are already benefiting from the results.”

An AAB meeting

———-

I work for Engineers Without Borders in Ghana. I don’t build wells, or roads, or bridges. I believe the Ghanaian government should be doing that. In fact, I don’t do anything for farmers that couldn’t be (or isn’t being) done by a Ghanaian. I don’t give loans, or laptops, or even snacks. Instead, I build knowledge, skills and motivation in these Ghanaian government employees that are in it for the long haul. And as their capacity to help farmers grows, so too do the farmers’ incomes, leading to more opportunities for farmers and their children. And that’s what development is all about.


Culture Shock

I met John while at a meeting in the garden of a local guesthouse. “Hey, Wayne, how is it?” he greeted us. “Hey, John, long time! How is Accra?” replied Wayne. Wayne, our team leader, introduced John as an employee in the M&E department for MoFA in Accra. He sat down to join us and his animated personality soon made us forget our meeting.

John had come to “the north” on a data collection assignment for MoFA National. Apparently all districts had been asked to submit some data on the farmers in their area, but hadn’t been doing so. John came to find out why, and to assist the districts in submitting the data.

He is young, maybe 30 years old, born and bred in Accra. This was only his second time traveling north of Kumasi. Last time he got very sick on his second day, so this time he had packed his white pick-up full of bottled water and food from Accra. “But John, they sell bottled water in Tamale.” “Yes, but it’s not the same quality as what we have in Accra. You never know what you’re getting.”

As his driver chauffeured him north, out of the lush green forests of the south and into the savannah of the north, he marveled at what he saw. “People actually live in mud huts here! Some don’t even have electricity! Me, I can’t imagine living without a microwave.”

He stopped the driver a few times in villages to talk to people as they passed, but they couldn’t understand each other. “You mean there are people in Ghana who don’t speak Twi??” Twi is one of Ghana’s major languages, spoken by many people as a common language even if their local language is different. But is mostly found in the south.

Through an interpreter, he had a conversation with an old woman in a village. “I asked her how old she was, and you know what she said? Ten! I mean, I didn’t expect her to know her exact age, but ten? She doesn’t even understand the concept of numbers!” The fact that someone in Ghana can live her whole life with no formal education is unfathomable to John.

“How can you live here? I don’t know how you EWB people do it.” “But John, this is your own country. You don’t think you could live here, in the north of Ghana?” “No no, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I could go to your country, Canada, and live in the north there. It would be an adventure! For you people, living in Ghana is an adventure. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t live here.”


Nope, still centralized

Below is a stack of newspapers that can be found in the corner of the MoFA office here in Tamale.

Stack of newspapers

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “whoa that’s a lot of newspapers! Why would anyone keep that many newspapers? Don’t they fade and disintegrate and collect dirt and dust, sitting in the corner like that? And they take up so much space!” (Isn’t it creepy how I can read your exact thoughts?)

Well, that’s exactly what I thought when I saw them. So I did what I always do: I asked the Keeper of Office Knowledge (ie. the secretary). And the response?

MoFA pays for each district office to have a newspaper subscription. When the Auditor comes each year, he needs to see all the assets in the office that are paid for with MoFA money – including these newspapers. If the Auditor asks to see a paper and you can’t produce one, it is assumed that it has been stolen, and rumours will start about corruption and misuse of public funds. So instead, the newspaper stack grows higher daily as proof that they aren’t being turned into toilet paper or fuel for fires.

The Northern Regional office of MoFA has a pile of old, broken chairs in the corner of the conference room. Why? Same reason – they’re MoFA assets, so they can’t be thrown out or people will suspect they’ve been stolen. Instead, we all get to stare at the mass of mangled wooden legs and ripped plastic every time we have a meeting.

Now, I understand the reason for this policy: misuse of public funds is a huge problem in many African countries. It’s a slippery slope and there must be sufficient measures in place to ensure civil servants aren’t using public money for their own benefit. But isn’t this a little extreme? These people are educated, responsible and driven to make change for their country and its people. Can’t we let them throw away broken and used goods? Can’t we let them run their offices in an efficient manner? Can’t we let them direct their own funds and determine which projects are most beneficial for their districts? Can’t we trust them, just a little??

This is the core issue behind decentralization. Decentralization is supposed to take responsibility and decision-making power from the “centre” and distribute it to the “decentralized departments”, such as the MoFA district offices. Theoretically, a MoFA district should be able to manage and allocate their own funds based on specific challenges seen in their own district. This should result in more appropriate spending and decision-making in line with local contexts. Through increased ownership and responsibility over district funds and projects, staff should also take more ownership of success when it comes. This “should” be great.

Ghana has been talking about decentralization for years. But as the stack of newspapers above shows us, there’s a long way to go. It’s a long, slow, painful process to build up the capacity of district staff to manage their own funds and make smart decisions that will benefit their districts. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also a long, slow, painful process for those at the top to concede some of their power and trust their employees.

I have met several amazing Ghanaian leaders who are working hard for their country and its people, but whose hands are tied by bureaucracy and centralized power. These people are talented, resourceful and driven. They are doing the best they can, one date at a time. But in the end, I can’t wait for the day when they are allowed to truly lead their districts!


Beauty

This probably sounds weird, but it’s amazing how often I’m reminded of my cottage in Ghana.

Lately I can close my eyes, feel the sun on my face and cool breeze in my hair, and picture Georgian Bay stretching out in front of me. And sometimes when I’m riding my moto, it sounds like a motorboat bouncing across the waves (luckily I don’t close my eyes for that one).

Beautiful Georgian Bay

But when I open my eyes, I’m back in Ghana – and I’m happy for this. Ghana has really grown on me in the last 5 months. I think I complained at first: “Ghana is an ugly country, there’s no physical beauty in this land”. But as the dry season gives way to rain, I’ve discovered that it’s actually a beautiful landscape – green vegetation, blue skies dotted with clouds, sunrises and sunsets to die for, and the craziest storm clouds and lightning in the world.

I’m starting to see beauty everywhere I look, beyond the physical landscape to the gentle sway of women’s hips as they carry firewood along the road, past the chaos of the market to the brightly-coloured clothing of the market vendors, underneath the dirt on childrens’ faces to the smiles in their eyes as they run to greet me when I get home.

My work is busy and every day is full of purpose. I have a wonderful team of inspiring people to work with, both in EWB and MoFA. Every day I go home to a simple family who welcomes me without a second thought.

Team MoFA

And I realize why it feels like the cottage: I’m happy here.


Engineering Ghana

Dear Readers:

I haven’t posted for a long time. I know. I didn’t mean to leave you all in the dark. But as time continues to pass, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into Ghanaian life, farming, MoFA, etc. and getting farther and farther away from life in Canada. I was always frustrated as an EWB chapter member in Canada when volunteers in Africa would say they “couldn’t relate” to us in Canada anymore. But now I see what they mean. Have I forgotten what it’s like to live in Canada? To work tirelessly on the other side of the ocean to raise public awareness about development and lobby our government to improve aid? To go to the grocery store and buy food from all over the world? Well honestly… yeah, I kind of have. I mean, if I think hard about it, I can remember what it was like. But the problem is that I have to think hard – it doesn’t just come naturally anymore. I have to actually TRY to relate my experience to what it’s like in Canada. And that mental effort has prevented me several times from writing on my blog.

But no more. I don’t think it’s an adequate excuse. My job isn’t to get lost in Ghana, it’s to experience Ghana and bring those realities to you in Canada and the rest of the world. It’s to see good development, and bad, and be able to share the difference. It’s to evaluate the impact of our work on Ghanaians and to see where we can make improvements.

So I’m back on the blog train. I am aiming to go back to posting at minimum every 2 weeks. I will also try harder to make short snappy posts on things I’m thinking, seeing or reading about – they don’t all have to be epic. I will remember that just because I’m used to seeing women carry 5-ft. tall things on their heads and discussing agric. development projects with district directors doesn’t mean it’s not new to you! And so I’m making an effort to share more of those things with you again.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, feedback or requests, please PLEASE let me know! You can comment on a post or contact me directly through email or the Contact form on this blog. I’m always happy to hear from you and would love to be given more direction on what you want me to write about!

Thanks for reading,
Erin
—————-

Though I’m working with Engineers Without Borders, I don’t do much “traditional” engineering. I hope most of you reading this know that already, but if you’re wondering why, check here. However, I have found the opportunity to flex my engineering muscles in a few cases, which I wanted to share with you below.

My untrusty moto

This is my moto. It’s a piece of junk. It’s 3 years old and it’s been ridden into the ground by the previous 3 owners. I have had so many problems with it – spark plugs not sparking, horn not honking, tires going flat, brakes squealing, lights breaking. I’ve had to replace the engine block, connector rod, chain & sprocket, rear tire, clutch handle and headlight. It’s a pain in the ass. But on the bright side, I’ve developed an intimate knowledge of this rudimentary two-stroke machine. Ghanaians (especially men) are always surprised when they see me sigh after a failed attempt to start the moto and pull out my tools. They still rush to help, and I’m always grateful, but I’ve learned a lot about fixing my own moto and regularly do it myself. Just give me some coveralls and call me a mechanic!

—————-

As I mentioned previously on this blog, I live in a village called Zuo which is about 5 km outside of Tamale. While we’re lucky enough to have lights (electricity), we’re too far away from the city to have flowing water. It’s amazing how much you take this for granted in Canada, where you don’t have to walk far and carry water back every day. As I also previously mentioned, the women here carry amazing amounts of water from the dam every day, neglecting the broken borehole in the middle of the village. Though I try to fetch my own water, I am not nearly as strong as a Ghanaian woman and I am constantly being assisted, which makes me constantly feel guilty.

Bucket engineering

Luckily, the rainy season has provided a way to assuage my guilt in the form of – you guessed it – rain! Pure water, falling from the sky – it’s an amazing thing for which I have a new appreciation. I am also lucky enough to live in a place with a Polytank, the huge black plastic water storage tanks which are ubiquitous in Ghana (and you would have seen Kingson, the goaltender for the Black Stars, promoting these monstrosities on TV during the World Cup if you were watching in Ghana!). A rainwater collection system is set up so that the water streams from the roof to the eavestrough and falls into the Polytank. Ingenious! Except it doesn’t work. The Polytank is placed just a bit too close to the house and against a cement something so that it can’t be moved further away (I haven’t identified the purpose of this weird cement structure yet, it’s a mystery). When there is a light rain, it falls gently into the open mouth of the Polytank. But when there is a windy downpour (ie. a LOT of water to fill my tank), the water races off the end of the eavestrough, overshooting the Polytank. It took a few rains and a pitifully low water level in the tank for me to figure this out.

Sooooo last time we had a huge downpour, instead of running inside away from the rain, I ran outside! I was moving buckets here and there to catch the rain, and even standing up on the cement-mystery to catch the water pouring past the Polytank in my bucket and dump it in. Finally, after standing there for a while, wearing only a Ghanaian cloth wrapped around me, soaked to the skin and freezing cold (yum!), I used my engineering skills: I found some rocks and propped my bucket up so it would be stable, but on an angle, where it would catch the water and overflow into the Polytank. Ta-da! In this way I FILLED the tank – I’m set for life! (Or at least until I move out.)

Bonus: I also washed my hair outside in the rain that day, which made me very happy.

—————-

The view from the road

This last one is not so much about using my engineering skills as it is about pointing out someone else’s lack thereof. After a particularly bad storm last week, I went for a run and noticed something odd flashing at me from the roadside. It looked like a giant sheet of metal was caught in a tree. What??

Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the roof of the local primary school, folded and bent and leaning up against a tree. It had blown off in the storm like a big aluminum parachute. Whoever built this school did not account for the

The bent school roof

pressure that builds up from the incredible winds that come in the rainy season. It made me wonder: who had built this school? A donor that didn’t know the weather conditions? A local NGO without enough budget to securely fasten the roof? Or a government employee that didn’t have the capacity to design it properly? I have no idea, but with all the people building schools around here, it must be a common problem.


ACT to increase Canada’s aid effectiveness!

Hey readers, Happy Friday!

This post has a bit of a different focus: Canada’s aid effectiveness. Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that there are thousands (whoa!) of EWBers working hard in Canada to tackle the “other end” of the development problem: foreign aid. This is hugely important and has a MASSIVE effect on the work we’re able to do here in Ghana. I’m seeing more and more every day about how CIDA affects the development environment in Ghana, especially for MoFA – they’re one of the major funders and could be doing a lot of things better (oh hey CIDA!).

That’s where you come in. As part of the new ACT campaign (which you can check out here), EWB has a goal of sending 1000 letters to our local MPs across the country, calling on our elected officials to ACT in making Canada’s aid more effective. ACT stands for Accountable, Creative and Transparent – three qualities that can dramatically improve the effectiveness of our foreign aid. From the website:

“We are asking Canada to ACT on aid effectiveness – making our aid more accountable, creative and transparent. In short, it’s not what we fund, but how we fund it. Good aid and development are stifled by skewed incentives and weak systems. The ACT agenda tackles several of the core issues that undermine successful aid programs, focusing on increasing the impact of aid dollars through a series of evidence-based, thoughtful reforms. It outlines three specific areas of action that we believe all parties can agree on, and that Canadians can get behind, in the leadup to the G8 meeting in Canada.

Accountable:

  1. Role model our good track record of meeting international promises by creating a standard for tracking and reporting on major international aid commitments, committing to use it, and inviting other G8 countries to follow our lead. Such a standard should monitor progress through the life-cycle of all promises, publicizing this information along with interim progress reports to enable citizen groups and media to hold governments accountable to their promises.
  2. Establish an expert, independent, arms-length development evaluation agency to assess the results from Canadian aid. These results should be shared with a) Canada’s Parliament; b) the Canadian public; c) our partner country’s government; and d) local civil society in the country’s where we provide aid.

Creative:

  1. Set up a $150million venture-focused Implementation Innovation Fund to fund the expansion of promising initiatives. This would complement the research-focused Development Innovation Fund and provide later stage financing to take ideas to scale. The evaluation criteria of Implementation Innovation Fund should be the adoption/seeding of their innovations into regular poverty reduction projects (or the expansion of for-profit pro-poor ventures) worth 1 billion dollars a year within 5 years.

Transparent:

  1. Join many of the world’s leading donor organizations by signing on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a new initiative that aims to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand.
  2. Publish comprehensive, openly available data about all CIDA projects and programs – including the results of all evaluations – on its website. This information should allow the user to track any project from the initial proposal through all stages to project implementation.”

EWB members across the country are working hard to realize this goal. In addition to encouraging you to sign the petition, which can be found on the website, I’d like to challenge everyone to get involved! Here’s the challenge: convince 5 of your closest friends/family to write a letter about the ACT campaign to their local MP. And of course, write one yourself!

Here are some of the essential elements to include in your letter:

  • Your name and address, so the MP knows you’re writing from his/her constituency
  • Why you’re writing (to call on the MP to support EWB’s campaign to make Canada’s aid more effective)
  • A short summary of what ACT is all about (again, website here)
  • Pick one action item from the website that you really like and describe it in more detail
  • Ask for them to follow up if they have any questions or response to your letter
  • Tell them that they’ll be joining the majority of their peers, who EWB has already met with, in supporting this initiative!

And a template to help you out:

A few key things to remember about letters to MPs:

  • Handwritten letters are most effective – if you can, write out a personal letter and mail it in!
  • Emailing your letter is still fine, but not as good as a handwritten letter!
  • Write from your perspective – make a personal connection to the issue and, where possible, to the person you are writing to as well
  • Try to keep your letter to one page, two at maximum
  • You can find your MP’s address and email at:  http://webinfo.parl.gc.ca/
  • Be sure to include all of your contact information so the person you are writing can reply.

Finally, if you take the leap and write a letter, or get anyone else to write a letter, please let me know! We’re trying to track the number of letters that get sent to MPs.

Alright, that’s it for this sunny Friday in Tamale! I hope you all have a wonderful relaxing weekend, with a bit of political advocacy thrown in, just for kicks. After all, it’s your government – you have the right to tell them what to do with your money, and to hold them accountable!


Perceptions of Poverty

An EWB colleague in Malawi, Duncan McNicholl, has recently received a lot of attention for a project he started called Perspectives of Poverty. The project aims to show another side of Africa, the one not commonly shown in news reports and NGO publications.

Africa is often portrayed in the West with photos of fly-covered children in torn clothing. Duncan’s reaction: “How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people? … I thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well.”

Duncan told me about his idea while we in Toronto together for our pre-departure training with EWB. He wanted to show the same “poor” person in two photos: one looking typically poor, with dirty clothes and a sad expression, and one looking fabulous, all smiles and Sunday best!

It sounded awesome – I wanted to try it too! But when I got to Ghana I had trouble thinking about how I would communicate this idea to the people around me. Had they seen these photos of “typical” Africa in the West? What would they think of me asking them to “look poor” so I could take their picture?

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, Duncan put up his first stab at the project with photos of 2 friends. It looked great, and finally gave me the resolve to try it on my own. So after carefully explaining the project (and possibly being understood), here are some of my own contributions to the Perceptions of Poverty project!

You can read more about Duncan’s project on his blog, on the popular Aid Watch blog, on the blog Poverty to Power by Duncan Green (Oxfam UK), or in an online New York Post article. Congrats on all the press, Duncan!


Too Cool for Fuel

This post is about FRUSTRATION, but it’s also about OPPORTUNITY! (And you may even find out a little about my work.)

MoFA (the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana) is built from the bottom up on a network of Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs). These are the people who actually carry out the Ministry’s work by traveling around to visit farmers and disseminate all kinds of information, such as weather forecasts, market opportunities, NGO projects and technical advice. They are at the bottom of the hierarchical pyramid, but they are the crucial link to farmers that MoFA needs if they want to have any success in improving farmer livelihoods in Ghana.

Ghana is divided into 10 regions, each of which is subdivided into several districts. Each district has a MoFA office, with several AEAs working out of each office. Each AEA is assigned an Operational Area within the district and is responsible for knowing and working with all the farmers in that area. According to their job description, AEAs are supposed to move around for 4 days each week, doing “home visits” (visiting farmers at home), “field visits” (visiting farmers in their fields), and “group visits” (visiting farmer groups). The remaining 1 day each week is reserved for reporting and any office work. Each AEA should also be provided with the means to move to their Operational Area, usually in the form of a motorbike, but sometimes a sturdy bicycle. In addition to their salary, each AEA is supposed to receive a quarterly fuel allowance to pay for the fuel required for all this travel.

So what’s the frustration? There has been no fuel money disbursed to any AEA in Ghana since Oct-Dec 2009. They missed the 1st quarter, Jan-Mar, and we’re now well into the Apr-Jun 2nd quarter. This seriously limits an AEAs ability to do his or her job. An AEA’s salary, which is meagre to begin with, doesn’t stretch far enough to cover 5 months of fuel. Furthermore, AEAs shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice any of their small salary for something that’s supposed to be covered by their employer (and in fact, many of them can’t afford to sacrifice any of their salary).

The impact of this lack of funds is huge. Here are a few of the major problems that have come as a result:

1) AEAs can’t do their jobs.
This is serious! Like I said above, AEAs are the ones who provide the link between MoFA and farmers. So if AEAs aren’t going to farmers, then MoFA isn’t fulfilling its mandate to improve farmer livelihoods. An AEA’s knowledge is particularly crucial for farmers at the beginning of the farming season – like right now. Farmers are just figuring out which crops to plant this year, which types of seeds they’ll use, whether or not they should use fertilizer and which kind. The AEA is the advisor for all these decisions, helping a farmer to make the most of his farm and bringing new information about what’s out there in the agric world. Furthermore, when an AEA just disappears for months at a time, there can be a huge loss of trust between the AEA and his or her farmers. And trust is one of the core underlying factors to being a successful AEA! These people spend years developing relationships with their farmers. Each farmer has different strengths and challenges, and it takes time to develop a trusting relationship that will allow the farmer to benefit fully from what the AEA has to offer. Finally, there is also a detrimental effect on farmer group development. Imagine you are taking a course on starting up a new business, with a project that is integrated into each class. Then all of a sudden the teacher stops coming and classes are suspended for 3 months. Do you think you’ll be on track when the teacher suddenly decides to return? Probably not – you’ll need a few refresher classes to remember all the things you’ve already learned, and some of the momentum for your project has probably disappeared. This is what happens to farmer groups when AEAs are unable to keep investing in their development – concepts are lost, momentum wanes and the group loses interest.

2) Supervisors can’t hold AEAs accountable to doing their jobs.
The bottom line: when AEAs aren’t given the resources to do their jobs, they really can’t be expected to do them. There are a few exceptional AEAs (mostly the single ones who don’t have families to support) who are stepping up and using their own money in order to continue serving their farmers. However, not every AEA can be expected to do this. As a result, no one can be held accountable. So right now an AEA can receive their salary by doing absolutely no extension work!

3) Work for donor projects that come with fuel money are prioritized over core extension work.
The Tamale Metro office (where I’m working) is both lucky and unlucky that we are an easy target for NGOs and other implementing agencies. Tamale is the capital of northern Ghana and one of the only easily-accessible districts in the area. So when an NGO wants to pilot a project, they come to us! This is good because it means that some really innovative projects are reaching our farmers first. It also exposes AEAs to a range of ideas and approaches. Most of all, it brings in extra resources – if an NGO is asking AEAs to carry out field-work on their behalf, AEAs are often given fuel money as well as an honorarium for their time. However, on the other side of things, many of these projects are NOT innovative and really just add a whole lot of work to an AEA’s schedule. (For example, 2 separate projects currently have AEAs walking around the same farmers’ fields to map them with GPS. Seriously?? The AEAs are doing the exact same thing twice, once with each organization’s GPS unit! And they’re doing this for over 100 fields each!) Smart AEAs use this money to carry out both the project work and their core work at the same time by strategically planning their routes to and from the field. But since the money is intended for the project work, that work is prioritized over all core extension work. And when it’s as time-consuming as walking around hundreds of farmers’ fields, there’s often no time for anything else! Unfortunately, this effect also extends to EWB’s work with the Agriculture As a Business (AAB) program. We don’t give out fuel money as an incentive for AEAs to participate in the program (there is a long and heated debate about this decision), which means that there has been virtually no activity in the AAB program in Tamale since January. And like the supervisors, since I’m not offering AEAs any fuel money to do the work, I can’t hold them accountable!

4) Directors can complain but are powerless to affect change.
This one is tough. I wrote earlier on this blog about the (lack of) culture of upward feedback in MoFA. It is fairly rare for a District Director to outwardly complain about programs or policies in MoFA. In this case, the money has been delayed long enough that many Directors are raising a stink about it at the national level. But what difference does it make? There are piles of excuses being made by MoFA at a national level about why the money hasn’t come. As for the Directors, they don’t have access to any discretionary funding that they could allocate temporarily as fuel money (so much for the concept of decentralization). They could dig into their private stashes, but wouldn’t that set an interesting precedent… yikes!

5) Everyone is demotivated and frustrated (including me!).
Yeah, it’s really just a bummer. Nothing is happening (except lots of NGO project work) and no one can do anything about it.

So who holds the purse-strings to the fuel money? I have no idea… someone at “the top”. MoFA National blamed Parliament for a while for not passing the budget in time, then passed the blame to some development partners who are funding agricultural work. There are even rumours of a Canadian connection to the hold-up – the horror! Even then, much of development funding is contingent on the beneficiaries demonstrating some level of capacity or “readiness” to receive the funding, which places the blame squarely back on MoFA (or on the donor policies, depending on how you look at it). The bottom line is that while “the top” argue amongst themselves, it’s poor farmers who are paying the price.

The main frustration is in seeing all these AEAs missing out on serving their farmers; the opportunity is what they are capable of if resources are provided on time. AEAs care about farmers, and they want to be interacting with them out in the field. Supervisors also care about farmers (most used to be AEAs themselves), and want to hold their AEAs accountable to serving farmers. And farmers value MoFA’s assistance! There is a huge opportunity for MoFA to do good work, but they need the resources to carry it out.

This week, Sarah Grant, the Director of Agribusiness for EWB in Ghana, will be traveling to Accra to meet with MoFA National and their development partners on the topic of farmer group development. There is a huge opportunity to influence these players and bring field realities, such as the effects of the late arrival of funds, to those making the decisions. EWB is uniquely placed to offer these insights and it is our responsibility to make the most of these influence opportunities. We want to see the development world flipped on its head, with implementing actors like MoFA being held accountable to farmers rather than donors. It’s a complex system, but somebody’s gotta change it!


Farming is Hard

“Ehhh, a kpeng a mung!” (“You have done well!”) Salifo beams at me. I stand and survey the yam mound I’ve just created. It’s a bit smaller than its neighbours, but the shape is good – mound-like – and the dirt is well-packed. Indeed, I’ve done well! I move on to the adjacent patch of earth and start digging again. In the time it took me to make that one, Salifo has completed 3 big yam mounds, far superior to my own. But hey, I’m just learning!

Salifo and I building yam mounds

I manage to make 6 yam mounds before I collapse under a nearby tree. It’s hard work! My hamstrings are quivering from bending over and pulling dirt toward me – think dead lift, over and over – and my hands are developing blisters from the rough-hewn wooden hoe I’m using. And I’m sweating like a pig! Unfortunately, this is the biggest aerobic workout I’ve had in a while. (Something about running in 30 degree weather just doesn’t appeal to me…)

We arrived here at the farm by riding our motos down a narrow, winding, sandy path along a rain wash-way and then out into the fields. We parked our motos under a tree, then continued on foot to this yam field, which belongs to Salifo and his brothers. The field is about a quarter of an acre in size, though they want to increase it to half an acre. They had already prepared the land, turning it under and removing all the brush that had grown in the last few months.

Now it was time to build the yam mounds, which are cone-shaped and about 3-4 feet across. The yams grow better in this loosely-packed earth, where the tuber has room to grow big without resistance from the hard-packed land underfoot. The mounds are made first, then a seed yam is planted in the top of each one. The seed yams are grown at the end of the harvest, from the same plant after the full-grown yams have been harvested. After the seed is planted, leaves are placed on top of the mound and covered with a chunk of dirt to hold them in place. This is supposed to keep the mounds from drying out and becoming too hot. A finished yam field is truly a bizarre sight to behold!

A neighbour's completed yam field

Salifo finished 2 rows of yam mounds, then came to join me in resting under the tree. We ate some boiled yams as a snack, part of last year’s harvest. As we sat, I asked him to compare his different types of work.

Salifo is one of a few people in Zuo who can speak English, which means he is often recruited for community “volunteer” work by Ghana Health Services. For example, he has spent many days in the last 2 weeks helping with a campaign to distribute mosquito nets to children under 5. This involved training in Tamale, traveling to various communities to register the children, picking up the nets, returning to the communities to distribute and hang the nets, and filing in the information booklet for each net he distributed. It’s a lot of work! And he does it all without knowing how much he will be paid at the end – usually just a token for his time.

I asked Salifo to compare this to farming. Which does he prefer? He answered emphatically, “I choose to farm!” When I asked him why, he responded that with the farm, he is his own “in charge” (boss). He decides which work to do when, how much to invest in each field, and which crops he will plant. The manual labour is hard, but he knows he will get something out at the end – a harvest he can eat, or sell to earn money for his family. He also knows that, barring any natural disasters, the reward will be directly proportional to the efforts he puts in. Finally, there’s none of that tricky business of trying to persuade a mother to make her child sleep under a mosquito net.

Salifo finishing a row of yam mounds

We are often told that people in rural Africa are farmers because they have no other choice. While that is true in many cases, there are also those who choose this profession, like Salifo. Really, it’s not a bad gig, if you don’t mind manual labour. Each farmer can be seen as a small business-owner, making decisions about his investments to maximize his profits. And like many small business-owners in Canada, farmers work long hours to achieve success, which they can then attribute to their own hard work.

As I look across at my 6 yam mounds and compare them to the ~30 that Salifo made, I have a newfound respect for farmers. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen in Canada, showcasing farmers’ pride: “Farmers Feed Cities!” I’ve seen similar stickers in Ghana, reminding people that farming is a noble and necessary profession for the well-being of the entire country. So, props to Ghanaian farmers!!


I’d like to open a savings account, please.

Crack – crack – crack

Cracking groundnuts

My fingers are tingling and my thumbs are covered in small punctures. I pick up another groundnut (peanut) from my lap, crack open the shell and drop the nuts into a bucket beside me. I drop the shells on the ground, then scoop another handful of groundnuts from the huge bowl in front of me and start again. Around me, under the shade of a huge mango tree, the men and women talk and laugh while they do this work. They have been at this all day, shelling bowl after bowl of groundnuts. In fact, they have been at it all week, processing the groundnuts and selling them at the market.

But why do this work now? These groundnuts were harvested last October and stored in big sacks for the last 6 months. Why weren’t they cracked and sold after harvest, instead of waiting until now? I posed this question to Salifo, my host in the village of Zuo. He responded that he needed the money from the groundnuts to buy inputs for his farm this year, such as seeds, fertilizer and rent for a tractor to plough the land. He said that he knew if he sold them last year, he would have spent the money by this time and he wouldn’t have any money to buy those inputs. So instead, he saved the groundnuts.

This is an important form of savings for Ghanaian farmers. Since Salifo doesn’t have his own savings account at a bank – most people don’t – he has no way to protect his money when he earns some. And in Ghana, when you have any amount of cash, friends and relatives start dropping by to borrow it until, little by little, it’s all gone. Storing crops, or any other liquid asset, is a better way to save that money until you want to spend it.

Salifo and his savings

The other added bonus to selling groundnuts now is the increase in price. After harvest, when the market is flooded with fresh goods, the prices are at their lowest. At that time, a bowl of groundnuts will earn you 1.5 GhC (about $1.20 CAD). But now, at the beginning of the farming season, the market has cooled down and the price has risen to 2.5 GhC ($2.00 CAD). This is another reason to store your crops and sell at a later date. But while this seems like a good strategy, often the more urgent need for cash is what will determine whether a farmer saves or sells his crops.

Of course, not everyone has the option of saving. Often families reach the end of the farming season with nothing left in their stores to eat (and sometimes they run out even earlier). The market is not flooded with crops after harvest because people are stupid and they don’t want to earn the higher price by selling later. It floods because people are desperate for money to buy food and feed their families. This is what it is like to live hand-to-mouth in a country like Ghana. Only those who start with something – a good business plan, proper farming inputs, or a bit of luck – can afford the luxury of waiting to sell their goods after harvest.

My work here is about increasing the number of people who wait to sell their groundnuts. It’s about changing the decision from one of necessity to one of strategic business planning. Overall, it’s about reducing the number of people who don’t even have a choice.


Providing feedback: small small culture change in MoFA

Here is a blog post I wrote last week for our team’s blog, Innovations With Farmers. Check it out regularly to see what we’re up to as a team!

“The Block Farming Program has very good objectives of ensuring food security and employment for youth. However, last year the project was beset by a number of challenges, including the late arrival of inputs such as seed, fertilizer and the like. The late application of these inputs by farmers resulted in substandard yields and low recovery rates of farm produce. This year, it is recommended that all inputs are made available before the commencement of the Block Farming Program with farmers.”

Northern Region DDAs hard at work

This clear, concise feedback to MoFA National project designers was presented by one of the District Directors from the Northern Region at the most recent session of EWB’s DDA Fellowship. The program, which has now had 2 full-day sessions, brings together 8 of the best MoFA District Directors (DDAs) to learn new management tools, develop leadership skills and share both challenges and successes in their districts. In this session, DDAs were asked to put together feedback on the Block Farming program following a particular framework:
1) Empathize
2) State observations
3) State implications of these observations
4) Give recommendations

Districts have a unique on-the-ground experience that is vital to national project design. However, these experiences are rarely solicited, or only solicited as a token gesture without incorporating them into planning processes. In addition, there is no culture of upward feedback that would allow DDAs to voice their experiences even when they aren’t solicited. The culture in MoFA, like many Ghanaian institutions, sees instructions given from the top and implemented at the bottom, missing the critical feedback loop from bottom to top that is essential for success. This results in a significant disconnect between what is going on in the minds of the national project planners and what is really happening in the field. In addition, many of the large agricultural projects (such as the Block Farming Program) are highly political in nature, making it difficult for MoFA staff to speak out against them. One benefit to the DDA Fellowship, identified by the participants, is that they are able to provide feedback as a group rather than as individuals, thereby minimizing their personal risk.

The Block Farming Program is an excellent example of a project that could be greatly improved by incorporating district-level feedback. The project, which seeks to commercialize farming of staple crops while engaging youth in agricultural practices, was rolled out across Ghana in 2009. As mentioned by the DDA above, the project was beset by a number of challenges, including late provision of inputs, lack of mechanized farming equipment (these are commercial-size farms), inadequate funding for monitoring activities and poor storage facilities for harvested produce, among others. In addition, the program resulted in a loss of trust between MoFA and farmers due to the inadequate provision of these resources, which were promised to farmers at the beginning of the program. However, there is no mechanism for districts to share these challenges with the project coordinators at a national level. As a result, the Block Farming Program was lauded as a success for food security and will be scaled up in 2010. As another DDA put it, “the real problem with the expansion of the Block Farming Program is that we have not yet learned from last year’s mistakes!”

The feedback activity above was one of the highlights from the last DDA session. Participants put together clear and concise recommendations for changing the Block Farming Program that were relevant and well-presented. However, what happens when the participants leave the safety of the workshop? We have yet to hear of an example of a DDA providing upward feedback about the Block Farming Program or anything else. We feel that giving this type of feedback is a critical skill for DDAs – but will they use it? What else needs to change for DDAs to start giving this type of feedback to their superiors?

Upper East Region DDAs working on their recommendations

Perhaps the culture change is not yet complete. Simply giving upward feedback is not enough. For this strategy to be effective, two things need to still happen: 1) someone at the top needs to be listening, and 2) the feedback needs to be subsequently incorporated into planning processes so that improvements are made. In this way, the feedback loop will be completed and agricultural projects will be able to benefit from the experience of those on the ground.

Interestingly, this feedback loop could also be seen with DDAs at the top, as it is structured within the District MoFA Offices. In this case the DDA is in charge, followed by the District Agricultural Officers (DAOs), and finally by the Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), who are the ones actually working with farmers on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, DDAs should be soliciting feedback from their AEAs to contribute to District projects and office functioning. However, the hierarchical culture persists in many District offices. Perhaps the true test of EWB’s feedback workshop from the DDA Fellowship will be how many of the DDAs return to their districts and begin to solicit feedback from those working beneath them.

The challenges are significant, but the culture in MoFA is shifting, starting with these high-performing DDAs who are motivated to make change. We will be following up in the next few months to see how they have given feedback and whether they perceive any changes in the way this feedback is handled by MoFA. We will also continue to work on empowering these leaders to create their own successes in their districts. While a few have already demonstrated this ability, they are all growing in their roles as change agents every day. In addition, this program is not operating in isolation – EWB is tackling the issue from all sides. For example, we recently worked with MoFA National to help them integrate a mechanism for receiving feedback into their Electronic Reporting Template, which is filled out by districts every quarter and submitted to the national office. Hopefully this small change in reporting will give DDAs an avenue to provide feedback, and MoFA National will see the value of integrating this feedback into planning for the future.


Why aren’t you staying in Tamale?

“But why aren’t you staying in town??” This is almost always the second question, following my answer to the first question, “Where are you staying?”.

New electricity lines in Zuo

I have decided to live in a village called Zuo, about 10 minutes moto-ride outside of the city limits of Tamale. It’s a small village of about 400 people located on the Yendi road heading east out of Tamale. There are Primary and Junior Secondary schools, a mosque, a health clinic, a nutrition centre and about 30 household compounds. Most of the houses are simple mud-brick affairs with thatched roofs, though some of the more affluent families have cement buildings with tin roofs as part of their compounds. The village just got electricity a few months ago and lightbulb sellers in the area must have made a killing! Each room is now furnished with a bulb, plus one for each compound courtyard where the women do the cooking and families gather in the evening. The electricity also powers a grinding mill which seems to run at all hours of the day – it’s a very popular place!

Borehole pump

Back on the water theme, the village is equipped with a borehole, but most people still fetch their water from a pond a 10-minute walk away. Apparently they don’t like the taste of the borehole water and the soap “doesn’t lather properly” when washing with this water. They use the borehole water occasionally for cooking and cleaning, but use the pond water for drinking and bathing. This baffles me, since the borehole water is clear and clean-looking, whereas the pond water is cloudy and full of algae. Seems like a no-brainer!

My bedroom

My room is located in the health clinic. This large building was built very recently and has 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and a kitchen to house the community health nurses who are supposed to be living here. It also has a storage room, a treatment room and a waiting area. There are supposed to be three health workers living here, but one stays in Tamale because she doesn’t like the water and the other two, who are part of Ghana’s Youth Employment Program, haven’t been paid in 6 months so they come and go as they please. I spent my first couple days with one of these girls, named Nimatu, and we became good friends. I enjoy her company when she’s here, which is about half the time. The clinic is designed to be a drop-in centre for the surrounding communities for first aid treatment, malaria testing and access to drugs. However, when there’s no one here, people are just out of luck! It’s a shame that this nice new building is not serving its intended purpose as an easily-accessible clinic for people in the area. However, as I discussed in my previous post, the issues are much larger than just this one clinic.

Fuseini family compound

Though I stay in a room in the health clinic, I am hosted in the village by a man named Fuseini Salifo who stays in a compound with his family just across the road. Salifo’s household also contains his two brothers, Zachariah and Adam, each of their wives, Azara, Fatima and Mariama, and a host of children, including Salifo’s own Wikaya and baby Hussain. It’s a lively household, with children and goats running all over the place. I come in the morning to take tea and a maize porridge called “koko” for breakfast, then head to work. At the end of the day, I return and greet everyone in the compound and take my supper with them. People are always coming in and out to say hello and catch up, so I’ve met most of the village this way.

My host, Salifo

Salifo, like most of the people in this village, is a farmer. Right now it’s the dry season, so he is resting and taking part in the many construction activities that happen at this time of year. When the rains come, he will go to his fields and begin to farm. With his brothers, he farms maize, yams, rice, soya beans and many other small crops. They also raise livestock, including sheep, fowl and even a herd of cattle. They are assisted by their local MoFA Agricultural Extension Agent, a man named Tahiru who I work closely with. He brings them new technical information, helps them access loans and farming equipment and answers their questions.

When I describe my home to my colleagues, I always get the question above: why am I not living in Tamale? To most educated Ghanaians, it’s completely backwards to reject the modern city lifestyle and choose to live in a village. But by living in this village, I come one step closer to understanding the lives of those I’m trying to reach through my work. I can see firsthand the challenges and opportunities for rural Ghanaian farmers and connect with them on a personal level. Unfortunately, this perspective is easily lost when working in the development industry, with its focus on budgets and timelines and impact. By coming home to this reality every night, I will make sure my experiences will directly inform my work with MoFA and with EWB and keep me focused on what’s really important: getting people out of poverty.

Hussain

Wikaya


Water Complex

My flip flops slap against the ground as I call out “Desiba” (“Good morning”) to the women walking past on the narrow dirt path. Ahead of me, Rashida balances two giant metal containers on her head, while Zewera follows behind. We come over a small ridge and I find myself looking at a large pond. Rashida and Zewera continue down the slope to the water, where they hike up their skirts and wade in. They fill the two buckets with the milky-looking water and help each other hoist the containers back up onto their heads. They are strong – those buckets must weigh at least 100 lbs. As we walk the 8 minutes back to the compound, other women call out, laughing and asking me where my water is. I tried carrying a small bucket yesterday, but my head-balancing skills are definitely not up to par. Today I’ve elected to bring my camera instead (it’s one or the other – I spill too much water when I’m carrying it on my head to bring a camera!).

We arrive back at the compound and Rashida and Zewera skillfully pour the water from the tops of their heads into the giant clay pots that are fixed to the ground. Inside, the new water mixes with the old, left over from last night’s trip to the pond. Rashida takes an old tomato can from beside the pots, scoops up some water and takes a long drink. She refills it, then takes it over to where her 7-month-old daughter Failatu is sitting on a reed mat and holds the can for her to drink. Zewera does the same for her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Awa. Then the two women pick up their containers and head back to the pond for another load.

This scene, from the village of Gbabshie, is unfortunately common in northern Ghana. These two women will make the trip to the pond 4-5 times per day to supply this 11-person household with water. Luckily for them, it’s not a long walk – some women walk over 2 km to access water in the dry season. They will use this water for all of their household needs: cooking, bathing, drinking and washing. They know the water is not good, but they have no other choice. Mr. Iddirisu, the sole member of the household who can speak any English, says “we see the goats defecating near the water and we know it’s not safe. We need a borehole but no NGO has yet come.”

Iddirisu’s statement is indicative of the development culture in Ghana. Though they may try, the government of Ghana has not been successful at meeting the needs of its population. This is both an issue of resources and of capacity (more on that in later posts). As a result, the doors have been thrown open to NGOs, foreign development agencies and multilateral institutions to fill the gap. Ghana in particular has become a “development darling” thanks to its relative stability and support for foreign projects. Now there are literally thousands of projects operating here on all scales, from small local NGOs doing agroforestry projects, to multinational UN-funded campaigns to eradicate guinea worm. In many cases, NGOs are playing a role that would traditionally be filled by the government – hardly a sustainable model.

Let’s get back to the water problem in Gbabshie: the community needs a safe water source. It would be easy to come into the community, see the women and children drinking from this filthy pond, make a quick video appealing for donations from friends in Canada, and pay a local NGO to install a borehole. Bam! problem solved. But is it really solved? Let’s take a closer look.

Have you ever been given something for free? Maybe it was a bicycle, a phone, a book, just something that someone else didn’t want anymore. How much value did you place on this discarded item from your friend? Probably not much – it wasn’t worth much to him/her, so why should it be worth so much to you?

What about this: have you ever shared a resource with a large group of people? Maybe it was a common kitchen in your house, or supply of toilet paper in an outhouse at camp. What was the state of this shared resource after some time passed? Did you have to put some structure in place to manage the resource well? What incentives did you have to care for the resource, and how did you react to other people using it in different ways?

These two issues both come into play when discussing a village borehole: you’re giving something away for free to a group of people. Of course they will appreciate it – clean water! But how will they treat the borehole? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for paying for repairs? Who has priority over the water? It is common to come back to one of these villages a year later and still see women walking to the pond to get water. The borehole has broken down, and no one is responsible for paying for repairs, so they haven’t been done. Besides, why pay for repairs when any day an NGO might come along and repair it for free?

In the middle of the village of Gbabshie lies a testament to these issues. The women’s group here received a grinding mill several years ago. Now it lies in disrepair, covered in cobwebs. No one is willing to pay to have it fixed, so all the money the NGO put into buying and installing the machine in the first place has gone to waste.

These issues of sustainability are always prevalent in development projects. It is easy to fill an immediate need; it is much more difficult to change the institutional environment around that resource so that the change will be sustained. For a borehole, several conditions need to be in place. Someone needs to be responsible for managing that borehole, whether it is one person or a committee of people. Users need to contribute money for maintenance and repairs. For this to happen, people need to see value in having a working borehole, which means they need to be educated on water and health issues. When the borehole breaks down, skilled technicians need to be accessible to the community at an affordable price. Replacement parts must be locally available in a timely manner. People must know their rights and how to address the authorities if they are being taken advantage of. And NGOs must not continue to offer new things for free which undermine the existing system.

This example demonstrates the complexity of poverty and development. There are simple solutions, but there are no simple problems, so the simple solutions will inevitably fail. To address the complex problem of poverty, we need complex solutions that change the operating environment of development in Ghana. Institutional changes take time to produce, but the effect is long-lasting and the impact is much greater.


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