Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “effectiveness

On Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Challenging Perspectives – Extending a Hand Up

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

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

My friend Salifo

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

Maize: -293GhC

Rice: -204GhC

Groundnuts: -4GhC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Tale of Two Projects

This is the story of two projects, one MoFA office and a case of bad coordination.

In early 2010, a prominent project came to my office, the Tamale Metropolitan office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. One of the project’s aims was to provide training and inputs to farmers in a bid to increase production (this is a VERY common project design in northern Ghana). They wanted to enlist the help of our Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) to carry out the implementation, in exchange for a small sum (also very common). The first step was to form groups of 50 farmers, each with one acre of land to contribute toward the project.

But it was not enough to just identify the farmers and their land. Like every project, this one was required to communicate their progress back to their funders in the West. As part of their monitoring, they had to send back a GPS map showing the location of every piece of land that was part of the project. That is 50 one-acre farms per farmer group, with anywhere from 1-3 groups per AEA, for 20 AEAs. That’s about 2000 individual one-acre farms, all shown on a GPS map.

And who do you think had to do that mapping, to go out into the field and walk around the perimeter of each farm with a GPS unit in hand? That’s right, the MoFA AEAs.

With only two GPS units in the office, this mapping procedure dragged on for months. Some AEAs only took half the data, while some managed to avoid doing it altogether. But eventually, the project kicked some butt and all the AEAs finished the mapping. Hours and hours of fieldwork, all to send a progress report to a donor in the West who probably won’t even look at the map.

Tahiru, an AEA in Tamale

Later in 2010, another project came to visit my MoFA office. This project was focused more on market linkages than training farmers. They were aiming to develop a database containing  information for marketers – farmers’ names, contact info, location, main commodities, volumes, etc. They were looking for some sample data to populate their database and they had selected the 50-person farmer groups set up by the first project to use as the sample data.

One of the pieces of data required for the database was the GPS coordinates of the farms. The project brought one GPS unit and asked the AEAs to go around to each farm and mark it on the GPS. Of course they would provide a small sum for this work to be done.

No one protested. They took the money and did the EXACT SAME WORK ALL OVER AGAIN.

A farmer's field outside Tamale

During the time taken to collect GPS data, whether for donors or marketers, the AEAs were not fulfilling their core role as extension agents. Their time was taken up by projects, away from solving farmers’ problems, away from responding to farmers’ needs and away from delivering agricultural information. The AEAs were used as information-gathering tools, rather than a means to actually reach out to farmers. And this was not just one day – this was weeks and weeks of work. You can imagine my frustration at finding out that this was done not once, but twice in the same year.

Mustapha, an AEA in Tamale

The development industry is a funny thing. Here in Tamale, several NGOs exist solely for the purpose of bidding on and implementing donor projects. They don’t have one specific mission, they don’t do their own project design, and they aren’t particularly discerning in the types of projects they bid on. They’re in it for the money.

So what’s the kicker in this story? These two projects were implemented by the EXACT SAME NGO. The project staff sat next to each other in the same office, but never talked enough to know that they were collecting the same GPS data.


Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century

This is a post for Blog Action Day (#bad11), a movement that aims to start a global discussion through thousands of blogs posted in one day on the same topic. This year, the topic is one dear to my heart: Food.I have been thinking about food a lot for the past 1.5 years through my work in agriculture with EWB. We are working closely with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to reach out to farmers, but what are we working toward? This question has nagged me more and more as time goes on, to the point that I ran a learning session at our last EWB retreat with the same name as the title of this post – Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century.I’ve been reading a lot on this topic in the past 8 months. I’m not sure if there’s a trend toward addressing this issue lately, or if I’m just noticing the articles because I’m finally looking for them, but there is a LOT of writing out there! I’ve summarized a few of my favourite articles in the “Further Reading” section at the end of this post.
The Issues

First, let’s get to the heart of the issue: it’s a matter of food production vs. environmental sustainability. Traditional industrial agriculture has achieved record production through intensive farming practices, mechanized farming and petro-chemical inputs applied with machine-like precision. This has come at the expense of the environment, with corporate farms using up precious fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems in the quest for more food. However, viewing these as two opposing goals is a false dichotomy; if we want to achieve food security far into the future, we must find a way to fulfill both of these goals AT THE SAME TIME! My research into this topic has tried to answer this question: what model of agriculture will allow us to achieve sustainable global food security?

Development workers have a unique perspective on the problem of global food security because we must take into account an additional question, “what is good for poor farmers?” In this case, it’s not just about achieving adequate food production, or nutrition levels, or even environmental sustainability. We must also take into account the lifestyle of the poor Ghanaian farmer, who is being asked to adopt this model to continue providing food for his fellow citizens. What model of agriculture will spur human development in Ghana while also fulfilling the above two goals?

Though I mentioned that there are a lot of people writing on this topic right now, there is a relatively low level of consensus as to what the future model of global agriculture should be. There is a never-ending number of models being promoted (organic, agroecology, industrial, urban, etc.), each with its own convincing arguments and promoters. This is quite startling, and makes it very difficult to choose one agricultural model to promote in our work. So how can we plan for the future?

My Opinion

Let’s be very clear here: the following are my personal opinions, not those of EWB, Ghanaian farmers, or anyone else you might confuse me with. There is no right answer, only a series of thoughts and questions that remain to be determined.

Traditional agriculture in Ghana is somewhat organic, in the sense that there are no chemicals applied to the crops. Most farmers practicing these traditional methods also don’t use improved seeds, proper land preparation techniques or any other Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). As a result, they get low yields compared to their neighbours who use “modern” techniques – mechanized land preparation, chemical fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides, and better GAPs. This is leading Ghanaian farmers to see chemical agriculture as the way forward, when in fact many of these GAPs applied to their traditional organic fields would also increase yields significantly.

Right now, MoFA is steering Ghana toward a future of intensive industrial agriculture through credit-in-kind schemes and input subsidies. And why shouldn’t they? This is the path every other industrialized nation has taken to get out of poverty and push forward their economies. But I think it’s too late to take this path. The time has come when oil-based agriculture is getting too expensive (and oil prices are too volatile) to rely on. The price of oil will only increase in the next 20 years, so why are we promoting a model of dependence on these inputs in Ghana?

If things go ahead as MoFA wants them to, soon the majority of Ghanaian farmers will be using industrial agriculture methods. Food security in the country will be improved, but for how long? Soon fuel prices will be too high for Ghanaians to afford the food produced in this manner, and we will be thrown back into food insecurity. Ghana is at the brink of “maturity” in agriculture, about to choose a method to promote and follow for decades to come. Let’s help them make an appropriate and sustainable choice.

My colleague Mina works with an organic fertilizer company near Tamale and often cites a study that showed yields to be virtually the same when appropriate amounts of chemical and organic fertilizer were applied to test fields. In fact, the plot with the highest yields used a combination of both types of fertilizer. So why are these methods most often presented as mutually exclusive?

There are many sustainable practices being used in Ghana on a small scale – sustainable land management, soil fertility techniques, inter-cropping to naturally get rid of pests, organic fertilizers and weedicides and many other GAPs. What are the best ways for EWB to promote these techniques without being paternalistic and dictating the way forward for Ghana’s agricultural development? Tricky…

I think one of the key lessons here is that we need to be adaptive, changing our approach depending on the conditions (economic, social and environmental) in which we find ourselves. Of course, these conditions are changing all the time, so we need to be constantly testing our assumptions, checking if the information we gathered 1 year, 6 months or even 2 weeks ago is still relevant today. And we need to help the Government of Ghana to have the same resilient approach, adapting to new information and conditions as the world lumbers toward a new model for sustainable food security.
More Details

Different levels of thinking about this:

  • Global food systems
  • Consumers in Canada
  • African agriculture
  • Farmers
  • EWB’s stance
  • Our strategies

More questions to ponder…

  • How do we bridge economic development & environmental sustainability in Africa?
  • What are the pros and cons of each agricultural model?
  • How do these changes in policy translate to realities on the ground?
  • What stance should EWB and other NGOs take on these issues? How will this effect our work?

Other tricky issues (you can Google these for more info):

  • African land grabs
  • GM crops
  • Foreign investment
  • Subsidies
  • Food price volatility
  • Climate change
  • Famine
  • Biodiversity
  • Farmers’ rights
  • Biofuels

Further Reading

Special report on the future of food – population, development, environment, politics, nutrition, food waste:

Politics, global markets, demand for food:

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and the concept of agroecology:

Agroecology and development:

Organic farming:

Food waste:

Concentrated industrial vs. wide-spread “nature-friendly” agriculture, which is better for the environment:

Smallholder farmers and environmental sustainability:

Findings of DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century:

Moving from old to new models of agriculture:


Big John’s Self-Help Super Microfinance Scheme

Meet John Alhassan I. He is an Agricultural Extension Agent (AEA) at my office of the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. His job is to deliver agricultural information to farmers in his operational area and to help them improve their farms, whether that means reducing the level of poverty in a household by adopting better agricultural practices, or helping commercial farmers to get in touch with the market. John sees all types of strengths and needs in his daily work as an AEA.

One of the farmer groups that John works with is a women’s group of 24 members. He started building up this group using EWB’s Agriculture As a Business program last June. Through the program, group members were encouraged to contribute group savings to a bank account that John had helped the group to open a few years ago. Each member contributes 50Gp (about $0.35CAD) per week. After a few months, the group had built up their savings and they were ready to invest.

John was concerned that the group was too large to give a loan to each woman. If they divided the savings 24 ways, it wouldn’t really make a difference. Instead, he divided the group into four groups of six women each. He randomly selected one group to receive loans first by drawing the numbers 1-4 on pieces of paper and selecting one from a pile in front of the women. Each of the six women in the first group received a loan of 100GhC (about $65CAD) to invest however she wanted, but with the understanding that in two months time she would have to pay back the full 100GhC, plus 5GhC of interest. Most of the women are processors, so they elected to invest in bulk purchases of rice, groundnuts or shea nuts to process and sell at a profit. After two months, 100% of the money and interest were paid back to the group bank account, and the next round of loans were given out to six new women.

After each group had received the loan once, John upped the stakes – the next round of loans were for more money (120GhC), but the interest also increased (10GhC). Again, the repayment rates have been 100% so far. The group is currently on this second round of loans and their bank account balance is still increasing. The women are dedicated and determined and John is encouraging them every step of the way. The goal is to make enough money for the group to buy a grinding mill, a purchase which will give them an even higher return on investment.

John Alhassan I.

Why do I think this is such a great story?

John is really passionate about helping people in his role as an AEA. Though many farmers have been trained over the years to sit around and wait for government money to come, John knows it isn’t coming any time soon. He also knows that the banks aren’t often willing to help; he already took this women’s group to the bank for a loan and they were rejected. Help isn’t coming from outside, so John is helping the group to help themselves. This group is serious, dreaming big and working hard to achieve their goals.

John has now taken this scheme to other farmer groups, where it is also working successfully. But why is he so successful in this approach? There are a few key elements of this grassroots project that have made it work so far:

  1. There is no time limit on this project. This is John’s own initiative, so he has taken the time to build up and groom his farmer groups until they are ready to handle serious money. He is not under pressure from donors or banks to report quarterly on his progress, and his funding isn’t going to dry up in 3 years. Instead, this home-grown approach gives the group and the AEA time to build up their skills and capacity to handle these loans.
  2. The group members have a personal relationship with John and a high degree of trust in him. He visits the group often to check in on their progress, encourages them when they need a kind word and keeps them accountable to each other. He hasn’t just come in to tell them what to do “for their own good”, but he has taken the time to build a trusting relationship with the group.
  3. The approach is tailored to the needs of the group. This isn’t some monolithic project coming in and prescribing a microfinance approach to fit all smallholders. Instead, it’s one AEA who knows the nuances of this group and has created a program that will work specifically for them. He has decided on the timing, the group sizes and amounts of the loans in collaboration with the group so that it best fits their needs. And this completely changes for each of the groups he works with.

This is an approach that is working for John’s farmers. Of course, it wouldn’t work if you tried to scale it up. It would be too complex, with too many variables and little things that would invariably go wrong – the farmers don’t trust the facilitator, the groups are thrown together to access loans, the money is too much or too little, the ToT didn’t teach trainers to visit the groups often enough. Farmers are smart – they’ve seen it all before, and they know how to manipulate the system. If you tried to scale this project, it just wouldn’t work.

The beauty of this approach is that it was developed out of a clear need: to find financing for the group to meet their goals. It’s a tailored approach that is based on a strong relationship between the AEA and the group members. The problem presented itself and the AEA was pushed to find a solution. In the development world, where we often find solutions in need of problems rather than the other way around, this is a refreshing turn of events.

I admire John for his dedication and creativity in meeting the needs of his groups. I wanted to highlight him as one of the many AEAs in the Ministry who are working tirelessly with inadequate pay and resources to do the best they can for farmers. These are the small beacons of hope that keep me motivated to keep working for change in the Ministry. John is truly an inspiration!

So I say, to all of you, keep doin’ it for Dorothy!


Strategy Development in small-meal-sized chunks: Part 2

Hey everyone,

Ben put up his second post in the Strategy Development series yesterday. It’s a long one, but very interesting if you like start-ups, frameworks, strategy, or just cool new ideas! I suggest you head over to The Borrowed Bicycle and take a gander. And once again, we’re looking for TONS of feedback on this stuff – does it jive? What do you like or dislike about it? What are we doing well, and what are we totally forgetting about? Please leave your comments over there, it will be an immense help to us!! Thanks!

Once again, the link is http://theborrowedbicycle.ca/2011/04/customer-development-and-our-strategy-process/. Enjoy!


Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks

Hello world,

I’m writing this post to introduce a new concept we want to try over here at EWB. I’ve been hanging out in the “international development/aid online community” for a while now and while it’s fun to chat, I’d actually like to put this community to work! (And yes, family, friends and colleagues, I want you to help me out too!) One of the favourite conversation topics is poorly designed development projects. While it’s fun to bash these projects, it’s harder to design good ones. I’d like to use this opportunity to seek out feedback on our team’s next move in public sector agricultural development.

This is an experiment! The plan is to outline our team’s strategy development process and the various investment opportunities we have, then seek external feedback on where we can invest and how we can play a bigger role in the agric sector. I have no idea if this experiment will work out, but I think it will be interesting to try! In order to work, it relies on a few success factors:

  • lots of readers – so please share widely so we can ask for widespread feedback!
  • feedback from within and outside the sector – if you know people in the agric development sector, send them this way. If you know smart people who would just be interested in providing feedback, please also send them this way!
  • sustained readership – unfortunately there is a lot of info, so it’ll be going up in a series of posts – you gotta keep reading to get to the meat! We’ll see whether people can hang in this long.
  • understandable posts – we’re looking for feedback on whether you have any idea what we’re talking about… so let us know!

As I wrote in a previous post, our team is currently undergoing a rigorous strategy development process. Thanks to Ben‘s personal interest in the tech start-up world, we’re trying something very new: applying start-up business principles to our strategy development. For a bit of background on why we’re applying these principles, see Ben’s earlier post, Tech start-ups and human development: different worlds?. Ben will introduce you to the tech-world language, but it basically advocates a Searcher rather than a Planner mentality – figuring out what people want before scaling it to a broad level.

Ben will be writing a series of blog posts in the next few weeks describing our process, model and some of the initiatives we’re looking to invest in. I’ll post links here on my blog, but please comment over on his blog – we’re hoping to get tons of feedback and discussions going!

So, without further ado, I will guide you to the first post over on Ben’s blog: Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks. Enjoy!


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