Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “learning

Information: What’s It To Ya?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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


Update from EWB’s MoFA/AgEx Team

Hi blog readers,

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

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

-Erin


New Publication: Future Agricultural Models

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

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

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

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


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:


Update

Hi everyone,

Again, it’s been quite a while since I posted. Sorry about that! Life has been crazy busy lately, so I just wanted to post a short update about what life has been like lately.

August was an INSANELY busy month, with 6 summer students leaving (we miss you!), 5 new volunteers arriving, 2 weeks of meetings for EWB’s African Programs Leaders and… my 2-week Canadian vacation!

Lake Bosumtwe

The 2 weeks of Team Leader meetings were held at the beautiful Lake Point Guesthouse on Lake Bosumtwe, near Kumasi, Ghana with ~10 super-inspiring leaders from EWB. The beautiful lakeside location provided an ideal place to step back from the day-to-day business of running an EWB team to think about our long-term strategy as an organization. Here are a few of the questions we discussed during the meetings:

  • What are our theories of change within each team? How can we learn from each others’ experience?
  • What are the investment criteria for EWB as an organization to invest in new or ongoing initiatives? What combination of results, potential and leadership needs to be in place?
  • How can we invest more in EWB’s leadership pipeline, so great people continue to flow into our African Programs?
  • How can we hire and use local staff effectively?
  • What are various pathways to scale our change, either theoretical or from experience?
  • What are the teams’ strategies for influencing the “big players” in their sectors?
  • What is EWB’s overall vision? (We are currently undergoing a visioning process as an organization, pretty exciting to participate in!)

Team Leaders... meeting!

It was amazing to discuss these questions and to get/give feedback on our strategies. My brain was hurting! It was pretty intense – we even had a random woman buy us a round of drinks when she saw us working until 7pm on a Sunday, haha. Here are a few of my main take-aways from the meetings:

  • Our team has come a long way! We were in a pretty rough spot last February, but we have really turned around and come back strong. I’m excited about the things we’re currently working on and can’t wait to see where another 6 months takes us!
  • That said, I feel we have a long way to go in developing and articulating our strategy. These meetings were an AMAZING opportunity to push my strategic thinking and articulation further, so it’s something I’m passionate about pushing forward over the next 4 months. More to come on this blog!
  • I think we need to invest a LOT more in understanding influence pathways for the agric sector (specifically public sector) in Accra. We’ve been trying to find out how to leverage our relationships, but there’s actually a lot of ground work that still needs to be done before we can do that.
  • I’m also excited to build on more of the strong synergies between the 3 agric teams in Ghana – our public sector team, the Agric Value Chains team and Business Development Services. We’re all doing similar exciting things, and I hope we can find systematic ways of sharing and learning from each other.
  • We really need to plan ahead, but it’s really HARD to plan ahead. Yeah, big learning, right? I’m being asked to project how many African Programs Staff we’re going to need in the next year, but it’s so hard to tell – will we still be searching? prototyping? scaling something up? doing a pilot in 2 districts, or 20 districts? At least I’m really happy to work for an organization that is so flexible and will allow us to adapt (to a certain degree) as things change. Pretty cool!
  • EWB is exciting! We are developing a really inspiring model and I feel the African Programs vision is pretty inspiring as well. It makes me proud to work for such an organization and to be invested in the leadership of EWB :)

    Kids fishing in Lake Bosumtwe

After the last day of meetings, I headed to Accra to fly to Canada. I arrived on a Saturday morning, was greeted by my lovely family, and whisked away to the cottage. It was spectacular!

Flying over Niagara Falls

After an exhausting month, 10 days at the cottage of eating, sleeping, drinking and dock-sitting was just what I needed. It was super-relaxing and we had beautiful weather (most of the time!).

I convinced the whole family to try P90X Ab Ripper - on the deck at the cottage!

After that, I returned home for a few days of errands, catching up with friends and visiting with my Gramma. It wasn’t long, and before I knew it (2 weeks to the day) I was back on a plane to Ghana! But I’ve arrived back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to dive into the “fall semester” – our busiest time of the year!

Enjoying the cottage - near Parry Sound, Ontario

Of course this first week back in Ghana has been a bit nuts, trying to get caught up with everyone and everything. I’m working on the budget and “strategic plan” for our team for next year, which is difficult to say the least. But it’s been amazing to get home, unwind and unpack. Ben and I just moved to a new place right before I left for Kumasi. We’re still settling in, but so far it’s wonderful – both the house and the family we’re living beside. All in all, I’m getting ready for a great few months until Christmas!

It’s rainy season here in the north, and we were hit with a monster rainstorm yesterday afternoon. Don and I had a fun bike ride home from the office to discover that not only were all the dirt roads flooded, but the paved ones too! A few pics to tell the tale:

Old Gumani Road under water

Our front yard under water

That’s all for now. Just a quick update! I hope I’ll be back to some more regular blogging soon – I’ve got a few in the pipeline that I’m looking forward to writing, so stick around!


Sacrifice

When I talk to people at home and tell them what I do these days, a lot of them comment on the sacrifice that I’m making. I often think to myself, am I really making a big sacrifice? Yes, I live far from my family and friends, but I live with the guy I love. Yes, I’m not making much money, but I’m not spending much either. Yes, I’m not building my career as an engineer, but was I ever goig to do that anyway? I’m 25 years old, managing a team of 9 people, determining the strategic direction of our work, building credible partnerships and interacting with major players in my industry. In what alternate world could I say all that 2 years after graduation from an undergraduate degree?

The truth is, I’m pretty lucky. This is a sweet job. I love my work, my colleagues, my hometown of Tamale. Of course I miss Canada sometimes, but for now I’m pretty happy where I am. And most importantly, I’m working at a job that is in line with my values, improving the lives of people living in poverty.

I have a lot of colleagues here in Ghana who are with me in the poverty-fighting business. In fact, NGOs are probably the largest industry in Tamale. I have more than a few friends with Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Development Studies in Ghana, and Master’s degrees in development-related studies from universities in Ghana and abroad. They are smart, well-educated and determined to help their fellow countrypeople. So are they making a sacrifice too?

The truth is, being a development worker in Ghana is also a pretty sweet job, in the more conventional sense. The pay is much better than any kind of government work, and tends to be more stable than business. It’s also a pretty safe career choice – in the job market, there are more positions for development workers than many other professions. I would compare the career path of a development worker in Ghana to that of an engineer in Canada in terms of prestige and compensation. In my opinion, these people are not making significant sacrifices in order to pursue their values. In fact, they’re pursuing a pretty stable and lucrative career path. But is this a bad thing?

On one hand, it makes me uncomfortable to see an industry that thrives solely on donated dollars. The basis of this business is people living in poverty; if this disappears, the entire industry disappears. But isn’t that what the industry is trying to do, eliminate poverty? This is a bit of a conflict of interest.

On the other hand, I think it’s wonderful that a career devoted to bettering the lives of others is so highly valued in this society. If I think about those careers back home – social work, non-profit sector, etc. – they aren’t valued nearly as much. Why is it that people who devote their lives to others are seen to be making a sacrifice? And why are they compensated accordingly? Shouldn’t we value more highly those who commit their lives to the service of others?


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!


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