Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “perspectives

Imagine 2036

Hi folks,

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

Thanks for all your love and support,
Erin

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

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

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

Hakim, Maliki and Wekaya

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

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


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!


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:


Outdooring: a joyous occasion

Yesterday was the outdooring for my friend Farouk’s new baby. This is a ceremony that is held 7 days after the birth of a baby here in Ghana, and it is the occasion when the baby’s name is announced to the world. So I present to you: Mohammed Taiwab!

Mohammed Taiwab, his mother and I at the outdooring

This little guy is so small and super-cute! He slept the whole time I was there, despite the crowds of squawking women and the fact that he was passed from person to person every 2 minutes. I guess that’s what you do when you’re 7 days old? Maybe?

The outdooring starts in the wee hours of the morning, when the women start preparing food. People come and gather, men in one place and women in another, to celebrate with the parents. People get dressed up, food is served and everyone generally has a ball. Each guest will give something small to help with the new baby, like soap, baby clothes or some small money.

The first-time mother is surrounded by her mother and sisters, all of whom have come to help her with her new task of taking care of a baby. In many cases, she will actually go and live with her mother or female relatives for the first few months of the baby’s life, to learn how to take care of it/him/her properly. This is great for the father, who doesn’t have to deal with the crying baby in the middle of the night, but he also loses out on some bonding/loving time!

Farouk and I at the outdooring

Farouk is a great example of a modern new father from Tamale. He is an electrician (he does all our electrical work and won’t let us pay him!) and he used to live right next door to Ben and I. He runs an electrical shop on the main road and you can find him there from 8am to 10pm – he works a lot! We’ve become good friends over the past year. Many times we’ve discussed his approach to marriage, fatherhood, life, etc. and how it differs from traditional beliefs in this area.

For example, even though he is Muslim, Farouk doesn’t want to have multiple wives. He himself is the son of a man with 3 wives, and he saw how difficult it was for the family, especially those 3 women. His own mother left his father when Farouk was young and took him to live somewhere else. (There’s not really any such thing as divorce in northern Ghana, at least it’s not common… but as far as I can tell, Farouk’s mom was outta there!) He says having multiple wives causes too much conflict, so he’ll stick with one, thank you very much.

Farouk has also told us that he will never beat his kids. Unfortunately, this is a VERY unusual stance in this area. It is quite normal to punish children with smacks, sticks and other forms of corporal punishment. I think this is very much a classic case of those who’ve been beaten taking it out on those who are “below” them on the food chain. When you grow up in a culture of physical abuse, it’s very difficult to change your mindset and the abused often becomes the abuser. But somehow Farouk has decided that it isn’t right, and it’s not the way he’ll discipline his kids. Good on you, Farouk!

The happy family

I’ve enjoyed spending time with Farouk, who always, always has a smile on his face. He and his wife have been so excited for the new baby to arrive, and now he’s finally here. I know they will take good care of him and shower this kid with love, and I can’t wait to watch him grow. Welcome to the world, Mohammed Taiwab!


Days Like These

There are some days when it’s obvious that you’re working in a developing country. Today was one of them.

It rained again today. It started in the morning, when I was still in bed. Despite the soothing rain-drumming-on-the-roof sound tempting me to stay there, I forced myself to get up, work out, shower and get ready to go to the office. During a brief lull in the rain, Ben and I headed off to the egg-and-bread stand for breakfast. We found several of our colleagues there, hiding out in a veranda to escape the drizzle-turned-downpour. And then, it REALLY started to rain. It rained and poured for over an hour, creating massive floods of water overflowing the storm gutters and running through yards and along the road. Once the downpour subsided, we still had to wait almost another hour to escape the aforementioned veranda, which had become an island in the middle of a river. Mina and Romy’s motos were our water-mark measures, showing that at least 8 inches of water were flowing along the dirt road to join the deluge of the overflowed gutters. We finally escaped and tip-toed home through puddles full of dirt, worms, garbage and, invariably, shit. Gross.

Drowning motos on the road (yep, that's a road)

We arrived back at our house to find something out of a disaster scene on a news broadcast. Our place was fine, as our veranda and door are raised up, but our landlord’s house next door had flooded for the first time in almost 20 years. Water had entered every room, and we went in to find books stacked on tables stacked on chairs in an effort to get everything up off the floor that could be damaged. The dirty water was everywhere, including the maize storage room, where it had ruined several bags of maize before someone remembered to look in there. That is part of this 15-member household’s food supply for the year, gone in a few short minutes. We spent the next couple hours helping them to scoop, sweep and propel water out of the house, pulling up carpets and emptying the furniture along the way. We emptied the house of its contents in order to bring them out in the sun to dry. There was a mattress on the roof, clothes hanging in the tree and chairs scattered around the lawn. It looked like a tornado had hit. One boy had 2 netbooks on the floor of his room that had both been soaked, so we put them in rice to try to save them.

Working together to push water out of the hall

At one point during the effort, one of the women asked me, “Does this happen in Canada?” I replied that yes, floods often happen, and in fact there had been some serious flooding in the US this summer where people’s houses were even washed away. She was surprised to hear this, and accepted that these freak natural disasters can happen even in profitable places.

But the problem is that this wasn’t a freak natural disaster; it’s the result of poor planning. Tamale is a huge and ever-growing city, made mostly of concrete, with insufficient storm gutters to take all of the water safely out of the city limits without dropping it on people’s homes. Apparently the extra water came today because one of the dams in town overflowed, sending a wave of water our way. But this wouldn’t happen if the engineers who designed the roads, gutters and storm drains did their work properly! The fact is, a flood of this nature would make the news in Canada. Here in Tamale, it’s just an everyday occurrence during the rainy season.

My landlord, Alhassan Mousah, in his ruined living room after we cleared most of the water out

I never did make it to the office today. In fact, this is the first time I’m turning on my computer today. I had big plans for the work I was going to get done, but none of it happened. And that’s the reality of life in a country like Ghana. You can make big plans, but you just have to take things as they come.

Sure, today the rain spoiled my plans and some of my neighbours’ stuff. But it also gave me a chance to connect with people – first with my EWB colleagues, as we huddled out for 2 hours on a 4’x8′ square of covered concrete, then with my neighbours as we worked together. I was impressed, as I so often am, by their cheerful and resilient spirit, laughing and joking together even in the face of this disaster. Ghana has taught me so much about what is important in life – not your expensive carpet, but family, friends, togetherness, your ability to survive and to enjoy life!

Here are a few videos to show you the extent of the rain and how we feel about it:


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?


Always Something Going On In Tamale!

A few weeks ago I was hurrying from my office on one end of town to a meeting on the other end, when my taxi was diverted off the main road. I thought to myself, “oh great, I’m going to be late” when suddenly a bicycle passed us. Wait… what?! I did a double-take and sure enough, a Ghanaian wearing a helmet, bike shorts and clip-in shoes on a fancy-looking road bike was zooming ahead. When you compare this to the rest of the cyclists I regularly see in Tamale (no helmets, sandals, sometimes scrappy-looking bikes) you realize why it was so shocking. I had inadvertently found myself in the Tamale leg of the National Cycling Tour of Ghana!

I decided to be late for my meeting to explore this phenomenon. It was a great time! I snapped a bunch of photos, which you can see below. It was pretty Tamale-esque as they hadn’t quite closed the road for the race. The traffic cops would hold back the traffic for a while then let a big group go through and they would mingle with (and almost knock down) the cyclists on the way to their destinations. Almost-like-a-bike-race-in-the-West-but-not-quite.

I was impressed by these serious guys with their huge legs, but laughed out loud at the “Ghanaianisms” that still came out in the race. For example, instead of water cups or bottles, race volunteers were handing out water sachets to the cyclists (that’s how most people drink water here, in small bags). Also, the cyclists were akin to taxi drivers, yelling out “hey Charlie, hey!” (a common name to call each other, like “hey friend”) and yelling at length when someone cut them off, then getting over it in 20 seconds. Hilarious.

Anyway, it was a welcome little break from my work day, and a reminder that there’s always something going on in Tamale. Enjoy the photos!

Banners announcing the event

FAST serious racers!

The peleton approaches

Cyclist drinking a water sachet

Up and down the other side of the road

Schoolboys watching the race

A final word from our sponsors!


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