Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “reflection

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?


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:


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!


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!


One Year Anniversary

I posted this on Twitter, but wanted to quickly put it up here on my blog. Some short reflections in the middle of an extremely busy week. (By the way, you can follow me on Twitter @erinantcliffe if you so desire.)

—–

One year ago today I arrived in Ghana to start my 1 year EWB placement.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year:

  1. One year is long enough for personal impact, but not long enough for systemic change (though you can contribute to long-term change).
  2. I’ve learned a lot in the past year about Ghana, agriculture and the government, but I’ve learned even more about myself. (Duh!)
  3. There are a lot of frustrating problems in this sector & lots of barriers to change, but also a LOT of people trying to make change!
  4. This is exciting, inspiring, challenging and growth-inducing work. I said it before, & I’ll say it again… I love working for EWB!!

Now my 1-year EWB placement has become 3 years, and I’m moving from contributing on the ground to a higher-level management position. The work is changing, I’m changing, but my passion stays the same. Here’s to learning as much in the next 2 years as I did in the first, and to making even more change!


A Bitter Pill

As I near the 1-year mark of my work in Ghana with EWB, I’d like to reflect back on what has happened over the last year. We embark on these jobs and journeys with the hope of making the world a better place, of somehow contributing to “international development”. However, I’m forced to acknowledge that it’s unlikely that anything I’ve done in the past year has directly improved the lives of poor Ghanaians, and that is a bitter pill to swallow.

I know, that sounds really negative. But believe me, it’s not all bad! There are different types of impact we can have – from short-term, direct and focused to long-term, indirect and widespread. My direct impact this year was limited, but I’ve had impact in other ways. So please bear with me as I get to the end of this post – there is a happy ending!

Maize farmer

2010 was a rough year for our team, alternately known as Team MoFA, Rural Agriculture Ghana or Agribusiness Ghana (we still don’t seem to have settled on a universal name). When I arrived last March, the team was undergoing a rocky Team Leader transition, which inevitably led to a short dip in team productivity. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fully recover from the dip, and the new Team Leader stepped down in January, leaving a vacant place at the head of our team. We also went from being a 9-person team, when I arrived in March, to the current 4-person team – a huge loss of resources. Most of this was just due to people’s contracts being up and not enough new volunteers to fill their places, but it will still take some time to rebuild our numbers.

In terms of strategy, we haven’t seen as much success as we hoped with the Agriculture As a Business program (for more details on the challenges, please see my previous post). The political and systemic barriers in the Ministry of Agriculture are too imposing to lead a significant change in extension from the ground up, and we’ve been unable to influence the right people at the top. Volunteers in districts were getting demotivated by barriers that were out of their control, and all the high-level talk about mobilizing farmer groups didn’t materialize into any concrete changes in the sector (policies, funding, etc.)

We had an amazing group of Junior Fellows (students) from EWB join us in the summer, but they experienced many of the same challenges. They achieved a few fabulous short-term successes, yet on the whole were unable to institutionalize the Agriculture As a Business program in any of their Ministry of Agriculture district offices. We concluded that our current pathway for scaling the Agriculture As a Business program was ineffective and decided to reallocate resources to address district management challenges. A few Professional Fellows experimented in this domain, with varying degrees of success in individual initiatives, such as improving staff meetings, management styles, collecting feedback and time management strategies. But none of these initiatives promised the transformational change that we want to see in the way the Ministry of Agriculture is run from the top.

The one successful initiative I participated in this year was the DDA (District Director of Agriculture) Fellowship, a management and leadership program. It was a success in the sense that all the DDAs loved it, and tried to apply what they learned in the management of their districts. However, it’s really tricky to know whether this has trickled down to the extension staff and actually improved the work they’re doing in the field, with farmers. This is definitely more of a long-term change, a culture shift that will gradually result in improved staff performance. But evaluating these types of programs is really tricky, and attribution is very difficult, so… who knows??

The only direct impact I’ve probably had on poor Ghanaian farmers is through my personal interactions with my host family and friends in the village. I’ve treasured these interactions and really tried to be a good role model and influence. However, I’ve been hesitant to provide any form of material aid, beyond a few Christmas presents that I brought back from Canada, for fear that it will change the nature of our relationship. I did support the local women’s shea butter production group by buying 200 bars of soap to take back to Canada (it’s great stuff!), so I guess that cash injection probably made a small difference. But is that really the type of work I came here to do? No…

Zuo Women's Group, producers of high quality shea butter soap

A few things I’ve learned in the past year:

  • As much as we talk about effective program design, its often the operational capacity of an organization that is the bottleneck to achieving success: it’s amazing how much time and energy can be spent on just making a team function. I have great admiration for excellent managers, admin and support staff who, if they’re doing their job well, you don’t even really notice in your day-to-day work.
  • It is unrealistic to achieve widespread impact in 1 year: we need to break 1-year placements down into specific “learning” or “doing” chunks so volunteers realize they’ve contributed something meaningful. For example, if we’re trying to make a big change in technology adoption through agricultural extension, a 1-year volunteer should have a mandate such as “learn about tech adoption techniques outside of the public sector in Ghana” or “pilot one new tech adoption approach with extension agents in your district and prepare a report with your recommendations for the team strategy going forward”. If they hit on a genius idea, great – we’ll scale it! (if there’s a scaling mechanism). If it doesn’t work, also great! share your learning and how we should change our approach in the next iteration of the strategy.
  • Effective interventions (or inventions) only matter if there is a way to scale them (or sell them): you might have the greatest idea in the world, but it doesn’t matter if no one sees it. Transformative change needs to reach scale, one way or another!
  • Perspective matters: even if you DO know what needs to be done, on the ground, to make a significant improvement to the lives of those living in poverty, you need to find a way of framing it so that it matters to those making the change, from the bottom (field staff) to the top (policy-makers). Just providing evidence to support your case is not enough; you must account for political, historical and social implications as well.
  • Field realities are valued: EWB gets a lot of street cred for being “in the field” or “on the ground”, working in districts (not the most glamourous of job locations). We need to find better channels for sharing these field realities with those higher up the chain of command. (Suggestions?)
  • Opportunity cost: there will always be more opportunities than you can take advantage of, the hard part is gambling on which opportunities will be most worth your time in the end.
  • BONUS EWB lesson: it’s ok to fail, as long as you LEARN and CHANGE as a result! (check out http://admittingfailure.com for EWB’s recent initiative on encouraging learning from failure in the NGO world)

Now, as we peer out at 2011 with a couple months already in our pocket, our team is forced to admit that we’re not achieving as much as we’d like. While we can’t categorize the Agriculture As a Business program as a failure, since it IS an effective tool for building farmer groups and developing business skills, it’s not quite a success either, since we can’t get the Ministry of Agriculture to adopt it at the scale needed to achieve widespread change.

Hakim - a future farmer?

There has been a lot of talk about failure recently, and encouragement for NGOs to admit failure when it happens. But this is a clear example where the situation is not black or white, failure or success – but rather grey. In our team’s collective experience in Ghana, a lot of other NGOs/projects at this point would keep lauding their programs as successes and putting more and more resources into them. Instead, we want to acknowledge our lukewarm progress and shift to where we can have white hot results instead. It’s frustrating for our staff to keep banging our heads against the wall in a program that’s going against the flow of the current agricultural sector trends. We’re not giving up on this program; but until the stars align to facilitate the widespread changes that are needed (district autonomy, decentralization, performance incentives, etc.) it is more effective for us to invest our energy in other places.

We’ve now been working with districts in the Ministry of Agriculture in Ghana for 6 years. We’ve met a lot of key players, we understand the system, we’ve seen lots of challenges and we’ve built strong relationships. We’ve tried a few things, with varying degrees of success, but nowhere near the scale of change we want to create. Now we have a bunch of cool ideas, but we have no idea which one is going to work. In the spirit of complexity, we’re not going to throw all our eggs in one basket; instead, we’re going to explore the change potential of a number of different initiatives and gauge the reaction of those in the Ministry of Agriculture and in the wider agricultural development sector. I’ll be blogging more about this strategy development process as it unfolds, so you can all follow along with me!

Back to that bitter pill: my underwhelming personal success. Is this the kind of year I wanted? Of course not. Has it been a waste of time? Heeeellllll NO! I have learned SO much valuable information over the past year that will allow me to position myself to create the change I want in the coming 2 years.

You might think I’m demotivated. That I’m frustrated by the pace of change and our inability to see any real impact. That I’m ready to throw in the towel and truck back home to an easier job in Canada. But you’d be wrong! Strangely enough, I’m more motivated than ever! Something about being faced with so many challenges at once has really sparked a fire in me. I’m excited to drive the team in new directions, to get us excited about what’s next and to build ourselves up into an impactful, influential team of agric superstars! Seeing the passion and dedication of my fellow teammates has forced me to find renewed resources of energy in myself. I can’t wait to see where we go next.


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