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!
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…
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.
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.
This is a bit of a monster post, sorry! But I haven’t posted for a few weeks (which was how long it me took to write this whopper) so I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m especially looking for lots of comments, questions and feedback on this one. So find a quiet space, a few minutes, and dive in!
Update: quick acronym check!
EWB = Engineers Without Borders Canada (the organization I’m working for)
AAB = Agriculture As a Business (the tool EWB has developed)
MoFA = Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Ghanaian government)
AEA = Agricultural Extension Agent (the field staff for MoFA)
FBO = Farmer-Based Organization (a group of farmers who work together, like a co-op)
The main product of EWB’s last few years of work with MoFA is the Agriculture As a Business curriculum. As I mentioned in a previous post, AAB is a field tool for AEAs (Agricultural Extension Agents) to help them to develop stronger, more business-minded FBOs (farmer-based organizations). The AEA takes the tool to the field and, over the course of 10 meetings with the FBO, builds the group’s capacity to run their farms as businesses. The tool consists of 10 laminated cards containing facilitation questions, tips, stories and photos to lead the AEA through the following topics:
- Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
- Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
- Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
- Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
- Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
- Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
- Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
- Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
- Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
- Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.
Building strong FBOs is a big trend in agricultural development these days. For one thing, it’s easier for businesses and extension agents to reach all farmers if they’re organized into groups. For another, FBOs are more likely to undertake semi-commercial or commercial farming, which contributes more productively to national food security – another big concern. Finally, NGOs and donor projects love to work with FBOs because they can reach more farmers and count them as beneficiaries of their projects. All in all, there’s a big push for districts right now to build lots of strong FBOs.
Aside from the “trendiness” of FBOs, farmers can actually gain huge benefits by working together in a group. First, farmers are more likely to share their problems and solutions with each other in an atmosphere of collective knowledge and learning. Second, farmers can do many things more effectively as a group, like buy inputs or market their produce in bulk. In particular, they can save tons of money on transportation costs when getting goods to and from the farm and market. Third, it’s way easier to get credit for an investment to expand your farm business if you apply as a group. Banks are way more comfortable giving a loan to a group, where members can hold each other accountable for repayment, than to an individual farmer. Fourth, illiterate farmers can reap huge benefits by banding together with a literate friend who can read, write and keep records for the group. Finally, as I mentioned above, groups are far more likely to get regular visits from an AEA than individual farmers, simply due to time constraints and the number of farmers each AEA is responsible for (which is around 3000).
The AAB curriculum addresses all of these benefits and encourages the group to take advantage of them. AAB starts by building the strength of the FBO itself, encouraging members to meet regularly and contribute dues to their bank account. Then it moves on to the more technical business training, including budgeting, planning, marketing and record-keeping. Throughout the program, the AEA is seen as a “facilitator” rather than a “trainer” – the group is encouraged to discuss issues and come to their own conclusions. There is no “right answer” that the AEA is leading the group towards; rather, the group is in charge of making a plan that best suits their strengths and weaknesses.
Each card takes the group through what is called the “Action-Learning Cycle”:
- Reflection on a story, proverb or photo about the topic.
- Analysis of the topic. ie. What is the benefit of keeping good records?
- Planning based on the group’s analysis. ie. who will keep the records, what will be recorded, where will the records book be kept
- Actions to carry out the plan.
This process allows the group members to engage with the topic and internalize the learning through taking immediate action.
So, AAB is awesome. Right?
There are still 3 main issues that our team is grappling with around AAB: Quality, Sustainability and Scale. I’ll tell you a bit about each one.
One of the biggest concerns of most EWB volunteers who are implementing AAB in a district is quality. Are field staff using the tool correctly? Are they giving the group enough time to answer questions and create plans? Are the group members really getting the concepts, and are they going to change their behaviour as a result? These are all important questions if we truly want to have impact with this tool. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ensure quality at any level. The MoFA field staff all have varying capacities: some are master facilitators, while others can barely read English. It also depends on their motivation and desire to help their farmers. Are they carrying out the activities because someone told them they’d be docked pay if they didn’t, or do they truly see the value in the program and want their farmers to get the most out of it? Usually the answer is somewhere in the middle. EWB can’t go to the field with every single AEA to every single AAB meeting; if that was our plan, we should just be implementing the program on our own. Instead, we have to face a certain loss of quality when we hand the program over to MoFA and believe that they can continue to understand and improve the program.
That said, while the team has temporarily put a hold on changing any of the content in the tool, the quality can still be improved. Would this question on this card be more impactful if we asked it a different way? What if we rearrange the order of the cards? Should we bring outside actors in to meet the group, such as banks and input suppliers, or rely on them to take initiative? What if we added a card on Managing Assets, or Value Chains? The quality of the tool itself has reached a point where it’s “good enough” – we are willing to spread it widely and believe it will have good results – but there is always room for improvement.
The second biggest challenge of AAB is sustainability. Right now we are concerned with sustainability on a district-by-district level. Most NGO projects will come into a district, use field staff to implement a project, then finish the project and get out, hoping the impact has taken place. But EWB wants the AAB tool to be used in the long-term by district staff, even after we leave. This requires a fundamental shift in the way districts normally interact with NGOs. We are trying to get district staff to take over the AAB program themselves, filling the role of the EWB volunteer to support the tool.
At first, we tried to attain sustainability by simply leaving the district and seeing whether AAB continued without us. The result was that most districts stopped using AAB after a certain amount of time. Without EWB there to encourage and support the program, districts were unable to sustain AAB. Why was this happening? In some cases, there just wasn’t enough will in the district to sustain AAB. But in other cases, even though the staff wanted to continue the program, they didn’t exactly know how. So EWB volunteers looked objectively at the roles they themselves were playing in the district, and externalized these roles. By clearly articulating what is necessary to support AAB, it makes it easier for the district to take on these roles and sustain the program. There are four main roles:
- Leadership: provide a vision and maintain a focus on FBO development while holding staff accountable
- Scheduling: plan, schedule and set goals with AEAs to achieve their AAB targets
- Backstopping: monitor AEAs in the field, provide useful feedback and invest in their professional development
- Reporting: track AAB progress, collect data on present and past AAB groups and feed back data for AEAs’ learning
Now we are trying to encourage officers in the district to fill all of these roles and hoping it will lead to AAB sustainability in that district. But we are already running into some management and logistical barriers that reach beyond the decision-making power of the district, so we’ll have to wait to see whether this model can be successful!
The final challenge is to build a successful scale model for AAB. At first, the vision was to have a copy of the AAB tool in the hands of every field staff in Ghana. But after some time, it became clear that this approach won’t work. AEAs need proper training and support to successfully implement AAB. The scale-up plan would have to be a bit more realistic. Next, we moved on to the idea that the “principles” behind AAB could be scaled to every district in Ghana. The principles were summed up as the following:
- AEAs are regularly developing groups (beyond formation) – this means letting the group drive their own development by having the group take decisions and act on them;
- AEAs find ways to get the group analyze their farms as businesses (budgeting, marketing, record-keeping, etc.);
- AEA learns about promoting agric as a business and is able to refer to decisions in their regular work.
However, it was difficult to imagine just what this scale-up might look like. We are still working on this at a National level, but don’t yet have enough traction to bring it to every district in Ghana.
Finally, our current sort-of scale-up model is the idea of creating “model districts” that can be learning centres for other districts in Ghana. The vision is to make some districts kick-ass, including a whole host of changes beyond AAB, then get other districts to come and learn from them, thus spreading AAB all over Ghana. This model still has to be really worked out, but this is a great chance for input! What do you think of this idea? What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that we could face? Is this a good way to invest our resources, or should we focus on hitting more districts at once?
The tricky part is that even though the AAB curriculum is finalized (to a certain degree), there are still a lot of improvements to be made. Let’s think of the AAB curriculum as a “product” that EWB has developed. We’ve spent a lot of time doing research and field trials, revising and refining that product. It’s still not perfect, but we think it’s at a stage where it’s “good enough”, meaning that we’re pretty confident that the delivery of this product will benefit farmer groups. We can call this stage “product development”. However, now that our product is finished and we’ve offered it up on the “market” (telling MoFA districts about it), we’re finding something startling: no one wants to buy our product! That is, no one is knocking on our office door asking for AAB (with the exception of one district in the Upper East). So what happened??
Ben has been reading a lot about the idea of “customer development” lately, and thus I’ve been hearing a lot about it. It’s an interesting idea. In a start-up, instead of just doing product development, you have to do customer development. This means taking your product to customers early on, asking them whether or not they would buy it, and if they wouldn’t, what features would make them buy it. It’s an iterative cycle of product and customer development, with the two going hand in hand to provide lots of feedback along the way. By the end, you should have a product with a ready market that is desired by your customer base (or maybe even beyond). What you DON’T want is to CONVINCE your customer that they want to buy your product, or tailor your “sell” to each different customer. This is shooting yourself in the foot, because unless you have time to handhold each customer through the sales process, you won’t be able to sell your product on a wide scale.
This seems to be the case with AAB. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely excitement around AAB at the district level – my Director can’t stop raving about how important and useful it is for his staff. He’s made it his AEAs’ “number 1 priority because developing strong FBOs is our core MoFA work” (at least until he gets an urgent call from the Regional Director). AEAs rave about how they used to hear the phrase “agriculture as a business” and didn’t know what it meant until EWB put a tool in their hands. Farmers love the interactive meeting style and are dedicated to implementing their projects. The more they use AAB, the more bought-in they become to the impact of the program. But are they willing to “buy” the product? – put their own brains, money, time and other resources toward making it work?
We did consult our customers along the way (MoFA staff and farmers), but I think at a more select level (only the ones that were easy to work with). We handheld every district we’ve worked in so far through the process of adapting AAB, convincing them to take it up, tailoring the program to suit their needs and filling gaps until they were willing to make the commitment themselves. As a result, we have a product that doesn’t have a strong pull from the market, and we find ourselves pushing it instead. (Who is our market anyway, farmers or MoFA? And do market mechanisms really exist in this environment?) If we were a company with profit as our bottom line, we might take one of a few options: keep iterating, put more resources into marketing, or scrap the product. Patent archives are full of great products that never “made it”, even if they’re brilliant. But we’ve seen AAB work, if only AEAs would use it. We’ve put lots of resources, both human and financial, into the program so far over the past 3 years. And really, it hasn’t been that long yet, only a few years; we know real change takes time. But what are the go/no-go criteria for a program like this? How long do we keep refining and marketing our original product? When do we decide to move on to something else, something possibly more (or less) impactful? How (and when) do we take that decision?
So help me out: where should we go from here??
It’s that wonderful time of year when Canadians stuff themselves with turkey and pumpkin pie: Thanksgiving. Even though I won’t be home to celebrate this year, I wanted to take a few moments to give thanks for the things in my life.
10 Things I’m Thankful for in Canada:
- My family
- Access to clean water & food, sanitation, infrastructure, etc.
- Racial anonymity
- Some semblance of gender equality
- Really good internet
- A developed economy and strong governance
- Access to education
10 Things I’m Thankful for in Ghana:
- My Zuo family
- Ghanaian hospitality (which is unrivaled around the world, I’m sure!)
- My usually-stable health
- Having Ben here to work with and support one another
- Strong communities
- The amazing, dedicated MoFA staff I work with every day
- Living life outdoors
- Stone lager
- The best job in the world
- My amazing EWB team-mates!
I’m so lucky to have loving people in my life, both back in Canada and here in Ghana. This morning I went for the first time in 3 weeks to visit my family in Zuo. I was welcomed by huge smiles and cries of “Pumaaya!” (my Ghanaian name) as I pulled my moto into their yard. It’s such a wonderful feeling to be welcomed into their home, which feels like my home too. A lot happened in those 3 weeks, including the welcoming of a beautiful new baby girl, Anifa, into the family (photo below).
Later today I will be surrounded by different people, my Canadian friends, as we gather at a local restaurant for a Ghanaian Thanksgiving dinner. I am so grateful for all of these people who are here to love and support me, through good times and bad, while I find my way through this Ghanaian life.
I met John while at a meeting in the garden of a local guesthouse. “Hey, Wayne, how is it?” he greeted us. “Hey, John, long time! How is Accra?” replied Wayne. Wayne, our team leader, introduced John as an employee in the M&E department for MoFA in Accra. He sat down to join us and his animated personality soon made us forget our meeting.
John had come to “the north” on a data collection assignment for MoFA National. Apparently all districts had been asked to submit some data on the farmers in their area, but hadn’t been doing so. John came to find out why, and to assist the districts in submitting the data.
He is young, maybe 30 years old, born and bred in Accra. This was only his second time traveling north of Kumasi. Last time he got very sick on his second day, so this time he had packed his white pick-up full of bottled water and food from Accra. “But John, they sell bottled water in Tamale.” “Yes, but it’s not the same quality as what we have in Accra. You never know what you’re getting.”
As his driver chauffeured him north, out of the lush green forests of the south and into the savannah of the north, he marveled at what he saw. “People actually live in mud huts here! Some don’t even have electricity! Me, I can’t imagine living without a microwave.”
He stopped the driver a few times in villages to talk to people as they passed, but they couldn’t understand each other. “You mean there are people in Ghana who don’t speak Twi??” Twi is one of Ghana’s major languages, spoken by many people as a common language even if their local language is different. But is mostly found in the south.
Through an interpreter, he had a conversation with an old woman in a village. “I asked her how old she was, and you know what she said? Ten! I mean, I didn’t expect her to know her exact age, but ten? She doesn’t even understand the concept of numbers!” The fact that someone in Ghana can live her whole life with no formal education is unfathomable to John.
“How can you live here? I don’t know how you EWB people do it.” “But John, this is your own country. You don’t think you could live here, in the north of Ghana?” “No no, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I could go to your country, Canada, and live in the north there. It would be an adventure! For you people, living in Ghana is an adventure. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t live here.”
Lately I can close my eyes, feel the sun on my face and cool breeze in my hair, and picture Georgian Bay stretching out in front of me. And sometimes when I’m riding my moto, it sounds like a motorboat bouncing across the waves (luckily I don’t close my eyes for that one).
But when I open my eyes, I’m back in Ghana – and I’m happy for this. Ghana has really grown on me in the last 5 months. I think I complained at first: “Ghana is an ugly country, there’s no physical beauty in this land”. But as the dry season gives way to rain, I’ve discovered that it’s actually a beautiful landscape – green vegetation, blue skies dotted with clouds, sunrises and sunsets to die for, and the craziest storm clouds and lightning in the world.
I’m starting to see beauty everywhere I look, beyond the physical landscape to the gentle sway of women’s hips as they carry firewood along the road, past the chaos of the market to the brightly-coloured clothing of the market vendors, underneath the dirt on childrens’ faces to the smiles in their eyes as they run to greet me when I get home.
My work is busy and every day is full of purpose. I have a wonderful team of inspiring people to work with, both in EWB and MoFA. Every day I go home to a simple family who welcomes me without a second thought.
I haven’t posted for a long time. I know. I didn’t mean to leave you all in the dark. But as time continues to pass, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into Ghanaian life, farming, MoFA, etc. and getting farther and farther away from life in Canada. I was always frustrated as an EWB chapter member in Canada when volunteers in Africa would say they “couldn’t relate” to us in Canada anymore. But now I see what they mean. Have I forgotten what it’s like to live in Canada? To work tirelessly on the other side of the ocean to raise public awareness about development and lobby our government to improve aid? To go to the grocery store and buy food from all over the world? Well honestly… yeah, I kind of have. I mean, if I think hard about it, I can remember what it was like. But the problem is that I have to think hard – it doesn’t just come naturally anymore. I have to actually TRY to relate my experience to what it’s like in Canada. And that mental effort has prevented me several times from writing on my blog.
But no more. I don’t think it’s an adequate excuse. My job isn’t to get lost in Ghana, it’s to experience Ghana and bring those realities to you in Canada and the rest of the world. It’s to see good development, and bad, and be able to share the difference. It’s to evaluate the impact of our work on Ghanaians and to see where we can make improvements.
So I’m back on the blog train. I am aiming to go back to posting at minimum every 2 weeks. I will also try harder to make short snappy posts on things I’m thinking, seeing or reading about – they don’t all have to be epic. I will remember that just because I’m used to seeing women carry 5-ft. tall things on their heads and discussing agric. development projects with district directors doesn’t mean it’s not new to you! And so I’m making an effort to share more of those things with you again.
As always, if you have any questions, comments, feedback or requests, please PLEASE let me know! You can comment on a post or contact me directly through email or the Contact form on this blog. I’m always happy to hear from you and would love to be given more direction on what you want me to write about!
Thanks for reading,
Though I’m working with Engineers Without Borders, I don’t do much “traditional” engineering. I hope most of you reading this know that already, but if you’re wondering why, check here. However, I have found the opportunity to flex my engineering muscles in a few cases, which I wanted to share with you below.
This is my moto. It’s a piece of junk. It’s 3 years old and it’s been ridden into the ground by the previous 3 owners. I have had so many problems with it – spark plugs not sparking, horn not honking, tires going flat, brakes squealing, lights breaking. I’ve had to replace the engine block, connector rod, chain & sprocket, rear tire, clutch handle and headlight. It’s a pain in the ass. But on the bright side, I’ve developed an intimate knowledge of this rudimentary two-stroke machine. Ghanaians (especially men) are always surprised when they see me sigh after a failed attempt to start the moto and pull out my tools. They still rush to help, and I’m always grateful, but I’ve learned a lot about fixing my own moto and regularly do it myself. Just give me some coveralls and call me a mechanic!
As I mentioned previously on this blog, I live in a village called Zuo which is about 5 km outside of Tamale. While we’re lucky enough to have lights (electricity), we’re too far away from the city to have flowing water. It’s amazing how much you take this for granted in Canada, where you don’t have to walk far and carry water back every day. As I also previously mentioned, the women here carry amazing amounts of water from the dam every day, neglecting the broken borehole in the middle of the village. Though I try to fetch my own water, I am not nearly as strong as a Ghanaian woman and I am constantly being assisted, which makes me constantly feel guilty.
Luckily, the rainy season has provided a way to assuage my guilt in the form of – you guessed it – rain! Pure water, falling from the sky – it’s an amazing thing for which I have a new appreciation. I am also lucky enough to live in a place with a Polytank, the huge black plastic water storage tanks which are ubiquitous in Ghana (and you would have seen Kingson, the goaltender for the Black Stars, promoting these monstrosities on TV during the World Cup if you were watching in Ghana!). A rainwater collection system is set up so that the water streams from the roof to the eavestrough and falls into the Polytank. Ingenious! Except it doesn’t work. The Polytank is placed just a bit too close to the house and against a cement something so that it can’t be moved further away (I haven’t identified the purpose of this weird cement structure yet, it’s a mystery). When there is a light rain, it falls gently into the open mouth of the Polytank. But when there is a windy downpour (ie. a LOT of water to fill my tank), the water races off the end of the eavestrough, overshooting the Polytank. It took a few rains and a pitifully low water level in the tank for me to figure this out.
Sooooo last time we had a huge downpour, instead of running inside away from the rain, I ran outside! I was moving buckets here and there to catch the rain, and even standing up on the cement-mystery to catch the water pouring past the Polytank in my bucket and dump it in. Finally, after standing there for a while, wearing only a Ghanaian cloth wrapped around me, soaked to the skin and freezing cold (yum!), I used my engineering skills: I found some rocks and propped my bucket up so it would be stable, but on an angle, where it would catch the water and overflow into the Polytank. Ta-da! In this way I FILLED the tank – I’m set for life! (Or at least until I move out.)
Bonus: I also washed my hair outside in the rain that day, which made me very happy.
This last one is not so much about using my engineering skills as it is about pointing out someone else’s lack thereof. After a particularly bad storm last week, I went for a run and noticed something odd flashing at me from the roadside. It looked like a giant sheet of metal was caught in a tree. What??
Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the roof of the local primary school, folded and bent and leaning up against a tree. It had blown off in the storm like a big aluminum parachute. Whoever built this school did not account for the
pressure that builds up from the incredible winds that come in the rainy season. It made me wonder: who had built this school? A donor that didn’t know the weather conditions? A local NGO without enough budget to securely fasten the roof? Or a government employee that didn’t have the capacity to design it properly? I have no idea, but with all the people building schools around here, it must be a common problem.
An EWB colleague in Malawi, Duncan McNicholl, has recently received a lot of attention for a project he started called Perspectives of Poverty. The project aims to show another side of Africa, the one not commonly shown in news reports and NGO publications.
Africa is often portrayed in the West with photos of fly-covered children in torn clothing. Duncan’s reaction: “How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people? … I thought that these images were robbing people of their dignity, and I felt that the rest of the story should be told as well.”
Duncan told me about his idea while we in Toronto together for our pre-departure training with EWB. He wanted to show the same “poor” person in two photos: one looking typically poor, with dirty clothes and a sad expression, and one looking fabulous, all smiles and Sunday best!
It sounded awesome – I wanted to try it too! But when I got to Ghana I had trouble thinking about how I would communicate this idea to the people around me. Had they seen these photos of “typical” Africa in the West? What would they think of me asking them to “look poor” so I could take their picture?
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, Duncan put up his first stab at the project with photos of 2 friends. It looked great, and finally gave me the resolve to try it on my own. So after carefully explaining the project (and possibly being understood), here are some of my own contributions to the Perceptions of Poverty project!
You can read more about Duncan’s project on his blog, on the popular Aid Watch blog, on the blog Poverty to Power by Duncan Green (Oxfam UK), or in an online New York Post article. Congrats on all the press, Duncan!
“Ehhh, a kpeng a mung!” (“You have done well!”) Salifo beams at me. I stand and survey the yam mound I’ve just created. It’s a bit smaller than its neighbours, but the shape is good – mound-like – and the dirt is well-packed. Indeed, I’ve done well! I move on to the adjacent patch of earth and start digging again. In the time it took me to make that one, Salifo has completed 3 big yam mounds, far superior to my own. But hey, I’m just learning!
I manage to make 6 yam mounds before I collapse under a nearby tree. It’s hard work! My hamstrings are quivering from bending over and pulling dirt toward me – think dead lift, over and over – and my hands are developing blisters from the rough-hewn wooden hoe I’m using. And I’m sweating like a pig! Unfortunately, this is the biggest aerobic workout I’ve had in a while. (Something about running in 30 degree weather just doesn’t appeal to me…)
We arrived here at the farm by riding our motos down a narrow, winding, sandy path along a rain wash-way and then out into the fields. We parked our motos under a tree, then continued on foot to this yam field, which belongs to Salifo and his brothers. The field is about a quarter of an acre in size, though they want to increase it to half an acre. They had already prepared the land, turning it under and removing all the brush that had grown in the last few months.
Now it was time to build the yam mounds, which are cone-shaped and about 3-4 feet across. The yams grow better in this loosely-packed earth, where the tuber has room to grow big without resistance from the hard-packed land underfoot. The mounds are made first, then a seed yam is planted in the top of each one. The seed yams are grown at the end of the harvest, from the same plant after the full-grown yams have been harvested. After the seed is planted, leaves are placed on top of the mound and covered with a chunk of dirt to hold them in place. This is supposed to keep the mounds from drying out and becoming too hot. A finished yam field is truly a bizarre sight to behold!
Salifo finished 2 rows of yam mounds, then came to join me in resting under the tree. We ate some boiled yams as a snack, part of last year’s harvest. As we sat, I asked him to compare his different types of work.
Salifo is one of a few people in Zuo who can speak English, which means he is often recruited for community “volunteer” work by Ghana Health Services. For example, he has spent many days in the last 2 weeks helping with a campaign to distribute mosquito nets to children under 5. This involved training in Tamale, traveling to various communities to register the children, picking up the nets, returning to the communities to distribute and hang the nets, and filing in the information booklet for each net he distributed. It’s a lot of work! And he does it all without knowing how much he will be paid at the end – usually just a token for his time.
I asked Salifo to compare this to farming. Which does he prefer? He answered emphatically, “I choose to farm!” When I asked him why, he responded that with the farm, he is his own “in charge” (boss). He decides which work to do when, how much to invest in each field, and which crops he will plant. The manual labour is hard, but he knows he will get something out at the end – a harvest he can eat, or sell to earn money for his family. He also knows that, barring any natural disasters, the reward will be directly proportional to the efforts he puts in. Finally, there’s none of that tricky business of trying to persuade a mother to make her child sleep under a mosquito net.
We are often told that people in rural Africa are farmers because they have no other choice. While that is true in many cases, there are also those who choose this profession, like Salifo. Really, it’s not a bad gig, if you don’t mind manual labour. Each farmer can be seen as a small business-owner, making decisions about his investments to maximize his profits. And like many small business-owners in Canada, farmers work long hours to achieve success, which they can then attribute to their own hard work.
As I look across at my 6 yam mounds and compare them to the ~30 that Salifo made, I have a newfound respect for farmers. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen in Canada, showcasing farmers’ pride: “Farmers Feed Cities!” I’ve seen similar stickers in Ghana, reminding people that farming is a noble and necessary profession for the well-being of the entire country. So, props to Ghanaian farmers!!
Crack – crack – crack
My fingers are tingling and my thumbs are covered in small punctures. I pick up another groundnut (peanut) from my lap, crack open the shell and drop the nuts into a bucket beside me. I drop the shells on the ground, then scoop another handful of groundnuts from the huge bowl in front of me and start again. Around me, under the shade of a huge mango tree, the men and women talk and laugh while they do this work. They have been at this all day, shelling bowl after bowl of groundnuts. In fact, they have been at it all week, processing the groundnuts and selling them at the market.
But why do this work now? These groundnuts were harvested last October and stored in big sacks for the last 6 months. Why weren’t they cracked and sold after harvest, instead of waiting until now? I posed this question to Salifo, my host in the village of Zuo. He responded that he needed the money from the groundnuts to buy inputs for his farm this year, such as seeds, fertilizer and rent for a tractor to plough the land. He said that he knew if he sold them last year, he would have spent the money by this time and he wouldn’t have any money to buy those inputs. So instead, he saved the groundnuts.
This is an important form of savings for Ghanaian farmers. Since Salifo doesn’t have his own savings account at a bank – most people don’t – he has no way to protect his money when he earns some. And in Ghana, when you have any amount of cash, friends and relatives start dropping by to borrow it until, little by little, it’s all gone. Storing crops, or any other liquid asset, is a better way to save that money until you want to spend it.
The other added bonus to selling groundnuts now is the increase in price. After harvest, when the market is flooded with fresh goods, the prices are at their lowest. At that time, a bowl of groundnuts will earn you 1.5 GhC (about $1.20 CAD). But now, at the beginning of the farming season, the market has cooled down and the price has risen to 2.5 GhC ($2.00 CAD). This is another reason to store your crops and sell at a later date. But while this seems like a good strategy, often the more urgent need for cash is what will determine whether a farmer saves or sells his crops.
Of course, not everyone has the option of saving. Often families reach the end of the farming season with nothing left in their stores to eat (and sometimes they run out even earlier). The market is not flooded with crops after harvest because people are stupid and they don’t want to earn the higher price by selling later. It floods because people are desperate for money to buy food and feed their families. This is what it is like to live hand-to-mouth in a country like Ghana. Only those who start with something – a good business plan, proper farming inputs, or a bit of luck – can afford the luxury of waiting to sell their goods after harvest.
My work here is about increasing the number of people who wait to sell their groundnuts. It’s about changing the decision from one of necessity to one of strategic business planning. Overall, it’s about reducing the number of people who don’t even have a choice.
“But why aren’t you staying in town??” This is almost always the second question, following my answer to the first question, “Where are you staying?”.
I have decided to live in a village called Zuo, about 10 minutes moto-ride outside of the city limits of Tamale. It’s a small village of about 400 people located on the Yendi road heading east out of Tamale. There are Primary and Junior Secondary schools, a mosque, a health clinic, a nutrition centre and about 30 household compounds. Most of the houses are simple mud-brick affairs with thatched roofs, though some of the more affluent families have cement buildings with tin roofs as part of their compounds. The village just got electricity a few months ago and lightbulb sellers in the area must have made a killing! Each room is now furnished with a bulb, plus one for each compound courtyard where the women do the cooking and families gather in the evening. The electricity also powers a grinding mill which seems to run at all hours of the day – it’s a very popular place!
Back on the water theme, the village is equipped with a borehole, but most people still fetch their water from a pond a 10-minute walk away. Apparently they don’t like the taste of the borehole water and the soap “doesn’t lather properly” when washing with this water. They use the borehole water occasionally for cooking and cleaning, but use the pond water for drinking and bathing. This baffles me, since the borehole water is clear and clean-looking, whereas the pond water is cloudy and full of algae. Seems like a no-brainer!
My room is located in the health clinic. This large building was built very recently and has 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and a kitchen to house the community health nurses who are supposed to be living here. It also has a storage room, a treatment room and a waiting area. There are supposed to be three health workers living here, but one stays in Tamale because she doesn’t like the water and the other two, who are part of Ghana’s Youth Employment Program, haven’t been paid in 6 months so they come and go as they please. I spent my first couple days with one of these girls, named Nimatu, and we became good friends. I enjoy her company when she’s here, which is about half the time. The clinic is designed to be a drop-in centre for the surrounding communities for first aid treatment, malaria testing and access to drugs. However, when there’s no one here, people are just out of luck! It’s a shame that this nice new building is not serving its intended purpose as an easily-accessible clinic for people in the area. However, as I discussed in my previous post, the issues are much larger than just this one clinic.
Though I stay in a room in the health clinic, I am hosted in the village by a man named Fuseini Salifo who stays in a compound with his family just across the road. Salifo’s household also contains his two brothers, Zachariah and Adam, each of their wives, Azara, Fatima and Mariama, and a host of children, including Salifo’s own Wikaya and baby Hussain. It’s a lively household, with children and goats running all over the place. I come in the morning to take tea and a maize porridge called “koko” for breakfast, then head to work. At the end of the day, I return and greet everyone in the compound and take my supper with them. People are always coming in and out to say hello and catch up, so I’ve met most of the village this way.
Salifo, like most of the people in this village, is a farmer. Right now it’s the dry season, so he is resting and taking part in the many construction activities that happen at this time of year. When the rains come, he will go to his fields and begin to farm. With his brothers, he farms maize, yams, rice, soya beans and many other small crops. They also raise livestock, including sheep, fowl and even a herd of cattle. They are assisted by their local MoFA Agricultural Extension Agent, a man named Tahiru who I work closely with. He brings them new technical information, helps them access loans and farming equipment and answers their questions.
When I describe my home to my colleagues, I always get the question above: why am I not living in Tamale? To most educated Ghanaians, it’s completely backwards to reject the modern city lifestyle and choose to live in a village. But by living in this village, I come one step closer to understanding the lives of those I’m trying to reach through my work. I can see firsthand the challenges and opportunities for rural Ghanaian farmers and connect with them on a personal level. Unfortunately, this perspective is easily lost when working in the development industry, with its focus on budgets and timelines and impact. By coming home to this reality every night, I will make sure my experiences will directly inform my work with MoFA and with EWB and keep me focused on what’s really important: getting people out of poverty.
My flip flops slap against the ground as I call out “Desiba” (“Good morning”) to the women walking past on the narrow dirt path. Ahead of me, Rashida balances two giant metal containers on her head, while Zewera follows behind. We come over a small ridge and I find myself looking at a large pond. Rashida and Zewera continue down the slope to the water, where they hike up their skirts and wade in. They fill the two buckets with the milky-looking water and help each other hoist the containers back up onto their heads. They are strong – those buckets must weigh at least 100 lbs. As we walk the 8 minutes back to the compound, other women call out, laughing and asking me where my water is. I tried carrying a small bucket yesterday, but my head-balancing skills are definitely not up to par. Today I’ve elected to bring my camera instead (it’s one or the other – I spill too much water when I’m carrying it on my head to bring a camera!).
We arrive back at the compound and Rashida and Zewera skillfully pour the water from the tops of their heads into the giant clay pots that are fixed to the ground. Inside, the new water mixes with the old, left over from last night’s trip to the pond. Rashida takes an old tomato can from beside the pots, scoops up some water and takes a long drink. She refills it, then takes it over to where her 7-month-old daughter Failatu is sitting on a reed mat and holds the can for her to drink. Zewera does the same for her 2-year-old son, Mohammed Awa. Then the two women pick up their containers and head back to the pond for another load.
This scene, from the village of Gbabshie, is unfortunately common in northern Ghana. These two women will make the trip to the pond 4-5 times per day to supply this 11-person household with water. Luckily for them, it’s not a long walk – some women walk over 2 km to access water in the dry season. They will use this water for all of their household needs: cooking, bathing, drinking and washing. They know the water is not good, but they have no other choice. Mr. Iddirisu, the sole member of the household who can speak any English, says “we see the goats defecating near the water and we know it’s not safe. We need a borehole but no NGO has yet come.”
Iddirisu’s statement is indicative of the development culture in Ghana. Though they may try, the government of Ghana has not been successful at meeting the needs of its population. This is both an issue of resources and of capacity (more on that in later posts). As a result, the doors have been thrown open to NGOs, foreign development agencies and multilateral institutions to fill the gap. Ghana in particular has become a “development darling” thanks to its relative stability and support for foreign projects. Now there are literally thousands of projects operating here on all scales, from small local NGOs doing agroforestry projects, to multinational UN-funded campaigns to eradicate guinea worm. In many cases, NGOs are playing a role that would traditionally be filled by the government – hardly a sustainable model.
Let’s get back to the water problem in Gbabshie: the community needs a safe water source. It would be easy to come into the community, see the women and children drinking from this filthy pond, make a quick video appealing for donations from friends in Canada, and pay a local NGO to install a borehole. Bam! problem solved. But is it really solved? Let’s take a closer look.
Have you ever been given something for free? Maybe it was a bicycle, a phone, a book, just something that someone else didn’t want anymore. How much value did you place on this discarded item from your friend? Probably not much – it wasn’t worth much to him/her, so why should it be worth so much to you?
What about this: have you ever shared a resource with a large group of people? Maybe it was a common kitchen in your house, or supply of toilet paper in an outhouse at camp. What was the state of this shared resource after some time passed? Did you have to put some structure in place to manage the resource well? What incentives did you have to care for the resource, and how did you react to other people using it in different ways?
These two issues both come into play when discussing a village borehole: you’re giving something away for free to a group of people. Of course they will appreciate it – clean water! But how will they treat the borehole? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for paying for repairs? Who has priority over the water? It is common to come back to one of these villages a year later and still see women walking to the pond to get water. The borehole has broken down, and no one is responsible for paying for repairs, so they haven’t been done. Besides, why pay for repairs when any day an NGO might come along and repair it for free?
In the middle of the village of Gbabshie lies a testament to these issues. The women’s group here received a grinding mill several years ago. Now it lies in disrepair, covered in cobwebs. No one is willing to pay to have it fixed, so all the money the NGO put into buying and installing the machine in the first place has gone to waste.
These issues of sustainability are always prevalent in development projects. It is easy to fill an immediate need; it is much more difficult to change the institutional environment around that resource so that the change will be sustained. For a borehole, several conditions need to be in place. Someone needs to be responsible for managing that borehole, whether it is one person or a committee of people. Users need to contribute money for maintenance and repairs. For this to happen, people need to see value in having a working borehole, which means they need to be educated on water and health issues. When the borehole breaks down, skilled technicians need to be accessible to the community at an affordable price. Replacement parts must be locally available in a timely manner. People must know their rights and how to address the authorities if they are being taken advantage of. And NGOs must not continue to offer new things for free which undermine the existing system.
This example demonstrates the complexity of poverty and development. There are simple solutions, but there are no simple problems, so the simple solutions will inevitably fail. To address the complex problem of poverty, we need complex solutions that change the operating environment of development in Ghana. Institutional changes take time to produce, but the effect is long-lasting and the impact is much greater.