Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Archive for September, 2010

Learn more about EWB

Hi everyone!

This is a quick post to share with you some recent materials put together by EWB’s National Office in Toronto.

The first item is a GREAT article in the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) publication, Engineering Dimensions. You can access the link here – jump to page 40 and check it out! (Nice work Allison!)

The second is a video that was recently produced about our Agric team in Ghana (that’s my team!). I mentioned AAB in my last post – there are some more details here.

Enjoy!

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What am I doing here? – Part 2

Hello beautiful readers! Last week I introduced you to my general work here in Ghana. This week, I want to share a bit more about the specific change I’m trying to create in MoFA.

As I mentioned before, I’m working at the Tamale MoFA office, otherwise known as the Metropolis Agricultural Development Unit (MADU). The office is made up of about 20 Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), about 8 Metropolis Agriculture Officers (MAOs) and 1 Metropolis Director of Agriculture (MDA) along with some support staff. All together, these people are in charge of serving all of the farmers in the greater Tamale area with information, advice and expertise on anything and everything related to agriculture!

This is a tough job, given the logistical constraints that districts often face such as lack of funding, means of transport and weather conditions. The job is made even more difficult by the high illiteracy rate among Ghanaian farmers and by the commonly held attitude that farming is a way of life, not a business. Together, EWB and MoFA are working to change this attitude and put more profits in farmers’ pockets.

Learning

The first job of any EWB volunteer is to learn. The first several months of a placement are a very steep learning curve, incorporating lessons about MoFA, farming, politics and life in Ghana. EWB volunteers spend more time at a district-level office than many other development workers, meaning we are often approached for our knowledge on how a district functions. Having an intimate knowledge of the strengths and challenges of a MoFA district is essential to our work, since we are trying to change the way MoFA interacts with farmers. In order to remain humble and constantly check our work against reality, we must be in a mindset of constant learning!

AAB

One focus of our team’s work for the past 3 years has been developing the Agriculture As a Business (AAB) program. AAB is a field tool for AEAs 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:

  1. Group Strengths to build a vision for the group;
  2. Group Meetings for the group to hold regular meetings to discuss and solve issues;
  3. Group Finances so the group is regularly contributing dues and their group savings;
  4. Group Project so the group designs an agriculture project they will do together;
  5. Group Marketing so the group accesses markets together (e.g. buy or sell together);
  6. Market Planning for the group to analyze and decide on a profitable market;
  7. Business Plan for the group to plan the expenses and expected income of their project;
  8. Record-keeping so the group is recoding actual expenses and income to later analyze profit;
  9. Loan Preparedness to ensure the group can manage credit successfully to repay;
  10. Business Evaluation to calculate profit from the group project, and decide how to increase profit next year.

The AAB tool was developed over the course of about 2 years and over 500 field visits, during which our volunteers observed and experimented with facilitation techniques, approaches and content. The current version of the curriculum was finalized in Fall 2009 and in the past year was rolled out in over 10 districts, thanks to the amazing crew of Junior Fellows we had working with us last summer. We still have to do a ton of learning on what’s working and what’s not, but now we have a wealth of data and experience to pull from. Way to go team!

As for me, I’ve been helping the MADU to implement AAB since I arrived in March. I was the third volunteer to work on AAB at MADU, which meant I had some catching up to do. But since that time, I have trained the entire staff, accompanied them on field visits, and helped them through the first iteration of a MADU-led (as opposed to EWB-led) round of AAB groups. Way to go MADU staff! Now, my work is to set up a sustainability plan at the MADU so they can continue the program on their own, without my support. This is a tough task when so many projects are competing for the staff’s time and attention, but I am constantly reminding them not to let the “urgent” get in the way of the “important”!

I’ll write in more detail about AAB in a future blog post, including why it’s important to strengthen FBOs and why AAB is an effective tool to do so. Keep an eye out for this soon!

SLAM

This catchy acronym stands for Systems, Leadership and Management. It’s a new strategy we’ve been developing over the last few months on our team. After seeing some systemic barriers to AAB success in districts, we’ve decided to tackle some of the management challenges in MoFA. We’re still very much in the research phase of this strategy, but the whole thing is based on the belief that better-managed districts result in improved performance for farmers. There are a lot of smaller hypotheses that we’re testing, revolving around topics such as non-monetary incentives for performance, leadership development, improved supervision and learning from data. My job over the next several months will be to run “mini-experiments” to test some of these hypotheses. Basically, it’s a search for the biggest bang for our buck: what can we do with the fewest resources that will have the greatest improvement in MoFA performance?? It’s a loaded question, and one that I’m excited to explore with you over the next few months and years!

Alright, that’s the quick summary of my specific role in my district. As always, let me know if you have any questions or want me to write more on a specific topic. And keep an eye out for the next few posts where I’ll be diving into both the AAB and SLAM strategies. Thanks for reading!


What am I doing here? – Part 1

Alright, enough of this fluffy stuff. It’s time to get down to business. I want to finally answer the question you’ve all been asking: What are you actually DOING over there??

I’m going to answer this question in a series of posts over the next few weeks. I’ll start out with the basics, then dive deeper into the “what”s and “why”s behind what I’m doing here. After all, that is the name of the blog!

So let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean to work for EWB in Africa?

My work is divided into 4 main areas: Partner, EWB team, Canada connections and Personal (in no particular order – no, health does not come last in the priority list!). Let me tell you a bit more about what I’m trying to achieve in each of these areas.

Work with my Partner

Our team is partnered with MoFA, the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The purpose of this ministry is to increase food security by providing extension services to farmers, including technical knowledge, business advice and skills training. Ghana is divided into 10 regions, each with a regional-level MoFA office, then each region is divided into several districts (the number depends on the size and population of the region), each of which has a district-level MoFA office. EWB is working with MoFA at all of these levels – National, Regional and District. I am working at the Tamale District office and also occasionally at the Northern Regional office (which is also in Tamale).

We work with MoFA because MoFA works with farmers, which is the majority of the poor rural population in Ghana. These are our “target beneficiaries”, if you want to use the development lingo. Working with MoFA allows EWB to reach a wide number of farmers thanks to MoFA’s well-established extension network. However, MoFA is also constrained by a lot of issues common in developing countries. Some of these issues are beyond their control, such as donor constraints and lack of funding. But there are other issues that can be addressed, like motivation, management skills and staff capacity to do the work.

Our goal is not to add additional programs to MoFA’s plate (which is what most NGOs/donors do – design their own programs and use MoFA as an “implementing agency”, taking them away from the work they’re supposed to be doing). Instead, we are working to strengthen the core MoFA extension work – helping farmers to improve their farms and put more money in their pockets. This means embedding ourselves in MoFA’s offices and working alongside the staff to address everyday issues, as well as encouraging them to have a long-term vision for the work they’re doing.

Work with the Agric Ghana EWB team

The Agric Ghana team is currently made up of 6 African Programs Staff (APS) and 3 Professional Fellows (ProFs) from EWB’s Professional Chapters in Canada. We work closely together, communicating often even though we are spread out across 2 regions in northern Ghana. Once a month we come together to work as a team for a weekend. During these meetings we work on team strategy including planning, evaluating and changing our programs, work to share what we know with others, do some professional development and have a whole lotta fun! These meetings are great for keeping us on the same page as a team and enhancing the work each of us is doing. We also give and receive coaching with other members of the team to help each other set goals and grow. It’s a great environment to work in – I love this team!

Canada Connections

Believe it or not, I actually consider it work to keep in touch with Canada! I do this because otherwise I would never prioritize time to write in my blog, or take photos to send to the National Office in Toronto. But I think one of the most important things we can do as APS is to let other people know what we’re doing. All of you reading this in Canada have an enormous amount of information at your fingertips, and a huge potential to use this information for outreach to the Canadian public and advocacy to the Canadian government. So let me help you by telling you what I know!

I am also partnered with two of EWB’s student chapters in Canada, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo (go W’s!). My job is to keep them informed about what’s going on with the Agric Ghana team and give them resources to help with their programs, from fundraising to member learning to outreach. And of course, we want to develop some awesome personal connections between EWB’s African programs and Chapters. Can’t wait to work more with these amazing guys and gals!

Personal

Finally, I have some personal goals for my time in Ghana. These include things like health and fitness, happiness and motivation, keeping in touch with my friends and family at home and making time for personal and professional development. For example, I’m really good at building trust with people, but I need to work on how I use that trust in group situations. I’m also working to become a better manager. And of course, I’m trying to eat my 5-10 servings of veggies every day! (Though it’s virtually impossible here… man, I never thought I would miss salad!)

I hope that gives you a good overview of what it’s like to work for the Agric Ghana team. In the next post, I’ll tell you more about what I’m actually doing with MoFA. Until then, please send your comments and questions my way and I’ll do my best to address them in the coming posts. Thanks for reading!

WATERLOO GANGSTAS UNITE
We take our jobs very seriously.

Gone fishin’

My family recently came to visit me in Ghana and we went on a whirlwind tour. See the photo highlights below!

We started in Accra, the capital of Ghana:

Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra

Sunset from the Rising Phoenix in Accra

Then we flew up to Tamale, my home base, and visited my village, Zuo. First we all learned about getting water:

Dad fetching water from my Polytank

Blair carrying water (this is a ridiculously small pail - small girls could kick his butt!)

Mom pumping water and putting on a show

Then we brought out the gifts – lots of books and educational materials:

Mom in "teacher mode"

Blair showing Imman how to use crayons

Me helping Wekaya to write her name

All kids love crayons!

After that we headed back down south to visit the Cedi Bead factory:

Glass beads ready for firing in their clay moulds

And the Akosombo Dam:

Nerding it up at the Akosombo Dam, Ghana's major electricity source

Before some rest, relaxation and swimming at Aylo’s Bay:

Blair reading on the "floating" (ie. sideways) dock

Next we headed to the beautiful and remote Volta Region on Ghana’s eastern border:

Isolation and beauty at Biakpa Mountain Paradise Lodge

We hiked along a river to reach these falls

The popular Wli Falls near Hohoe, reputedly the highest falls in West Africa

Learning how to wash by hand (requires concentration)

Next we headed to Cape Coast, Ghana’s former slave trade capital:

Cape Coast Castle, one of the hubs of the West African slave trade

Cape Coast shoreline

Fishermen pulling their nets into shore

And we wrapped things up in Elmina, another former slave trade town:

Elmina fish market

Elmina Castle

Blair and Ben helping some fishermen pull their canoe onto shore

The beautiful beach at Elmina Bay Resort

It was a wonderful vacation! Thanks for coming Mom, Dad and Blair – you’re very brave 🙂

Now back to our regularly scheduled program…