Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

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 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.


23 responses

  1. “lukewarm progress” totally captures a lot of the frustrations everyone has been facing.

    But I absolutely love the quote: “Has it been a waste of time? Heeeellllll NO!”

    Thanks for sharing this Erin, progress is difficult, but that’s why you’re all there fighting for change.

    Much Luv from Zambia/Canada,

    February 17, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    • Thanks Anthony! I know you’ve been going through a really rough time, just want you to know I’ve been thinking about you. I know whatever happens, you’re in the good fight for life πŸ™‚
      Love ya,

      February 18, 2011 at 6:38 am

  2. Erin,
    As always, your insight and honesty is much appreciated. I struggle with the pace of change every day myself. Why keep pushing for it, when it seems that nothing ever happens? How much significance does my little corner of the world really have? I’ll tell you, lots.
    I had one of my students come up to me the other day and ask me about you. They asked about the blogs I read, had read some entries and they asked what made you think you could affect change in a place so foreign as Ghana. I answered simply, “Erin is one of those people who recognizes that the things that are the hardest and most complex are the real challenges worth putting your time and energy towards. If it was simple, it’d be done by now.” I am excited to go back to this student and tell her to read this post, the post of someone who recognizes the power of people and the reality of change.
    Keep pushing ahead. We are behind you back home.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    • Hey thanks Scott. That’s really touching. I’m glad you’re sending some students my way, I hope they get something out of reading my blog. I’ve been still loving your blog lately too and I know you ARE making change happen in your classroom, one kid at a time. Pretty cool to hear about.
      Good luck with the semester, and let me know if we can collaborate at all this time! I’d be happy to find a way!

      February 18, 2011 at 6:48 am

  3. Thanks for Posting this Erin. It rings familiar with what I was telling you about my company at our lunch. The questioning of what impact we really have. It’s a great little piece of effective self-coaching. For those of us that really want to “make a difference”, we need to remind ourselves occasionally that though we recognize the immensity and complexity of the problems we see, in the end, we are just doing our part in any given moment of time. But what a MAMMOTH contribution that is, considering the fact that if you weren’t doing it – it wouldn’t be done. You’re an inspiration.

    February 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    • Thanks Tom. Yep breaking things into bite-sized chunks seems to be essential if we want to feel like we’re making progress. Small small, as they say in Ghana!
      Thanks for reading and thanks again for lunch – I really enjoyed it!
      Keep in touch,

      February 18, 2011 at 6:49 am

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  5. CV

    This is an excellent example of why I follow your blog, Erin.
    Thanks for sharing your news, perspective and insights.
    Alright if I re-post this one on our EWB Grand River chapter site?
    Cheering you on,

    February 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

    • Thanks so much CV, great to hear from you. Thanks for reading.
      By all means, post it on the chapter site! That would be great!
      Talk soon,

      February 18, 2011 at 11:15 am

  6. Vicki


    Very interesting. I am happy to hear that you have not found this difficult period too frustrating. I am also happy to hear that you still have soo much passion. πŸ™‚

    Even here in Canada we see many of the same problems within agriculture. Not overt poverty, but a urban society that does not recognize the need for farmers and are unwilling (or unable) to pay fair market value for farm produced products (ie. food, fertilizer, biogas (in the form of electricity) πŸ™‚ ).

    It is interesting to see that the push of programs such as “Agriculture as a Business” have been unsuccessful in Canada and Ghana. Maybe these farmers aren’t that different πŸ™‚

    Keep strong and enjoy the sunshine.

    February 18, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    • Hey Vicki,
      Very interesting comment, thanks for posting. Great parallels to agriculture in Canada. That’s one of the challenges here: what exactly are we working toward? A solid commercial agricultural model can’t really be found anywhere on the planet right now. We’re making it up as we go along.
      I’d be SO interested to hear if you have any examples of programs in Canada that are similar to AAB. Would be fascinating to explore the shared results (or lack thereof).
      Thanks again for the comment, hope you’re doing beautifully!

      February 18, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    • Vicki

      Have a look here for the OMAFRA method:

      BTW – I am now working for PlanET Biogas in St. Catharines. I am helping Ontario (and other) farmers build agricultural based biogas plants which convert manure and other organics into biogas, which is then converted into electricity or natural gas. I am involved in the transfer of German technology into Canada, which seems to have similar problems when transferring Canada technology to Ghana (for example).

      February 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm

      • Great, thanks Vicki! Work sounds cool, keep me up-to-date!

        February 19, 2011 at 7:28 am

  7. Shamir Tanna

    Erin! You are awesome. If there was anything I learnt, its the incredible complexity of the issues and system, the long-term challenges of the work and just how freaking hard it is. Development and the world NEEDS more people, hearts and spirits like yours. What it doesn’t need is people who will falsely “laud” things that aren’t really effective or people who say that things can’t be changed and its hopeless.

    PS – loved the lessons especially “Perspective Matters”. Those are the complexities – political, historical, social, etc. that seem hardest to convey and understand but are just underlying to everything

    Keep fighting, rocking, loving, learning…everything you doing πŸ™‚

    And I wanna to take you for a Fan Choco (so if possible, grab one on me) and I will take you for a DQ Blizzard (which is obviously not as good) when you get back here

    February 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    • Hey Shamir,
      Your warmth comes across even over the intertubes πŸ™‚
      Thanks for the kind comment. I love your enthusiasm! And I would love to grab that Blizzard sometime (I’m a sucker for stuff in my ice cream). Til I’m back!

      February 18, 2011 at 5:07 pm

  8. What a great and honest post Erin! You certainly haven’t lost your idealism. My guess is that you, like many of us, are just in the process of figuring out how to not let “the system” breed cynicism and distrust. It’s somehow ironic that working in international aid that we have to fight to keep our humanity, but that is part of the work. In fact, I think it’s those who are able to do that are the most innovative, the most effective, and the most fulfilled.

    So my humble advice is to keep your mind, but more importantly, your heart open. A very wise mentor in this sector once told me, “In development, you won’t really know if you’re doing anything right. But if you’re not questioning, you are most certainly doing everything wrong.”

    February 18, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    • Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks so much for reading and for your insightful comment. Yep, count me among the young, naΓ―ve and optimistic – and we’ll see how long I’ll be in this business! But I also really believe the business can change – and in fact IS changing now, with a groundswell of “field” workers shouting about how things should be different. It’s happening! and it’s an exciting time.
      Anyway, I appreciate the advice. If I ever close my heart… well, that’ll be the end. But it’s people like you who keep reminding me that things can be different πŸ™‚
      Love your blog!

      February 18, 2011 at 5:37 pm

  9. Anne Lombardi

    Erin, This is a great post! You’ve laid out the challenges of your year really clearly, and it’s awesome to see what’s motivating you for the next chapter of your work. Can’t wait to hear more!


    February 20, 2011 at 7:18 pm

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  13. I love your writing, but there is one thing that itches at me: are the photos you post all of people who consented to their image being posted online?

    May 10, 2017 at 2:13 pm

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