Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “management

On Leadership

It’s been several months since I’ve written here. There have been ups and downs and rough patches, but I haven’t felt compelled to share these with the wider world. Just suffice to say it’s been a bit crazy around here since November.

Loyal readers will remember that I was writing last year about my EWB team’s strategy development process. A lot has changed since I last wrote, but I’m not going to try to summarize all of it today – I’m sure it will keep changing at a rapid pace. Instead, I want to write about my personal reflections on this process.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on our strategy lately, and on my role in developing it. I’m now a Team Leader for the Agricultural Extension (AgEx) team in EWB. With this leadership role comes a lot of responsibility, and I’ve been learning a lot about what kind of responsibility I thrive with and where I think I fall short. For example, I love the administrative responsibilities of managing a team. I also love the opportunity to invest in the personal and professional growth of every member of my team. Those aspects of my job are thrilling! I am also thrilled by thinking about the “big picture” of the sector we’re working in and how we’re making change in that sector. But that is also where I struggle the most.

I was told when I took this role that one of my challenges would be developing a strong vision and leading people toward it. That prediction has proven to be very true. I am someone who has always excelled more at poking holes in ideas than in building them up myself. I always chalked it up to a lack of creativity, but there’s more to it than that. My naturally critical mind can think of a million different ways for a project to fail. That makes it pretty damn hard to design a solution that I truly believe in, and even harder to sell it to a whole team of people who are here to commit years of their lives to realizing that vision.

Our team has landed on a ~20-year vision of an agricultural extension sector that is innovative, coordinated and customer-service oriented. We’ve imagined a competitive market where extension service providers come from the public, private and civil society sectors to meet the needs of different segments of customers (farmers) to promote socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. We see quality being added to these extension services at many points, from training and education, to a strong management structure, to well-developed field tools and approaches, to a strong enabling policy environment. And this vision has me PUMPED UP!!

But how do we get there? That’s where it gets a bit more messy. To dig into that question, our team has been designing a Theory of Change (see some great posts on Theory of Change by Duncan Green from Oxfam). We started by identifying 8 key changes that need to happen in order for our vision to be realized, then worked backward to understand the steps needed to realize these changes. We are still working on that part, but the hope is that the Theory of Change will define where our team needs to work in order to realize our vision in 20 years.

So we have a strong vision, we have a Theory of Change, now we need to get started. And this is where I get stuck. How do we, the five members of EWB’s AgEx team, create the change we want to see in the extension sector? There are seeeeeerious challenges ahead. Most of the major changes in the agric sector are created by those with money, power, political influence, or (more often) a mix of all three. We have none of those things. So how do we change the system?

We need to build a solution. Not just a theory, not just our assumptions and hypotheses, but an actual work-plan for how to move forward. Where should I post the new staff I’ll be getting in June and September? Who can they work with? Will their placements be based on learning, or experimenting, or scaling, or influencing? What about the staff on the ground right now? Who are the most influential partners we should be working with? How do we get others to start thinking about extension in the same way we’re thinking about it? Questions swirling in my mind… and very few answers.

Now, back to my struggles as a (non-)visionary leader. What does this mean for my ability to lead my team toward our exciting-yet-difficult-to-attain future? (Stick with me, I’ll land soon.)

I remember someone asking me a few years ago about my Principle of Leadership. At the time, I stammered and mumbled and generally had no idea. But the question has stuck with me and now I know my answer: my strength as a leader is defined by my ability to leverage the strengths of my team. This is really the principle I rely on in all situations. I have some strengths, but I also have lots of weaknesses, and it is only be relying on my team that I am able to bring the best out of us as a whole.

I look to Robin for bringing unbridled passion for the public sector and making sure we always connect our work to poor farmers. I rely on Miriam to bring insights and approaches from her background in development studies. I lean on Siera for a connection to current field realities from being embedded with extension staff and farmers. I depend on Don for his selfless work ethic and insane networking skills to find new partners for our team.

I am grateful for all of these people, and all those I have worked with in the past in EWB. There is so much talent around me, it’s overwhelming! I feel privileged to be in a position to harness all this potential and move us toward an impactful change in the agricultural extension sector. I may not be leading the way with my vision, but I have no doubt that we’ll get there. How could I, when I have an amazing team-ful of talents at my fingertips?

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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.


Why I’m Here

A friend recently wrote me an email in response to my appeal for funds with EWB’s Challenging Perspectives campaign. He identified an inner conflict: he felt he should donate out of obligation to our friendship and feared that he would be ostracized if he didn’t, but was having trouble personally connecting with my work in Ghana. To donate, he felt that he should really believe in the work that EWB is doing (and I’m doing, through EWB) and be able to get behind it 100%. I most definitely agree!

This is exactly the kind of conversation I want to start with my Challenging Perspectives campaign. Why do we feel obligated to donate to charities when we really know little about what they do? How can charities make people FEEL something and personally connect people to their work? It’s a struggle on both sides.

In response to this email, I wrote back answering 3 questions:

  1. Why am I here?
  2. How am I feeling about it?
  3. What am I working towards?

Below is the email I sent back to my friend. I hope it answered these questions for him, and I hope it will for you too. Either way, leave a comment and let me know what you think!

1.   I’m here because:

  • I feel fortunate to have been born to an affluent family in a developed country and hate that it means I have so many more opportunities for happiness and success than so many other people in the world – I want to work to decrease global economic and “opportunity” disparity
  • I feel guilty about being born in Canada and feel I have a responsibility to help others
  • I believe we live in a globalized world where we’re all connected and will have deep impacts on how others live, whether through our consumer habits, environmental practices or political policies
  • I think change IS possible in developing countries, specifically in Ghana from having spent time here, and I want to help create that change
  • This is a pretty cool job that gives me good professional experience and is developing a lot of skills that I value (management, leadership, critical thinking, communication, etc.)

Salifo and Hussain, father and son. I dream the son will have more opportunities than the father.

2.   How I feel:

  • Frustrated that change happens so slowly
  • Unmotivated by some circumstances in Ghana (sexism, racism, kids not going to school, etc.) and some of the people I work with
  • Incredibly motivated by some of the other people I work with (one of whom is an AEA who is hopefully coming to the EWB conference in January!)
  • Love for my EWB teammates and lucky that I get to work with such cool people
  • Hopeful that we are making some incremental changes and the pace of change is increasing as we gain experience and credibility

Our awesome Rural Agriculture team (miss you Meg!)

3.   What I want to have happen:

  • MoFA does a better job of serving poor farmers in Ghana, which is 80% of the population in the north. This means helping farmers to improve their farming techniques and help people to see farming as a business instead of a way of life (a lot of people are like “my grandfather farmed, my father farmed, I farm but I don’t have a job” – it’s not seen as a viable “career” to be a farmer, even though you can get rich if you have a good commercial business plan!). This will require MoFA to have excellent extension staff that go around and visit farmers to help them manage this mindset shift. MoFA is a government institution, so it is here to stay, and it already has a wide network of field staff in place, making it a great partner to work with if we want to reach a high number of Ghanaian farmers. But there are a lot of reasons right now why MoFA isn’t doing the best it can for farmers.
  • MoFA is slowly becoming decentralized (which is good), meaning each district will get to choose their own work, manage their own budget, decide which development projects are best-suited to farmers in their district, hire the best staff and fire the worst, define their own culture. Right now it’s the opposite: everything is decided at the national level and pushed down to districts, which often means projects are ill-suited to the local conditions or won’t benefit farmers, implementation is poor, there are not enough resources to do everything that’s asked of the district staff, there is low motivation and low ownership over work.
  • In order for decentralization to happen, MoFA needs to have technical, managerial and operational capacity. They’re pretty good at the technical capacity (knowing technical stuff about agriculture to spread to farmers, like research findings, new technologies, improved seeds and fertilizers, etc.). This is mostly what they learn in school (“agric college”) and what MoFA has traditionally focused on. They are less good at the managerial and operational capacities.
  • I want EWB to help improve these capacities through developing managers (lots of ways to do this – management training, fellowships like the one I talk about in my Perspective, one-on-one coaching, sharing management resources, etc.) and developing operational capacity (improved supervision, budget management, work planning, scheduling, staff motivation, computer and reporting skills, culture of learning from experience, etc.). These are things that EWB is already good at and we have a clear value-add to districts.
  • The challenge in all this is developing initiatives that work for one district (specific) but can be scaled to many districts (general). There are lots of questions here: are we satisfied with just helping a few districts, one at a time? or do we want to achieve wide-scale change? Is it possible to create this scaled change without reducing the quality of what we’re doing? What other mechanisms already exist that we can use to scale these ideas?

Dry season tomato farmers near Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region

Our team is in the middle of a visioning/strategy design process so a lot of questions will be answered in the next month about what we’re working toward more specifically. We’ve recently had a bunch of people leave the team and we’re small now (only 5), so we need to re-tune our ambitions to what we can realistically accomplish with these resources. That said, we’re asking for 3 more volunteers to be added to our team in March so we can get more manpower to enact our vision.

And that’s where your donation comes in. Seriously, it’s all about the money. Without money – most of which comes from donations at EWB, since we have a hard cap on what % of our budget we’ll take from CIDA so we can remain independent and advocate against the Canadian government when necessary – we can’t realize these changes. We’re a pretty small organization in terms of number of staff in Africa, but we’re punching above our weight in terms of influencing higher-up development big-wigs. This is happening in Canada too, with awesome stuff happening lately with advocacy and CIDA. I am often critical of things EWB does, but I’m happy that it’s encouraged in the organization’s culture to be critical. That’s how we try to do the right things.

Anyway, I obviously believe this is an organization that’s headed in the right direction and making some much-needed changes on the ground. And if I’ve convinced you that’s true, then I would love for you to donate!

But no pressure. SERIOUSLY. Don’t donate because you are my friend, or my parents’ friend, or because I keep emailing you, or because other people have donated. Donate because you believe this work is important, change is needed and EWB is doing it well.

Celebrating Salah with Ayesha and Namawu, two of my favourite friends in Tamale!! Seriously, these girls are awesome!!

P.S. A small update on my Challenging Perspectives campaign: I’m currently in first place for the most funds raised! I’ve raised $2105 out of my goal of $5000, thanks to everyone who’s donated so far. So if you haven’t donated yet and you connect with what I’m doing here, please consider making a donation to my campaign! https://perspectives.ewb.ca/erinantcliffe


What’s your Perspective?

“What does poverty reduction look like? How should it be done? What’s an engineer’s role? You likely have a perspective. So do the people creating pages on this site. They want to challenge your perspective by sharing theirs. They believe in EWB’s systemic approach to addressing the root causes of poverty. Intrigued? Read their perspectives. And if you suddenly see things a little differently, make a donation to EWB.”

This year, EWB is trying a new type of holiday campaign. Instead of focusing solely on donations, they’re challenging peoples’ perspectives. Each EWB member is encouraged to write their perspective and post it online to get people thinking critically about development. If you agree with the perspectives, you are encouraged to donate to EWB.

I’ve written my own perspective and posted it here. I’m also posting it below. Please read it with a critical eye and think about your own opinion. If you agree with me and want to support my work, please visit the donation page here. Even if you can’t donate, please leave a comment and share your own perspective!

Thanks for reading!

It’s 6am in Tamale, Ghana. I’m sitting at the picnic table in my living room, typing on my laptop while the morning prayers from the adjacent mosque blare through my windows. The sounds of roosters and the smells of morning cooking also waft in. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s part of life in Ghana, a country built on agriculture.

Engineers Without Borders Canada has been working in Ghana for over 5 years with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. We believe that the 80% of Ghanaians who are rural farmers can move from subsistence to prosperity.

But the Ministry of Food and Agriculture is a difficult place to work. Funds are insufficient and usually released late, staff is unmotivated, and ownership over problems and successes is low. There is a strong desire to help farmers, but few resources to do so.

Over the past year I’ve had the privilege of leading the DDA Fellowship, a program for District Directors in the Ministry. These Directors lead their field staff to deliver extension services to farmers such as technical support, market information and business training.

The Fellowship brought together eight strong Directors to create an environment of sharing and collective problem-solving, as well as offering management and leadership training. The goal of the Fellowship was to create a strong network of district “Change Champions” that will start taking control of the problems they face in their districts and improving the services offered to farmers.

The DDA Fellowship

Last year I participated in EWB’s World of Opportunity campaign. Thanks to so many generous donors, I raised over $6000. This amount is huge for a single fundraiser, but looks small in contrast to EWB’s overall budget. However, this amount allowed us to run important programs like the DDA Fellowship, for which the entire budget was about $3500.

My perspective: your donation makes a real difference.

Dickson Ankuga is the Director for Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo district, a remote district in the Northern Region of Ghana. Dickson is one of the DDAs who took part in EWB’s DDA Fellowship. Over the past 6 months, Dickson has taken control of one of the biggest problems in his district: fertilizer availability. The idea was born during a DDA Fellowship session on learning from data. Using data collection and analysis, Dickson is tracking the supply and demand of fertilizer and noting when shortages occur. With this information in hand, he will be able to get ahead of next year’s shortages by ensuring stock is in place before the demand skyrockets. This will mean that farmers can buy fertilizer when they need it, bumping up their yields and greatly improving district food production.

Problem-solving session at the DDA Fellowship

I’ve been working with EWB in Ghana for 9 months now. Over that time, I’ve seen incredible growth in our team’s strategy, as well as strong results. We’ve worked with Agricultural Colleges to build entrepreneurship into the curriculum. Our short-term volunteers spread out across northern Ghana this summer to implement Agriculture As a Business training for rural farmers. And through it all, we’ve learned from our successes and failures about what works and what doesn’t so that we can continue to improve. None of this would be possible without your support.

I’m here because I believe change is possible. I believe this work matters and I believe that EWB is making a difference. The world of international development is messy, but we are delivering innovative solutions to complex problems and changing the way people think about development. That is why I’ve committed to working for an additional 2 years with EWB in Ghana.

But I need your help. Building strong district leaders is just one example of how EWB uses your donations. In this year’s Challenging Perspectives campaign, all of the funds raised will be channeled to our work in Africa.

So if you believe in supporting organizations that use money wisely, learn from experience, have the ability to work with both farmers and funders, and invest in African leadership, please consider making a donation to EWB. From my perspective here in Ghana, I see the impact of your donations every day.

Click here to donate to EWB’s work in Africa.

Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!


Agriculture As a Business

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:

  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 Cheshei Suhiyini Women's Group

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.

A participatory budgeting exercise using local materials

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.

Quality

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.

An AEA facilitating an AAB meeting

Sustainability

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!

A woman drying parboiled rice in her compound

Scale

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 Kpanman Kawuni Song Women's Group

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??


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!


Nope, still centralized

Below is a stack of newspapers that can be found in the corner of the MoFA office here in Tamale.

Stack of newspapers

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “whoa that’s a lot of newspapers! Why would anyone keep that many newspapers? Don’t they fade and disintegrate and collect dirt and dust, sitting in the corner like that? And they take up so much space!” (Isn’t it creepy how I can read your exact thoughts?)

Well, that’s exactly what I thought when I saw them. So I did what I always do: I asked the Keeper of Office Knowledge (ie. the secretary). And the response?

MoFA pays for each district office to have a newspaper subscription. When the Auditor comes each year, he needs to see all the assets in the office that are paid for with MoFA money – including these newspapers. If the Auditor asks to see a paper and you can’t produce one, it is assumed that it has been stolen, and rumours will start about corruption and misuse of public funds. So instead, the newspaper stack grows higher daily as proof that they aren’t being turned into toilet paper or fuel for fires.

The Northern Regional office of MoFA has a pile of old, broken chairs in the corner of the conference room. Why? Same reason – they’re MoFA assets, so they can’t be thrown out or people will suspect they’ve been stolen. Instead, we all get to stare at the mass of mangled wooden legs and ripped plastic every time we have a meeting.

Now, I understand the reason for this policy: misuse of public funds is a huge problem in many African countries. It’s a slippery slope and there must be sufficient measures in place to ensure civil servants aren’t using public money for their own benefit. But isn’t this a little extreme? These people are educated, responsible and driven to make change for their country and its people. Can’t we let them throw away broken and used goods? Can’t we let them run their offices in an efficient manner? Can’t we let them direct their own funds and determine which projects are most beneficial for their districts? Can’t we trust them, just a little??

This is the core issue behind decentralization. Decentralization is supposed to take responsibility and decision-making power from the “centre” and distribute it to the “decentralized departments”, such as the MoFA district offices. Theoretically, a MoFA district should be able to manage and allocate their own funds based on specific challenges seen in their own district. This should result in more appropriate spending and decision-making in line with local contexts. Through increased ownership and responsibility over district funds and projects, staff should also take more ownership of success when it comes. This “should” be great.

Ghana has been talking about decentralization for years. But as the stack of newspapers above shows us, there’s a long way to go. It’s a long, slow, painful process to build up the capacity of district staff to manage their own funds and make smart decisions that will benefit their districts. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also a long, slow, painful process for those at the top to concede some of their power and trust their employees.

I have met several amazing Ghanaian leaders who are working hard for their country and its people, but whose hands are tied by bureaucracy and centralized power. These people are talented, resourceful and driven. They are doing the best they can, one date at a time. But in the end, I can’t wait for the day when they are allowed to truly lead their districts!