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!