Monday, March 15, 2010

Supporting farmers to grow their vegetables!

It’s dry season, and although the rains this year are threatening to arrive the main excitement around agriculture is dry season vegetable farming.

A woman weeds her onion farm.

This weekend I met Mr. Salia, a hard-working vegetable farmer in the town called Buipe. Mr. Salia is one of those guys that after meeting I have to write about. He’s a young guy who was hired by the government to teach. He’s only employed part-time (government youth employment program) and so he supplements his income by farming. In the dry season, he sets himself up next to the Volta River and grows vegetables. He’s making a ton of money, enough to send himself to university and to support his new wife and young son.

Mr. Salia and I chat about his farm.

Growing vegetables to me is one of those businesses that I think everybody should get into! It’s good for you! Like eating your veges! But very few people have copied Mr. Salia and set up shop.


It requires a few things that can be tricky to access #1. the right type of start-up capital #2. a lot of technical knowledge #3. great market access. This post focuses on the first.

This year Mr. Salia is struggling. Cattle came and ate his entire crop. About $500 worth of investment. He’s out this money and wondering if he should continue.

The only evidence left behind...

He built a fence but it was not very effective because it was basically thorny bushes piled in a line. Not enough to stop hungry cattle in the dry season!

Make shift fence

It occurred to me that most development projects aren’t interested in providing support to help farmers put up fences. They most commonly provide water pumping machines. Mr. Salia was offered one but he turned it down. Figured it wasn’t worth the cost of fuel and maintenance. He’d rather have a fence. They weren’t offering fences.

I think the development sector has got it wrong when it’s supporting vegetable farmers. All I ever hear about is pumping machines. Nothing about fences.

Two years ago I worked with vegetable farmers along the Volta River in a place called Daboya. They were just starting out and the business was doing well. They had saved up enough money to buy a water pumping machine. They lacked the capital to buy the pipes so I provided them a small loan out of my own pocket ($200) for the pipes. The group was able to pay their first installment of the loan. But by the time the second installment came along a donor had given MoFA some free water pumping machines to distribute. The farmers I was working with in Daboya received 2 free water pumping machines! Two! Two too many! Since then the farmers have not paid back the other half of their loan and have been quite elusive.

Farmers setting up their pumping machine that they bough with their own money.

By the way, two years ago these farmers also had their crops eaten by cattle. They also lacked a fence. They were lucky enough to know the farmers who own the cattle and were reimbursed for their eaten vegetables.

Convinced yet?

Two weeks ago I visited a community in Binaba. Their fence was impressive! It is 4 feet tall. Hand build. From mud. These farmers are doing well. And no pumping machines required.

Impressive wall. Impressive Onion farm.

Mr. Salia doesn’t have time to build a wall like this.

Why does the development sector insist on pumping machines into the agriculture sector instead of building walls?

I’m not really sure. It could be because machines are perceived as more modern and therefore more desired by development works and farmers alike.

Maybe this doesn’t matter. What matters more is that the development sector listens to Mr. Salia and provides him what he needs.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Twins and Frisbee

There is a set of twins living at my house. Namawu and Ayisha. They are fraternal twins. Both are sweet, well behaved girls. They are also quite stunning but good thing they don’t know it!

Namawu (left) and Ayisha (right)

Every time I arrive home Namawu and Ayisha run up to me and grab by bags. They always greet me in the morning very politely. Their mother taught them well.

Last weekend I invited them to play ultimate Frisbee with a bunch of my foreigner friends in Tamale. They were both excited by this.

They were initially very shy and we’re really very aggressive. Not surprising since they were surrounded by a group of adult strangers. By the end of the game Namawu got the hang of it and made some great interceptions! Ayisha’s catching and throwing improved immensely.

What a treat it was for them!

They’ll likely join us again this week.

Honing our Frisbee skills

Back in Ghana and loving it

So I’m back in Ghana. Perhaps because I’m only here for the next 6 months, I am making more out of life here this time. Every day I look around me and no longer take for granted the beauty that surrounds me.

Beauty comes unexpectedly as some cattle stop to nibble on the bougainvillea.

A local cafĂ©. Modestly named ‘Try to respect’

Last Sunday I visited a friend, Florence. I met her through a previous EWB volunteer who worked at the agriculture college last fall. Flo is the top student at the agriculture college. She works her butt off to get amazing grades. She’s up at 3 am to study and normally goes to sleep around 11 pm. I don’t know how she functions on so little sleep!

I biked to visit Flo at the agriculture college, on the way I stopped to appreciate the beautiful sights.

Perfect mounds of dirt ready to be planted with yams once the rains begin.

A tree carries fruit that look similar to Christmas balls. The tree bears a seed called dawa-dawa that is a common cooking spice.

A man struggles up a hill with a ridiculous amount of sticks on his bicycle.

EWB has been working at the agriculture college for the past 8 months to help them develop an entrepreneurship curriculum. Currently, only about 10% of graduates from agriculture colleges find work with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. It’s estimated about 40% of grads find work with non-government organisations or with private companies such as input suppliers and private veterinary clinics. It’s a shame that 50% of these youth don’t end up using their talents.

Last week, a guy named Evan came to my office and dropped off his resume. He graduated from the agriculture college in 1993 and has been looking for work since! Since then he’s been selling cheap imported Chinese goods. That’s how I met him. He came to my office and gave me a pitch on the ‘best smelling cologne I’ve ever seen’. He also had a ton of other random goods – shoe shiner, condoms, flashlights…Is Evan better off than his friends whose parents couldn’t afford to send him to school?

So back to Flo another lucky college student. After graduation, Flo has plans to open up a dog grooming business. That’s quite a different ambition from her peers who mostly aim to be the lucky ones who will attain employment with MoFA. It’s likely they’ll end up like Evan struggling to make a living from a job they are overqualified for.

Flo wants to open a dog grooming business because she’s not going to take employment for granted. Flo figures dog grooming is the most profitable venture she can find in Ghana. A shame her talents won’t go to supporting the cattle sector in Northern Ghana, or the fowl industry in the South. Both industries have a ton of potential but are not growing due to a ton of challenges – imports bring down the prices, poor access to medicines make production inefficient, the people who raise cattle are among the most marginalized, underdeveloped cold storage facilities…

Hopefully, the work that EWB is doing at the agriculture college will help Flo and her peers find employment in the agriculture sector that will not only provide them with viable income but also stimulate the sector to grow and provide money to farmers pockets so they too can afford to send their kids to college.

Last fall, Flo applied to gain practical experience abroad. She was awarded this opportunity and will travel to Denmark for one month this summer. The EWB volunteer who worked with Flo, Carissa got her friends to raise money to buy Flo a camera. When I gave Flo the camera she just about died. She collapsed to the floor with shock! All over a small Canon point and shoot. Flo told me that she wanted to buy a camera and saved up her money. She had her eye on a $250 Panasonic camera. By the time she went to buy the camera they were all sold out and the cheapest camera she could find was for $400. Flo interpreted this situation as God’s doing. It would have been unnecessary for her to have 2 cameras.

Flo collapses to the ground in true dramatic style – in her free time she acts.

Flo reading the card with the words of encouragement and congratulations from Carissa’s friends.

I know Flo will make the most of her opportunity in Denmark. She takes nothing for granted as she has had to work for everything she’s earned. Much more than I. And after she returns, I hope that Flo will have opportunities to apply her skills in the agriculture sector to help it develop. Thanks Flo for being an inspiration!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Smiling in Ghana

So I'm back in Ghana and am going through a bit of a honeymoon stage. Over the past 5 months much of my time has been spent away from Ghana and most definitely away from Tamale, the city where I currently call home.

As a result, I've been more observant and appreciative of some few things. I want to share them...

Tonight I bought phone credit from someone. He was just getting ready to pray. It was 6 pm and as a devout Muslim he was doing the ritualistic hand, feet and face washing that is necessary. Despite this he rushed over and sold me phone credit. I apologized for interrupting his prayer preparations.

He responded: "It's okay but I hope you are a Muslim.".

I replied: "No I am a Christian."

He said: "Oh that's also good."

In Ghana, Christians and Muslims are able to live side by side with none of that fighting we hear of in other countries. When a meeting is held it is typically opened by a Muslim prayer and closed by a Christian prayer (or vica-versa). I appreciate this acceptance of differences!

Second experience that brought a smile to my face. I went running yesterday morning. It has been so long that I've been able to run around my house that the landscape had drastically changed. In the past 6 months the rains have come. And apparently they haven't left the path I normally take along a large part of my run. So, I hiked up my running pants and tread lightly along the narrow ridge that separated me from a murky pool of old rain water. As I finished this tight-tope dance I saw two men preparing to walk the gauntlet. They were rolling up their pants. They looked up to me and smiled.

I smiled back. What else can you do when water blocks your path but roll up your pants and enter? In Ghana I appreciate that they do it not with grumbles but with smiles.

Last appreciation. When I'm gone for a long time at work and return, people always ask me where I've been. Actually first they say: "How's our two days?" Which means how have things been in this long time you've been away. (Note: If you want to make a joke you ask how's our three days!)

The second question people ask is: "What did you bring me from your trip?" This question initially bothered me as I felt offended that people would ask me for something and then guilty for not bringing anything. However, it is quite unrealistic to bring something for all 50 people at my office every time I travel. I learned though that you can respond with: "I brought my health." And people actually appreciate hearing this answer! So today as I approached my office and saw the countless vehicle drivers resting on benches under the tree I knew what was coming.

"Welcome Sarah!"

"How's your two days?"

"Fine and how are you?"

"Fine and what did you bring me?"

"My health."

laughter from all...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Use what you have to secure what you have not

This will be my last post under this thread. The conference ended Friday evening with a bunch of my new friends and I heading to a progressive restaurant in downtown Halifax. In just 3 short days I had made numerous friends, one who took me into her home that night (the hostels were all full because Paul McCartney was playing) and the other who spent the Saturday showing me the province's beautiful country-side. This experience could have come from the EWB conference. But instead it came from a gathering of other social entrepreneurs from around the world through the Coady Institute. For me personally, this conference has been an interesting experience of exposure to a network that is not so unlike EWB's. It is a testament to the Coady Institute that they were able to bring 100 intelligent, thoughtful and passionate individuals. I think we, in EWB, could benefit from staying connected to this network.

At the end of the conference I was part of a small-group that discussed how we could better engage youth in the ABCD concept. This was in part because the average age of attendees was around 45.

From the network who was gathered, EWB is one of the leading organisations in Canada that is engaging youth in social justice. We are doing it through an asset-based approach. We start by recognizing the talents in everyone - from a chapter level where individual members are encouraged to find their place in EWB, to EWB's role in development which is built on the analytical skills of engineers but humbly recognizes the limitations that an engineering approach brings to development.

We are also big advocates of the strength and talents of individuals and communities in developing countries. We specifically talk about these people by their abilities to combat the relentless propagation that people in developing countries have tons of NEEDS and that we can help. One participant at the meeting, a baptist minister told a story of getting the people receiving the food to go behind the counter and go the giving. People grow more when they are on the giving side. So if we want individuals in Africa to grow, why to we keep on giving? Does that only help our growth? What I love about our overseas program is that it provides people in Ghana an opportunity to give. We send volunteers to live with families. I often hear volunteers say 'I feel I took more than I received'. This is great! We are swimming up-current when the majority of the development industry encourages people to 'communicate what you don't have - your needs, problems and deficiencies - to secure help from the outside.'

For the second half of ABCD, the citizen-led development, I think EWB understands this. With our new distributed model of an organisation, we strive to embody pushing as much power as possible down. Or rather, not taking the power away from those who are closest to the ground. This concept comes through Robert Chamber's books quite strongly - Who's Reality Counts, Putting the Last First, Putting the First Last.

Around the 'CD' there seems to be two definitions. One: citizen-led development, the other community development. I do think that EWB differs from the latter in that we don't see communities as homogeneous entities. We see them as having power disparities. We see that jealousy can sometimes prevent a community from cooperating.

My biggest recommendation for us within EWB, is to look at our work with a stronger asset-based lens. For example, with new members, we need to leverage their strengths better. With our work in Africa, we need to learn how to encourage our partners and us to start with what communities are able to do and move from there. This is a shift that I'm increasingly seeing is important to make with MoFA. One of the MoFA volunteers, Suzanne Fish, worked with 20 field staff in Upper West Region of Ghana to develop new ways of working with field staff that recognize that technologies don't need to come from research institutions but that farmers are able to innovate.

A life lesson I took away from this conference: label people more by what they are able to do than what they are disabled to do and they'll accomplish a lot more.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

From clients to citizens - a paradigm shift

From Clients to Citizens
Day two of the workshop. I’m starting to gain a better appreciation for what ABCD means. It’s yet another approach with another set of terminologies and paradigm shifts. The subtle differences between asset based citizen-led development and participatory approaches (PRA) and appreciative inquire (AI) have yet to really hit me. The most significant difference seems to be the network which gathers around these various acronyms.
All of them emphasize the difference between solving problems and appreciating the positive. The positive (asset based) approach has been practiced in communities for hundreds of years – it can be seen in First Nation Reserves, it can be seen in villages in Northern Ghana. Unfortunately these communities have developed a dependency towards outsider support due to years of outsiders coming to them and asking ‘what are your challenges?’ ‘what do you need?’. We’re lucky that in society we are treated as the haves, people see us as able, not dis-abled, gifted, not poor, this view can have a lot of impact on how a person sees themselves and acts in the world.
If asset-based and community driven development is a good thing, then what is the role of the outsider?
A couple of lively conversations ensured today around the role of a field worker, a non-government organisation, the government. The discussion began with a reflection around the term outsider. Some figured the term visitor is more appropriate to the role. Implying that being invited into a community is key. Others figured the role is non-outsider, facilitating between the community and other institutions. The role brings with it inherent challenges and opportunities but in the end we agreed that it’s necessary to be honest about the value one brings as an outsider and to be clear about that to the community. In doing this, you remove the outsider/insider dichotomy and become a contributor.
A major benefit to being an outsider is that critical perspective you bring. Sometimes it can be under the guise of ignorance that allows you to ask the ‘unaskable question’ such as: why are only some members of the community at this meeting? This role is important and should not be discounted for the sake of chasing after a romantic idea that an outsider does not intervene in community activities. In some ways I have been an outsider during this conference, not really feeling like I’m part of the ABCD community I’ve asked some risky and controversial questions. I don’t often end up mustering up the courage to ask my question.
A couple of good readings that I’ve been skimming between breaks at this conference:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What's in a name

For a change, this post comes from Canada. I am writing from Antigonish, a town 180 km north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The air is a bit cold here for mid-summer but the environment is warm. I’m standing in the corner of a beautiful room that is full of people dressed in vibrantly colourful outfits and lively conversation. We’re having our coffee break and I’m standing like a wallflower taking some time away to share this experience.
I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Coady Institute. Coady Institute is part of the St. Francis Xavier University. It’s an internationally renowned development institute.
I am privileged to be here on behalf of Engineers Without Borders. Due to a generous grant I am eating, sleeping and travelling to this prestigious event. Because of this privilege I feel compelled to share what is happening so that the benefits can be shared.
This event is quite unique. I expected the typical workshop, a gathering of the minds where people have the opportunity to network and listen to speeches. However, the event is much more ambitious and creative, we as participants are expected to create something. We are expected to create ideas around a concept called Asset Based Citizen-Led Development, or ABCD.
Coming into this workshop I have very little idea about ABCD, and I still do. However after only 4 hours of sessions I am beginning to understand that ABCD is not an exclusive concept that has been branded by the development community and sold as the latest thing to learn in a workshop or in a book. It is a concept which we are able to explore, debate and attach numerous terminologies and language to. For those of you who are newer to the development industry, branding concepts and training people on them is an incredibly common activity. For those of you who are not new to the development industry, in a group of intelligent people you can understand how words are chosen very carefully.
These first 4 hours have brought up the question: How much value can be placed on a name?
A story related to this, I have met numerous people at this conference and had to explain over and over why engineers are not doing engineering work in development. Our name doesn’t actually explain much. However, it allows engineers within Canada to engage in EWB. It allows us to stimulate a community of engineers who are more globally conscious. It also misleads people as to what we are doing overseas. Below is a video which speaks more accurately about the work EWB is doing overseas!

As part of the creation of ideas, below is a poem written by Mam Adisa who works for the Africa 2000 Network, an NGO which EWB has worked with.

A dream come true Moses Coady
Yes that dream you dreamt
You dreamt when walking almost
Not noticing little details of
A normal walk
Because you were always deep
In thoughts for ‘how’ of
Better life for all
A life of the individual
In their own hands.

Yes a dream come true
Others after you with like minds
Are on your dream of ‘how’ for all
Communities over all parts of
The world are dreaming your dream
The dream you started.

Yes a dream come true.
Governments are changing all
Over the world for the
Dream of ‘how’ by all
‘How by all’ the dream of Moses Coady
A dream come true Moses Coady

We are here for the 50th year
Of your dream baby
Baby of ideas of ‘how’
The how school of development
By all
Moses Coady, Moses Coady, I saw Moses Coady your dream come true.