Sunday, December 23, 2007


To follow up a bit of a heavy post, this post is light and fluffy and full of feel-good pictures!

Christmas is around the corner and as you prepare to celebrate a Canadian Christmas I want to share some celebrations that I have been able to experience.

First, National Farmers Day, Christmas for MoFA! (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, my partner organisation). For the past two months, that’s all MoFA staff have been talking about and working on – National Farmers Day is a BIG DEAL! A chance to celebrate farming and the farmers whose hard work allows the country to eat.

A big banner overhangs the local and regional government heads who attended this celebration on Dec 7th.

During the event, I volunteered my services as multi-media person. I spent the day holding my camera within one foot of diplomats giving speeches on farming and shooting exuberant farmers who were awarded bicycles and other farming toys for their hard work.

Most innovative farmer next to his prizes (isn't his hat great!?!)

The day also felt special because all of us MoFA workers were dressed up in MoFA stenciled clothing. Here you see Trevor and I dressed up with Nina (an EWB volunteer who was visiting from Zambia)

The second celebration of the month took place in Burkina Faso. The 7 of us EWB volunteers who are currently working in Ghana took the 17 hour bus trip to a city in Burkina Faso (Bobo-Diolasso). There we spent three days “retreating” from some of the everyday challenges of working in a developing country and connecting with our French speaking friends volunteering north of the border. Two days of the retreat were dedicated to some fantastic workshop-style sessions while the middle day was all about being a tourist.

Below you see us celebrating…well I think we are celebrating being strong enough to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and for the small successes we have achieved in with our development partner organisations. This may sound cheesy but it’s very important to celebrate the small successes in a world where attribution for results is difficult (everyone wants to take credit for results so they get more money!) and big dreams can’t be realized in a day and even during a year-long overseas placement.

Despite a difficult growing season, this year farmers are still celebrating – babies are born and this new life is celebrated, chiefs are sworn in as their predecessors pass on, and harvests that are healthy and abundant are hard to come by so aren’t taken for granted!

My friend, Alaji of Sanguli village celebrates his healthy rice harvest.

So December has been full of celebrations! To my family and friends whom I’m sorry I won’t be celebrating the holidays with you, I hope you too take the time to celebrate.

Top Down or Bottom Up

To implement a project that is designed from the 50th floor of a building in Rome, a program that is the brainchild of the top academics and development leaders, or to implement a program that doesn’t really have a grand master scheme but is one idea from one community member with minimal resources and training?

The current hot debate in development seems to focus around the conundrum of developing a program that can address the numerous numbers living in poverty complimented with locally appropriate and sustainable projects. “Can demands for generalizable actions be reconciled with location- specific solutions?” - asked simply in The Critical Villager, a fantastic book by Eric Dudley.

Well, what do you think?

I get excited when I read a proposal for a development project. For example, IFAD (the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development) has proposed a project for Northern Ghana. The rhetoric for the project promises sustainable economic growth for the agriculture sector in Northern Ghana, growth that will not leave the poor behind but allow them to drive it! Wow, that’s super fantastic! From my minimal development experience, the project proposal is actually quite impressive and seems to be innovative and holistic in approach – a rare combination!

Now to actually achieve this good thing this project is planning to work with MoFA (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, my partner organisation) so I will be able to see and maybe even influence how this project rhetoric is turned into results.

Trying to put development into boxes

On the other side of the coin, I get slightly nervous when I hear of someone who has donated directly to get someone in school or given fertilizer to help a farmer plant more this season. These actions are surely bleeding-heart responses that give immediate gratification. But what about the project plan? How will these interventions be measured? What’s to say these resources couldn’t have been given to a project that will in theory have a broader and more lasting impact?

At this very moment I am sitting in an internet cafĂ© with a new friend Dan. We are creating a blog that will let the Western world know about his idea for a development project ( Or rather, his solutions to a situation that he’s seeing in his own community. So while I continue to support his small-scale development project, I still continue to ask: “If we’ve been doing this development thingy for half a century, how come we can’t seem to make things work?”

Dan's best guess - get a girl of 14 years in school (Suraya)

I’ve come across several community leaders finding small-scale solutions but we run away from those since they are perhaps not “sustainable” or “scalable”…it’s almost like the development industry is too good for that kind of work. We prefer to have frameworks and figure everything out before we jump in and try things (sound familiar to those of you who are engineers?).

Iterations of “best guesses” is so not the way to do things, or is it? I’m starting to think so. So while I grapple with my engineering instinct that tells me to figure things out, put boxes around it and analyze everything before beginning, I recognize that small ideas are popping up in front of me almost daily. And to let those go by seems wrong (and I don’t think I’m just listening to my heart).

In an ideal world, community-based interventions that are participatory and big thinker programs can be harmonious components of effective aid. For starters, big thinkers can try harder to put themselves in the shoes (or bare-feet) of the beneficiaries. Secondly, field workers can try harder to inform to the big thinkers and funders of development aid that the aid process should follow the development process more closely by accepting the complex and dynamic nature of people’s lives and the need for iterations of community-based interventions. But don’t get me wrong, these are not my “solutions” to all the problems of international development, just best guesses from my perspective.

Dan and Sarah. My perspective on development is being shaped from inside his family's compound.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Going beyond the party line

This post was initiated by my Grandpa who expressed gratitude at me sharing my cultural experiences via blog post, but still wasn’t clear on the purpose of EWB overseas (or at least of my placement aside from an amazing cultural exchange). Caution – the following post contains more questions than answers, for those who enjoy in putting a box around the “final” answer do not continue reading; for the rest please enjoy some controversy and feel free to share your love or discontent with the ideas I share below. The “party line” for my placement is in the header of my blog: “I work for small-scale farmers in Northern Ghana through a partnership with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) in Ghana.”

Me working for a small-scale farmer by watering his tomato garden.

But what does this mean?

In order to try and figure this out I have embarked on a 2 month learning tour. I am learning how incredibly complex, diverse and locally specific the lives of small-scale farmers (and their families) is! It has been particularly challenging as white people typically get exposure to the best farmers (see all October posts for some examples of "best farmers").

I am starting to discover why some farmers adopt a business-like mentality towards their farm while the majority of farmers take low-risk decisions that keep them farming for subsistence. Is it really just a matter of the educated vs. the uneducated? The entrepreneurial vs. the common majority? What other common indicators set these farmers apart? Am I just doing the classic outsider thing of simplifying the situation too much? At some point simplification of this incredibly complex and dynamic situation is required to move forward, to communicate my ideas to others and to ultimately do something. How can I find that balance?

I am also learning about the ways that MoFA tries to help these small-scale farmers develop their livelihood to something more secure, more profitable and ultimately something that provides a better life for their children. The ideas and what actually happen on the ground are often quite different (micro-credit loans have a repayment rate of less than 40% and the productivity of farmer’s fields hasn’t increased in the last 5 years despite countless interactions between farmers and MoFA field workers)…Accountability for projects flows upwards to the donor instead of downwards to the beneficiaries…Grandioso development projects are planned nationally or internationally with great rhetoric but lack the understanding of the realities surrounding implementation and consequently expectations of field workers are sky-high while resources fall short. How can I, as an eager outsider make my mark in this mess of development?

I have been worrying about this through-out my 2 month learning tour – until last week when I visited a fellow EWB volunteer Sarah Lewis. She is also working with MoFA but in a different region and has got a 6 month head start on me. I believe she has started something very exciting, something that will hopefully transform the way MoFA works and has already touched the lives of 9 farmers.

Last Thursday I was privileged to accompany Sarah Lewis and her co-worker a MoFA field worker (Lawrence) on a trip to visit a beautiful vegetable garden and meet the people who were tending to it. Every year these farmers work together to grow vegetables during the dry season. It’s a risky undertaking because once the veges are ripe and ready to be sold they need to be sold asap and at whatever price the market is offering! Veges also seem to be more prone to pests and diseases than other crops. But if all goes well, vegetable gardening can pay off and can provide a supplementary income during the difficult dry season.

Lawarence, Sarah Lewis and a farmer inspect the onion crop.

The farmers Sarah and Lawrence were working with had doubled the area they planted, thanks to Sarah’s and Lawrence’s support of fertilizer and labour to dig the wells for irrigation. Initially I was shocked to learn that Sarah had provided inputs! EWB is supposed to be a capacity building organisation, not a donor organisation! But I’ve also seen that one place where development projects fail is they fail to consider to equal importance of financial and technical assistance. I’ve seen development projects whose solution to a lack of acceptable results is to crank up the resources, like the Ghanaian analogy of applying more fertilizer on a poorly planted crop it’s basically a waste of money! Others look to provide only training or capacity building, for example: informing resource-poor farmers about the negative impacts of poor natural resource management only means farmers get the free soft-drink and crackers provided during the training!)

So enough ranting, as this is just the extreme of two approaches. What’s exciting about Sarah Lewis’ approach is that she and Lawrence are finding local solutions to help these 9 farmers. Grand plans are confined to these 9 farmers. Everyone is learning as they go along, Sarah, EWB, Lawrence and these 9 farmers. I’m not sure how scalable or sustainable her approach is, or what the development industry would make of it, but I do know that already these 9 farmers stand a better chance of yielding at least twice as many vegetables as they did last year. I consider that one small victory for farmers, MoFA and EWB among this mess of development.

Beautiful onion crop

Monday, October 29, 2007

So What Does MoFA Do?

Before I jump into this question I want to take this time to display a somewhat incriminating photo of a fellow friend and EWB volunteer - Luke Brown. He is just completing 2 years in Ghana and was privileged to become a "cheif of friends" in Tamale. I observed the very elaborate and formal "cheifing" ceremony with some other EWB volunteers. So what does an EWB volunteer do after 2 years in Ghana...

Luke before he becomes a chief. The actual chief is sitting behind him. Note the small girl in the top-right corner, she's fanning Luke!

Me recording this momentous occasion on Luke's sound recorder.

So what does MoFA do? To answer this question, I went overseas… My first step to understanding what MoFA does brought me overseas with “Prince” an employee of MoFA. So I’m guilty of cheesy Ghanaian humour. “Overseas” is an area of the Northern Region that is accessible either via boat in 2 hours or via road which takes a 5 hour detour. Since we were in a truck we had to do the 5 hour detour.

The intention of Prince’s visit was to assess a farmer who had been nominated for the prestigious national award for “Best Farmer”. Every year, MoFA organises a one-day event called “National Farmers Day” that is intended to raise the profile of farming within Ghana. Even though National Farmers Day is over one month away, it is foremost in the minds of all MoFA staff. When I first heard of the event, I figured it was just a big PR thing and wasn’t really sure why MoFA was so excited about it.

I asked Prince what the big deal was and he explained to me that the day is also an opportunity for MoFA to explicitly thank the farmers that they work for – the people that MoFA are essentially accountable to, after all without farmers in Ghana the role of MoFA would be quite different. To me, the event was also a great opportunity to profile farmers who model best practices – whether those best practices be entrepreneurial in managing the farm as a business or perhaps responsible use of natural resources – these best practices are the messages that MoFA strives to share with farmers and highlighting farmers through National Farmers Day is just one approach to encouraging farmers to adopt best practices.

The farmer we met, Alhaji Imoro, had been farming for the past 30 years. This year he planted rice (100 acres) and maize (50 acres). Unfortunately, all of the maize was destroyed by the floods that affected a huge amount of people in Northern Ghana this year and received international attention ( However, Alhaji with his keen knowledge of animal husbandry, and a critical understanding of market opportunities, will not suffer this year. Alhaji is smart to grow rice – a crop that actually thrived this year during the drought – the market opportunities for local rice are growing due to a combination of a government school feeding program and a growing popularity of rice as a starchy food by children!

Prince and Alhaji chat it up

Alhaji also rears cattle – an extremely profitable venture in Ghana, but an opportunity that is rarely exploited due to farmer’s attitude towards cattle. From what I learned from the farmers I lived with in Chayili village (recall groundnut picking adventure), cattle is viewed as a form of savings and is killed for a funeral or sold in desperate times to buy food. Alhaji was rearing over 500 cattle and was definitely looking at his cattle as a profitable venture, not a mooing, grass-chewing, form of saving.

Encouraging farmers to adopt the best practices that Alhaji exemplifies is a crucial component of MoFA’s work and arguably the most effective grassroots approach to making poverty history in Ghana. Encouraging farmers to adopt best practices is more than providing technical education on proper farming techniques – like the correct spacing for maize, or the proper amounts and timing of fertilizer application – it is encouraging a behaviour change that shifts farmers from viewing their cattle and crops as part of a business venture. That’s tricky stuff!

Alhaji is successful because he has solid technical knowledge of cattle rearing and rice and maize production but he also has the attitude of a businessman. When I asked how Alhaji learned cattle rearing and why he’s been successful with his farm, Alhaji answered that he learned from his father. At the end of our visit with Alhaji he asked Prince about growing mango trees, the market for mango fruit has been getting a lot of attention both internationally and locally and Alhaji wants to expand his business to mango production.

Prince was more than happy to share information. I watched as he reached above him to a tree that I noticed for the first time was a mango tree. Prince grabbed a branch and proceeded to demonstrate grafting – a technique that involves preparing and planting a branch from a live mango tree so that it will develop into another tree.

Grafting part 1 - remove a small branch and strip the leaves

Grafting part 2 - wrap the branch with a small piece of plastic and plant.

With farmers who aren’t as lucky as Alhaji who inherited not only a profitable farm but an approach and the practices that led to continuing prosperity, MoFA staff work towards changing farmer’s behaviour. Changing farmer’s behaviour is certainly not as easy as grafting a new mango tree from an existing one and so National Farmers Day is but one approach in the basket.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

I pledge allegiance to rice

Work has begun! But don’t expect to get a full detailed briefing on “what exactly I’m doing in Ghana”. Right now I’m in a learning phase – I’ve been given the freedom to travel around the Northern Region of Ghana and basically “job shadow”. I started at the regional level of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) and have started a 7 week tour of MoFA's district offices (one level below regional). I’ve uploaded a map that shows where I’ll be going in the next 2 months – and that’s as much as I’ll share about the nitty gritty details. Below is a story from a trip I took with a regional staff…

Follow along on my Northern Region "District Learning Tour"!

Posing with a Regional MoFA staff - dressed "fine" in a Ghanaian dress

Today I make a pledge – I pledge to only eat Ghanaian rice. This commitment is motivated by meeting with the Kalegu rice group – a group of women who together are leading the way in rice processing – a growing market in Ghana. I met the Kalegu rice group with Luke, a regional staff at MoFA who is to go-to-guy on all “farmer based organizations” in the Northern Region. We made the 4 hour trip to meet with the women and learn from them – how are they successful in the rice processing business and more importantly how are they able to work together?

Kalegu women selling Ghanaian rice

But asking these questions was not so simple! To even begin the field visit, Luke had to push hard to get the money we needed to travel. I give Luke tremendous credit for working so hard to realize a trip that was planned over a year ago! Since he wasn’t certain as to whether he would get the money and be able to go, he didn’t inform anyone about our visit. But money we received and the journey we did take.

When we arrived about 4 hours later, dusty and myself exhausted from the bumpy ride along a pot-hole infested road, I was astounded to see Luke literally jump into work-mode as soon as the vehicle stopped. We were fortunate to come across a community meeting that had in attendance some of the key people Luke was hoping to speak with and so he was able to schedule meetings with the farmer groups for the following day.

Luke’s persistence paid off, and we began the following day by meeting with three groups that grow rice. These groups are composed almost entirely of men (since men in Ghana do most of the food production while women do most of the food processing).

Luke checking out some unprocessed rice grains.

The conversation was enlightening for me, I suppose I had this rather romantic view of “farmer based organizations” – people coming together to support each other with a sort of community spirit – in actuality these groups were mostly formed to get money. Small-loan schemes for farmers are one of most prominent development interventions in Ghana – it seems every project and every organization gives out “micro-credit”. I have mixed feelings about micro-credit but in my humble opinion don’t see it as a “silver bullet solution” that the development community seems to tote them as (you may have heard of the Grameen Bank organisation in Bangladesh that gave micro-credit loans to rural women). With MoFA for example, the recovery rate on the loans they give to farmers is incredibly low, and as a result MoFA staff are asking critical questions about micro-credit.

In short, these men formed a group because that’s the only way they could get a loan. Once Luke finished talking with the men’s rice groups and I had adjusted to yet another bubble full of romantic ideas of development being popped to reveal the reality, we traveled to the local market. Today was market day, so as Luke and I made our way through the lively commerce and past hoards of groundnuts, yams and other produce we came to the women’s group. They were busy selling rice but paused long enough to chat with Luke and post for a photo.

Luke in action, interviewing the women's group.

All of the women - the pride in their faces is incredible!

After we left the women’s group, Luke pointed at a pile of very white and polished looking rice that was also being sold in the market. Luke explained that this rice is imported and that most people prefer the imported rice because it looks nicer (is whiter, less impurities like small stones and cracked rice grains), however, the local rice is actually more nutritious. To add to the ridiculousness, the price for the local and imported rice was the same! Thus was born my pledge – to only eat Ghanaian rice. So far I have been successful in supporting my farmer friends who derive their living from growing and processing rice (although I have been surprised by the number of vendors who sell imported rice!). I shared my pledge with Luke and he quickly jumped on board! More than making a simple pledge to change my consumer habits, the persistence and dedication Luke demonstrated on our field visit reinforced my pledge to work with MoFA over the next year.

PS – Ridiculous market situations seem to be prevalent when it comes to food – check out my friend’s Alanna’s blog on mango processing and exporting in Burkina Faso -

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Working for Peanuts

I’ve emerged from 17 days stay in Chayili village – a village where only on person speaks English and everyone’s livelihood is centered around farming. Since I took a ton of pictures and couldn't possible capture everything in words, I've included numerous photos dispersed through-out this post. Enjoy!

The 17 days I spent in Chayili seemed timeless – partly because time has a different meaning in a place where calendars and watches are irrelevant. But I emerge with stronger hands from working on the farm, darker skin from being out in the sun and a bigger heart to work with people in Northern Ghana – my heart goes out to many of the family members I stayed with – a household that was created from a former chief and thus was quite large with the chiefs wives, children and their wives and children. I got to know and love everyone in the house.

Photo above: Too many to name! Some are wives and children of the head of the household, others are wives of the head of household’s children.

I set out to this village to basically immerse myself in rural life in Northern Ghana – my objectives were to learn the local language, and to forge a strong understanding of rural life and farming as a livelihood. It was an incredible experience, now that I’m back in Tamale with electricity, paved roads and vibrant commerce I can truly appreciate the experience – having an understanding of rural life is incredibly important since that is the context which my partner organisation (the Ministry of Food and Agriculture) works.

Photo above: First impressions of Chayili

Life in a village was just as romantic as I pictured – the strong sense of community that exists, the thatch roof huts, cooking with metal pots over a fire and enjoying food fresh from the farm. But this romantic view was quickly dashed when I started to partake in the work. Carrying water, cooking, cleaning, farming all require muscle strength and stamina that after 17 days I was only just starting to develop (my back and neck still ache!). I have tremendous respect for my friends in Chayili who work hard everyday and still made time and effort to teach me and let me contribute to their work – however incompetent I may be at it!

Working hard (and enjoying it!) pounding maize (corn) into flour with a friend.

My visit was well-timed to learn firsthand about farming in northern Ghana. It is the end of the rainy season which marks the beginning of the harvest. Peanuts or groundnuts as they’re known in Ghana, were the crop of choice for Chayili – they were just ready to be harvested, and I was able to participate in this amazing experience. I was able to spend a couple of days harvesting groundnuts with the men in my family. In the picture below, you can see we had quite a crew! I understand the motivation to have many children! We were working on an elder’s field who is the senior most women elder in the community and seems to get help from everyone in the community since she no longer has a husband. With a strong crew we were able to harvest 2 acres of groundnuts in just hours!

Peanuts or Groundnuts. This variety is called ablain in the local language. It's best for oil.

Harvesting groundnuts...yeah I know I was fascinated when I finally saw how peanuts or groundnuts grow!

Harvesting groundnuts with the men in my household.

Groundnuts drying in the sun Zarea and Owaho (elder women in my household) in the background.

Most of my days were spent with the women in the village. One very prominent thing I experienced was the gender separation in Ghana – the line between jobs that are done by women and jobs that are done by men is pretty black and white – in short women take care of household chores such as cleaning and cooking, and the children while men generally do the farming. However, for groundnut harvest-time women play an equally important role on the farm. I was able to see and experience the role women play. I’ve typed out an entry from my journal below written after my second day on the farm with the women.

Fetching water with Maymuna (one of the girls in my household). Fetching water is definitely a women's job. (This was my first attempt to carry the bucket on my head thus the splashes of water down my butt and legs...)

“This morning I woke up at 6:20 am. Just as the rain stopped. Every night since I’ve come to Chayili it’s rained. I’ve been told that visitors bring good luck, so I’m the reason it’s rained. Even though the sun is rising, the rain has just stopped and I’m crawling out of bed, Senatu (head women in the house) has prepared breakfast and heated water for my bath. Today, I helped harvest groundnuts. It’s the season for harvesting so I’ve seen plenty – drying in the sun – roasting to eat – grinding into groundnut paste, or peanut butter as we know it in Canada! – bagging to sell and of course in the farm fields.

I spent the entire day with the women doing what they’ve been doing for the past week – harvesting ground nuts. We left at about 6:30 am for the farm. Food and buckets were carried on the children’s heads, babies on mother’s backs. The trek was about one hour to the farm. When we arrived, there were already plenty of women and children chatting and sitting amongst heaps of freshly uprooted ground nuts. We spend the whole day removing groundnuts from the plant.

Trek to the farm (Maymuna is just in front of me)

The day was very social as women rotated to uncompleted mounds of groundnuts and chatted with each other. Since I understood little of the language I just worked as fast as I could taking pride as my pile of groundnuts grew substantially throughout the day. I kept recalling the time I spent as a child picking strawberries with my mom and sisters – those trips were always fun but usually ended after about 2 hours with a stomach ache from too many strawberries. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into today – no clue how big this field was or how long we’d be staying. Since I only had minimal knowledge of the local language and none of the women spoke English, I had no way of asking we’d be going home.

Communal labour

Harvesting with Magajia (most senior women in the village) - it was an honour to join her!

As the sun started to hint at setting (meaning around 5 pm) suddenly everyone started packing up, we’d finished our work for the day! I checked out my days work – I had collected 4 buckets worth and was proud of it, despite the fact that one of my companions had outdone me while she tending to her 5 month old baby all day. I gathered my things and followed everyone as we set off. But instead of heading on the path home we veered left and came to a crowd of women and two men sitting on a heaping mound of groundnuts. The men were the land owners and were collecting their harvest. For our hard days work, we were paid 1/5 – 1/3 of the grounds we were able to collect. It was only fair since it was this man’s land and labour that had grown the ground nuts.

Payment for the labour: this women didn't get too many groundnuts so she gets to keep 1/3 of them. The pile in the background is the landowner's.

So after a solid 11 hours of steady work, I walked away with ¼ of a sack of groundnuts, worth about $7…well I now literally understand the phrase worth peanuts!”

I bet you were waiting for a nutty joke J But seriously, the experience I had in Chayili will help me frame my work over the next year. As I post this, I have just finished my second day of work at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). And as I learn about how MoFA endeavours to help rural farmers, I ask questions for my friends in Chayili: What do MoFA’s messages about farming mean to them? Will MoFA’s approach to farmer education enable lasting positive change in the lives of my friends in Chayili?

Left to right: Pakaw, unknown women, Senatu (with groundnuts on her head) next to Magajia (women elder in village) and Magajia's groundnuts from her farm.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Baby Steps in Ghana

I write this from Accra City (capital city of Ghana). It’s been almost one week since I set out from Toronto for Ghana. I arrived in Accra, Ghana on Friday evening and have been biding my time in Accra waiting for my mis-placed bag to arrive. Even though the waiting has been an exercise of patience and some anxiety, it’s also allowed (*cough* forced) me to pace myself in Ghana. Despite a huge amount of eagerness to start doing something, I won’t be showing up to work until a month from now. During that time, all I do will be centered on learning. I will learn about how the Sarah Grant I know will fit with Ghana and live here for a year. I will learn from Ghanaians about rural livelihoods and focus on agriculture and agricultural markets. I will try to speak as many languages as possible or at least learn the greetings (I think there are about 70 languages in Ghana). Last, I will learn how to make friends in a new country – and hopefully succeed!

My first day in Ghana, feels like miles ago – even though the steps I took were quite small. I remember how nervous I was just to walk on the street to take out some money! Today, I decided to make a bit of a leap and make the most of my time in Accra. I figured that as long as I’m in the capital city – which is the economic hub – I should try to capitalise on this.

I decided that it would be interesting to learn as much as possible about the tomato market in Ghana. It was through this that I met Maggi. This afternoon I spent sitting in a crowded market behind a table stacked high with tomatoes that Maggi sells. Every day except Sunday Maggi spends about 12 hours selling tomatoes in the Makola market. Maggi has been doing this since she was a child. She is very intelligent about the tomato market in Ghana and was able to share information about price variations, different varieties and how she runs her business. For even though it may look like a make-shift set-up of stacked tomatoes on a rotting wood crate, this set-up keeps a family of five happy and healthy.

Maggi and her Tomato Stall

Across from Maggi’s stall was a stand of canned goods. Piled high were a variety of tomato paste in cans. Most people cook with both canned and fresh tomatoes to make a sort of stew. While the fresh tomatoes are mostly grown in Ghana, canned tomatoes in Ghana have a tumultuous history. In the 1960s, three processing plans were established in the newly independent Ghana. Currently there is one processing factory in Ghana which is operating at only 10% capacity. Due to subsidies in Europe, the tomato market in Ghana can’t compete. Ghana is the second largest importer of tomato paste in the world, second to Germany. This seems ridiculous considering the abundance of fresh tomatoes I saw at the market!

With no cannery business to sell tomatoes to, farmers in Ghana have no bargaining power while people like Maggi are left with little options but to operate a small and highly volatile business. Maggie purchases crates of tomatoes at a time from a transporters that deliver the crates to the market. Some days the crates are 200,000 ($20), other days the price is double this. It all depends how many tomatoes the transporters were able to purchase from northern Ghana. The quality of the tomatoes varies. Sometimes entire batches will spoil in only a day. At the end of each day Maggi sifts through each batch removing the rotting ones to slow down the decay process.

Today I set out to learn broadly about the tomato market. I started by purchasing tomatoes from vendors and asking them questions. I was generally unsuccessful. By the time I met Maggi, I had accepted the fact that I would not be able to learn very much without language abilities and a more formal context. As I passed the rest of the afternoon at Maggi’s stall I started noticing little things that outline how complex her business is! Initially, Maggi’s business seemed quite simple – buying tomatoes and selling them at a higher price – but really it is quite involved. She needs to rent a stall in the market, pay the guard to watch her produce at night, establish a solid customer base, get along with her neighbouring competitors, bargain with transporters to purchase tomatoes, decide which variety of tomatoes to sell, and set the price of the tomatoes. Quite a business!

At 5:30, the market vendors started packing up. I was escorted to a taxi by Maggi and 4 of her friends with promises of visiting again. I left reflecting on the ambitious learning goal I had set out for myself that afternoon. I realized that I actually learned a great deal. As for the tomato market, I learned that there are opportunities to help the rural farmers in Northern Ghana. The government has just passed a bill which puts a temporary ban on the importation of tomato paste and concentrates into the country with effect from November 1, 2007. The government is trying to develop the tomato market by revitalizing a tomato processing factory. But efforts can not just come nationally, with a strengthened tomato market comes the need for more and better tomatoes. Farmers need to be engaged in a process that develops their ability to produce what this more fair market will demand. Happily, this is exactly the role that my organization in Ghana – the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) – plays with rural farmers! I look forward to learning more about MoFA’s work in the coming months.

Today I was reminded that this next year will be a beautiful journey and I must be patient with tiny steps but I must also remember to sit down to embrace the frustrations of change in plans and the deeper learning and friendships that will result.

Me with my friends from the Market

(most of them are wearing red to honour their friend who recently passed away)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Temporary Break

I am writing this post in the Toronto airport, poised to leave for Ghana. I leave 5 weeks later than planned. At the end of June I fractured my collarbone. Don’t worry though, no surgery was required and I travel to Ghana with the blessing of a legitimate Toronto medical doctor. Below is a picture of my x-ray, if you squint you can see a small fracture just at the outside tip of the collarbone.

As I leave for a one-year placement in Ghana where my parent’s biggest fear is that I’ll return in one piece, I am leaving with a healed collarbone and the proof that it’s possible to hurt yourself even in the wonderful city of Saskatoon. The decision to play rugby – as a much need spare with team Saskatchewan – has reinforces that rugby’s reputation as being a dangerous sport isn’t true, except when you haven’t played for 3 years and go up against a 180 lb 18-year-old – man was I out of my league!

Sometimes I feel like I’m out of my league when I think about the upcoming journey. For the next 12 months I’ve committed to a placement with Engineers Without Borders. I’ll be travelling for the second time outsides of Canada to a place where I’m not quite sure what to expect – will I like it in my new home? Have I brought the right things? Will I make friends? How easily will I learn a new language? How will I deal with the frustration of working in a climate that is limited in resources but where foreigners are expected to provide?

Already I can feel my whole body opening up in anticipation of this experience. My eyes are eager to observe new and fascinating sights. My stomach gurgles to try some new grub and my mind is teaming with thoughts and worries.

Today I learned that you can’t break your bone in the same place twice because your body repairs the bone to be even stronger. I look forward to stepping off the plane for the first time, probably tripping and falling a few times along the way but knowing that I am stronger for it.

A shot of the nine of us looking strong. We shared a month-long session of learning and preparation for our overseas placements in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Why this blog?

Ghana and Sarah Grant collide and embrace in a one-year placement with Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Although I think that to describe it as a "placement" is insufficient. I anticipate a life-experience full of challenges, adventures, love, learning and growth.

I want to thank you, my friends and family, who are supporting me financially and emotionally in this endeavour. I hope that this blog will help me thank you as I share my experiences, stories and bring life in Ghana a bit closer to you.

To set the tone for this journey, some advice from Bilbo Baggins of Lord of the Rings:
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

To learn more about Engineers Without Border's work, please visit