Friday, December 19, 2008

Spreading the message well

Exciting news! Eating local is in. Especially when it comes to Ghana Rice. EWB and the Ghana Ministry of Food and Agriculture are running a marketing campaign that promotes Ghana rice.
It’s taken just over a year but the message has spread! Just over a year ago I made a pledge, to only eat rice grown in Ghana. I’ve kept to this pledge out of commitment to the farmers I work with and to make a humble statement about the injustice of the situation of rice in Ghana – highly subsidized rice is imported and has been marketed to an extent that Ghanaians have shifted their preferences towards the whiter and less nutritious imported grains. This has been tough – rice is good! And at restaurants it’s rare to find local rice on the menu.
Some rice farmers enjoying Ghana Rice during a meeting! This was the first time EVER that the Ministry served Ghana rice at a meeting. Before then, it was always imported rice.
I am working on a marketing campaign that will help spread these messages. It’s an exciting initiative that tries to even the score for rice farmers in Ghana. They want everyone to know that their rice is more nutritious (it’s processed in a way that keeps the outer skin on which contains most of the nutrients). They want people to recall that it’s fresh (imported rice often sits in warehouses before being shipped overseas to be sold). Too bad we aren’t marketing to Western consumers. Nutritious and fresh food is what we Canadians are demanding these days!
But we are marketing to urban Ghanaians. The ones who eat rice more often are from middle-upper class families. So this is our target audience. Ghanaians do care about nutritious food, they value strength and in turn food that will make them strong. So that’s our pitch – nutritious rice.

Meymuna and Hawabu proudly marketing their quality rice.
The people who buy rice are often cooking it because they don’t have time to cook traditional meals. So rice that’s easy to cook is good. Unfortunately a lot of Ghana rice has a lot of stones in it. The stones come from when the rice is threshed and dried on unclean surfaces. The stones need to be removed manually before cooking which takes a lot of time thus defeating the purpose of cooking rice! Not all rice is dirty! The rice we’re marketing is so clean! That’s our second pitch – clean rice.
Drying rice on a clean surface.
Check out the jingle to hear for yourself! This jingle is being broadcasted across Northern Ghana. Listen to it three times and you’ll catch yourself singing this catchy tune about quality Ghana rice! Some of my friends love it so much they’ve put it as their ringtone!

Click here to go to the Ghana Rice jingle!

The campaign has been delayed by about 5 months due to the need to keep so many people informed. This has been frustrating but it’s ensured that any assumptions I make are questioned! The main one came when I was deciding what advertising medium to use.
Initially when I was designing the campaign strategy I hardly considered the radio. I figured the power of advertising would come from a really big signboard on the main road. But as the campaign went on I received some critical input that the message will be more strongly spread through the radio than visually. I made a classic mistake. I, and you, come from a world where visuals are important – who doesn’t own a TV? Who doesn’t know how to read? In Ghana, the radio is an essential element in most households. What’s spoken on the radio is taken as ‘the word’. I wonder how many outsiders make the same mistake as me, design their program making assumptions about the context and misunderstand the way people learn and what they need.

The visual - a big signboard will still be posted along the main road in Tamale.
My guess is too many! I tons of development projects that chart their course for failure from the beginning when they fail to understand ground realities. A crucial yet often underestimated element when a project is being designed from the ivory towers of Rome/Washington/Accra. This is where EWB comes in. We move from the ground to the towers using our credibility and mobility to communicate realities. We don’t normally design and implement development projects – that’s left to Ghanaians, this case is an exception that I’ve indulged in! We’ve found a niche in communicating ground realities to help ensure development decisions are well-informed. This is my mission for the next couple of years. It’s a new sort of job for me but one that I look forward to! A new medium for messages!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Two Myths of Africa

I was initially inspired to write this year’s theme for ‘Blog Action Day’ is poverty. I’m a day late in posting (Blog Action Day was October 15th). The purpose of the blog action day is to create a discussion. I thought it would be interesting to discuss the two big myths of Africa. Read on…

Check out the picture below, what words come to mind?

A journalist friend of mine from Ghana recently asked me why the media in Canada only talks of the bad things in Africa? My response: “Bad news sells.” But it’s unfortunate that it also paints an inaccurate picture. I hope this post puts a splash of colour over the black streak that “Africa” has been smothered with.

To start with, the photo above is of Suli. Myth #1: Africans are poor. This myth could easily be propagated by the photo of Suli – a starving child in Africa that for only $1/day can be saved. But Suli’s just a boy who lives near my house and comes to visit his grandmother. He doesn’t like to wear pants and has those large imploring eyes that melt your heart. Suli certainly has enough to eat, bathes twice a day and is surrounded by mothers, sisters and a grandmother who loves him dearly. He will attend school when he’s old enough as his elder siblings have.

Contrary to the first myth, I look around me in Ghana and see wealth. It’s a wealth that is not commonly talked about in Canada. It’s the wealth of entrepreneurial spirit exemplified when Suli drags around a toy truck he’s made from used tin cans. It’s the richness of social support that exists between my family and in communities.

Years of the media marketing Africans as poor has created this perception in our mind (and inevitably in many Africans minds as well!)

Tofik - he lives at my house and is too young to think that 'Africans are poor'. He's just interested in wearing some cool shades.

Aside from living in a very cozy house, I’ve been working in Ghana with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture on a program called “Agriculture as Business”. The name is often interpreted to mean that we’re getting farmers to take agriculture as a business. But what does this really mean? Farmers, by default are operating a business. There’s no way you can farm and use some of your harvest to buy things like soap, cloth or school fees. Farmers are interested in turning a profit just like any other business-man. I asked my host father what he wants to do with his profits, he said he first wants to afford to feed his family, then send his kids to school and ideally put some money into home renovations and maybe get a motorcycle to help him get to his farm. He may not keep business records the way a Western business-man would but he’s certainly adapt at managing his business in this highly uncertain environment.

So that leads us to Myth #2: Poor people aren’t rational. This myth isn’t spread as explicitly as the first. It’s spread by development organizations though as they communicate their work to donors and the public at large. The message spread, especially with agriculture is that a certain technology or idea is needed to be imparted to people so that they can improve their lives. I didn’t understand why farmers didn’t plant their rice in rows, MoFA had been telling me that row planting is ‘the right thing to do’. They said they have problems getting farmers to ‘do the right thing’. In June I spent a day doing planting rice in rows with a farmer that MoFA had asked to arrange to demonstrate this technology to other farmers. I got a speckle bit of appreciation for the ‘right thing to do’ when at the end of the day we had 1 acre of rice planted in rows with precisely 20 cm by 20 cm spacing. It had taken us over 6 hours and roughly 20 people.

'Dibbling' or making holes in which to put the rice seeds.

The Crew

So was it worth it? Honestly, I can’t find the numbers to tell you. But farmers certainly experiment with these types of activities on their own and given the information they have at hand, their ability to take risk, social pressure and countless other factors they settle on what makes the most sense based on this complex reality.

So, just because farmers don’t adopt the technologies that are promoted by organisations doesn’t mean that they aren’t rational. Poverty certainly affects people’s priorities, their decisions and ultimately is reflected in their behaviours.

"Traditionally, farmers have either been too poor or too afraid to take a chance on these new varieties, even though they can triple their yields," – Expert in agronomics in East Africa

I think that this statement, are still too general to really understand the determinants of decision making and so the myth is propagated.

Check out the table below that analyzes the returns from fertilizer use from an experiment conducted in Kenya. Using the fertilizer amount recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture can increase yields by 90%, however, rate at a loss of 40%. While using smaller amounts of fertilizer (Panel B ½ tsp.) is more optimal for profitability! Yield and profitability are only two factors although they are the most scientific.

I have tried to understand the other less tangible factors. I have tried to place myself in the shoes of a farmer, removing the biases that the farmer is poor and irrational has been helpful but I still don’t understand the entire spectrum of factors influencing farmer’s decisions on their farm. It seems that neither does MoFA or the countless donors that fund development projects that try to influence farmer’s behaviours in certain directions.

What our Agriculture as a Business Program is actually about, is getting MoFA field staff and farmers to discuss these factors. To start by analyzing the profitability of crops, of using fertilizer of whatever agriculture activity the farmers are engaged in. To look at market opportunities. To talk about the risks. And ultimately see if this increase in analysis and thoughtful planning can help farmers make more from their business.

Sitting with farmers

Today is World Food Day (October 16th). Some people are fasting to remember the millions who lack access to proper nutrition. Some are discussing the political and economic situation around food. Some are discussing the challenges of climate change and bioenergy. For me I choose to think about farmers and remind myself to respect their business that brings us all food.

Tarsi - The grandmother of my house and a farmer I greatly respect.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

In 12 Months what have I accomplished?

It’s September, a time of changes. The leaves turn colour, the Saskatchewan winds turn cold as the sun more reluctantly hides emerges in the mornings. School starts. This September I’m undergoing some changes. Perhaps because of the school years September is ingrained in my mind as the month of transition.

Saying goodbye to some friends and being honored with traditional hand-woven cloth.
I’ve finished my year as a volunteer with EWB in Northern Ghana. Have decided to stick around for another 2 years though and am honoured to now receive a small salary and a bunch of responsibilities that go with it.
I’ve been remiss with blogging in part because all this transition has had me really focused on me. I haven’t taken the time to ask myself – what’s going on in Canada? What are people doing right now? It seems I blink and there’s an election happening in Canada. And no time for political hoopla either. I don’t even know if I’ll have enough time to vote.
It’s quite the opposite in Ghana where almost every day there is some sort of political rally. The streets are coloured red-black-and green for the New Democratic Party and red-blue-and-white for the New People’s Party. Tough to say which party will win. I won’t speculate much due to the public nature of this blog.

So in a year, what have I accomplished?
I a liken my placement to that of a geologist. For 12 months I was an explorer. It was an appropriate was to approach the 12 months. At the beginning of my placement EWB decided to develop a program that would guide our work with MoFA over the long-term. Previously, volunteers had come, figured out what to do, done it and left. This cycle of 12 month placements was decent but wasn’t really accomplishing the significant impact EWB knew we were capable of.
So with MoFA EWB decided to really commit to something. We began this process by evaluating our past work. I was tasked to evaluate our past work. I checked out what we had done, what significant change we had had on MoFA and came to some conclusions:
  1. EWB has created a culture of organizational growth within MoFA. The Region, which was previously a bit ignorant of its shortcomings and not too critical of its ability to meet its mandate had developed into a group of people who were passionate about discussing organisational problems such as: "Why aren’t farmers adopting the technologies we promote?" and "Why don’t farmers repay the loans we facilitated for them?"
  2. EWB has a unique approach working with MoFA. Most organisations develop blue-prints for projects, give MoFA money and monitor MoFA’s implementation. At times, when they realize MoFA lacks the ability to effectively implement, funding is provided for training workshops.
After this evaluation mission was complete I started working with field staff and farmer groups. I moved from the city (Tamale) to a rural town (Damongo). I spent 9 months searching for the nuggets that EWB could do with MoFA that would get more money into farmer’s pockets.

So did I strike gold?

I’m looking at my workbook. On one page is the budget for my maize and pepper farm. The whole thing costs just over $200 for a little under one acre. Hopefully we’ll make a decent profit from the farm. I’ve calculated expected profit to be $200 but that’s based on a couple of generous assumptions. My business partner (host mother) has no idea how much money we’ll make and wasn’t too excited when I shared my profit estimates with her. Didn’t strike gold there.
Relationships are worth more than money. Shaking hands with Mr. Osman, a MOFA field staff that I worked with. With 2 other EWB volunteers we organized a conference to recognize the contributions of these field staff which in a very hierarchical organisation often go unnoticed.

On the second page are notes from a meeting with a farmer groups. The Kanye group (translation Kanye = patience) decided to plant a group farm of an acre of beans intercropped with cashew. They had previously been a non-functional group. Waiting for a loan that never came. We convinced them to try something together and they chose this. The notes from this meeting show that I tried to calculate the group’s return on investment for their farm. The group was very excited about the profitability of their farm both in the short-term from the beans and the long-term from the cashew. If all goes well with the rains and they sell at a good time year 1 would bring them roughly $85. Year 5 will bring them roughly $220. This may not seem like much to a Canadian consumer and frankly it’s not really astounding to a Ghanaian farmer. However, the worth is more than the dollar. It represents to the group a small start. Something that they have started together. I believe that the group has a wealth of potential buried under their history of waiting. This experience may just help them start to realize this themselves.
Kanye group with MoFA Field staff Mr. Gedo (back left)
In total, I worked with 4 MoFA field staff and 11 farmer groups trying to get MoFA to have farmer groups operate more like businesses so that in the end farmers could make more money and their families would be better off. From the experiences with farmers and MoFA I extracted a curriculum that future EWB volunteers will try to use. The curriculum is actually a collaborative effort with other EWB volunteers. We were each exploring with farmer groups and field staff. In the end we’ve come out with something that is shiny and of high value to MoFA. Hopefully it’s not just Fool’s Gold!
Proof - the group's record book that show their expenses. Note the list of group members who are 'serious on the farm'. It's tough to get everyone convinced that this is a good idea. Some members will just watch and see how it turns out.
The curriculum promises to get farmers making profitable investments in their farm through conducting business analysis, market studies and getting their group more organized and active.
A sample from the 'curriculum'. This photo shows the card that farmers look at. It has a story and accompanying photos of a group that successfully markets their watermelon.

So what am I starting this September?

I have the honour of supervising future volunteers who will get field staff and farmers using and benefiting from the curriculum. We’ll be mining results for at least the next 3 years as we reach 5000 farmers and 250 field staff and get this tool adopted by the national level of the Ghanaian government.

This sample from the curriculum is the part that field staff use to accompany the photo and story on group marketing. This part of the curriculum tries to get groups acting together in the market in a way that'll get them more money than if they were marketing individually.
Even though September is a time for change, I hope to keep with me the connections that I have with you, my friends and family in Canada. Thank you to everyone who has followed along with this blog and supported me, emotionally, financially and challenged my thinking. Reading over my blogs I can see that this year has been one of tremendous personal growth. I hope that this new chapter will allow me to continue sharing my learning and growth with you.
Posing in front of my old office with a friend and colleague. See how much I've grown!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Elusive Results

A friend mentioned that when I first arrived in Ghana I was adamant about dressing locally and that lately I’ve developed the habit of wearing jeans matched with a Ghanaian top. My behaviour had changed but I hadn’t noticed it. When I first arrived in Ghana and hopped in a car I instinctively reached for the seat belt. Last week I went on a trip and someone else reminded me to buckle my seat-belt. It sure felt strange to buckle-up!

I spend a lot of time trying to notice and promote behaviour changes in farmers and my colleagues at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). I want to see farmers use more fertilizer on their fields because my calculations show that this most likely bring them more money. I want to see Ghanaians eating only local rice instead of imported rice. I want to see MoFA staff developing the behaviour of assessing the profitability of certain agriculture practices before promoting them to farmers.

Behaviour change is a difficult thing to work on. It’s not exactly an easily understandable activity for me to work on or communicate with friends and family let alone my colleagues at MoFA. Last year, when I worked for a wind energy consulting company the work was much more tangible. We knew we’d succeeded once the wind turbines were up and running, or perhaps once our clients started to reap a profit from their wind farm. This year my work is not easily packaged up and presented as a ‘project’. Because of this results can seem elusive.

Four years ago, I finished my engineering degree and headed to the Philippines to work on a computer literacy project for underprivileged youth. I didn’t really know how good I had it! Below is an email I received this week from a beneficiary of the projects.

Hello EWB! I'm Antonio Barlaan, a SCALA gradute in the Philippines last May 2006 at Misamis Occidental Information and Communication Technology Training Center. Thank you very much to your project because it leads me to school in college. Now I'm a 2nd year student of Misamis University taking Bachelor of Science in Information Technology. Supposedly I'm a 3rd year student but being a working student in the university, I cannot comply with the required units because it has a limitation for the working student. Give my special regard to Sarah Grant and Neha Bangar....thank you very much EWB!


Aside from the challenges behaviour change brings because of it’s intangibleness, it’s a really tough thing to work on! I’ve learned that it’s not simply a matter of ignorance that is preventing people from changing their behaviours (although this is the easiest problem to work on). For example, the government has been warning Ghanaians of Guinea worm, a de-habilitating worm that comes from drinking contaminated water. The government has pulled out all the stops – posters, radio, and TV broadcast the issues of Guinea worm and the simple thing you need to do to prevent it: strain your water through a muslin cloth. Workshops and the provision of muslin cloths from the government have done all but strain the water for families. However, it’s not enough – Guinea worm still persists even as people are aware of the dangers and required change in their behaviour.

A couple Sundays ago I went to the farm with some women from the community. We were after shea nuts, a valuable commodity that grows wild in Northern Ghana. We had walked for nearly an hour. The weight of our harvested shea nuts only seemed to increase as the sun continued to beat on our backs. Finally we stopped by a water hole. The aches and pains we all felt didn't prevent me and my friends from pausing to enjoy the moment.

My friends pause and enjoy some shea fruit. Can you see the sweat on their brows!

After I snapped the picture I realized my friend Mary was missing. I found her down this well fetching some water for drinking. I snapped her but not before silently noting the lucidity of the water. Too bad my friends didn’t speak English or else I could have engaged in a conversation with them about this behaviour. At the same time, I understand why they did it. These women are thirsty, we still had 2 hours of walking ahead of us and 5 hours of work already felt in our bodies.

Mary holds some very cloudy looking water she fetched from this well.

Education is one aspect of promoting behaviour change. It’s not enough to simply understand the costs and benefits of behaviours. It’s a complex web of incentives and disincentives. My work with farmers and MoFA is just one force among this web. For example, do you recycle? If so, what prompted you to start recycling? If not, why did you stop? I’m sure everyone reading this can recite the three R’s and can recognize the recycling symbol. What incentives exist to promote reducing, reusing and recycling? Is there a recycling depot near to your house? Does someone come and collect a box of recycling? Is this a paid service by the city? Are there rumours about the recycling all just going to a land-fill if even one piece is incorrectly placed?

Over the past 10 months I’ve only just started to understand the incentives and disincentives that surround the behaviour changes I’m trying to promote. I’ve started implementing work whose results are still a long way off and are difficult to measure and communicate. I know I certainly won’t ever receive a feel-good email such as I have from Antonio! Even still, I’ve decided to stay with EWB for another 2 years in order to put some of my understanding to use and to stick with the work I’ve started. After all it’s exciting stuff! In the meantime I’ll see if I can’t just help Mary develop the behaviour of bringing a bottle of water before she heads to the farm next time.

My and my motorcycle. I've developed the positive habit of wearing a helmet.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Will the subsidy encourage fertilizer use?

Today I sit in front of a group of farmers. They tell me honestly that last year they didn’t use fertilizer because it was too expensive.

Paul - a farmer who honestly didn't use fertilizer last year.

The Ghanaian government recently announced that it will subsidize fertilizer to lower the price and help out farmers during this food crisis. Currently a bag of fertilizer cost $42, the subsidy promises to lower the price to match last years: $25. But is it enough? Or is the link between policy and benefits for those on the ground too ellusive? It all hinges on the behaviours of farmers this farming season to determine if the subsidy will encourage fertilizer use.

For the past few months, I’ve been very focused on profitability analysis of farming. With all businesses, there are many ways to maximize profits. There are four broad areas to analyze: inputs, outputs, finances and markets. With farming this analysis can help reveal some interesting things, such as – it is profitable to use fertilizer.
Crop Profitability for Rice, Maize, Groundnuts, Soyabeans and Cowpea.
With fertilizer, it makes good business sense to not only use it but to use the correct amounts. If a farmer uses the recommended amount of fertilizer, they should get average yields and depending on the time of year they sell they should make around $200 - $300. However, if farmers don’t use the correct amount of fertilizer, their yield is severely lower and profit can range between $80 - $180*.
A rare sight from last season - this farmer used the correct amounts of fertilizer.

For one acre of maize, MoFA recommends 150 kilograms of a combination of nitrogen-fixed fertilizer and ammonia sulphate as top dressing. The average fertilizer application rate across Africa is 3.2 kg/acre. From what I’ve seen, this is true, most farmers I have met don’t use any fertilizer on crops other than maize. And with maize they skimp on fertilizer using way less than the recommended amount. So why aren’t farmers using fertilizer?

For the maize calculation I did above, the fertilizer expense eats up 24% of income. So using fertilizer is a big investment in the farm. However, profit is not the whole picture. For a farmer in Northern Ghana their business is more closely connected to their family’s well-being than business owners in Canada. Bankruptcy is not an option. Insurance is not available. The difference between not having enough to eat and being able to send kids to school is too slim.

Sometimes agriculture companies such as the Ghana Cotton Company provide fertilizer to farmers on a loan that is paid back once the farmers sell their produce to the company. This arrangement ensures farmers use the fertilizer. Otherwise, farmers don't often have the money to buy fertilizer so they take the profit loss. And even if farmers have the money, things like ploughing and school fees are prioritized as was the case for the farmers I'm meeting with.

Sometimes development projects work with farmers to introduce new varieties of crops. Seeds and fertilizers are provided to the farmers for free to encourage them to try the new technology. Normally, after the trial period completes and project support terminates farmers continue to use the improved seed but the habit of using fertilizer declines.

The application of fertilizer didn’t used to be an important part of farming. However, with increasing populations resulting in more intensive land use in combination with improved seeds that have higher yields, fertilizer is a necessary part of the equation of farming for profit.
So how can we encourage farmers that using fertilizer has more benefits than cost that the risk is worth it? MoFA field staff Francis Oppong and I have just helped some farmers calculate the profit they made from farming maize last year. We sit and watch the group contemplate the results. The group sees that the profit was slim. We ask them what they can do to increase profits. The group comes up with several ideas, one being to use the recommended amount of fertilizer. The group agrees to give it a try this year. We’ll see if they follow through on their promise and I’ll see if helping farmers do the math themselves is a necessary component to link policy with results.

*Profit calculations based on 2007 market information available from MoFA in Damongo.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Integrity takes strength

When I first met Salamatu I was a bit frightened. Next to Salamatu I look like a scrawny mite. Salamatu is my host mother and the type of person with a strong presence – her hefty structure and booming voice are both used to communicate confidently. When she talks her children listen, well and so do I!

Last night I left work and traveled to the home that Salamatu has expanded to include me. It was about 5:30 and getting dark. Salamatu had traveled but her children were home and busy preparing supper. As the light faded and the fire cast shadows on our faces Salamatu walked up the path to our house. She looked tired but her face made a smile as her children rushed to welcome her and carry the burdening goods she had collected on her travels. She sat down and we gathered around her to hear about her journey.

I learned she had been away to attend a workshop run by MoFA. Since Salamatu is a successful business-women in her community she had been invited to attend a workshop on entrepreneurial skills. Salamatu has never gone to school, speaks little English but has managed to single-handedly raise 5 well-educated children through this business. As Salamatu began to explain the workshop she opened a notebook that had been provided to all workshop participants. Inside the notebook were crisp white pages with nothing on them. I wasn’t sure what was going on since no one was translating into English for me. She flipped through the pages and came to one that had a few scribbles at the top. Everyone laughed. I turned to my trusty translator Faisa who explained that at some point during the workshop everyone had been commanded to take notes. Salamatu had obediently taken up her pen and scribbled the following: 5 W r S 3 2. The writing looked like a 5 year olds.

In that moment my fear for Salamatu evaporated and my heart swelled with reverence. Some parents choose not to send their children to school. Not having gone themselves they don’t see the worth. Salamatu instead devotes her whole self to raising well-educated children. It doesn’t bother her that she herself is uneducated and is strong enough to joke about it! But don’t be fooled into thinking that Salamatu is entirely unselfish. It is expected that her children will take care of her in her old age. Salamatu just has the foresight and business sense to make sure she will have a comfortable ‘retirement’.

Faiza - her nine year old reads the Berenstein Bears book I brought her from Canada.

Women like Salamatu are integral to Ghana’s development. If only there were more of her. This morning I met with a group of women whose attitude is a stark contrast to Salamatu’s. The women I met run the same business as Salamatu – they grind cassava into a flour-like product for consumption. The women told me how they had been given a grinding mill from a non-government organization. Initially the mill helped them a lot, they were able to grind cassava faster and make more money. Eventually the mill broke down. I asked them what they had done about it. They answered: nothing. I asked them if they had any savings to repair the mill. They replied: We do not. What was I to do? Their main concern was to repair the mill in case the organization were to come back. They told me it was important to look good for this organization so that they would receive more assistance. Ahhh!!! I reeled back in disgust at these women’s attitude. I had met these women to discuss their business. I had planned to help them analyze their profit and see what they could do to improve it. But these women weren’t interested in making money that way through strengthening their business. They were waiting for outsiders to help them. I asked myself: How can I encourage these women to run successful businesses if the development sector provides better incentives?

At this point the MoFA staff I was with gave the group a lengthy lecture on the merits of self-sufficiency. He explained “A person standing at the bottom of a tree can not be helped up. But a person who tries to climb on their own can be boosted up.” Eventually the group conceded to raise money to repair the mill. We’ll be there to watch them through this but they know that we won’t lift a finger. Will the group succeed? These women seem strong so I am hopeful. And if the women can do it then they’ve done it with integrity.

Salamatu cooks our supper with the help of her youngest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Independence Day

What is a nation? Is it just a national government, a flag, a uniting song, a beverage of choice? A way to measure economic progress for a set of people?

On March 6th Ghana celebrated it’s 51st year of independence. To honor the inaugural day there was a big festival in the town park. Children from schools all over the district marched around the park as part of an annual tradition. They marched past traditional and government authorities, signifying the independent nature of both authorities in Ghana.

These kids are holding the colours of Ghana - red, yellow, green and black.

On March 6th, 2008 I saw that Ghanaians are very proud of their country. My Ghanaian sister, Faiza marched proudly past my camera. Every day for the past month she had been practicing her march. I later became disillusioned when I learned that each school’s marching was judged – she was marching more to win than as an act of patriotism.

Faiza is second from the right in the back row.

I’ve been reading a book called ‘The State of Africa’, it’s a fascinating look at the history of Africa from just before independence to date. The book talks of the excitement shared on March 6th, 1957 as people had received the prize of a free country. Ghanaians were ecstatic to be rid of foreign rulers. Nationalism had spread through the country like wild-fire inspired by charismatic party leaders like Kwame Nkruma – convicted of treason and freed of charges days before he would become Ghana’s first president.

However, as I read on through history I read about foreigners continuing to meddle in Africa with our own agenda. Countries are supported to prevent them from going to the ‘dark side’ of communism. Aid is given to countries with severe contingencies – workers must come from the aiding country, specific roads must be built which will give foreign investors better access to Ghana’s gold. Is development just neo-colonialism? Am I a part of this system where helping others is tied up with your own agenda?

Rice is a classic example. Countries like the US subsidize their rice farmers – in 2003 rice was exported at a price 26% below cost of production. This results in a surplus of rice which is either given as food aid to developing countries in times of need or dumped on these countries in times of surplus production. Imported rice in Ghana has become preferred – it’s whiter, cleaner from stones, well packaged and marketed to children. The price is the same as the high-quality Ghanaian rice. Although it’s not as nutritious consumer tastes have unknowingly shifted towards a dependence on it over the years.

A market display of rice - some local and some imported (the packaged stuff is imported).

As the US aims to help Ghana through laudable aid programs, these programs are suspiciously void of assistance for rice farmers.

The Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) is working towards food independence for Ghana and for Ghanaian households.

The program I am working on with the MoFA aims to influence consumers towards a preference for local rice. Ghanaian rice has more protein. Perhaps I will play to Ghanaians people’s sense of patriotism. But I know I will be more successful at convincing people to eat Ghana rice through pitching the nutritional benefits. Physical strength is a strong value in Ghana and mothers want their children to grow up strong and healthy.

I'm excited about promoting Ghana rice because it could get more money into farmer's pockets.

In this global world, sometimes things that are foreign are perceived as more modern and more desirable. People prefer to roof their homes with zinc roofing sheets instead of thatch from local grasses – zinc is costly, thatch is free, zinc doesn’t leak and is a one-time installation, thatch better regulates the inside temperature but a new roof needs to be made every year. The decisions people make often come down to what their more prestigious neighbour is doing. This rice campaign aims to get the prestigious neighbours buying and cooking Ghana rice. Hopefully this will nudge Ghana towards MoFA’s aspiring national goal of food independence.

Posing in front of the newly constructed football stadium in Tamale.

Aid - No longer a moral obligation but an investment

For the past five days I have been working in a remote area called Lingbinsi. I chose this area partly due to the remoteness, I felt a moral obligation to help those who most commonly miss out on development projects and are last to receive government services. To get to Lingbinsi here during the dry season is not too difficult. A 2 hour road trip followed by a 10 minute boat trip to cross the White Volta River and another 15 minute road trip. During the rainy season the trip can become lengthy to impossible as the river swells and inevitably overflows. Muddy paths and water-covered roads cut off Lingbinsi people from essential services such as health care and schools as well as businesses.

For farmers, this is a big deal. Although the land is fertile in Lingbinsi and the river offers income from fish, it’s bitter-sweet as farming produce is often sold for rock-bottom prices. Businesses are basically non-existent in the area forcing farmers to make the trek themselves when they need fertilizer or want to sell their surplus grains. I don’t know how a typical break-down of expenses goes for Canadian farmers, but just to transport one bag of maize eats up 17% of the income (excluding passenger fare).

Lingbinsi people are isolated but things are improving. Just today a cell phone company commissioned their communication tower. Now people can use cell phones. I know this will be a beneficial tool for farmers. Instead of guessing when to go to the market to sell, they can monitor prices and confirm that the buyer will be able to pay them before making the trip.

Pig farmers are abundant in Lingbinsi but selling pigs outside of Lingbinsi is a problem.

But how will they charge their phones? The place still doesn’t have electricity. Like most villages where mobile reception comes before electricity, people will have to depend on the generosity of friends who live in places with electricity. These sort of social connections are so important in Ghana – Ghanaians both believe and act as though no one person is an island. Reciprocity is still confusing to my Western mind that thinks of every transaction as a calculated sum of cost-benefits.

For the past five days I have been traveling around Lingbinsi on the back of a motorbike. I’m working with a MoFA field staff – Iddi Braimah and currently taking more than giving. Iddi is a soft-spoken, hard-working, and intelligent man. When I first arrived I asked him how we could help farmers make more money. He responded: ‘let’s not give any loans, instead let’s invest in these farmers’. His response surprised me. Providing loans are the bulk of what MoFA does and so I expected him to put his hand out for more. But investing in farmers! I like the paradigm shift, it’s less patronizing than providing a morally obligated hand-out and recognizes the nature of our work – calculated yet with uncertain results.

Iddi demonstrates proper land preparation for maximum water retention of vegetables.

We’ve started investing in some cashew farmers. Cashew is a cash crop and is riddled with challenges preventing farmers from early more income. Last year nuts were not purchased from these cashew farmers. Reasons listed include low levels of production and low quality of nuts. Because of this farmers have a poor attitude to a commodity that could be a significant ladder out of poverty. Farmer’s didn’t weed around the trees and so the bush fires that plague the lands during the dry season killed numerous trees – down goes production this year. Farmer’s are unwilling to make investments in their crop – pesticides are not purchased, nuts are not collected from the trees but let to dry as they fall – down goes quality.

Cashew - isn't it a crazy looking fruit and nut?!?

Farmer’s are currently unwilling to invest in cashew and prefer to invest in crops like maize which they can both eat and easily sell. Farmers want assurance of links to the market for their cashew crop. Iddi and I have decided to help these farmers to invest in cashew. We’re doing a small study of the cashew industry to both provide market information to farmers and try to encourage buyers of the profit potential in Lingbinsi. I myself am not sure how profitable our investment will be, given farmer’s poor attitude towards the crop and the uneconomic location of Lingbinsi. However, I know Northern Ghana has a comparative advantage of cashew nuts over the rest of West Africa, and I know farmers in the North would love to have what southern farmers have – a commodity like ‘cocoa’ to provide them cash.

Soloman, a cashew farmer shows us his harvest.

I think it’s healthy to recognize that the nature of this work as investments carry a level of uncertainty. I am fortunate that both Iddi and my job descriptions allow for this flexibility in work and ambiguity in results. We’re investing in these farmers – not because it’s our job but because we have faith in the results of our investment and of reciprocity.

The landscape in Ghana is littered with half-started investments - houses are the most visible but many development projects follow this path of big dreams and insufficient investment during implementation.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Learning to make aid work

My plea: For as long as we, outsiders, continue to intervene in other’s lives there is an urgent need to learn from our past mistakes.

It is challenging to evaluate development results

For the past few months I have travelled across the northern region of Ghana to meet with farmers and MoFA field staff. The purpose of this often dusty and tiresome yet interesting travel has been to evaluate EWB’s past work with the Ghana Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). It has also turned out to be great way to kick-off my placement – I have gained valuable exposure to inspiring insights into farmer’s lives as well as the frustrating challenges of the development sector.

By mid-December I completed my travels and attempted to write a report which encapsulates my observations and opinions on our past work with MoFA. As I sat down to write the report I began reflecting on a major limitation I faced through-out – how difficult it was to reveal our past mistakes! This limitation isn’t just specific to my situation, it’s a significant barrier that prevents the development sector from playing a stronger role in ending world poverty.

The biggest learning comes from failure

I remember learning how to ride a bike. When I was 7, I decided it was time to remove my training wheels. One summer Saturday afternoon, my dad and I attempted to learn how to ride my new 2-wheeler. It began with my dad supporting the back of the bike until I got enough momentum and he would let go. I would pedal for a few cycles and then bail – too scared to go any further on my own. This continued through-out the afternoon until my dad’s patience wore out and he called it quits.

This left me and my hot pink bike alone. Determined to learn to ride I began to go on my own. This time, my falls were more brutal but each time I fell I got back on my bike and could go a little further. Eventually I made it down the entire block. To my surprise I had learned how to ride and had also learned the important lesson how failure can teach.

“With decades of development assistance and the increasing scale of poverty, it is clear that many development projects fail. The mistake is potentially a vital piece of knowledge which can point to future lines of enquiry and changes of policy.” – Eric Dudley, author of The Critical Villager

Bridge failure - Who knew that this bridge was started in the 60s? At least it is serving a purpose!

The systems of development hide failure instead of learning from it

With private companies, learning is simple. Corporations like McDonalds, that offer fast food to their clients aim to please customers. If clients suddenly stop buying BigMacs then McDonalds sees a decline in revenue and adapts their marketing strategy – they add the McSalad to their menu.

Development agencies get their money not from their customers, in MoFA’s case small-scale farmers, but from international donors such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). So to keep staff employed, MoFA has incentives to keep donors happy while accountability to farmers remains low. Examples of this scary truth are listed below:

Anecdote 1 - Fine china for guests

I’ve just moved to a district office where I learned that all of the field staff will be shifted in the district. The reason? The hard-working field staff will be located in areas that are on the main road, areas that donors typically visit more than the more isolated areas.

Anecdote 2 – Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, keep flattering it

This week I attended a meeting of MoFA managers. There was a riveting discussion about a certain project that encourages farmers to raise ‘grass-cutters’ – grass-cutters are similar to guinea pigs and their meat is highly valued. All MoFA staff admitted the project was a failure, poor cage design, high mortality rate, and most of all farmer’s lacked the interest to engage in the project. Both farmers and MoFA jumped at the chance to engage in this project due more to the offered resources. Due to continuing flow of resources it’s doubtful that the discussion had during the meeting will be shared with those who control the purse strings.

These women and children don't control the purse strings. They are cattle herders from Mali called Fulanis. They are of the most marginalized members of society.

What to do with development?

This week I learned that an organisation will be conducting an evaluation of MoFA. I observed MoFA staff “coaching” their field workers with the answers they should provide to the evaluation staff. I felt frustrated at this system, yet I totally empathise with the MoFA staff, after all who wants to put their career on the line?

I cringe at the thought of a MoFA staff or worse, CIDA reading this blog entry. Yet, for me, I have the freedom of knowing that ramifications would be much less and understanding from the readers more forthcoming.

Power relationships made explicit as I greet the chief during a farmer meeting that has all the feel of a special occasion.

EWB doesn’t provide direct resources to MoFA so incentives to butter us up are greatly diminished. At the same time I am free to provide critical feedback to MoFA and already have. I am thankful our relationship with MoFA is more open and am grateful for the insights that have resulted because of it.

However, I still have a way to go to see the raw version of development because farmers instinctively put me in the same category as resource providing donors. I have tried to get past that with farmers but inevitably end up with a wish list of material items. My most recent visit yielded a lengthy list that includes crutches, solar panels, a tractor, and a motorcycle. Most items requested by the wealthier members of the community. I don’t want to play development Santa. I want to provide well-informed interventions with MoFA that won’t break after boxing-day.

I know that only time, listening and humble efforts to show I’m not above hard-work on the farm and at home will break down the power-relationship between myself and farmers. To all those who have become overwhelmed and jaded by the complexities of development – don’t yet give up, there are challenges but there are also those of us doing our best to learn and make aid work.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

A New Home

What at is a home? It is where the heart is? Where you hang your hat? Where you dance around in your underpants?

As human beings we have ways to easily identify ourselves in society. Our home is one of them. For me, living overseas for several years now and shifting geographic locations, I’ve had to re-define what home means to me.

This past Sunday was the first game of the Africa Cup of Nations. The first match of the Ghana hosted tournament was Ghana versus Guinea. I crowded around one of the few TVs in my community to watch the inaugural match. During the match, I was overcome by waves of emotions (and not just due to the numerous missed shots and eventual 2 – 1 victory from Ghana’s Black Stars).

My first day in Ghana I spent the afternoon holed up in a hotel watching a football match and feeling rather sorry for my lonesome bag-less self. This past Sunday, I realized how lucky I was in only a short time to have somehow become “un-lonely”. In contrast to my first day in Ghana, last night I watched a football match sitting next to Faiza and Manshara, two girls who sleep under the same roof as I, and amongst 30 people of the community which recently accepted me as a new member.

Above - In this community making 'gari' a roasted flour from cassava is the primary source of income for women.

I’ve found a new home with fantastic family. First, there's Faiza and Manshara who are 7 and 8 years old and are great fun to play with. Yesterday we spent the day riding my bicycle around town in the blistering heat, laughing all the way as the two of them tried to learn how to ride. In the evenings we sit together and play waori – a Ghanaian board game which is 20% strategy and 80% luck, or at least it is to us!

Close-up on Manshara as Zalaifa and Faiza play waori in the background.

In the mornings I wake up to the chilly weather this time of year brings, but also to warm greetings from Salamatu, the head of the household, who also feels inclined to constantly remind me to bath…at least the water is also warm! Being clean and well-fed I hop on my Japan-made bicycle and travel to work. On the way I pass swarms of children and adults who shout friendly greetings.

Salamatu and Zalaifa prepare a delicious bean cake called tubani

In the evenings I come home to Zalaifa, the hard-working 19 year old who is usually stirring supper or sweeping the yard. She is always patient with my eager yet clumsy attempts to cook, speak the local language (Gonja) and question her about her culture.

Zalaifa stirs TZ - the most common staple dish in Northern Ghana. In this area it's made with maize and cassava flour. Stirring it is really tough work!

I really love it here and am blessed to have found a family and a community that has welcomed me so acceptingly. And for now, as I keep up home in Saskatoon through emails and phone calls, I will also enjoy this new home that has been added to the patchwork of homes that sometimes defines who I am.

Posing with Manshara - she's dressed up because it's market day and we're going!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Corrected Blog Address

Here's the correct address for my friend Dan's blog (referenced in the blog titled 'Top Down or Bottom Up'). We just updated it so definitely encourage you to check it out if you're interested in a home-grown education focused project!