The thoughts, sights, and sounds of my summer as an EWB Junior Fellow

Archive for March, 2012

Agricultural Value Chains and Market Facilitation – What we are doing and why it matters

When I walk into a grocery store, I am met with an almost overwhelming assortment of products. Boxed cereal, oranges, kale, peanut butter, milk, bread, meat, gummy candies, pickles, [insert random food item here]. I shop around, usually spending 95 percent of my time in the produce section (just ’cause that’s me) , grabbing whatever seems appealing and hopefully on sale. But the oranges I end up going home with are in my bag because of a long series of market interactions which lined up precisely right. There is an entire value chain, beginning with market actors such as fertilizer and chemical dealers, water pump manufacturers, and seed companies and ending with warehouses, transport companies, and the final retailer that was dependent on strong links between each of the market actors to result in a high quality end product delivered on time to the right place. As I am sure you have realized, the farmer(s)  played an integral role in that value chain to actually produce the food.

Shift focus from developed world grocery store to a rural village in Ghana. Sam is a Ghanaian who runs a small agricultural input business that sells seed, fertilizer, and chemicals to local farmers. His income relies on farmers having enough money to buy the crop inputs which increase crop yields and quality. His hybrid seed produces much stronger, healthier plants than those grown from seeds the farmers saved from the previous year, but if farmers are short on money at the beginning of planting season they are less likely to spend money on fertilizer and chemicals and to instead used saved seeds.  Looking further up the value chain, farmers rely on *the weather* but also their ability to access markets. Their ability to access markets may be constrained by their ability to transport their product to the trading center, their knowledge of current market prices, and the overall demand for the product they are selling. In many cases, the next step in the value chain is the processor, who adds value to the raw produce of the farmer. The processor relies on the presence of a steady supply of high quality raw product as well as the existence of demand for the value-added product in consumer markets and the availability of reliable transport.

From examining the value chain described, it becomes clear that each market actor is very dependent on all of the others. If the processing plant in a rural region is shut down, farmers are not able to sell their product and the input dealer suffers because farmers do not have enough money to buy inputs. Similarly, if there is not adequate provision of inputs, farmers are unable to produce large volumes of high quality product, and the processing plant is unable to operate at capacity.

In the event of a drought, where farmers are simply not able to make enough money to buy inputs at the beginning of planting season, a typical charity-driven market intervention approach would be to provide farmers with free or heavily subsidized inputs for a year or two to help them get re-established. However, in this time, Sam is put out of business. After the funding for the subsidized input project becomes depleted, farmers are left with no practical way for procuring inputs.

A market facilitation approach to this project would be to facilitate more effective interactions between the various market actors, without becoming a part of the value chain itself. This could be done by helping the input dealer implement a system of pre-payment for inputs at a reduced rate immediately following harvest, or helping the input dealer develop a feasible plan to expand the region he services so that inputs could be sold to a greater number of farmers.

Using a market facilitation approach, rather than a market intervention approach, results in a value chain that will continue to function sustainably after the market facilitation project has exited. The relationships and interconnections between various market actors are strengthened in a way that provides a substantial benefit for all actors. A modification of the workings of a value chain will only continue if there is a good reason for market actors to want to continue the new interaction.

I will be working with the Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) team in Ghana with Engineers Without Borders Canada this summer. The team works in market facilitation as described above to make markets work in the most productive way possible for all actors involved. In the Food for Thought school outreach workshop I have oft presented with the USask EWB chapter, we present the fact that 80% of all people living in poverty in rural Africa rely on agriculture as their sole source of income. To me, this indicates that we have found a leverage point with which to slowly improve the livelihood of people living in rural Africa.

As I live primarily on a grain farm in Saskatchewan, when I am in arriving in Ghana I will be missing seeding back home, and harvest will already be underway by the time I return to Canada. I hope to use this blog to parallel the activities, challenges, successes, and incongruities of agriculture in Saskatchewan and agriculture in Ghana, and perhaps develop some insights into how the two systems might contribute to each other.

Making nsima, the Malawian way

Note: This post is a reflection on some of the pre-departure cultural learning I am doing in Canada, and is based solely on the things I have interpreted from others’ experience in Malawi and Zambia. If anyone from one of the countries mentioned (or anywhere else, for that matter) happens to be reading this blog, please comment! I would love to get feedback during my in-Canada learning and throughout my placement in Ghana. My goal is to start a conversation and to have my assumptions challenged.

Nsima. Pronounced shee-ma (in Zambia at least). It is the staple food in many African countries, including Zambia and Malawi where all of the current Return Junior Fellows (RJFs) at the University of Saskatchewan chapter worked when they were overseas. Consisting solely of finely ground maize flour, it provides a filling and easily digested meal when topped with one of many possible relishes. Two weeks ago, Erin (my fellow USask 2012 JF, check out her blog here)  and I had the privilege of learning the art of making nsima. The procedure is as follows (as remembered after my limited instruction):

Get a big pot and fill it about 3/4 full with water

Put it on the stove to “a temperature” (it doesn’t really matter because what is the “temperature of fire”, anyway?) Nsima is normally cooked over a fire as that is the source of cooking heat available in many cases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once the water has started boiling, dump some maize flour in, just until the water looks milky. Don’t put too much in at this point.

Stir with a big wooden spoon for a few minutes, until the boiling becomes so vigorous that water splashes on you and you jump back in surprise.

Pour more maize flour in now, such that the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream.

Now stir, with both hands, being careful to scrape from the bottom of the pot as well as mixing everything together well.

When the mixture becomes too thick to stir any more, you’re done! Now put the pot on a mat on the floor (or ground!) and take your nsima spoon (I am holding one in the picture) to shape the nsima into convenient disk-shaped patties, wetting the spoon with water periodically to prevent the nsima from sticking.

Now I should mention that during this time you should have also been making your relishes. The relish(es) (depending on the wealth of the family there may be one or many different relishes at a meal) can consist of vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage (my favourite so far), okra, beans, meat, fish, or really anything. Let your imagination run wild.

To eat the nsima, you take a small portion it in your right hand (NEVER your left hand, this is reserved for other business), shape it into a convenient scoop for the relish, load up with relish, and transport it to your mouth. Repeat. You have had a small taste of Africa.

Before meals, everyone washes their hands. A family member, usually the youngest/lowest in rank, pours water over each person’s hands into a bowl. Don’t bother drying your hands.

We spent the evening happily eating nsima and relish, listening to Tamara (the Malawi RJF who so graciously invited us to her house for the meal) read from her diary from her time overseas. Stephanie (one of last summer’s JFs from Zambia and a great mentor for me throughout this school year) also shared some of her memories from Zambia, and I soaked up as much as I could, asking way too many questions like “What would be my host family’s reaction if I accidentally took something with meat in it (like I did that evening) and had to leave it?” I am a vegetarian with very strong vegan tendancies, and I have worried about this a little bit even before my interview for the JF program. Luckily, from the feedback I have gotten from asking incessantly about this particular inflexibility of mine, I will likely be accepted as just being a strange azungu (white person) and my family will be glad to not have to expend valuable meat on me!

Incidentally, that day was the first day that the KONY 2012 youtube video/campaign went viral, so we had a good discussion about the motivations behind the campaign and the potential effects it may have. What are your thoughts about KONY 2012?

Erin (left) and Alanna (right) making nsima at Tamara's house as part of our in-Canada introduction to African culture