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

Archive for July, 2012

The Power of Thinking Backwards

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One of the major challenges I have found throughout my placement with Engineers Without Borders Canada in Ghana thus far is managing my mental space for what I am going to achieve, how I am going to achieve it, and when. My placement has had lots of freedom in terms of the type of change I can create. I am working with multiple market actors in the Ghana agriculture production system, which means there are a multitude of ways I can act in terms of supporting them. It is an exciting place to be, but sometimes it can be difficult to navigate.

 During the last session of our Junior Fellow pre-departure training in Toronto at the beginning of May, each of us wrote down on a card what we would do to make the most of our JF placements, what we will have learned about ourself, or what we will tell our grandchildren about the summer of 2012. I chose to write down what I will do to make the most of my JF placement, but I chose to frame it in the past, as if I had already done it. That way, everything I do will seem like a logical step on the way to something I have already achieved. This is what I wrote:

“I will have allowed my true warm character to shine through the challenges and differences I face despite natural feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and fear. I will have leaped into new realms of possibility for my impact in Africa, and discovered an entirely new level of what my potential can be.”

When I read this, I feel like I am filled with sunshine and energy. It rings true to my soul, and provides a grounding reality check that ties me back to the person I was back in pre-dep, filled with hopes, fears, and a huge feeling of not knowing at all what I was getting into.

The idea of working backwards from impacts and outcomes to activities and inputs has lately become very relevant to my work. A few days ago, I decided to write down (as if I was back in Canada at the end of the summer) the things I had achieved during my time in Ghana. The list includes:

  • I have worked through the application questionnaire for the AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) seed production grant with the nucleus farmer
  • I have made use of the Business Model Canvas to create a business model with the nucleus farmer that is practical and hopefully win-win for him, small scale farmers, and buyers
  • I have communicated with a large grain processor some insights from the nucleus farmer based on their first year of working with nucleus farmers, making use of market facilitation experience from our team
  •  I have followed up on the record keeping workshop that I helped to facilitate with the nucleus farmer’s outgrowers, then have shared any insights regarding Return on Investment with the AVC team and SARI (Savanna Agricultural Research Institute)
  • I have run a workshop at Antika to formulate Results Chains for the business’s seed growing operations, then worked with the staff to develop a monitoring plan based on the Results Chain
  • I have effectively managed my ½ acre of maize and ½ acre of soyabeans in Loggu, and put up a laminated sign indicating that it is my plot of hybrid maize supported by Antika
  •  I have held a mid-placement meeting with ADVANCE (Agriculture Development and Value Chain Enhancement, a USAID project) to share insights and get feedback
  • I have communicated effectively with the people at my chapter, friends and family about the work I am doing, and built enthusiasm about the year ahead with EWB at Usask
  • I have taken lots of pictures and video footage, + brought back some Ghanaian cloth
  • I have built strong relationships with my family, colleagues, and friends in Ghana

Most of these things, in reality, I have not yet finished yet. But knowing that this is what I will in fact say in one month’s time helps it to come together small small.

The Results Chain is a method often used by development organizations to ensure that activities undertaken actually contribute to the desired impact. Also known as a Logic Model, it can be used for things as routine as planning a family trip to things as complex as protecting an endangered species. For the remainder of placement, I hope to make extensive use of Results Chains to develop solutions for both the nucleus farmer and Antika that actually lead to the desired impact, by effectively thinking backwards.

Interested in learning more? Check out www.uwsa.edu/edi/grants/Kellogg_Logic_Model.pdf

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Life as a (Pseudo) Small-Scale Farmer

When I was discussing with members of the women’s farming group in Loggu upon my arrival in the village, I asked the question “What can I do to best understand what it is like to be an outgrower farmer for the nucleus farmer I am working with?”. I was excited and pleased by their response. They said that they would support me in growing one acre of crops. After a couple of seconds of considering what this would mean, I said that I would gladly take on the challenge. My intention was to have this undertaking be a valuable supplement to my learning and understanding of the system I am working in, hopefully allowing me to gain credibility and build trust with multiple actors.

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After some discussion with my host brother and the nucleus farmer, I decided that I would grow ½ an acre of maize and ½ an acre of soyabeans, in order to gain an understanding of what is required to grow these two common crops in the Upper West. After mentioning “my farm” often in conversations to show that I was in fact committed, it was decided that I would sow the acre on Monday, June 25, before I left for the Mid-Placement Retreat in Mole National Park.

The Saturday before, I travelled to Antika [the inputs dealer] in Wa to pick the hybrid maize seed I would need to sow ½ an acre. I had decided that I would plant the only hybrid maize variety sold by Antika, which would hopefully allow my plot to act as a “proof of concept” for hybrid maize seed in Loggu. I also picked inoculant (rhizobium bacteria to support early development of nitrogen-fixing nodules in the roots of legumous crops) since my intention was to have my plot be a demonstration of Good Agricultural Practices, as well as an outlet for me to push my paradigm of how farming should be done with the available resources. I was taking my knowledge of how my family plants legumous crops in Canada, and applying it to the new scale I was working in.

When Monday came, I felt tired to begin with. I had stayed up late the night before soaking half of the maize and soyabean seeds in a Latvian peat fertilizer supplement solution and the other half of the seeds in water as a control. I was mixing integration and science and advertising for Antika  all together, and it was getting complicated. I had decided to apply insecticide/fungicide powder to the seeds before planting, and I went to the nucleus farmer’s inputs dealer shop to collect two packages. I read the label of the insecticide/fungicide, and soon became skeptical if I even wanted to use it. The product was extremely toxic. It should not be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. People using the product should wear gloves at least, and any containers used to mix the product with seed should be disposed of. It is strictly forbidden to use the product in the presence of children. I mentioned these things to those around me at the time, and they laughed at me. They said, “But not in Africa.” This made me extremely upset and frustrated. The fact that scientific knowledge is so low causes people to completely disregard any procedures for safety. At the field, the product was mixed with the seed with bare hands in a basin that would be used for hauling water and grinding maize after being rinsed out later, and women ate shea nuts from nearby trees as they were sowing the treated seed. They thought I was so silly for worrying about this. I felt responsible for making the decision to apply the insecticide, yet any steps I took to improve the safe handling of the product would be regarded as unnecessary.

According to my direction, maize seed was placed in a hole on one side of a rope stretched across the field, and on the other side of the rope compound fertilizer was placed in a hole, resulting in about 5 cm space between the seed and fertilizer. In Canada, all fertilizer is applied with the seed straight into the ground at the time of planting, yet in Ghana fertilizer is generally spread on top of the soil near the plants. The latter approach allows for volatilization of the fertilizer, as well as allowing it to be washed away by heavy rains. After talking to Agricultural Extension Agents and others, I had learned that it is actually preferable to bury the fertilizer, but people do not do it because they perceive it to take too much time.

The reason I say that I am a “pseudo” small-scale farmer in Loggu is that I have so many opportunities that the other members of the women’s farming group do not have. For the sowing, I actually ended up planting very little seed myself. I found myself in a managerial/monitoring role, and also I did not want to cause confusion regarding where had been planted and where had not. My plot was ploughed first of any of the outgrowers, and the hybrid seed and inoculant were donated by Antika despite my insistence that I can pay. I did not have to get a fertilizer subsidy passbook because the nucleus farmer arranged to have the fertilizer put under another farmer’s name (not being a Ghanaian citizen I do not have the appropriate ID card). I have the ability to read the labels of inputs and have comparatively extensive knowledge of Good Agricultural Practices, including “innovative” technologies such as inoculant. For keeping records, I can read and write without a problem, and I know the importance of cost-profit analysis. The fact that I knew exactly where to get all of the required inputs and had access to them when I needed them allowed me to apply fertilizer, seed treatment, inoculant (soyabeans), fertilizer additive (for half of the crops), and a pre-emergent glyphosate chemical burnoff all on the desired day. The current plan with my plot, as I will be leaving before it is harvested, is to have the profit from the plot go towards buying tarpaulins for the women on which to thresh the soyabeans by hand without mixing in dirt and stones. My entire livelihood does not depend on the success of the farm, even though I am trying to do everything to make the farm successful.

It is easy for me to become disconnected from understanding the true challenges of a small-scale farmer in Upper West Ghana, because I am not working with the same situation at all. It will take a different empathetic approach to understand what it truly is like to not be able to buy fertilizer for your farm without the support of a nucleus farmer or NGO, or to be waiting for weeks or forever for a tractor to come plow so that you can plant. The nucleus farmer I am working with had to tell approximately 300 farmers that he cannot support them this year as expected, as he was unable to receive the requested loan from the bank. What will they do? Will they really just sit down and put their hands in the air like the nucleus farmer says?


MPR, TGR, and what am I doing?

Right now, I am sitting in the Vitting Presbyterian Lay Training Centre bungalow with six of my fellow Jfs. Many of the Jfs have already gone home, and I will be taking a taxi to catch the metro mass bus to Wa at 4 am tomorrow morning. I made the decision to take this extra day to catch up with my thoughts so that I can go back to Wa and the village with a prepared mind and heart.

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To be honest, I was not initially extremely excited to come to the Junior Fellow Mid-Placement Retreat (MPR) in Mole National Park , and Team Ghana Retreat (TGR) in Tamale. For me, the upcoming retreats signalled that the summer was about to be half over, and that has resulted in me realizing that I will actually have to leave Ghana in about seven weeks.

I had just finished a week of enjoying the village of Loggu where I live in Wa East (see Where Am I page), which included successfully supervising (and helping where I could) the planting of almost half an acre of hybrid maize and almost half an acre of soyabeans on the land that is called “nasalla por yor” (meaning “white woman’s farm” [rhymes so much better in Waalii, I’ve decided to just go with it]). This is my farm, and so far I have had a part in clearing bushes with a cutlass (think machete), sowing, and spraying glyphosate (called “condemn” here because it non-selectively kills all weeds). I received a text from my host brother that the seeds had germinated on Thursday (after only four days!). The day before I came to the retreat in Mole, I spent the entire day clearing with a cutlass, which involved a 15 km bike ride over really fun challenging road there and back.

Arriving in Mole National Park, the land of toilet paper in bathrooms, burgers on the menu, and a swimming pool (what?) was a bit of a shock for me. I had arrived at Mole about two hours early since I was the only one coming from the Upper West Region (I’m the only EWBer there). I was in such integration-take-every-opportunity-you-can mode that by the time the other Jfs arrived in a huge tro, waving with their shocking white arms and smiles, I had already eaten fufu and groundnut soup at the less-expensive chop bar, walked to Mole school with someone who offered to show me around, introduced myself to many of the teachers and headmaster, walked into the classrooms and greeted the students of almost every grade, and was riding on the back of a bicycle back to the hotel. Soon I was hugging people (which seemed very strange – Ghanaians don’t hug), speaking Canadian English only, and organizing for a group meeting. Oh, right, I am a white Canadian university student volunteer. Right.

Soon we were sharing with the group where we were regarding our head space, heart space, body space, and I loved to have the opportunity to express some of what I was feeling. As I had to articulate how I felt, I began to identify how my experience so far had been different from that of other Jfs. I had almost become lost in integration, and in doing so perhaps had not taken enough opportunity to move towards producing tangible deliverables with the work in my placement.

As for the work in my placement, I fully realize that I have completely failed to explain what I have actually been doing in the Upper West over the past month+. Why is it easier to share my heart and soul with everyone than to put into words the reason I have been trying to tactfully talk to two very busy men, purchasing 30 small notebooks from a store called Foca in Wa, and staying up late to soak seed in a Latvian peat moss liquid fertilizer solution?

I am working with a large and progressive agricultural inputs dealer called Antika Company Ltd. in Wa, having shadowed the business for two weeks to determine how the business runs and any opportunities or threats the business faces. I am living primarily in a village called Loggu, which is 23 km SE of Wa and has no electricity, in a one-room house with a nucleus farmer’s first wife. I work with the nucleus farmer to understand his business which includes managing about 100 farmers in farmer groups, running an agric-inputs shop stocked by Antika, growing certified seed to be sold through Antika, and farming other crops. I can see an example of how four agriculture value chain roles are being filled by working with and observing one person. In order to understand the realities of smallholder farmers part of a nucleus farming scheme, I have officially become the 24th member of the woman’s farming group, and will be making visits to surrounding villages to meet with other farmer groups working with the nucleus farmer.

My work thus far has very much consisted of experiential and immersion learning. I have mapped out systems, but I feel like I should be using more tools, writing more notes, and producing more reports like some of my fellow Jfs. These two retreats have given me time to take a step back and strategize, but I feel like I could always do more to make my learning useful to others. Now is the time to begin focusing on one leverage point in the system, and produce some tangibles. And I can honestly say that I think I am in a really unique and great position to be a part of creating some meaningful change.