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

Posts tagged “agriculture

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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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.


Welcome to Ghana. Expect Surprises.

I am writing this as I sit on the floor of the fanciest room I have been in since I arrived in Accra that rainy night a week and a half ago. In the room there are two single beds, a fan, two plug-ins, a desk, a sink and shower, and a closet. Hmm, isn’t that exactly opposite to the progression a JF should be making in terms of integration?

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I am in the city of Wa, located in the Upper West region of Ghana, at the In-Service Training Centre hotel. I originally thought I would be spending the summer working in the Upper East, but found out during in-country training that I would be working in Upper West with an inputs dealer in Wa, a nucleus farmer and his outgrowers in a nearby village to Wa called Loggu , and a local agricultural development program office. A nucleus farmer is a wealthier farmer in a village who provides tractor services, inputs, and agricultural expertise to hundreds of farmers. As far as I currently understand it, the goal of my placement is to understand the ways in which the services of the inputs dealer, the nucleus farmer’s model, the programs run by the agriculture development organization, and the realities for the nucleus farmer’s outgrowers all relate. I get to be the eyes and ears that no one else has time to be, and in so doing can share insights with various market actors and suggest areas for innovation.

Getting to Wa was interesting. The plan was for Tom (blog on sidebar), Louise (my coach), and I to leave Tamale on the metro mass (non-fancy [not like STC Ghana]) transit bus for Wa on Monday, however tickets were sold out when Louise (my coach) went to purchase them on Sunday. We thought we would just go early the next morning to buy tickets for Tuesday’s bus, and find a way to contribute to our placements on our extra day in Tamale. Monday morning, however, when Ben (AVC Ghana APS, blog on sidebar) went to purchase the tickets at 7 am, he found that the tickets were again sold out for Tuesday. The reason was found to be that students attending university in Wa need to be present and registered by Wednesday, or face penalties. The decision was made to take the tro tro (see picture in previous post) to Bolgatanga in the extreme Upper East in the early afternoon on Monday, stay overnight in Bolgatanga, then catch the 6 am bus to Wa and get there before noon so that I could meet with the inputs dealer and nucleus farmer that afternoon as scheduled. Taking the tro to Bolga went well, and we enjoyed a nice relaxed supper with Don (AgEx APS who is the Usask ChAPSter Buddy!) and Jimmy (blog on sidebar) at a restaurant. I tried banku, which is a fermented maize dough, for the first time, and I think that taste will definitely grow on me.

We took a taxi at 4 am to the bus station in Bolga, and waited for an hour and a half in line to get tickets to ride the metro mass to Wa. Eventually we were told that we could only buy two tickets, not three, as the line was overflowing with university students needing to get to Wa. It was decided that Tom and I just go on to Wa without Louise, meaning that I would have to meet with all of the market actors myself without the support of Louise who set up the placement. I was feeling a little nervous at the thought of this, but then I just remembered Comfort Zone vs. Learning Zone and the great growth opportunity this presented. Finally Tom and I got on the bus, waited around all ready to go for a long time, and then were eventually told that we had to switch all our luggage and ourselves to another bus due to equipment problems with the bus we were seated in.

In the new bus, all of the seats were filled and large pieces of luggage were stored under the seats. Then passengers kept filing onto the bus until the entire aisle was crammed full with people standing and sitting for the entire journey. People were animated and raucous, and I couldn’t help laughing when I compared it in my head to an intercity bus I had been on in Saskatchewan, where half of the seats were empty, no one talked to each other, and no stop was longer than about a minute.

Tom and I amused ourselves by having me learn some new knots so I could tie up my mosquito net in any situation. The bus stopped every hour or so, allowing women and children to thrust “pure atah” (which is how I have finally assimilated to say pure water) through the window in exchange for ten pesawas. At one stop, people on the bus cried out “something’s burning!” and sure enough the tire right under our window was smoking considerably due to a combination of the scorching heat of the day and the friction of travel. The fix was to wait about ten minutes and continue on, having to stop every so often after that to allow it time to cool down.

Finally, at 4:30 pm, the bus finally rolled in to Wa. As I was too late for the meetings that had been scheduled, I took a taxi to a guest house that Louise recommended, and checked in. At this point, I was becoming uncomfortably aware of how I seemed to be met with reactions of intimidation, nervousness, fascination, enrapture, spectacle, and expectation as a young white woman in the Upper West. I decided to explore the community and walked up one of the main streets, trying to learn how to say “good evening” in Wali, and eventually met three outgoing little girls who showed me to their house and let me meet their family. They asked if I had a camera, and I realized I had forgotten it in the guest house. They escorted me back there and I was able to get some pictures with them with help of the guest house manager and friend (who also sneakily took pictures of me with his own camera despite me saying I was shy).

The next morning, I called the agricultural development organization and was eventually picked up. I was pleased to find that they were going straight to a farmer training session about application of inoculants on soyabean. Inoculant consists of rhizobium bacteria that encourages nitrogen-fixing bacteria to populate the plant roots even before the natural bacteria nodules develop. It greatly increases plant vigour and yields, and we use it on all of our peas and lentils on the farm in Saskatchewan. I found the workshop extremely engaging. It was very participatory, and involved a live demonstration of how to properly apply inoculant to a 1 kg batch of seed. Farmers asked many questions, and contributed experience as testimony to the value of inoculant use. I was impressed. Most of the workshop was translated to/from Wali/English. All the farmers spoke Wali but the main presenter (from the South) spoke Twi natively and did not understand Wali at all. Of the few people I had talked to that morning, a good number of them could not speak Wali because they were originally from a different city in Ghana, and were just as lost with the local language as I was. I was not expecting this, but it illustrates a fundamental challenge throughout Ghana which further incentivizes going to school and speaking English.

In the afternoon, I was taken to meet the nucleus farmer in the village of Loggu. Through a miscommunication/misunderstanding of the goals of my placement/misalignment of values between myself and the agricultural development office, I did not stay in the village as had been planned. I sat in the back of the fancy SUV feeling like some privileged white person (which, yeah, I guess I am) travelling back to the office, and then was dropped off at the hotel. I had to insist that a 30 Cedis per night room with a shared toilet was more than fine for me, rather than a 50 or 85 Cedi self-contained room. So here I am.

As staying in a village and understanding village life is integral to this stage of my placement, tomorrow I will be taking the tro-tro to another nearby village called Busa to spend five days with a new nucleus farmer and hopefully meet the friends of last year’s JF in the Upper West. A definite change of plans, but I have made a commitment to welcoming adventure. It is only fitting, in this land of surprises.

P.S. Another surprise….many Ghanaians love country music! Every once in a while I feel like I am back in Saskatchewan.


A Glimpse of Life on a (Larger-Scale) SW Saskatchewan Grain Farm

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Perhaps one of the things about myself which I hold most dear is my upbringing as part of my family’s grain farming operation. I believe I am in an extremely lucky and unique situation, to have been given the grounding perspective of being a member of a true family farm, yet given the opportunity to study engineering and spend an entire summer away as an Engineers Without Borders Junior Fellow. I recognize that my focusing on school and taking this summer away from the farm impacts my family significantly. It places an additional strain on my mom Laurel and dad Allan, older brother Sean, younger sister Angela, and younger brother Ian. They continue to plunge into another growing season with all drive, hope, and determination that is mustered every year, despite many mental, emotional, and physical strains. It is by their sacrifice that I am able to make these lifelong friends, be a part of the almost surreal atmosphere of intensity that is pre-dep, try to integrate into a completely new Ghanaian culture, connect with Ghanaian farmers, and potentially have impact in the agriculture sector in Ghana. For every thing I experience and learn, I ask you to understand that it is only made possible by the hard work, support, and selflessness of my family back home.

I would like to share with you a few glimpses of what I experienced when I was home the week before I came to pre-dep on Sunday. I hope this can provide a jumping off point for all of the insights I am soon to gain about what agriculture in Ghana can entail.

Amidst my preparations for leaving for the summer, I tried my best to help with the seeding preparations. The task I was set to was washing the windows, inside and out, on as many key farm implements as possible. I know. Washing windows? Is that really farm work? This struck me as ironic. In Ghana, my prediction is that this job is not likely to exist, due to absence of closed cabs on farm machinery, or rather due to the relative absence of self-propelled farm machinery.

Another day I got the chance to help my older brother move BIG rocks from a strip of land we are breaking for the first time this year. That job would be considerably more difficult without access to a front-end loader tractor.

Rather than packing the night before I had to leave for Saskatoon, I enjoyed a beautiful evening in the field with my family. The sheer size and technology of our implements allow us to farm over 9,000 acres spread over 120 miles. Concepts such as economies of scale greatly influence farm investment decisions. Larger, newer equipment is needed to be able to seed and harvest on time with unpredictable weather, but then an increase in land farmed is needed to be able to justify the new equipment investment. Large farms expand in this way, and smaller, less progressive farmers retire, often selling their land to investors or large local farms.

This is the reality that is a part of me back home. I am hoping to draw on my agricultural background over the summer, but also to not allow it to get in the way of being open to new ideas and appreciating the many nuances of agriculture in Ghana