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

Posts tagged “input dealers

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.

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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.


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.