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

Posts tagged “intention

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?


Today is malaria appreciation day.

Malaria. Transmitted by the Plasmodium parasites that are spread to people through the bites of infected mosquitos, it claims the life of an estimated 885,000 people each year. Half of the world’s population live in areas where malaria is present, which each year leads to an estimated 216 million malaria cases. (WHO)

In my senior year of high school, I was the “leader” of a group called “Take Action” which carried out campaigns to promote social and environmental sustainability. One of our most notable undertakings was raising of $2000 CAD for Rick Mercer’s Spread the Net campaign, which for every $10 CAD raised a mosquito net would be supplied to an at-risk child in Sub-Saharan Africa. The grand prize for the highest fundraising school would be a visit from Rick Mercer (a Canadian TV personality) himself. We did not win, but in our efforts, I could be seen putting up posters quoting facts such as above, trying to stress the importance of anti-malaria bed nets in saving lives. Back then I was aware that I really hadn’t taken the time to understand exactly what malaria was or how it acts and is spread.

Yesterday I tested positive for malaria at a clinic in Wa. For the entire week leading up I had been suffering from nasal congestion, a runny nose, and almost lost my voice. Yesterday morning I felt nauseous, and I could not even think about eating lunch. Around 1:45 pm, I checked my temperature and it read 38.2º C, significantly higher than my regular 36.7º C. I was quite sure at that point that I had malaria. I have since learned from a colleague at work that this is all part of a common cycle called “Kuttun”.

The reason I say that it is malaria appreciation day is that I have made the choice to appreciate not only the seriousness of malaria, but everything that my having malaria at this time can contribute to my development as a person and my placement. It would be easy to think about how I am not able to be working hard in the office, traveling to the farm, or learning Azunto dance this evening, but that is not constructive. The following are ten positive things about me having malaria right now:

1. I am in Wa, where the clinic to get tested for malaria is literally just down the street.

2. I already had the treatment handy because I bought it as a precautionary measure when I in Tamale.

3. I am currently living with the family of the agric-inputs dealer in the house which is on-site, so if I feel like I have energy I can walk 20 steps to the office and do work for my placement.

4. My family feeds me fatty food (fried eggs and bread, fatty meat soup with TZ) which is exactly what you are supposed to eat right before taking a course of the malaria treatment.

5. I can drink the Wa municipal water after adding aquatabs so I don’t have to rely on bottled water or satchets.

6. There is a ceiling fan in my room which I can adjust the speed to keep me cool when the fever gets high (up to 38.9º C).

7. Imodium,Pepto Bismol, my regular malaria prophylaxis medication (Doxycycline), and the malaria treatment (Lumartem) have no drug interactions (I checked) so I can take them all at the same time.

8. It turns out Sunday is the only day that almost no one comes to work at the agric inputs dealership, so I am not missing out much on the action anyway.

9. It gives me time to take a step back in my mind about my placement, and think about how I want to spend my last week working with the inputs dealer before heading back to the village. I was feeling a bit scattered because there are so many questions and things to investigate that I was finding it difficult to focus.

10. It provides a wake-up call for me that I am in fact not invincible and that there are consequences for actions (ie. not wearing much mosquito repellent in the evenings, not sleeping under my mosquito net 100% of the time), even though I have taken my malaria prophylaxis (Doxycycline) religiously and have not missed a single dose. * Also, hopefully if other JFs have gotten careless about applying mosquito repellant in the evenings or sleeping under their bed net, it can be a wake up call for them too.


“Oh no, I was way too intentional”

This is what I want to say on August 28th, 2012.

Perhaps the greatest thing I can take away from today is the need for me to more mindfully bring intention to everything I do for the next four months, if not for the rest of my life. Yesterday I arrived at EWB house in Toronto, and today was our first full day of pre-departure learning. George Roter, CEO of Engineers Without Borders Canada and an all-around fantastic guy (look him up on YouTube if you want to be inspired), briefly mentioned the importance of intention in shaping our JF placements. He posed three key questions which will define my entire summer, and which will serve as guidance when things get rough. Tonight I will share the second question with you.

“What am I doing to own my own learning?”

In a typical university class, the syllabus is handed out on the first day, and from that moment I know the books that I will need to read and understand, even the pages that I need to specifically focus on, the assignments which I will need to complete, and the date of critical exams. The road to success is quite clear, if I only put in enough time and energy.

The JF program and my placement, however, is not quite like that. There is a syllabus of sorts, but we are advised to not allow the syllabus to get in the way. Instead, we are advised to treat it like an open research project in which we use the African Program Staff (APS) we are working with, our chapters and support networks back in Canada, a plethora of print resources, previous Junior Fellows, and co-workers in Ghana like a library. The outcome of the project is ambiguous and the path is ambiguous. As George said, we will be joining our teams in doing some of the hardest work in the world, at least as far as having the ability to produce a “successful” or “complete” end product.

So where does that put me now? Today was full of so many new connections, thought-provoking conversations, and questioning of who I am as a person and how I am in relationship with others. What I thought I knew about poverty and development is suddenly a miniscule part of something almost impossible to define and measure. My plan for influence at the USask chapter during and after my placement now has a rough timeline and a strategy for accountability (if you are from USask, expect it in your mailboxes soon!) and I continue to be more conscious of the ways in which my learning can be transformed from something offered by another into something vitally important to my being.

It is my intention to push myself this week.