Living in rural Africa, it's difficult to connect with sustainable outside markets, especially as a woman. The project that I work on, Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW), looks to link women and their families with markets to develop a lasting income. Here's a brief review of a recent trip in the field. GROW clients are currently at an important stage – it's the first year of harvest and the women farmers are looking for markets to sell their soybeans. Learn about the difficulties of finding markets in Ghana's Upper West – one of poorest and least food secure regions in the country – and what MEDA is doing to help solve this problem...
From Part 1: Last month, after weeks of being frustrated by immobility, I bought a moto, because of Tamale's understandably imperfect public transportation.I wish I knew more about Tamale's public transportation past, but most things I've heard is fuzzy and anecdotal. I do know that in fast-growing cities infrastructure problems like public transportation abound. Cities can't easily accommodate an extra 300,000 people overnight. (Tamale has grown from 200,000 – 500,000+ in the past 12 years).Ineffective public transportation and congested cities produce a number of problems – pollution, higher mortality rates, lack of mobility, and diminishing economic productivity. For example, Bangkok loses a third of its gross city product each year (US$4 million each day) and the U.S. is estimated to lose US$43 billion each year from metropolitan congestion (as cited by this paper, PDF). Traffic affects everybody, but in countries with inadequate government regulation and limited funding it creates larger problems with greater consequences, e.g. higher mortality rates and immobility of the nation's poorest.Personally, I'm not too concerned with diminishing economic productivity day-to-day. Instead, I'm a little more concerned about getting from house to work with my head intact. I checked around and while I couldn't find much Tamale-specific data, I did find a list of countries ranked by road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles.You can see the list isn't exactly a who's who of high-income countries. What's slightly unnerving is the strong West African representation. But where's Ghana? A pleasantly middling 69th (with 233 traffic deaths for every 100,000 vehicles).My first thought was that it had to with the fact with that Ghana's a middle-income country – like that of its low-income country neighbors (Togo and Burkina Faso) – but a graph pulled from this WHO report indicates that middle-income is typically more dangerous.The theory here might be that middle-income countries are undergoing intense development – they're forced to deal with the boom of cities without lack the government systems and other infrastructure designed to keep these emerging cities safe. Tamale, the hub of Ghana's developing north, is experiencing this swell of business and infrastructure – and is rapidly joining the South's ranks of middle income. So is it more dangerous compared to other cities in Ghana? Perhaps, but we don't have the data.Other interesting facts from the report:The African Region has the highest road traffic fatality rateHalf of all road traffic deaths are among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclistsAlmost 60% of road traffic deaths are among 15–44 year oldsSo it seems all of the odds are stacked against me – I live in a middle-income country, in the African region, ride a motorcycle, and am between 15-44.I guess I know my risks now.
I got a scooter.Ok, that's more personal transportation problem fix. Tamale's situation might be a little more difficult than throwing down a fat wad of Cedis at the local used moto dealer. Tamale has the all the transportation issues that you would expect from West Africa's fastest growing city. It's ballooned from 200,000 to a half million plus in about 12 years. It's the hub for northern Ghana and it's changing fast.This has, unsurprisingly, led to less than ideal in-town transportation. During the day, you connect on all the main roads through shared taxis. These cost about $.40 for a 10 minute ride downtown and fares bottom out at around $.25 for the shortest of trips. But, as I noted, you can only get them during the day. "Drop-in" taxis are more expensive – a 10 minute ride might cost you $2.00-$4.00, depending on where you're going. That may not sound like much, but it Tamale, it's really expensive and if you have to do this frequently for work, it can add up. Also, I am a cheapskate.The cost of taxis isn't bad, but the travel times are limited. Evening travel becomes an event with coordination and cost. More than that, taxis aren't an efficient use of road space. At this point, you're probably curious about the buses. Well, dear reader, there are none – at least not for in-town transportation. For public transportation in Tamale it's a taxi or nothing. (Unless you count that one time when a couple of friends hitchhiked on a tractor.)Though Tamale is revered by such sources as Wikipedia and A Man's Life for its "progressive bike lanes" and "bike-friendly" culture, I am skeptical. As a pedestrian I've often seen bikes swerve inches from getting clipped and brake split seconds from being plowed into by overzealous moto riders threading through the bike lane mix of bikes, peds, trikes, and motos. A couple weeks ago, my friend Peter had to get stitches when a moto cut him off him in his bike and ran over his foot... in a bike lane. Anecdotal but unsurprising. I suppose terms like "progressive" and "bike friendly" are relative. It is better than nearby cities such as Bolgatanga and Wa and there are spots of the city where I would feel 100% comfortable riding. It's better than most West African cities.I'd love to encourage a bike culture in northern Ghana. But could it exist in a developing context? In my co-worker's opinion, "it's for people of lower-class," which is what I've heard and observed in most developing countries. If you're interested, this study (PDF) seeks to address that issue (and others), but that's a discussion for another post.The fact is, it's not easy to get around Tamale unless you live and work within a tight area of the city or you have your own private vehicle. As the city expands, more roads will have to be built or public transportation will have to adapt to meet citizen demands.In a conversation with longtime Tamale resident/my co-worker we discussed her disappointment with the current state of Tamale transportation. She then abruptly ended the conversation by dropping a stat: one moto rider was killed each day in Tamale. Hmm.(Don't worry mom, I fact-checked this and it's actually less than that in the whole of Ghana.)
A benefit of living and working abroad for MEDA is travel. What used to be across an ocean is suddenly a short (or maybe just shorter) distance away. Also, through our network of fellow interns, we have places to crash and people to travel with. Not bad at all.In December, I took advantage of that. Here's a short video that I made from a portion of a Tanzania trip:
That is my immediate thought as I am given the go-ahead nod from Yunus, expert technical advisor for GROW and my translator for the day. Twenty women farmers from the village of Gilang are seated in the large village shade tree in front of me, waiting for the meeting to start. Chickens dart through the center of the circle, babes suckle milk from casually exposed breasts, and the cool morning breeze graciously stymies any chance of sweaty armpits.I wasn’t counting on this, meeting all these women, here, under this formal tree in the center of Gilang. I was planning on meeting a few women individually, get an idea of how the program was going, hear their concerns, rejoice in their successes and be gone. But instead, I am meeting with a group of twenty GROW farmers, all of whom were staring at me. right. now. So I start.Why am I here? Mostly to listen. I tried to ask my questions and get out of the way. I’m in Ghana for six short months (just five now) and I needed to figure out what’s the best use of my time. These women were to provide me with ideas – they’re the reason everything in this project happens, so it seemed like a natural place to look. I head a variety of concerns (consistent credit, rain, tractors) and successes (paying for a child’s education, expanding production). They talked about how they received information from radio, or how lead farmers worked to disseminate crop price info. Lots of info, all jam-packed into one session.I think Einstein said that if you give him an hour to solve the problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes solving the problem. So maybe this is part of my 55 minutes. I don’t know the sort of work I’ll have completed in six months time, and to right now, the time seems frustratingly short. And in order to contribute something meaningful come April, I need to spend this time soaking up as much info as possible to get an idea of what’s going on. In order to do that, it involves talking with people. There is a large group of people with valuable experiences and perspectives, from the MEDA staff to our facilitating to the woman talking in front of me. So right now I’m listening.
70-80 cedis (roughly $35-$40).That was the (tentatively) agreed upon price for a 100kg bag of soybeans in Ghana.The Oct. 24th meeting to decide said price was held in the refreshingly air-conditioned PreHarvest Forum’s Conference Room A – a welcome respite from the sunny and sweaty outdoor booths. The PreHarvest Forum was, from my perspective, a mix of information and networking; sessions on improving yields and strengthening local markets were broken up with snacks and the swapping of business cards. The event was attended by farmers, aggregators, processors, ag equipment manufacturers and more… all hoping to connect with the right people and inform themselves. With these thoughts, MEDA arranged for both the local partners and some lead farmers (from the GROW project) to attend, and set up a booth of its own. But let’s go back to the soybean pricing. It was perhaps the most interesting event of the day, and it was definitely the most intense. Determining an acceptable price for soy for both buyers and sellers while trying not to price out local chicken farmers (who use the soy for feed and who will, if the price is too high, import soy from neighboring countries), requires a great deal of consideration: conservation, costs, and markets. “Brothers and sisters, let us remember that we are in a global village,” was one sound bite from a persistent refrain. The meeting attendees understood that all parties (soy farmers, chicken farmers, producers, and aggregators) had to benefit if they wanted to protect this “new and fragile crop” from being swallowed up by the global market.
The debate was one part theatre and two parts substance – “[B]etter than daytime television,” I remember thinking, as the man next to me struck the table to emphasize his point. Several people quickly established themselves as authorities, refuting claims of past prices, commanding a presence, and making comments like “I don’t think I need to introduce myself, everyone here knows me.” The crowd was lively – both murmurs of approval and dissent ran thick. It made sense, I supposed later. Everyone in that room’s livelihood was at stake. They had to make a living… and they had to make sure the market would exist in the future.The 70-80 cedi price didn’t leave many in the room satisfied – some wanted an exact number, others thought it too high or low. But the schedule called for the next event’s use of the room so the meeting ended. It closed with protest, only quelled by the promise of meat pies and Fanta.The price of soy fluctuates, but it follows a somewhat consistent yearly pattern. It reaches its highest just before harvest (October), drops to its lowest at harvest (in late October/early November), and slowly rises until the next harvest. If you’re curious, here’s a handy chart (from this study) that shows the history of grain prices in Ghana: (note that 1000 cedis per MT would convert to 100 cedis per 100 kg bag)For the farmers MEDA works with, getting a good price is important. During the dry season (November – May), it’s difficult to obtain other sources of income, so the money earned from their harvest now needs to sustain them in the leaner months. During the debate many of the farmer’s market worries were expressed – not breaking even, being priced out by international markets, not having sufficient demand locally. The task of farming seemed daunting, even in discussions from an air-conditioned room.
So this is my attempt to give a basic framework for the rest of my posts — a sort of method to the posting madness. Not all the posts will relate specifically to these bolded topics (MEDA, GROW, and Ghana), but I like my frameworks flexible.So.. ahem. Framework.Two weeks and a few mosquito bites ago, I arrived in Tamale, Ghana as a part of the organization MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) with the project GROW. So what does MEDA do? Well, lots of things, but they focus on creating means to do business for underserved farmers and entrepreneurs around the world. A few examples: they provide access to financial services in Nicaragua, linking farmers to markets and technology in Ukraine, or providing women entrepreneurs with capacity-building training in Libya. If you want to know more, here’s a video I put together for MEDA this past year.So what’s up with this project anyhow? GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) focuses on women growing soybeans in the Upper West and Northern Regions of Ghana — the ultimate goal is to improve food security in the region. This ideally will happen by making sure they have the right seed, equipment, financial services, technical assistance, and market access to make that happen. Here are these handy graphs to show how MEDA’s work relates to the whole operation of GROW.So what do I do? Communications / Impact Assessment is my title, but that sounds a bit vague. I suppose at the very base, I’ll find out how things are going (impact assessment) and tell about it (communications). So that seems simple enough. I’ll create a variety of media to communicate the work of GROW — video, writing, photos, audio, digital design. This random assortment of noises, pictures, and words will be used to engage the following: farmers, seed aggregators, Ghanians, Global Affairs Canada (GAC), MEDA staff, MEDA members, you, Bono probably). That’s the Communication piece.Impact Assessment is more of a direct task. GROW is in its early stages and not a bean has been harvested. (Year 2 of 6 to be exact… and the first year was dedicated to hiring staff, connecting with the right local partners, etc.) Recently, MEDA and its local implementation partners completed the baseline report, giving us some insight of the pre-project status with the idea that further surveys will provide the metrics we need to fix the wrong things, keep the right things, and accurately measure our progress. I’ll be working with this more as the harvest happens and we start and evaluate the early goings on.If anything piqued your interest don’t hesitate to let me know. Take Twitter for example. Maybe I can even give you some engaging follow-up info.
It’s been one week in Tamale, Ghana. (Here are some split seconds of the week. And yes, it has gone that fast.)I’ve been lost (and found… a key part to the story), gotten rained on, tested out my gag reflex, sung karaoke with a very drunk Japanese man, haggled, been bitten by mosquitoes, visited the office a few times, and celebrated Thanksgiving. To which you might say, “wait, isn’t Thanksgiving in November?” To which I respond, “not if you hang out with Canadians.”So I’ve been trying to do a few things — one of them is to accept my current state of cultural inefficacy.When you arrive to a new place, there are things you are not going to know — language, customs, where to purchase eggs at the best price, etc. You can try and act like you’ve eaten Tuo Zaafi and soup with your right hand your whole life (when in fact you’re left-handed and are a big fan of flatware). You smile and nod as your friend/host carries on the conversation. Suddenly, with all of the elegance of a newborn giraffe, you miss your face. Soup drips slowly down your chin. You pause, pretend that nothing is wrong, reach for a napkin casually, glance up at your friend, and notice that he awkwardly looks down at his plate. Errr.*Embarrassing things happen to most people, but with a much greater frequency and certainty in a foreign context (So I’ve found). As the old Polish proverb goes, “a silent fool will always remain a fool.” Or something like that.So if I’m going to learn some phrases in Dagbani (one of Ghana’s 79 local languages), I’m going to have to be ok with a little butchery of the language. If I’m going to learn the layout of the city I’m living in, I need to run that errand even though I’m not 100% sure where the building is. If I’m going to make my experience in Ghana valuable, I’m going to have to ask some obvious questions and make mistakes. To mistakes!* - the following story is not as hypothetical as the author would like to suggest, but rather a fairly accurate account of a recent Saturday outing.