MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

The national picture of soy in Ghana

For much of the last month, I have been helping the market linkages team conduct a value chain update. This is part of a mid-way point evaluation of the GROW project to help inform possible future interventions in the remaining three years of the project.The first two weeks of February were spent undertaking interviews with key actors at various levels of Ghana's soybean value chain, from the small village aggregators and market sellers, to large multinational firms. This saw us travel to border villages with Burkina Faso to the capital of Accra and many points in between.The team carrying this out consisted of Hilda Abambire and Mohammed Fatawu, our value chain people in the project, myself, and the project manager, Ariane Ryan.We started in Accra, meeting with equipment suppliers, and an industrial user of soybean oil – the Azar paint company. We then traveled to Ghana's second city of Kumasi and spoke with processing companies, the state seed distributor, financial institutions and poultry operators.All throughout these interviews, one consistent theme arose: There is not nearly enough soy being produced in Ghana to meet the demand. The huge unmet demand for soybeans and its associated products in Ghana has meant this gap is being filled by imports of raw beans, soy oil and especially soy cake used in animal feeds.This reliance on imports for a large portion of the country's demand for soybeans is a double negative for Ghana for two reasons. First of all, the country has great potential and many natural advantages to be able to grow substantially more soy. This is a missed opportunity not only for the country's agricultural sector, which could be growing a high value crop, but also for many potential downstream commercial activities – from milling and processing, to end product creation – that create more value. Secondly, importing soy adds to the trade deficit, one of the many large macro-economic difficulties facing the country.However, there are positive developments. Farmers and other market actors are slowly beginning to realize the great potential in this previously relatively unknown crop. The pace of change is not as fast as we would like: Service providers, seed growers and other key actors are still not able to meet the demands of producers. Although, the market forces and price signals are slowly starting to turn increasing numbers of agriculture value chain actors towards the soybean. This, along with help from projects like GROW, and increasing attention and recognition from government policy makers on the crop, means Ghana's soy production is sure to increase in the coming years.
Continue reading
5269 Hits

A new way of living

b2ap3_thumbnail_Helping-out-with-the-food-preparation.jpg
b2ap3_thumbnail_At-the-market.jpg
I spent the two-week Christmas/New Years break in Lomé, the capital of Togo. I couchsurfed while I was there – a website that connects travellers to locals who open up their homes and allow that person to crash or "surf" on their couch or any sleeping surface. There is no expectation of payment, and depending on the host, lifelong friends can be made in a matter of a few days.I had done this many times before but all in Europe and North America, pretty much all were great and memorable, but all were in situations and cultures that were at least vaguely familiar to me as a middle-class Canadian. This was certainly not the case in Togo. For two weeks I got the full experience of living like a typical Togolese with my Togolese peers. I slept on the floor sometimes, had bucket showers, didn't go on the internet, ate what my hosts ate, drank what my hosts drank, hung out with their friends, went to their spots, and lived life at their pace.Sometimes there were long periods where nothing really happened, we lazed about and didn't really do anything. No electronic devices to distract, or appointments, or things coming at you. Constant stimuli are a luxury of developed countries or of the wealthy. In underdeveloped parts of the world, you have to just pass the time with nothing but the people around you. I came to appreciate these moments; this is when you just need to chill out, and be centered in yourself. It builds trust in those around you. I really had to learn how to just "be", and hang out with your friends doing nothing. You have to lose that nagging flighty-ness, not think about what others are doing or thinking, not think about what you should be doing, and not worry about the future.These were contrasted by periods of fast action and intense stimulation of the senses: Fast nights jumping from place to place, all on the back of motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic. Walking through jam-packed markets where every sight, sound, and smell is new. The constant bartering over prices, and everyday tasks that require so much more than this North American could ever have thought.All this reinforced a few things...1. You have to take life it as it comes; planning and the future are luxuries. Live in the present. Eat when there is food in front of you, drink when you have drink, and sleep when you have a bed.2. You have to be capable. For example, fetching water from the well for the first time, I felt so helpless; I couldn't get the technique to fill the bucket and could only retrieve a small amount each time. If you can't do something, learn fast, because as a grown person, you don't want to be a burden on others.3. Saving doesn't happen. If you have money, spend it. If you have food or water, you consume it now, because if you wait, there is a good chance it won't be there in the future, just due to the uncertainties and precariousness of life.4. Reciprocation and sharing are hugely important and reinforce bonds in a powerful way. Because the typical Togolese (or African for that matter) won't always have money or food, you have to rely on others. Sometimes you pay, other times your friends pay. That way you won't ever go hungry when others are eating.5. When the good times roll, jump in with both feet because there's no guarantee tomorrow will offer you the same opportunity that you have now.It really was a life-changing experience. It changed me by showing me a different way of living, with new rules, new social norms, new burdens and new rewards. I gained broader perspective on what life is for a large part of humanity and will carry those lessons and experiences with me. I loved it all.
Continue reading
4671 Hits

Hard work and a bit of luck

This week we had a Project Advisory Committee, or PAC meeting in Wa. The meeting was attended by a majority of MEDA Ghana country staff, MEDA staff from HQ in Canada, representatives from our five key facilitating partners (KFPs), folks from the Canadian embassy in Accra and Global Affairs Canada, as well as a representatives from the Ghana Health Service and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.This was my first PAC meeting. What I was able to take away is that things seem to be on the up and up. There was a great deal of optimism for year three of the project, and I feel like things have improved in that regard since the last PAC meeting in June.This optimism will surely be necessary. The project has ambitious targets and the rate of uptake by the clients (i.e. the number of women planting soybeans within the GROW project) must increase drastically for next year's planting season and in subsequent years for these targets to be met.I have two thoughts on this. Initially I fear that the low hanging fruit has already been targeted so to speak; that it will be difficult to convince the remaining women who are enrolled in GROW but aren't yet planting, to plant next season. These remaining women are perhaps more risk averse and will be very hesitant to try something new making achieving the targets set for the number of women planting a tall order.Countering this is that the initial work put in with the other value chain actors will hopefully yield more reliable service and more stronger linkages after a longer duration relationship has developed, enabling more women to access these crucial services and inputs when they need them and allow more to plant. This will work in the project's favour going forward and be a positive factor in the following years that was not present at the outset.I think it will come down to whether or not women who have planted in the past were successful. In groups where women have been successful and have earned a decent income from their crop it will encourage more women from those groups to plant next year. However, in groups where women encountered problems and were unable to earn an income, or a high enough income to justify their efforts, it will be very hard to convince additional women from those groups to try planting, and indeed it may be hard to retain the numbers we do have.The abilities and strengths of our field officers will affect this to a degree, but I have learned that it is very hard to change people's perceptions and change ideas that have been long held and are entrenched. Some of the shortfalls from last season were due to bad luck, such as poor weather. In some of these communities successes will beget more success, but in communities that experienced difficulties, we will certainly have our work cut out for us.
Continue reading
4595 Hits

I believe in what we are doing here

I have now started getting into the "meat and potatoes" of the work. I am meeting regularly with Mr. Baaro, the gentlemen who I am supporting with his soymilk business. I am helping him track his costs, prepare marketing materials, and determine production levels and the selling price.This is as much a learning experience for me as I am not an expert in business. Figuring out when the business will make its return on investment (ROI) is going to be fun to calculate as there are lots of moving parts that go into it and measuring it is not always precise in the best circumstances (let's not forget that pesky Ghanaian inflation). However, I have received good support from the other MEDA staff here and I have a clear goal – which is to see Baaro Enterprise turn a profit from producing and selling soymilk and to therefore become a sustainable and reliable buyer of soybeans from local farmers.I have also been tasked by Catherine, the country manager, to work with the other staff to compile a manual for the field officers. I have now attended 5 meetings with our key facilitating partners (KFPs) – local NGOs that MEDA has partnered with to carry out the GROW project at the community level.From those meetings, I have learned all of the challenges and opportunities that the field officers face in implementing the GROW project in the communities. A myriad of obstacles must be overcome; logistics, social group formation and navigating the web of community relationships, ownership, the availability of financial services, even the weather. But this manual will hopefully smooth out some of these hurdles and support these field officers by providing them with a template for action, including who will be supporting them at each stage of implementation.It also helps that I believe in what we are doing here. I have met many other expats and a few have shrugged their shoulders when I ask what sort of work they are engaged in, saying something to the effect of "well I just do whatever".This was one of my biggest fears in heading overseas to do development work – that I would simply be a "voluntourist", involved in a project with a fuzzy but lofty sounding goal, but with no concrete outcomes that would change anything. If our project is successful it will create meaningful and more importantly long-term and permanent change in the lives poor, rural Ghanaians.
Continue reading
4998 Hits

A Canadian Thanksgiving in Ghana

b2ap3_thumbnail_The-buffet-table.gif
b2ap3_thumbnail_Enjoying-the-food-and-each-others-company.gif
This past weekend was thanksgiving back home in Canada. One might think that this would make a wayward Canuck passing the holiday thousands of miles away in Northern Ghana a little homesick; missing a nice home-cooked meal, enjoying the company of family and friends, fall leaves crunching under foot. But nothing could be further from the truth.This past weekend was filled with all of those things – minus the crunchy fall leaves part. The expat community here in Tamale rolled up their sleeves and cooked, baked and basted their way to faithfully recreating a North American holiday tradition in the heart of West Africa.There was squash, mashed potatoes, carrot, rice and eggplant dishes, tilapia, salad, couscous, green beans, and of course turkey and stuffing. Dessert included 4 pumpkin pies (made with local squash I am told, although surprisingly indistinguishable from the pumpkin version) apple crisp, chocolate cake, and lots of ice cream.The celebration wasn't confined to Canadians, but included Ghanaians, Danes, French, British, Americans, Nigerians, Dutch, Swedes and others - around 50 or 60 people in total. For some – probably a majority there – this was their first experience with this holiday, and I am sure it left an indelible and positive impression.Sitting along two long tables in the still hot and humid evening, people from all over the world sat and talked, shared their backgrounds, their aspirations, their stories. I met people from everywhere, but was able to connect quickly and meaningfully to all of them. Indeed Tamale seems to attract similarly outward looking, engaged, and thoughtful people.For me the most beautiful aspect of this is that we Canadians were able to share a part of our culture with people from across the globe, and that everyone took part with enthusiasm and zeal and came out with stronger ties to one another. It is my hope that I will be able to take part in many things that are uniquely Ghanaian during my stay, and similarly strengthen my ties with people in the communities I will be working with here.
Continue reading
4820 Hits

More than economics

My second day in Tamale, and I am slowly getting used to the pace of things here.My fellow intern, Clarissa Heger has been an invaluable help, showing me some good spots in Tamale and introducing me to the rest of the staff at the office here. The real work has yet to start, but I have been getting good background information from the office team here.The week before I arrived, some of the office staff attended the opening of a soy processing facility in Wa, which is where I will be doing most of my work.One of the principal tasks I will be engaged with, will be publicizing and explaining the process of producing soy milk so that potential investors will be able to see the opportunities of this particular market. There is an entrepreneur who has already invested in this, and who will be buying soy from the farmers that MEDA has trained.The more buyers and markets that exist for soy, the better, and developing this market will mean more opportunities and earning potential for the smallholder farmers who are producing soy.However, numerous challenges exist. Soy milk is a very foreign product here in Northern Ghana, and creating demand for it will be a challenge. Also, competing with cheap imported soy will be a challenge for producers here.I have just come off of a 3-month contract working in the Department of Agriculture at the provincial legislature in my hometown of Winnipeg. Part of my duties there entailed putting together a daily news briefing for the minister and other staff. I am fairly well versed now in the movement of key commodity prices and trends in agriculture.The world will see a very large soy crop this year, as several key countries including the United States (the world's largest producer) and Brazil are harvesting record crops. The downward pressure this will put on soy prices will be problematic as the soy processors that exist here may look to cheap imports.Conversely, though, the Ghanaian cidi has been depreciating and this makes importing more expensive, which will make domestically produced soy more attractive to processors here.All of this highlights the risks of the marketplace, and doing business in a globally traded commodity. However, the diversification of Ghana's agricultural sector will help mitigate these downside risks. For too long, Ghana's agriculture sector relied on the export of cocoa. With the development of other crops and products, the price swings of one commodity will be mitigated.Furthermore, any displacement of imports with domestically production will improve the country's balance of payments and put the country on a sounder economic footing.This in and of itself is laudable. However, this is only one small aspect of the GROW project. The main goal of GROW is to improve the incomes of rural women and the nutritional outcomes of their families. The benefits this would have are too numerous to mention here and would far outweigh the narrow benefits identified above and I will leave that for a later blog post. Needless to say, this is a very exciting project to be involved with.
Continue reading
4131 Hits

What brings me to Ghana

I will start soon start my 6-month internship with MEDA as an Enterprise Development intern with the GROW project in Northern Ghana when I fly from my hometown of Winnipeg to Toronto to Amsterdam to Accra, and finally to Tamale.Like many recent young grads, I came out of university without a definite career path. I studied different subjects and my smattering of volunteer and work experience during and after school has been in a number of different fields. And since entering the job market, it became clear to me that I will likely put in time with many different organizations over the course of my working life.My favorite subjects in university were history and economics and I am a huge news junky and consumer of all things political. What does someone with these interests do? What sort of career should I be looking for? Well, one option is to go to northern Ghana for a 6-month internship doing rural development work in agriculture.I have known for a long time that I am interested in the world; in the people and history of different places. To gain some understanding and appreciation of how different places work or don't work, how people make a living, raise their families, and relate to others.As I enter my late twenties, the devil-may-care adventurism of youth is beginning to fade, and some more practical thoughts are creeping into my head. What kind of job security will be there for me? Will I be able to earn a living to support a family? Will I be able to find work where I can make a difference; work that is fulfilling and enjoyable?But the drive to learn and experience new things is as strong as ever, and I know that by fully immersing myself in new situations and taking advantage of the unique opportunities that come my way, I will be better positioned to handle the ever changing labour market and much more likely to find something that brings me genuine satisfaction, in addition to a paycheck.Will development work be a good fit for me? Probably. Will there be a job that is satisfying, and perhaps more crucially, available to me after this internship? Maybe.One thing seems to be clear for the generations growing up now; the prospect of a "career" or lifelong job with one company is a thing of the past. Young people today (myself included) will likely work in a few different fields, with different companies or organizations in the private and public sectors. The question that the new generation faces is not only will I be able to find a job or career, but will I be able to find a something that is right for me?I am not sure what the next half-year will hold, nor what I will do afterwards. But I do know that this will be an incredible learning experience, and will give me a good taste of what development work at the ground level entails. And this is exactly what I am looking for.
Continue reading
4547 Hits