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Viewpoints

Opinions and views of local, national and international EWB people

02 Dec

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Fair Trade Waterloo Meeting

December 2, 2011 | By |

Fair Trade Waterloo is in its growing stages and gathering momentum towards a long term goal of getting Waterloo certified as Fair Trade City, promoting awareness and increasing the availability of Fair Trade Certified products in the area. If you are interested in learning more about Fair Trade Waterloo, the next meeting will be held at Whole Lo-a Gelata (Uptown Waterloo) on Wednesday December 7th at 6:00pm.

31 Mar

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Strategy Development in Small Meal-Sized Chunks

March 31, 2011 | By |

What am I doing here? Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Here’s another good update from Erin’s blog, reposted here with her kind permission:

Hello world,

I’m writing this post to introduce a new concept we want to try over here at EWB. I’ve been hanging out in the “international development/aid online community” for a while now and while it’s fun to chat, I’d actually like to put this community to work! (And yes, family, friends and colleagues, I want you to help me out too!) One of the favourite conversation topics is poorly designed development projects. While it’s fun to bash these projects, it’s harder to design good ones. I’d like to use this opportunity to seek out feedback on our team’s next move in public sector agricultural development.

This is an experiment! The plan is to outline our team’s strategy development process and the various investment opportunities we have, then seek external feedback on where we can invest and how we can play a bigger role in the agric sector. I have no idea if this experiment will work out, but I think it will be interesting to try! In order to work, it relies on a few success factors:

  • lots of readers – so please share widely so we can ask for widespread feedback!
  • feedback from within and outside the sector – if you know people in the agric development sector, send them this way. If you know smart people who would just be interested in providing feedback, please also send them this way!
  • sustained readership – unfortunately there is a lot of info, so it’ll be going up in a series of posts – you gotta keep reading to get to the meat! We’ll see whether people can hang in this long.
  • understandable posts – we’re looking for feedback on whether you have any idea what we’re talking about… so let us know!

As I wrote in a previous post, our team is currently undergoing a rigorous strategy development process. Thanks to Ben‘s personal interest in the tech start-up world, we’re trying something very new: applying start-up business principles to our strategy development. For a bit of background on why we’re applying these principles, see Ben’s earlier post, Tech start-ups and human development: different worlds?. Ben will introduce you to the tech-world language, but it basically advocates a Searcher rather than a Planner mentality – figuring out what people want before scaling it to a broad level.

Ben will be writing a series of blog posts in the next few weeks describing our process, model and some of the initiatives we’re looking to invest in. I’ll post links here on my blog, but please comment over on his blog – we’re hoping to get tons of feedback and discussions going!

So, without further ado, I will guide you to the first post over on Ben’s blog: Strategy Development in Small-meal-sized Chunks.  Enjoy!

20 Feb

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What am I doing here? A Bitter Pill

February 20, 2011 | By |

Update From The Field

Grand River chapter’s Erin Antcliffe, one of EWB’s hardworking African program staff, has posted a frank and informative new entry in her blog (February 17th 2011).  You can read it here, or on Erin’s own site “What am I doing here?   Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana.”

As I near the 1-year mark of my work in Ghana with EWB, I’d like to reflect back on what has happened over the last year. We embark on these jobs and journeys with the hope of making the world a better place, of somehow contributing to “international development”. However, I’m forced to acknowledge that it’s unlikely that anything I’ve done in the past year has directly improved the lives of poor Ghanaians, and that is a bitter pill to swallow.

I know, that sounds really negative. But believe me, it’s not all bad! There are different types of impact we can have – from short-term, direct and focused to long-term, indirect and widespread. My direct impact this year was limited, but I’ve had impact in other ways. So please bear with me as I get to the end of this post – there is a happy ending!

   Maize farmer

2010 was a rough year for our team, alternately known as Team MoFA, Rural Agriculture Ghana or Agribusiness Ghana (we still don’t seem to have settled on a universal name). When I arrived last March, the team was undergoing a rocky Team Leader transition, which inevitably led to a short dip in team productivity. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to fully recover from the dip, and the new Team Leader stepped down in January, leaving a vacant place at the head of our team. We also went from being a 9-person team, when I arrived in March, to the current 4-person team – a huge loss of resources. Most of this was just due to people’s contracts being up and not enough new volunteers to fill their places, but it will still take some time to rebuild our numbers.

In terms of strategy, we haven’t seen as much success as we hoped with the Agriculture As a Business program (for more details on the challenges, please see my previous post). The political and systemic barriers in the Ministry of Agriculture are too imposing to lead a significant change in extension from the ground up, and we’ve been unable to influence the right people at the top. Volunteers in districts were getting demotivated by barriers that were out of their control, and all the high-level talk about mobilizing farmer groups didn’t materialize into any concrete changes in the sector (policies, funding, etc.) .

We had an amazing group of Junior Fellows (students) from EWB join us in the summer, but they experienced many of the same challenges. They achieved a few fabulous short-term successes, yet on the whole were unable to institutionalize the Agriculture As a Business program in any of their Ministry of Agriculture district offices. We concluded that our current pathway for scaling the Agriculture As a Business program was ineffective and decided to reallocate resources to address district management challenges. A few Professional Fellows experimented in this domain, with varying degrees of success in individual initiatives, such as improving staff meetings, management styles, collecting feedback and time management strategies. But none of these initiatives promised the transformational change that we want to see in the way the Ministry of Agriculture is run from the top.

The one successful initiative I participated in this year was the DDA (District Director of Agriculture) Fellowship, a management and leadership program. It was a success in the sense that all the DDAs loved it, and tried to apply what they learned in the management of their districts. However, it’s really tricky to know whether this has trickled down to the extension staff and actually improved the work they’re doing in the field, with farmers. This is definitely more of a long-term change, a culture shift that will gradually result in improved staff performance. But evaluating these types of programs is really tricky, and attribution is very difficult, so… who knows??

The only direct impact I’ve probably had on poor Ghanaian farmers is through my personal interactions with my host family and friends in the village. I’ve treasured these interactions and really tried to be a good role model and influence. However, I’ve been hesitant to provide any form of material aid, beyond a few Christmas presents that I brought back from Canada, for fear that it will change the nature of our relationship. I did support the local women’s shea butter production group by buying 200 bars of soap to take back to Canada (it’s great stuff!), so I guess that cash injection probably made a small difference. But is that really the type of work I came here to do? No…

Zuo Women’s Group, producers of high quality shea butter soap

A few things I’ve learned in the past year:

  • As much as we talk about effective program design, its often the operational capacity of an organization that is the bottleneck to achieving success: it’s amazing how much time and energy can be spent on just making a team function. I have great admiration for excellent managers, admin and support staff who, if they’re doing their job well, you don’t even really notice in your day-to-day work.
  • It is unrealistic to achieve widespread impact in 1 year: we need to break 1-year placements down into specific “learning” or “doing” chunks so volunteers realize they’ve contributed something meaningful. For example, if we’re trying to make a big change in technology adoption through agricultural extension, a 1-year volunteer should have a mandate such as “learn about tech adoption techniques outside of the public sector in Ghana” or “pilot one new tech adoption approach with extension agents in your district and prepare a report with your recommendations for the team strategy going forward”. If they hit on a genius idea, great – we’ll scale it! (if there’s a scaling mechanism). If it doesn’t work, also great! share your learning and how we should change our approach in the next iteration of the strategy.
  • Effective interventions (or inventions) only matter if there is a way to scale them (or sell them): you might have the greatest idea in the world, but it doesn’t matter if no one sees it. Transformative change needs to reach scale, one way or another!
  • Perspective matters: even if you DO know what needs to be done, on the ground, to make a significant improvement to the lives of those living in poverty, you need to find a way of framing it so that it matters to those making the change, from the bottom (field staff) to the top (policy-makers). Just providing evidence to support your case is not enough; you must account for political, historical and social implications as well.
  • Field realities are valued: EWB gets a lot of street cred for being “in the field” or “on the ground”, working in districts (not the most glamourous of job locations). We need to find better channels for sharing these field realities with those higher up the chain of command. (Suggestions?)
  • Opportunity cost: there will always be more opportunities than you can take advantage of, the hard part is gambling on which opportunities will be most worth your time in the end.
  • BONUS EWB lesson: it’s ok to fail, as long as you LEARN and CHANGE as a result! (check out http://admittingfailure.com for EWB’s recent initiative on encouraging learning from failure in the NGO world)

Now, as we peer out at 2011 with a couple months already in our pocket, our team is forced to admit that we’re not achieving as much as we’d like. While we can’t categorize the Agriculture As a Business program as a failure, since it IS an effective tool for building farmer groups and developing business skills, it’s not quite a success either, since we can’t get the Ministry of Agriculture to adopt it at the scale needed to achieve widespread change.

     Hakim – a future farmer?

There has been a lot of talk about failure recently, and encouragement for NGOs to admit failure when it happens. But this is a clear example where the situation is not black or white, failure or success – but rather grey. In our team’s collective experience in Ghana, a lot of other NGOs/projects at this point would keep lauding their programs as successes and putting more and more resources into them. Instead, we want to acknowledge our lukewarm progress and shift to where we can have white hot results instead. It’s frustrating for our staff to keep banging our heads against the wall in a program that’s going against the flow of the current agricultural sector trends. We’re not giving up on this program; but until the stars align to facilitate the widespread changes that are needed (district autonomy, decentralization, performance incentives, etc.) it is more effective for us to invest our energy in other places.

We’ve now been working with districts in the Ministry of Agriculture in Ghana for 6 years. We’ve met a lot of key players, we understand the system, we’ve seen lots of challenges and we’ve built strong relationships. We’ve tried a few things, with varying degrees of success, but nowhere near the scale of change we want to create. Now we have a bunch of cool ideas, but we have no idea which one is going to work. In the spirit of complexity, we’re not going to throw all our eggs in one basket; instead, we’re going to explore the change potential of a number of different initiatives and gauge the reaction of those in the Ministry of Agriculture and in the wider agricultural development sector. I’ll be blogging more about this strategy development process as it unfolds, so you can all follow along with me!

Back to that bitter pill: my underwhelming personal success. Is this the kind of year I wanted? Of course not. Has it been a waste of time? Heeeellllll NO! I have learned SO much valuable information over the past year that will allow me to position myself to create the change I want in the coming 2 years.

You might think I’m demotivated. That I’m frustrated by the pace of change and our inability to see any real impact. That I’m ready to throw in the towel and truck back home to an easier job in Canada. But you’d be wrong! Strangely enough, I’m more motivated than ever! Something about being faced with so many challenges at once has really sparked a fire in me. I’m excited to drive the team in new directions, to get us excited about what’s next and to build ourselves up into an impactful, influential team of agric superstars! Seeing the passion and dedication of my fellow teammates has forced me to find renewed resources of energy in myself. I can’t wait to see where we go next.

18 Jan

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My Malawian Home

January 18, 2011 | By |

Video Tour of Alyssa’s Home in Malawi

Hi EWB Grand River ~
As EWB African Program Staff we are strongly encouraged to take some time to experience rural life and better understand the realities of the people we are working for.  I’ve spent the last two months living in Andrea Jere Village, just outside of Mzimba Malawi.   Here’s a brief tour of my family’s home, to hopefully share a little window into my experience. 

My favourite parts of this video are the obvious improvement in commentary as my brother Andrew takes over from my bumbled attempt, and Amama’s slightly prompted, but genuinely friendly, wave at the very end of the clip.  Enjoy warming up from the Canadian winter with some warm Malawian hospitality!  Just click this wmv video link:  My Malawian Home .

21 Nov

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Farming Lessons

November 21, 2010 | By |

From Don McMurtry’s EWB  Blog  Mudzi Madzi :

Last night it rained most of the night and today the radio was saying “the rains have arrived” as they forecasted clouds and rain across most of the central and southern parts of the country. The farmers have been preparing their fields for months and will probably move into planting mode this week. In some places where it has already rained, maize is sprouting.

Over the past few weeks I have learned a few things about farming in Malawi:

Lesson #1 — Everybody farms
Well almost everyone, but with over 80% of people in Malawi depending to a great extend upon their farming income and harvest, it is the foundation of the economy. Obviously we all rely upon farmers, but at home it is easy to forget about them. Here in Malawi, farming, even if you live in one of the large cities, is hard to ignore — there are people selling domestically grown food in the streets every day. Even wealthy Malawians will frequently have some land within their walled and guarded grounds to grow some food, typically mazine (aka white corn).

Lesson 2 — Farming can be Controversial
I started this message about three weeks ago when I discovered enormous lineups for subsidized fertilizer. The photo doesn’t give a sense for the scale of hundreds of people waiting to get seeds or fertilizer. It also doesn’t show hundreds of bicycles like the ones in the foreground that will peddle and push a 50kg bag to a near-by village. The door opens at 7:30, I am not sure when the line starts forming — probably very early if you live 10 or 20 kilometers away. These lineups will continue for some more weeks as some people just received their coupons today.

A few weeks ago the lead story in the newspapers was about a large NGO suggesting the government could not sustain the small farmer assistance program and it should be stopped. The President of Malawi says and does a lot of strange things, but I agreed with his response that western nations have substantial subsidies to various industries and they have no grounds for complaining about his government helping poor farmers.

In each village there is a process for deciding who qualifies for subsidy assistance, with input coming from the village chief, a committee and the Agriculture Ministry’s local staff. Being on the list means you will receive four coupons (50kg fertilizer, 50 kg urea fertilizer, maize & legume seeds) and it seems they must come on different days for each item. The subsidized price for the fertilizer is about $3.50 vs the normal $30-$35 list price. Apparently fertilizer this year is half the price of last year. I can only imagine that someone left off the list would not be very happy.

Lesson 3 — Small change, big result
A few weeks ago a colleague from Canada made a short visit to Malawi on her way to Mozambique and Zambia to check some facts and gather some first-hand stories for a report she is helping edit. Nidhi’s contacts took us to visit some farmers who have been using a technique referred to as conservation farming.

Since I arrived in Malawi, I have watched people all across the country hoe their land into long ridges that contour the land — the standard method for growing maize. Everyone grows white corn in Malawi because virtually everyone eats it a couple times per day in the form of nsima. The conservation method creates pits across a field and they generate about 50-100% more yield for the farmers we met. The logic is that the pit holds rain water better and reduces runoff. In a dry year that is critical. The land is also not tilled every year which helps reduce soil loss and also keeps more water in the soil. Some farmers we met also inter-crop — meaning they plant other species within the pits. Beans are the classic because they put nitrogen into the soil while maize consumes it.

You can continue to follow Don’s blog at http://donmcmurtry.wordpress.com/

27 Oct

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News From Mark In Ghana

October 27, 2010 | By |

Update From The Field

Grand River Chapter member Mark Soares has joined the team of the District Agricultural Development Unit (DADU) in Saboba. He has been working with fellow Grand River volunteers Ben Best and Erin Antcliffe on tackling some of the management challenges found in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture that are affecting the implementation of the Agriculture As A Business Program. 

Some of Mark’s other day to day responsibilities include:

- working with staff at the office, helping them with office tasks;

- working on the EWB “ Agriculture as a Business”  program coordination and curriculum delivery;

- doing field visits with an Agricultural Extension Agent and delivering one of 10 workshops associated with the agriculture as a business program, to a farmer group in a rural village.

Learn more about Mark’s work with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and his exciting adventures in Saboba by following his blog!

11 Oct

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Are you a Planner or a Searcher?

October 11, 2010 | By |

Update From The Field

Hello Grand River !

Reporting in from Mzimba, Malawi where I’ve been working for the past month and half as part of EWB’s Water and Sanitation Team with the Mzimba District Water Development Office (DWDO). 

The DWDO is responsible for providing sustainable water access to rural communities across the district.   This goal doesn’t just mean installing boreholes and water points, but perhaps even more importantly, it involves making sure that the water points stay functional, that communities are aware of proper sanitation and hygiene practices, and that those areas with the most need are being addressed, in order to provide reliable and safe water access to everyone.    It’s not an easy job, but it’s an important one. 

As the Grand River Chapter’s African Partner, it is my job to keep you updated with the work that EWB is doing on the ground in Malawi that everyone’s hard work and financial contributions are helping to support.  I’m excited to still be closely connected with the Grand River Chapter, despite being geographically quite far away. 

I’d like to introduce you to my blog: www.lyssintomalawi.wordpress.com, where I’m keeping track of thoughts, feelings and experiences to share with others.  We’ll also make sure that at least a monthly update appears on the Grand River Website, so you can follow along as my work progresses.  This week’s entry ‘Are you a Planner or a Searcher?’ looks at questions I’m asking as I examine my role within the DWDO.

If you have any questions, thoughts or ideas about our African programs, and/or how they can be shared with individuals in the Grand River Area, I would be happy to talk to you more.  Please use the contact form on this website to get in touch with me.  I look forward to speaking with you!

Mwenda makola (may the journey be good),

Alyssa

27 Sep

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What am I doing here? – Part 1

September 27, 2010 | By |

Update From The Field

Grand River chapter’s Erin Antcliffe, one of EWB’s hardworking African program staff, has posted a fascinating and informative new entry in her blog (September 17th 2010).  You can read it here, or on Erin’s own site “What am I doing here?   Reflections on my role in Ghanaian development.”

Alright, enough of this fluffy stuff. It’s time to get down to business. I want to finally answer the question you’ve all been asking:  What are you actually DOING over there ?

I’m going to answer this question in a series of posts over the next few weeks. I’ll start out with the basics, then dive deeper into the “what”s and “why”s behind what I’m doing here. After all, that is the name of the blog!

So let’s start at the beginning. What does it mean to work for EWB in Africa?

My work is divided into 4 main areas: Partner, EWB team, Canada connections and Personal (in no particular order – no, health does not come last in the priority list!). Let me tell you a bit more about what I’m trying to achieve in each of these areas.

Work with my Partner:

Our team is partnered with MoFA, the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The purpose of this ministry is to increase food security by providing extension services to farmers, including technical knowledge, business advice and skills training.

Ghana is divided into 10 regions, each with a regional-level MoFA office, then each region is divided into several districts (the number depends on the size and population of the region), each of which has a district-level MoFA office. EWB is working with MoFA at all of these levels – National, Regional and District. I am working at the Tamale District office and also occasionally at the Northern Regional office (which is also in Tamale).

We work with MoFA because MoFA works with farmers, which is the majority of the poor rural population in Ghana. These are our “target beneficiaries”, if you want to use the development lingo. Working with MoFA allows EWB to reach a wide number of farmers thanks to MoFA’s well-established extension network. However, MoFA is also constrained by a lot of issues common in developing countries. Some of these issues are beyond their control, such as donor constraints and lack of funding. But there are other issues that can be addressed, like motivation, management skills and staff capacity to do the work.

Our goal is not to add additional programs to MoFA’s plate (which is what most NGOs/donors do – design their own programs and use MoFA as an “implementing agency”, taking them away from the work they’re supposed to be doing). Instead, we are working to strengthen the core MoFA extension work – helping farmers to improve their farms and put more money in their pockets. This means embedding ourselves in MoFA’s offices and working alongside the staff to address everyday issues, as well as encouraging them to have a long-term vision for the work they’re doing.

Work with the Agric Ghana EWB team:

The Agric Ghana team is currently made up of 6 African Programs Staff (APS) and 3 Professional Fellows (ProFs) from EWB’s Professional Chapters in Canada. We work closely together, communicating often even though we are spread out across 2 regions in northern Ghana. Once a month we come together to work as a team for a weekend. During these meetings we work on team strategy including planning, evaluating and changing our programs, work to share what we know with others, do some professional development and have a whole lotta fun! These meetings are great for keeping us on the same page as a team and enhancing the work each of us is doing. We also give and receive coaching with other members of the team to help each other set goals and grow. It’s a great environment to work in – I love this team!

Canada Connections:

Believe it or not, I actually consider it work to keep in touch with Canada! I do this because otherwise I would never prioritize time to write in my blog, or take photos to send to the National Office in Toronto. But I think one of the most important things we can do as APS is to let other people know what we’re doing. All of you reading this in Canada have an enormous amount of information at your fingertips, and a huge potential to use this information for outreach to the Canadian public and advocacy to the Canadian government. So let me help you by telling you what I know!

I am also partnered with two of EWB’s student chapters in Canada, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo (go W’s!). My job is to keep them informed about what’s going on with the Agric Ghana team and give them resources to help with their programs, from fundraising to member learning to outreach. And of course, we want to develop some awesome personal connections between EWB’s African programs and Chapters. Can’t wait to work more with these amazing guys and gals!

Personal:

Finally, I have some personal goals for my time in Ghana. These include things like health and fitness, happiness and motivation, keeping in touch with my friends and family at home and making time for personal and professional development. For example, I’m really good at building trust with people, but I need to work on how I use that trust in group situations. I’m also working to become a better manager. And of course, I’m trying to eat my 5-10 servings of veggies every day! (Though it’s virtually impossible here… man, I never thought I would miss salad!)

I hope that gives you a good overview of what it’s like to work for the Agric Ghana team. In the next post, I’ll tell you more about what I’m actually doing with MoFA. Until then, please send your comments and questions my way and I’ll do my best to address them in the coming posts. Thanks for reading!