Monthly Archives: July 2012

Mangos and Subsidies

During pre-departure training in Toronto, one of the exercises our group went through involved analyzing a failed initiative in the Upper East Region of Ghana. This initiative was the Pwalugu Tomato Factory, which existed to process locally-grown tomatoes into tomato paste that would be sold within Ghana. The factory ended up going under for a variety of reasons – a big one being that agricultural subsidies from EU countries undercut the market, causing the locally made tomato paste to be more expensive than imported paste. Thus, customers bought the less expensive paste, and the factory was no more.

In the late 1990’s, a Dutch businessman saw a market opportunity for organic mangos in the EU. Given his strong connections to the Ghanaian agricultural industry, he hired a few mango experts to assess the viability of growing mangos in the Northern Region of Ghana. To that point, mangos were primarily grown in southern Ghana, and those trees had no organic certification.

The mango consultants assessed the soil and temperature conditions in the region, and said organic mangos could be grown here. They told him to plant Kent trees, and to expect income generating yields 4-5 years after planting the trees.

Thus the ITFC was founded. It began with a few hundred acres of trees owned by the company and eventually expanded to an outgrower scheme. This means that they had to go around to farmers in the region, convince them to plant a few mango trees and labour for 4-5 years before making any profit. The farmers were used to harvesting crops some weeks after planting them; waiting several years before any harvest would occur was an unheard-of request. But the ITFC told them that mango farming would increase their annual income – moving them from subsistence farmers to profitable farmers. So farmers bought into the scheme. Up to 1400 farmers were recruited by 2008 – recruitment tactics were working.

But there was still one hiccup in the project – and it was a fairly large hiccup. Most farmers, 7-8 years after planting their mango trees, were harvesting little to no mangos each year. So farmer recruitment stopped, and the ITFC decided to focus on getting adequate yields from the mango trees already in the ground.

It turns out that Kent trees weren’t suitable for the climate in northern Ghana. They thrive when nighttime temperatures reach 10 degrees celsius, but the temperatures in the Northern Region never fall that low. Current projections estimate that the trees will take 15 years to acclimatize to their new environment. That means that for the earliest planted trees, adequate yields are 3-4 years away.

As a result, some farmers have become disengaged and mistrustful of the ITFC. OMOA exists to alleviate alot of the concerns farmers have, and that job has become quite difficult in recent years. Many of the mango farms are not being ‘slashed’ (the grass is not being cut); AEAs and management need to keep on top of many farmers to get them to spray their trees; and some of the pruning work that has taken place recently has been done poorly.

Right now, the ITFC and OMOA are trying to bridge the gap that exists between now and 2015 (when yields are predicted to increase). It is a trying task and requires alot of time in the field talking with farmers.

Lets assume that by 2015, yields reach a level that generates income for the farmers and for the ITFC/OMOA. Grade A organic mangos will be exported mainly to Europe and sold at an unsubsidized price. Grade B mangos will be produced into dried mangos and mango juice as a secondary income for the company.

Now lets assume that a developed country (lets say Canada) figures out a way to grow organic mangos and wants to exploit that market in Europe. On their way out of the country, Canadian Grade A organic mangos will be heavily subsidized to ensure that Canadian mango farmers make an income. This will cause Dutch and UK customers to buy the cheaper Canadian-grown mangos when they’re at the supermarket, leaving the ITFC mangos on the shelves.

There are many aspects of the ITFC’s business model that I am not aware of. Those aspects might make this mango project work in the long term, but to some degree, this project will only succeed in so far as external forces allow. Poverty will still exist in African countries as long as other countries want it to.

Many people assume that they can only affect the quality of life in developing countries through taking a plane over and spreading first world ‘wisdom’, but there are very important roles that Canadians can play on their own soil if they want a world in a better state of equilibrium. Until widespread action evolves from that line of thought, many more empty fruit factories will shoot-up throughout Africa.

The ITFC/OMOA compound behind the Tamale-Bolgatanga Road

The OMOA office. My workspace is a 1×1 square foot corner on Issahaku’s desk




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What I did last Thursday

I wake up. Listening to the people moving outside my window, I know I’m one of the last to wake in Gushie. I kick my bug net out of my way as I get up, incidentally enlarging that hole which appeared in it a few days ago.

I head outside and see my landlord with a bunch of other men in the village sat on the bench outside. Tossing a ‘desba’ their way, I head towards the woman selling pic-and-peas down the road. It’s a dish that involves cowpeas, gari, and some spicy liquid on top – it’s a pretty good breakfast. After downing that with my anti-malarial pill, I head down the road a little further to get some rice in a ‘rubber’ (a black plastic bag) for lunch.

I finish my bucket shower (using the drain in my room) and bike to work. I’m the first one to arrive at the office. This is the usual, as my three coworkers live in Tamale (45 minutes away) and drive into work each day. I make some tea and put in copious amounts of sugar and cream (as is the Ghanaian way), then check my email.

After ‘browsing’ (going on the internet) for a while, I head to the curb outside my office to hail a ride to the village 20 minutes away.

This week, OMOA has been hosting its quarterly farmer meetings. They are all done in dagbani, but I have been sitting in on them to ask the farmers questions (through a translator) about their relationship with the ITFC AEAs. Today’s meeting is in Pong Tamale.

After 30 minutes and a few chats with ITFC employees (they work out of the same building as OMOA), I manage to hail a ‘tro-tro’ (a modified minibus – it is meant to hold about 12 people, but seats are added so that they hold close to 20). I score a seat next to the side door, which will make for an easy exit once I get to my destination.

I arrive in Pong Tamale. After walking around arbitrarily for a bit, I see my coworker Amin (the OMOA Administrator) picking up some pure water sachets (filtered water in 500ml disposable plastic bags – how I drink all my water) for the meeting. I head over and he leads me to the meeting location.

The meeting begins. Even though I don’t understand the words coming out of his mouth, I know that Issahaku (OMOA Coordinator) is talking to farmers about new district by-laws that are meant to curb bush fire problems. My dagbani skills have been coming along ‘biela biela’ (slow slow, i.e. gradually), but a little too biela biela for my liking.

After getting back to the office and chilling with the OMOA staff and executive members for a bit, we begin to brainstorm ideas for a Cordaid funding proposal Issahaku asked me to write.

OMOA is currently in a precarious position: the association is meant to operate off a 2% source income allocation from each mango farmer, but mango yields have taken longer than expected to increase and make this business model work. Currently, OMOA is reliant on donors to pay staff salaries. It is estimated to be another 3-4 years before mango yields increase to a level adequate enough to sustain staff salaries. So during that time period, OMOA needs to find ways to sustain its operations (i.e. pay staff salaries).

So it was an interesting conversation.

After everyone else left the office to head to Tamale, I pack up my stuff and bike home. As I head down the hill towards my compound, the kids in the area run alongside me. They take my bike and helmet while I unlock my room door, and take them inside once my door opens. The plus side of this scenario is that my bike and helmet are now in my room; the downside is that the kids came with them.

After managing to kick the kids out (‘chumna, chumna!’ = ‘go, go!’), I take my book (currently the first lord of the rings novel) and sit on the ledge outside my door and read. The kids go through a variety of activities while I do this: dance to get my attention, climb up onto the ledge next to me – a few of the bolder ones worm their way onto my lap. The nerve!

A light shines in my eyes. Someone outside my room door is trying to get my attention. My landlord is beckoning me to come eat TZ and pepe soup with him. I gladly comply. We go outside near the bench he was sitting on this morning and assume a squatting position while we dig into the bowl of TZ with our right hands (not with our left hands … never with the left hand).

My recovery period for TZ is complete. I am now able to stand and walk to the middle of the village to hang out with my ‘group’.

My group is essentially a group of friends my age who hang out on a bench outside each night. But it’s more formal than any group of friends I have in St. John’s – there is a group leader and a deputy leader. Also, if one group member is not adhering to group standards they can be voted out of the group. Apparently that has happened before. So the standards for behavior are a little higher than they would be during at evening at Big Ben’s.

But tonight nobody is at the group. I suppose the rains and cold weather (cold for Ghanaians at least) scared them off. I take a long route back to my room.

Dental hygiene has not forsaken me in Ghana – I brush, I floss and I rinse my mouth with water.

Then I head to bed.



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A Visionary Post

This post is about as thick as cocoa porridge. If that’s your kind of thing, then read on (but make sure you look through EWB’s Vision 2020 first).

To me, EWB has always seemed a little scatter-brained. It’s an organization whose name appeals to engineers, whose activities appeal to those interested in international development, and whose programs in Africa seem so ridiculously abstract that they may only appeal to those with a sense of adventure.

To get into specifics, in Canada the main project areas of EWB can be vaguely categorized as youth engagement, public engagement, political advocacy, global engineering, and the team formerly known as fundraising. In Africa, EWB’s work currently involves 4 countries (Ghana, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia). Five EWB teams exist in these countries, with Agricultural Extensions in Ghana, Governence and Rural Infrastructure in Ghana, Water and Sanitation in Malawi, Business Development Services in Zambia, and Agricultural Value Chains in Ghana/Uganda (to work solely in Uganda in September).

These teams have not always existed as such. EWB has been jumping around and changing focus areas repeatedly over the past 11 years. This has resulted in a present focus on African program areas that don’t correlate to each other or to programs in Canada. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, as this type of dancing around is necessary in development work where real problems are tough to spot and real solutions next to impossible to achieve.

However, I think that these frequent changes in direction will eventually cause (if they have not already caused) EWB to become a series of independent cogs going in unrelated directions with no real unity. Within a growing organisation with a high turnover rate, this can be, and possibly has been, a problem. An organisation should have overarching traits, goals and themes that fuel it’s work.

Before January, EWB revolved around the disgusting term ‘capacity building’. To me, this term has no real meaning and does not befit a machine with any control over it’s cogs. However, in January, EWB released a new organisational vision. The vision is meant to guide the work of EWB in Canada and in Africa over the next 8 years through outlining EWB’s purpose, the problem we are solving, our principles and our approach.


In using the vision as a means to hold the many limbs of the organisation together, lets take a look at how my placement in Ghana with the Ag-Ex team fits into EWB.

This past Fall, EWB team MoFA decided it was time to formerly change their focus. Working within the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture had seemed like a good strategy for a while, but a top-down government mentality made it difficult for EWB to effectively scale projects and change attitudes at a reasonable rate. The team had learnt alot during their time within MoFA. A fair bit of this knowledge revolved around agricultural extension work.

With extension work becoming increasingly prominent in the private sector, team MoFA saw an opportunity. Over 60% of the population of Ghana are farmers (many of these farmers rely on extension work for new farming ideas and techniques); small changes in agricultural extension work can have far reaching effects in Ghana (agricultural extension work is incorporated into most agricultural organisations and projects); and very few other organisations actually focus solely on agricultural extension work (making it an area in which EWB can actually add value).

And so team MoFA became team Ag-Ex.

My placement revolves around this reasoning. I am looking into how the extension chain works for a private sector organic mango company and trying to use team knowledge to optimize this chain. I will also be making recommendations on how the team should move forward given my experiences with OMOA and the ITFC.

In many senses, my placement does not directly relate to the vision of EWB. However, when the vision is related to the ambitions of team Ag-Ex, my placement objectives become more relevant. My placement is important for team Ag-Ex to grow and learn about what techniques are currently working and not working within the private sector agricultural extension field. It is important for team Ag-Ex to see how knowledge garnered from many years of working within the Ministry of Food and Agriculture translates to the private sector.

I do think that the current ambitions of team Ag-Ex relate to the vision. More specifically:

  1. Delivering effective extension work revolves around investing in people and making the most out of the skills they have. These people can be the individuals who train AEAs before they head out to the field, they can be the ones who provide new ideas or advice for knowledge transfer to farmers, or they can be the AEAs themselves.
  2. Based on what I have noticed and on what many others (farmers, AEAs, external observers) have seen, effective agricultural extension work can change the lives of many throughout Ghana.
  3. The agricultural extension sector is changing – extension work is becoming more common within private companies. EWB is changing with it. We are positioning ourselves well to partner with and provide support, knowledge and relevant mindsets to companies that are new to extension work.


Despite these specific references to how team Ag-Ex relates to EWB’s vision, I think that the main purpose of the vision is to have a mindset within EWB staff and members that is continuous throughout the organisation. As long as I am a JF, if I try to have conversations with the people I interact with that will result in a better use of the skills they are responsible for; if I try to optimise the work of OMOA and the ITFC through whatever means at my disposal; and if I ensure that I work with my two partner organisations to locate problems and try out solutions, I will be bringing some sort of continuity to EWB’s work.

Over the next 8 years, as long as EWB members keep the mindset garnered by the vision in the back of their mind when they are doing whatever they do on behalf of this organisation, it should ensure a sense of continuity within EWB (even if seemingly scattered work undertakings still exist).




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Halfway There

I’m getting close to the halfway point of my placement in Ghana. I think the exact halfway day occurs sometime this week. But anyways, to mark this upcoming day, last week the EWB Ghana team had a Mid-Placement Retreat (MPR) for JFs and a Team Ghana Retreat (TGR) for all EWB Ghana staff.

The purpose of the MPR was for JFs to reconnect, share ideas and relax/act like a tourist in Mole (pronounced Moe-ley) National Park for 2 days. It was pretty sweet. We went on a walking safari of the park, saw some elephants, baboons, warthogs and a few deer-like creatures that I forget the name of.

It was fun staying up past 9:30 p.m. each evening (which is a rare feat for me in Gushie), and then waking up later than 5:30 a.m. and going swimming in the pool each morning. I think the highlight of the weekend for me was the Ghanalympics. It involved various competitions between the three EWB teams in Ghana – the Agricultural Extensions (Ag-Ex) team (the one I’m on); the Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) team; and the Governance and Rural Infrastructure (G&RI) team. The competition involved comparing a story told by one member of each team, an ‘Azonto’ dance off (it’s a Ghanaian dance), a rap battle, a photo competition and a Ghanaian accent competition. While my attempt at a Ghanaian accent was a little too Eastern Europeany for the judges, the other Ag-Ex members picked up the slack with storytime and the dance-off. It was also pretty fun chirping the other teams in the rap battle. I think we had a moral victory there.

On Friday we got the tro-tro back to Tamale for the TGR. All of the APS were present for this retreat, and the sessions involved a bit more high-level thinking with respect to the goals of each team and each placement and how they relate to the overall objectives of EWB in Ghana. It was a good change of pace for me – it got me out of the day-to-day tasks mindset I had developed within my placement thus far.

On Sunday we had a Canada day barbeque in Tamale. It was pretty awesome. We had sausages, chicken, guinea fowl, kebabs, vegetables, mangos, ice cream, brownies, and a few other things. (Normally I wouldn’t list all the food from a particular meal here, but given my steady diet of beans, rice and TZ in Gushie, I felt I needed to.) Needless to say, it was a fun afternoon. Later on, we went out for a game of frizbee before going out to dinner.

Monday was a pretty laid-back day for me. It was a national holiday in Ghana (it turns out Canada day coincides with Ghana day, but that holiday isn’t widely celebrated here), so I had the day off from work. A few people got up early to get their buses back to their respective villages and cities, but where I’m so close to Tamale, I just hung around the guest house all day and got a taxi back to Gushie at around 5:00 p.m.

Now I’m back in the thick of things with work. There are the OMOA quarterly farmer meetings coming up soon where I will try to speak to as many people as possible to get their thoughts on the ITFC extension chain. I’m also beginning work on adapting the Agriculture As a Business workshop for OMOA. So it should be a busy couple of weeks.


A bunch of JFs after arriving in Mole

Nick (who hails from Corner Brook) posing with an elephant

Sarah (from Calgary) with an elephant

From left to right: safari tour guide Mohammed, Julien (from Montreal), Simone (from Fredricton), Robin (the Ghana Human Resources APS), and Sarah (still from Calgary)

A different elephant

A few more JFs with a different tour guide

Here are those deer-like creatures I mentioned

Mamma and baby baboon

A warthog. One of these was sleeping outside my room door last Thursday afternoon. I started to lob rocks at it to entice it to move –  it didn’t work. Then a parks worker came and threw rocks at it with a bit more force – that worked.

Our room in Mole. Jimmy (from Sackville, New Brunswick) is pictured.

… this guy

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