Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Overview of the Villages

Before I go any further in documenting my time in the rural hinterlands of Liberia, I thought it would be helpful to give a quick tour of the villages, Boi Town (pronounced "Boy") and Kpellemue (pronounced "Belly-moo"), which are nearest to Gbanga city in Bong County. I did this walkthrough at the end of my stay, and planned it so that it was midday when people would be working and I wouldn't be ransacked by each and every villager eager to say hi.

From village to village it's about a 15 minute walk, but I've condensed it (and added music) for your sanity. Along the way I point out a few key people and places, some of which I'll refer to in subsequent posts. You'll also notice me repeating the same several phrases - I had the greetings down pretty well, as well as commonly used items for me like "cutlass" and "country axe", but beyond that I pathetically defected to English. Needless to say it led to some interesting, if frustrating, conversations.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Living Their Life: Entering 2 Weeks of Immersion and Uncertainty

I was probably scared, early on in my trip. Since I set off I’d wanted to live in a village, but I've balked. I’ve lived in South African slums for several days, had a few nights’ stay in Bangladeshi villages, and trampled around countless times for hours on end through ghettos and rural communities in the world’s poorest countries. But I wasn’t living their life. I was observing, interviewing, walking around, going to social events – and my Western preoccupations were never really checked at the door. I was always planning, producing, multi-tasking.

Finally in Liberia everything came together: a harvesting season (where labor is needed and I could be used), an English speaking country, and a connection to a villager. So, a friend of a friend of a friend said sure, his father would put me to work. Not knowing any of these people, as usual, I just took their word and snagged a free ride one Saturday morning, heading several hours over crumbling roads into the war-ravaged interior of the country.

Arriving in the small town of Gbarnga, I met my friend of a friend, Johnny, at his Carter Center office. An impressive individual, Johnny served as my contact in case anything went wrong. He introduced me to Cooper, the son of the old man I’d be working for. I hopped in the back of truck with Cooper and his friend, and we drove through a light rain shower off to the village. I was nervous. Two weeks, alone in the bush, as an outsider to a bunch of people with whom I have nothing in common. What would we talk about? How awkward would it be living with the old man? What if I got sick? (I brought no medicines, no water purification, nothing) And perhaps my biggest concern: what if I was just bored all the time?

When we arrived, some half hour later (not far, but far enough to see no trace of modern civilization), we were in solid bush. The village was Boi Town. I hopped out of the back, and met Togbah, a short, scruffy old man with graying hair, a strained face, and condemning eyes that were initially hidden behind a big grin and welcoming attitude (pictured in orange shirt). He insisted I call him his Papa (pronounced “Pap – A”), as he was known in the village as the Papa. My things were dropped off at his house, which was quite impressive, and then we walked to his farmhouse, five minutes away. His daughters were pounding rice and his wife was busy at the fire. From his farmhouse we made stops at every home and person, introducing me. Finally we came to the village “restaurant” that serves breakfast and lunch, run by the wife, Framadah, of Togbah’s younger brother Amos.

“Do you want to bath?”, asked Amos. “What?” I asked, bewildered. In hindsight, it was really dumb for me to assume I’d bath at the house, since the village has no running water. Next thing I knew, I found myself stripping down by a murky puddle next to an old guy I’d met 30 minutes prior so that we could cup water from the puddle and splash ourselves clean. So much for small talk.

That night dinner was delivered to me and Togbah at his house. Everyone else claimed they had eaten, so his wife Gamay (pronounced “Ga – may”), his 18-year-old daughter Esther, Ma-Mary the 2-year-old toddler, and others including James (in red hat) and Goma (pronounced “Go – ma”, pictured in orange shirt helping to find a creative way to hang my mosquito net) who were somehow related to Togbah, sat around watching Togbah and I eat this large portion of rice, greens, and fish. It was very awkward – almost like the white man and alpha male got all the food and everyone got what was left over. Had they really eaten?, I wondered. After dinner we sat around, in the dark, passing a bottle of hard liquor between Togbah, James and me while everyone watched. Two sips later I was already feeling the buzz. Looking back, that first bottle was a warning sign of things to come from Togbah.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Punk'd: Liberia Style

What works for development? One of the main problems with development is that in many cases, we simply don’t know. Failed approaches get tried over and over again by different organizations or even the same ones – in Ghana, an organization with which I worked was planning a community grain storage scheme in the same manner that had previously failed. When I got assigned to the task, I started asking questions, doing interviews, and digging deep for data – at least in the handful of organizations with which I worked, there wasn’t any organized manner for looking at past results (partly due to digitization only since the late ‘90s). And there certainly isn’t any database between organizations to document past experiences. So, most of the records are either buried deep in the archives, found in some long chain of emails, or recalled only from the memories of development workers who may or may not still be with the organization.

Compounding this problem is that even when you do find the records, it’s almost always a self-evaluation. What a breeze Vanderbilt would’ve been had I been able to grade myself! I was actually brought on with TechnoServe in Mozambique to gauge the impact of its poultry project. I tried to be objective as possible, but when the organization that you’re evaluating is paying your bills and giving you all the contacts, there will be some bias. And there’s pressure to paint a positive picture, because that improves your chances of getting a gig at another project, as it did for me in Ghana. Most NGOs are guilty of this.

Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) is trying to change this. Based out of Yale, the NGO and its sister organization J-PAL at MIT are conducting randomized controlled experiments to test and improve the effectiveness of poverty alleviation interventions. So, they will generally go to an NGO that has or will have a program soon starting, take a baseline survey of random villages both included and excluded from the intervention, and after the intervention administer the same survey to the same villages.

IPA interested me because of its unique role as an NGO that supplies the implementing NGOs with the information they need (though IPA has recently started doing implementation itself). To get to know the organization better, I volunteered just for a week and a half helping design a very small part of a survey that was to determine whether peace education was worthwhile (peace education is big in post-war Liberia). The UN and Liberian government had implemented a huge program to train communities in conflict resolution.

For my part, the setup was that after the team had finished administering the survey to the entire village and right before they were to leave, several enumerators were to get into a staged fight in the presence of the village chief. How would the chief respond? Had the training improved his “conflict resolution”? I was tasked with designing the skit and training the enumerators to act it out. Not the budding Shakespeare everyone believes me to be, I asked for the help of some locals in writing it. Training them was hilarious – when they practiced it out in the church (above), several unknowing pedestrians came by to try to mediate the fake fight. Liberians (and I tend to believe Africans in general) are amazing performers, at least when it comes to getting in fights – I think because they often do get in real fights themselves.

It really got fun when we went to local villages to practice on unsuspecting village leaders. We first asked permission to act it out, but this didn’t work since they knew what was coming. I did a quick 180 and in the next village we did a fake mini survey as a pretext for being there. I excused myself to go to the bathroom so that I – as the survey team leader – could not be assumed by the chief to take action when the fight broke out. I took a video, which was previously posted but had to be taken down in response to IPA's human subjects liabilities. The chief comes out saying, “We don’t fight here! I will fine you!”, and the village chair soon after runs out too. From there we go to the palava hut, and evenutually reveal the skit as a fake. There’s a moment of disbelief and then everyone just starts laughing hysterically. Invariably this was the response of the villagers. Everyone was a good sport, and the chiefs were especially interested to know how they performed.

(Ivory Coast Update: On Thursday the election results were announced with opposition candidate Ouattara winning in a 54% to 45% margin. On Thursday night, incumbent president Gbagbo's ally in the Constitutional Council called the results announced by the Independent Electoral Commission null and void. Gbagbo has instituted a curfew, closed borders, and threatened to kick out the UN envoy. Gbagbo's henchmen are patrolling the streets of Abidjan, and on Thursday night they opened fire at point blank range, killing 8, at the opposition party headquarters in Youpougon, the exact compound I spent time interviewing opposition supporters. Riots have broken out across the country. As I write this, both candidates are being sworn in as president, and the country is on the brink of civil war. International community supports Ouattara, and the African Union is holding an emergency summit to decide a course of action. The news is coming out by the hour. For a good article and stunning pictures, go here.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Effects of War

Civil wars are not created equal. When you hear about different African countries recovering from civil wars, the degree of healing varies. Liberia makes Cote d’Ivoire look like a Sunday warm-up. Nearly everyone you talk to here has been affected by the war, usually directly and severely. Joseph (on the left), who I had lunch with one day, had just two weeks ago returned from a refugee camp in Ghana after being there for seven years. In his room, I saw his few personal items still half unpacked. He recalled back to 2003 when, with the war closing in on him and his family, they spent their last $200 to pay for a motor canoe to flee the country. After a less than fun week of vomiting, eating and drinking almost nothing, and relieving oneself in front of everyone (50 people packed onto a small canoe), they landed in Ghana. Seven years of living in a refugee camp and he was forced to come back when the school at which he was working in Ghana was cutting staff and he couldn’t get a ticket to the U.S. It’s hard not to run into someone who doesn’t have a similar story.

His brother Emmanuel (to the right of me in the picture) was currently in university getting his B.A. He is 30 years old. On average most people I met were years behind their grade level, due to the schools shutting down in most areas during the war – 12 year-olds in 1st grade, 20 year-olds in 5th grade, etc. I had the chance to visit the University of Liberia for the day, arguably the country’s best university. The teaching was, in my opinion, pretty subpar, though the professors may not have been at fault. It seemed like they were reading a lot of definitions for the students to copy down, something they should have covered in their preparation. But then I found out that books were too expensive for the majority of students to purchase. One of the interesting things I saw was that they were covering indifferent curves in their economics classes; granted it was something I learned in my first year at Vanderbilt while they were just getting to it as juniors, but they were covering it nonetheless. Now that schools are back open, the classes are heaving. The classes I saw were spilling out into the pathways, and students searched for anywhere to sit, while those less lucky had to stand for the lectures. Large populations of students are pressed into a limited number of schools – roughly 70% of schools were damaged or destroyed during the war, and 35%, of the whole population has never attended school, according to the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. Until education improves, it’s unlikely that many of the top jobs in these big MNC’s like BHP Billiton will be able to go to Liberians.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Liberia: The Other Lone Star State

After an epic two-day overland trip involving motorcycles through the bush, creaking minibuses aboard which I garnered the name “Obama”, sleeping in a village at the border, and over 20 police checkpoints (and 4 forced bribes on the Cote d’Ivoire side), I found myself in Monrovia. If the capital city sounds vaguely presidential, it’s because Liberia is one of only two African countries with American ties (the other being Ethiopia).

Liberia had been on my hit list for a while because of its US connections, but more due to its being a reconstruction economy. Ranked 162 of 169 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, Liberia is a country starting from scratch. Two brutal civil wars in 1989 and 1999 (to be detailed in a following post), which basically spanned from 1989 until 2004, left over 200,000 dead and the country’s infrastructure in shambles (the Guinness brewery, which I toured, was left alone, unsurprisingly!). When I told a US Foreign Service Officer that I was interested in development and wanted to meet USAID officials, he asked what part of development, and explained, “Liberia is rebuilding literally everything. Everything is in development.”

He was right. But it’s not just thephysical guts of the country, but the human capital. Over 1 million people fled from a country that only has 3 million to begin with, and as of 2005 half of those remained to be repatriated. Many are educated Liberians. On a flight, I happened to sit next to one, who had left before the war and only been back three times to see his grandparents. He said something interesting about Red Light, an area in Monrovia with which I was familiar, and which was notorious for muggings. It’s one of the trashiest places in the city – the side of the road seems like a soggy landfill. Being in Africa for nearly a year, I dismissed this as just another African street, but he explained in 1980, when he left, it was never like this. Liberia, he said, was like “the United States of Africa”. It was one of the shining stars of Africa, years ahead of now prominent countries like Ghana.

So Liberia has gone from African standout to devastated failure. What to do? The country made history in 2005 by electing the first, and still only, female president in Africa – and a sharp one at that. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (pic above, credit: myhero.com) is a Harvard-trained economist and former director at the UN and Citibank, among other institutions. She has a stellar resume and Western connections and support rarely privileged to African leaders. The US Ambassador to Liberia, in a fascinating NY Times article I suggest you read, explained, ”We see her as one of us.” Much more than other African politicians, she takes a fiery, no-nonsense approach. Fed up with corruption that was proving difficult to stem, just two weeks ago she dissolved her entire cabinet except one minister.

Mama Ellen, as she’s affectionately called, is known for being a tireless worker, even at age 72. I had the opportunity to have dinner with one of the directors of Liberia’s Philanthropy Secretariat. The unique unit resides in the Office of the President and is tasked with helping attract and channel philanthropy money from private donors (like Gates Foundation, not USAID) to on-the-ground projects. The employee I talked to explained that there is almost never a night when he leaves and Sirleaf’s office light is off, and he works late hours.

Her hard work seems to be paying off, at least internationally. She has attracted big MNCs like ArcelorMittal and BHP Biliton, two of the world’s largest steel companies, and has renewed contracts with Firestone, there for the country’s rubber trees. Her biggest accomplishment has been convincing the World Bank and IMF to cancel the country’s $4.6 billion debt (the country’s GDP is $876 million). Most Liberians I talked to felt she was doing a pretty good job and some even spoke overwhelming positive about her – they couldn’t come up with much negative, except for her work on the domestic front, which they say has taken a backseat to her focus on international relations.

What is most clear, though, is that these people have hope. They believe things are getting, and will continue to get, better. This was quite the opposite of what I saw in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise when you’ve hit rock bottom.

(Note: 3rd picture is cassava leaf and rice, which I ate a lot of.)


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amidst the Mob at Alassane Ouattara’s Election Kickoff Rally

Apologies for the two-week hiatus. I was away in rural Liberia for an amazing experience that will be documented shortly. But before that I need to wrap up my experience in Cote d’Ivoire. During my stay in Yopougon neighborhood and interviews in the same area, I befriended some of the leaders of the local headquarters of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, who asked if I wanted to meet the presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara. Unfortunately one opportunity was missed when I went north, but I was invited to the kickoff rally on the first official day of campaigning.


When I arrived with Cisse to the muddy, open area the size of two football fields, the crowd was already buzzing with energy. A crowd of youths ran through the streets chanting “Ado is the way!” (Alassane Dramane Ouattara takes the nickname “Ado”). We were able to maneuver our way into the VIP/journalist area quite easily with our connection and my skin color (Indeed, I never saw another non-black the entire day), and found some standing room within about 30 feet of the stage.


There were people on top of people. As far as the eye could see, there were people – on top and inside of buses, hanging on to old billboards, finding space on distant unfinished construction projects. I was wearing many people’s sweat. We arrived around 2:00 p.m. and Ouattara didn’t appear until after 6:00, during which time the crowd became increasingly crazy with anticipation like a little kid waiting for Christmas. As each of the prominent party members came on stage, I could feel people closing in on me. The fence behind me separating the masses from the VIP/journalist area bulged and looked like it could give way at any minute. People were forcing themselves over the fence, despite the efforts of security. (The amazing thing is that by all accounts, no one was drinking, which is interesting in that 1) this was raw enthusiasm and 2) I’d be afraid what might happen if there had been alcohol involved.)


My experience at election rallies is very limited, but the atmosphere, when Ouattara finally arrived, was pure electricity. Not a citizen of the country, even I had chills running down my back. You could sense this was a country ready to move on, enthused about what’s next. Some journalists insisted that I get up close to the presidential candidate for pictures, like they wanted me to show the world that Cote d’Ivoire is ready for change. Ami, one of the party staff I knew, texted me and told me to come sit in a section neighboring Ouattara’s platform. With all the commotion, I wasn’t to get any personal time with him, but when he did make his way for the main stage, I had the opportunity to shake his hand and wish him the best. Having played his part on stage, Ado retreated and left the stage to a band for an all-night concert. Cisse and I, likewise, moved to the outskirts of the rally area, before heading to a nearby bar for drinks to reflect.


All this comes back to my unanswered question: Does democracy promote growth in ethnically diverse countries? Research has shown good governance to have a positive, significant effect on growth. But as far as I can tell with a cursory view of the literature, whether “good governance” is a proxy for democracy is still open for debate. In some cases, some research found that political institutions such as dictatorships or democracies were not important, but rather political stability was.

(Note: The elections went off peacefully, with a voter turnout of 83%, one of the highest ever recorded for a multiparty election in Africa. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo received 38% of the votes and Alassane Ouattara received 32%. The runoff is slated for November 28.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fed Up, Yet Hungry at the Same Time

"I think that today, it is the population, the citizens, who will impose peace to [the] politicians [and elections]…People will kill each other never again."
--Acouba Outtarra, Bouke city school teacher

Anticipation. If I had to describe the atmosphere of the country right now in one word, that would be it. Ivoirians are nervous about the potential for violence, but excitement to exercise their right to vote outweighs any hesitation. A very watchful international community, including the large UN and French contingencies on the ground, is keen on seeing this election happen peacefully.

The excitement is pervasive. Everywhere you could hear people talking about the election, and go by almost any school and you’d see snaking mob lines of people waiting for their identity and voting cards, which the election commission is furiously trying to get distributed in time (I say "furiously" half laughingly, because of the African context). I went with Cisse, my translator, to talk to some of the waiting citizens (see pics 1 and 2). One woman had waited in line for four days, each day being turned away. This was par for the course. And people arrive early. Cisse’s sister was sent at 4:00 a.m. to wait, and was replaced by Cisse’s 70+ year-old mother, Salimata Bakayoko, when Cisse’s sister had to go to school. For four days Salimata waited in the heat, finally getting the cards. I am expecting a very high voter turnout.

At the root of the country’s excitement to vote is that they are simply fed up with instability. It’s impossible for a country to plan when the administration in power doesn’t know if there will or will not be a presidential election in one year's time, and the effects are compounded when this happens every year, for five years. And it shows in the country's infrastructure and business activity. No foreign business, or local business for that matter, is willing to make any investments until the elections happen, and happen peacefully.

This became very clear when I took a trip to Yamoussoukro, the official capital. There I stayed with Regis, a
really cool Ivoirian working in a bank. He made me feel right at home at his place, organized group dinners with his Ivoirian friends (who could also speak English!), and connected me to Kinda to serve as my translator. Kinda had been an English teacher at a local university, and introduced me to the director, a very traveled, educated, and impressive guy. He explained that he went ahead and began funding the school himself because no investor was willing to put in their chips until the election. As for Kinda, we quickly became good friends, and I could certainly write an entire post just about him. Abandoned at birth and adopted by American nuns, he has been in and out of jail five times for being an outspoken supporter of foreigners’ right. Two years ago he walked for eight months from Cote d’Ivoire to Mali to raise awareness for a proposed UN commission to support foreigners’ rights. Immensely fascinating guy. As a side note, I even had time to see the basilica, which is the largest Christian place of worship in the world (bigger than the Sistine Chapel).

From Yakro, as they call it, I hired Kinda and went to Bouke, the stronghold city of the rebels in their once northern-controlled area and one of the most affected from the wars (last pic: weeds and brush now growing in the abandoned structure of one of the city's most prominent hotels). Most people advised me not to go, which is exactly what drew me to the area. Plus, I generally think hospitality wins out over hostility. During my time there I heard incredible stories about schools closing for years and people scrapping by during the war, and now how excited they are to vote.

But the most interesting thing about Bouke might have been the large security presence, which is most evident at the city’s entrance. Arriving into the city, I was confronted with the biggest security checkpoint I’d ever seen. Fifty or so armed soldiers patrolled the area. Kinda and I were told to get out of the gbaka and funnel through a large hut, almost like we were at a border to another country. There we met an officer. He demanded a "toll" for us to get through, much higher than ordinary
Ivoirians because of my status. "Why?" I heard Kinda ask in French. He responded, "Here you don’t talk much. You give or you don’t pass." When we were leaving the city, an officer, wearing a ragged, badge-less but official uniform, begged me for some money. These soldiers are mostly former rebel soldiers who failed to make the cut (e.g. they were illiterate) to be absorbed into the national forces. The government’s employment project for them didn’t pan out as planned, and so many are forced to take tolls at the city gates to survive, or in some cases, beg.

From Bouke, we headed back to Yakro in a horrendous gbaka ride (a story in its own right) just before I jetted off to Abidjan for an amazing opportunity to be part of the election activities.

(Note: I have been behind in posting because of my travel, and am no longer in Cote d'Ivoire. The election takes place tomorrow, and of course I am excited to see the outcome.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Identity Crisis: Does Ethnicity Kill Growth?

Over the course of my trip I’ve thought a lot about ethnicity, democracy, and their relation to poverty – from hearing an Indian friend in Pune tell me he sometimes wishes there was only one party so the newly elected would stop filling its pockets every time, to Mozambique, where a close friend was an organizer for the opposition party – but I’ve never really put together coherent thoughts. These barely qualify as such.

The primary issue behind the civil wars and postponed elections in Cote d’Ivoire is one of identity, and thus who is allowed to vote and stand in the elections (above, citizens are finally getting their voting card and IDs after years of using expired ones...more on that later). Immigrants have come into Cote d’Ivoire for years from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso to work on cocoa plantations and live mostly in the Muslim north. They primarily support opposition leader Alassane Ouattara (a former IMF director...a smart dude), a Muslim himself who has had his nationality questioned by President Gbagbo, preventing him from running in the past and serving as the root cause of the civil wars. Outtara has since proven his Ivoirian status and is now allowed to run in this election, to the chagrin of Pres. Gbagbo. The minorities have their man.

I snooped around the slums of Yopougon for several days with Cisse, my translator, looking at the issue and how it has affected the growth of the country and the lives of average citizen. Taking specifically the case of minorities and the surrounding discrimination, I met one individual named Bakayoko Moussa. A Muslim northerner from Boundiali, he moved to Abidjan in 1978. But, he explained, “In 2002, everything changed. People started to point us out as foreigners.” Despite being an Ivoirian, his ethnicity made him stick out, so much so that at highway police checkpoints he was accused of providing false papers.

But Bakayoko’s experience goes much deeper than that. After my interview questions were concluded, as usual I asked if he would like to ask me a few questions or add anything. He had apparently lowered his guard to me. He said, “I will add something important that’s on my mind. For this problem, the identity crisis, my younger brother was killed. He was 21. He was among the martyrs [who died because of being a foreigner or being perceived as a foreigner]…They took a knife and wrote his name on his body and then they took a hammer and broke his knees. This happened in the streets.” Bakayoko explained that with the police out searching for his brother, “he crawled and got under a car. He wasn’t dead overnight”, but after being rushed to the hospital by his family and receiving a transfusion of blood Bakayoko thinks may have been purposely tainted by the government hospital, he died shortly after.

I heard other stories like this of wrongful persecution, of neighbors turning on neighbors, like Djakaria Outtara, pictured with his son Peledene. Still patriotic about his country, he is now trying, for the second time, to get a green card to the U.S. The first time he failed it cost him the $140 application fee, which took nearly two years to save for. I met a surprisingly large amount of people trying to emigrate to the U.S. and Canada, more so than in other African countries I’ve been. It’s amazing to me what Ivoirians have been through and what they’re willing to do for any opportunity.

As I walked around, two questions kept coming into my mind. The first was: Does ethnic diversity harm growth? I did some reading, and without jumping to conclusions about causation, we can say that yes, the more ethnically diverse a country is, the lower the growth rates. Moving from complete ethnic homogeneity (think Korea and Hong Kong) to complete ethnic heterogeneity means a drop in annual growth of 2.3%. Fourteen of the 15 most ethnically diverse countries are in Africa (Cote d’Ivoire has 60 tribes), and eight classified high-income countries by the World Bank are among the most ethnically homogenous. Economists William Easterly and Levine found not only this, but that “greater ethnic diversity increases the likelihood of adopting poor policies and underproviding growth-enhancing public goods.” In other words, bad governance.

With that, my next question was: Can democracy improve on this standard of governance and promote growth in ethnically diverse countries? I’ll touch on that in an upcoming post.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Unluckiest Chicken

"Sometimes I wonder why God put me in Africa."
--Felix, my Ghanaian friend and current footballer

It's funny how some things work out. I arrived with no contacts, no hotel, and no French in a country that is exclusively Francophone. At the Cote d'Ivoire border, the Ghanaian sitting next to me asked me for $3 to buy a vaccination card that he didn’t have but needed to buy in order to cross the border. I gave it to him, only half expecting to get my money back as he promised.

Walter, which was his name, turned out to be a great help and even better friend. After I got into the capital Abidjan, he and his cousin Felix helped me get settled into a cheap hotel for the night. Hours into a new country, I wandered around that night for food, eventually using more body language than a mime to order the dish, which was an amazing braised fish covered in a pile of stuff (I love any food covered in "stuff").

The next morning, Walter and Felix (in pic 1, Walter onthe right, Felix on the left) directed me over to their neighborhood, Yopougon, one of the rougher slum areas but definitely the liveliest. They helped me settle into an $8 "hotel", which was basically a bed with a sheet (that I declined to use), a bucket of water, and a fan.

It was right around the corner from their home, so they basically looked after me for the week while I lived in Yopougon. They invited me to meals, which were mostly Ghanaian, cooked by Joyce, Walter's mother (pic 2) and her sisters living there. It was basically a bunch of Ghanaian sisters who had come to Cote d'Ivoire to trade. Really nice people.

Outside of them often forcing me to eat at their house (I didn’t want to impose), Felix invited me his “academy” – not a soccer club buta bunch of soccer players who are looking to get managers and find a club. Felix sees soccer as his gateway to prosperity – he has the skills “but if only I could get a club”, then it would be easy, according to him. He decided to pursue soccer rather than college, and while I admire his ambition, I wonder how much better his situation will be five years from now.

As a token of appreciation, I purchased a chicken for the family, under the condition that I would be able to kill it. Killing a chicken in the slums or the bush with a local family, as savage as it sounds, became a fellowship goal somewhere around the mid-way mark. Of course, I had to go shirtless and with a headband in order to set the scene, which gave a kickto the family and half the neighborhood’s population. That wasn’t the only comedy – apparently my skill set extends to Microsoft Excel and data analysis but not beyond to killing a live chicken with a rusty old knife. As I was trying and failing miserably to kill it, I could almost hear the chicken insulting me for cutting with the dexterity of a four-year-old wearing oven mitts. Felix’s mom claimed I was trying to cut it too close to the head, but I maintain it was the extremely dull knife, which I saw just minutes before it was given to me being sharpened by Felix on door frame.

Just as I finally thought the bird was mercifully dead, and posing for a picture with it, its bloody half-dead body flapped out of my hands. I argue that it would’ve died anyway, so I chalk it up a victory.

Felix, Walter and I also spent time watching movies, chatting about and watching soccer, and helping me to find a translator. Things move slow in the slums. We’d lose power, and you’d basically have nothing to do, at least until it came back, which would elicit thunderous cheers in the streets.I also helped get Walter set up on email – not only had he never used email, he’d never used a computer. I had to teach him how to click a mouse. This is not like working in a low-income school in the US, like I did at Vanderbilt. This is a whole new level.

What finally did me in was the food. Fighting sickness I had to move out and into a nicer apartment with a really cool Ivoirian named Erikson. Not that the food was bad tasting, but rather just a tad unsanitary (That last picture is black eyed peas, random item #1, onion, random animal meat, noodles, and no, that’s not sour cream but mayonnaise – I had to try the dish). You tend to get that feeling when your beans and rice crunch with grit.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Border Blunders in Côte d'Ivoire

I’ve long since given up trying to plan my trip continents at a time. The whims of the world create too much uncertainty and opportunity. Cote d’Ivoire was originally nowhere on my radar, but now I find myself in the country for the exact same reason that some expats are booking flights out – the upcoming presidential elections of a country mired in 15 years of instability.

Cote d’Ivoire has not held presidential elections since 2000. Those elections happened after a 1999 coup by military leader Robert Guei, who won the election. Opposition candidate Laurent Gbagbo claimed they were fixed, and took power after a revolt. The next elections never happened in 2005, because it was deemed unsafe without full disarmament of the rebels. Oh right, I forgot to mention that there was a coup attempt on Gbagbo’s government, which led to a civil war in 2002 that pitted the government’s army in the south against the rebel soldiers in the north. Other issues such as a misguided airstrike (according to Ivoirian officials) that killed French soldiers, the breaking of a peace accord by the rebels, and the alteration of the constitution to prevent opposing candidates from running have been side dishes in this all-you-can-eat buffet of typical African politics.

Since it was deemed unsafe to hold the 2005 election, they extended Gbagbo’s mandate a year through 2006, when the election would then take place. Disagreement between candidates on the date and general ineptitude of registering voters led to the elections being postponed again until 2007, 2008, 2009, and now, finally, 2010.

Before this trip to Cote d’Ivoire I found myself in the TechnoServe office, trying to figure out logistics. “Don’t you want to pick another country?”, asked a Frenchman and former Cote d’Ivoire resident who was at TechnoServe, and from who I was trying to get contacts. Cote d’Ivoire is the first country on the US’s warning list I’ve ever visited and the first in which I’ve ever registered with the US embassy, but I believe that people generally overreact to security issues. I was right about Cote d’Ivoire, though this is the most extensive use of a spike strips I’ve ever seen, and never have I went through more police checkpoints and been questioned more.

I will say that the border was thick with tension, though – the most I’ve ever experienced. After I finally woke up from my slumber six hours later on the bus from Ghana, I soon after found myself trying to maneuver the Ivoirian border. It seemed like it was the officials’ first day on the job – no one seemed to know what they were doing. And I know it wasn’t just me because a smartly dressed British guy, who spoke fluent French and who I first mistook for an Ivoirian, was also lost with me. We scoffed at how amateurish the whole operation was.

My scoffing stopped shortly after. Nearly home free, I was actually on Ivoirian soil when police were hauling me back by my shirt, yelling at me like I’d just killed someone. Apparently I’d just walked right past them without knowing. It was a pretty easy mistake – they were saying “come here”, which I ignored, but they were all dressed in street clothes and only wearing a plastic laminated badges that looked like something I could’ve made in 3rd grade art class. And it’s not like I don’t get hassled by hawkers who are always telling me to “come here”. Even the guy who dragged me back was wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a somewhat grungy-looking white Umbro shirt with red piping.


Scoffing at the amateurism would have recommenced had Umbro shirt and other police not dragged me into an interrogation room and started yelling at me, in broken English corrected for your readability: “We are the police! What do you think you are doing?... You think because you are from America you are better than us? You can just walk right through here?” A full-body search ensued, including everything in my bag. I realized I had on me over 700 USD I hadn’t claimed because I didn’t want the hassle or the potential bribe they might take. As Umbro shirt was searching , the British guy came back to the door and he said, “Don’t let them take any money!” That set them off. Accusation of bribery always does. During the commotion I slipped my money in my pocket that they’d already searched. We hurried up the rest of the search to make way for the British guy, who was now their prime suspect. As I was leaving, Umbro shirt spitefully remarked, “We do our job.” I was quickly escorted out and told to walk to the bus, which was about 500m ahead waiting for us trouble-making foreigners.

I won’t even go into the many accounts of blatant bribery I witnessed between the border and Cote d’Ivoire’s capital, and the skirmishes it caused – it’s like people changed instantly when we crossed the border. Rather, I’ll better explain why I’m here: I’m planning to interview people about their perceptions of the upcoming election, the development of democracy in Cote d’Ivoire, and how the political instability has affected the development of the country and their lives. How democracy relates to poverty is an issue in which I’ve yet to deeply delve. And, it will be fascinating to be a part of what may later be considered the rebirth of once prominent nation.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dancing My Way Out of Ghana

When I arrived in Ghana, I was told by everyone and their mother I would have a blast here. It’s lived up to the hype. There’s been great food (the best I’ve had in Africa), hilariously awkward situations, and memorable nights. But beyond the pure fun of the place is how I’ve developed scholastically, professionally, and personally.

I’d say, probably for the first time all trip, that I am beginning to feel my fellowship goals are bearing some resemblance to completion (note that my goals are to better understand poverty and development approaches…I don’t expect, as a Western male Caucasian, to ever fully understand poverty). At the same time, after volunteering with TechnoServe, I am more confident in my skill set, yet just as keen to improve upon it. I have a better idea of what I want my future to look like in terms of what purpose I have in my life, and what that looks like as a career. Personally, I am more confident than I’ve ever been in who I am and who I’m not. I know better what I want in life and what I don’t want, but of course answers still remain.

Another volunteer had, a few days after my TechnoServe contract finished, moved into my room, but my flatmates, who are now great friends, were willing to put up with me crashing their couch for a week. Not wanting to overstay my welcome and giddy to trample the red soil of some other African country, I booked a bus ticket to Cote d’Ivoire, the once regionally prominent neighbor of Ghana.

The bus had a departure of 5:00 am, meaning I had to be at the station at 4:00. Jana, my flatmate, noted that given the night’s planned festivities, the only logical thing to do was to not sleep. That wasn’t a hard sell for me. The night started out at a cocktail at a couple of Swedish guys’ apartment who worked for a telecom company implementing a mobile cash platform in the country, a concept that is sweeping Africa. As someone who has dealt with the hassles of a cash-based society, I can attest their work is really valuable. They’ve rearranged their living room to include a ping pong table and have commissioned a local painter to paint “the best” person in each field, including the top Swedish ping-pong player and Jay-Z so far. “Are you a big Jay-Z fan?” I asked. “Not particularly,” one of the flatmates answered. Cool guys.

From there we headed to the beach for my last glance at the Ghanaian ocean and the last supper – a delicious meal of chicken and rice. We met up with friends who worked for Innovations for Poverty Action, and my Ghanaian friend Isaac, who I met through the reference of fellow Vanderbilt friend Jessi Solomon, who’s a rock star in her own right. A college student studying business at one of Ghana’s top universities, he’s worked extensively with autistic children and is currently doing an internship with IBM in partnership with German university students. Later this month he’ll travel to Germany to present his work. Extremely friendly and speaking fluent English, Isaac has been an invaluable help and friend to me during my stay in Ghana. Oddly enough, while at the beach I ran into a random Ghanaian who claimed he remembered me from weekends before in another town. This was the second time this had happened in the same week. Apparently I make an impression on some people.

The night finished – or rather got started, at Bella Roma, where a friendship I’d previously made with the bouncer Cyborg (awesome) got us in for half price. The dance floor was pretty empty when we arrived, but Ariana, Jana, Isaac, Richelle, others and I got things moving in no time. Perhaps it was my terrible dancing that made others lose their inhibitions, but more likely it was just the alcohol. That’s one great thing about traveling internationally – as big of a fool as you make yourself out to be, you’re probably never going to see 99% of these people again. At 3:00 am, soaking from sweat (that picture was just the beginning) and entirely exhausted, we headed home so that I could pack (Apparently earlier that day I’d used my standard reasoning of “I’ll let Future Rob deal with that”). I said my goodbyes and darted out the door, arriving at the station with plenty of time since – like anything in Africa – the departure wasn’t on time. I fought exhaustion trying to make sure both I and my bag made it onto that bus, and when I finally did as the sun started to rise, I did the impossible, and passed out cold on a low-budget African bus.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cut Africa Some Slack

In everlasting memory of the aguish of our ancestors.
May those who die rest in peace.
May those who return find their roots.
May humanity never perpetrate such injustice against humanity.
We the living vow to uphold this.

--Memorial message created by a 1992 convention in New York of African and Caribbian leaders to commemorate St. George’s Castle

I recently had the chance to visit St. George’s Castle in Elmina, the oldest and arguably most prominent slave castle in the world. It was controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and finally the British, though by the time the British got it slavery was petering out. Probably the most ironic part of the experience was the prominent Portuguese church right in the center of the castle. I saw nearly the same thing when I visited the apartheid museum in South Africa – how a group of individuals, convinced of an idea, could do something so morally wrong while at the same time claiming it was God-ordained.

There really are few words that could adequately sum up my experience. It was overpowering, enlightening, and a smack in the face. To stress the latter, and to be perfectly honest, it felt like a tour-de-blame. If seemed like they were saying “Look what you did, white man.” Does that bother me, being blamed for sins of my ancestors? A bit. It’s impossible for me to equate what Africans feel to a white male’s perspective, since we are basically at the top of the world food chain. But, pulling from the only example that bears any resemblance for me, I don’t blame Muslims or Middle Easterners for what happened on 9/11, and that only happened a few years ago, not centuries.

Still, the destruction of the Twin Towers didn’t have the same debilitating ramifications on my country’s economic and political development as slavery and colonization did on the African continent and blacks in worldwide. Just a couple days ago I was doing an interview with an average local about Africa’s development and democracy, and I asked if he had any more comments. Usually they say no, but he had a question: “Why do you in the West always portray Africa negatively?”

On the spot, I had to come up with an answer, so give me a handicap. Now, I’m not a journalist or politician, I told him, but I would surmise there are two major factors. The first being that the media, in general, prefers to show negative stories, and there is certainly no shortage of them in sub-Saharan Africa, a region in which Ghana is the only country to have two back-to-back peaceful transitions of power from one party to another. The second factor, I think, is that for a continent that is arguably the most abundantly endowed with resources in the world and in which has had billions of Western aid dollars poured, it still is home to the world’s greatest population of people critically struggling with poverty (To be fair, I added, the West is certainly partly to blame for the results of this aid).

Sub-Saharan Africa has underperformed, and the West is great at showing how it has screwed up. But should Africa’s underachievement be unexpected? It seems to me a bit unfair to expect that African countries immediately become civilized, developed, and forward thinking, when they have only had independence for less than 50 years. Look at Western countries, those who are giving the blame. Our own United States, a few decades after our 50-year mark, got into a civil war over how we had been treating people as property. The French had a bloody revolution about the mode and form of government and society. And less than a century ago, the now economic powerhouse and progressive Germany was “cleansing” its population.

Certainly, Africa should learn from our mistakes to as great of an extent as they can, but maybe holding them at a bar as high as or higher than that to which we hold ourselves is unfair. For example, we stress we won’t give aid, by George, unless they adopt free market policies like liberalizing their markets, while at the same time slapping huge tariffs on their agricultural products, which make up the vast majority of African economies.

I think the young age of their democracies and thus the need to give them time was made clear to me when I asked a local civic leader (and others) why African leaders just won’t give up power when they are voted out. The answer: When you come from humble backgrounds, as many of this first crop of African leaders do, hell no you don’t want to give up your power. As these countries develop, and more young, progressive-thinking, and well-off politicians take office, it’s probably more likely that they’ll give up power peacefully and less likely they’ll espouse country-killing corrupt policies. At least, that’s my optimistic hope.

(Note: the last pic is me peering out of the single person-wide exit door to slave ship)

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Finished with TechnoServe and with the last days of my Ghana stay winding down, I decided to take a quick trip to Kumasi, where I previously visited just for an evening on work for TechnoServe.

I had two invitations: one to check out Suame industrial magazine and the other for a tour of the Guinness brewery. Since I’m a sucker for tours and experiences at factories, farms, slums, and any other place where I can see people in their day-to-day lives rather than talked about in a museum, this was an easy sell.

I first trotted into Suame on an invitation from my friend Bessam who works at SMIDO, the locally-run NGO that works to organize the magazine (a magazine meaning a collection of businesses in which each does complimentary services) into a cohesive and more technologically-advanced industrial estate. Bessam was cool enough to not only give me a solid tour, but also let me shack up for the night at his place – though I did somehow manage to lock myself in my room, which made for some funny-in-hindsight stories when I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I chalk it up to faulty doors rather than stupidity.

Anyway, Suame was overwhelming, smelled like sweat, and was wonderfully filthy (kinda sounds like a whorehouse). Recent estimates vary, but one study says there are about 12,000 enterprises here, roughly grouped by function, so you’ll have the car mechanics in one area, scrap metal processors in another, the spare parts people in another area, and itgets even more specific. In the second picture are crushed cubes of scrap metal that are shipped to Accra to either be melted down for reuse or exported to China to feed its insatiable demand for resources.

One of the several businesses I looked at and whose workers I talked with produced circular discs for gold hammer mills. You can see them pouring the discs with the molten sand in the first picture. From most places in Suame you can see plumes of smoke coming from this foundry and the workers – who have little formal education – can tell if it’s hot enough just by the color and form of the smoke. Though of about the same functional quality as their Indian and Chinese counterparts, these discs lack the nice polished finish and so only fetch about 1/3 the price. This is one of the major difficulties for Suame – it doesn’t have the technological capacity to produce nice finished products.

Almost as interesting, but more tasty, was a night at the Guinness brewery bar and a tour of their operations. Right after Suame I met up with Prosper, a head Guinness employee and friend I made through TechnoServe.

Before continuing, I want to take a minute to go through the hierarchy of awesomeness of Ghanaian names. At the bottom you have the nouns – for example, Princess, Success, or Felicity; second best are the adjectives – Perfect is a good example; but the best, hands down, are the verbs – Prosper fits the bill. You just can’t top those. Splendidly, I didn’t make these up…I know people with all these names.

Prosper and I had a great time chatting about everything from the appropriteness of Ghanaian funeral "parties" to the growth of Ghana over free beer that’s part of Prosper’s monthly allotment. Three hours later and to the increasing annoyance of the bartender who stayed an hour past closing to serve us, we were finishing our drinks. And, the bartender was cool enough to help me get home on tro-tros in time to meet Bessam for drinks and a street food buffet.

The next morning Bessam and I got the official brewery tour from Prosper. To see such a sophisticated production process – one that can crank out 350,000 liters of brew a day – in a place where villages without electricity are just kilometers away, is mind-blowing. The entire factory can be operated nearly with the click of a few buttons on the computer; product problems that surface months later can be pinpointed to the exact location, batch, time, and who was working; samples are taken to make sure the labels are affixed exactly.

Suame has done some work for Guinness in the past, but mostly small stuff like spare parts. The difficulty is that big industrial producers like Guinness need consistency, and this is hard for Suame, which is composed of many individual actors. I find myself becoming increasingly interested in informal economies: how the function, how they can function more efficiently, if they should and how they could be linked into formal supply chains, and what effects all this would have on the poor and the overall national economy. I could easily see myself doing an MA thesis on this stuff.




Friday, September 17, 2010

Finish Your Beer, there are Poor People in Africa, Pt. II of II

“Here we just plant anyhow.”

--TechnoServe-supported farmer explaining the typical unorganized farming method of villagers

Each morning around 5:30 am, 42-year old Grunja Jamomi wakes, and after eating a traditional breakfast made from black-eyed peas, heads out to his fields of yam, peanuts, and now, four acres of sorghum. This past year he harvested 875 kg of sorghum on one acre (that's a lot), twice what non-TechnoServe-supported farmers are getting. Regardless of what feelings you may harbor about the poor having too many kids, with the $360 he earned from his harvest, according to him, he’s able to send all seven of his school-age children to school (In total he has 10…count ‘em, 10 children!). Grunja, pictured with his wife and…well…some children, told me, “Before I went into the program, whenever I harvested, I would only sell in bits…I couldn’t use it for anything concrete. Sometimes I would run out of money and I couldn’t exactly tell what I had used it for.”

I met Grunja, in Tindando village, two hours west of Tamale in the Northern Region. After a couple days in Wa, Steve and I headed out to the capital of the region and set up camp at a nice hotel, from where we made our way to Tindando over some roads nastier than month-old hair clogged in a drain into one of the most isolated places I’ve ever been. There I met Kingsley Kayan, the animated nucleus farmer, and George Biligon, his miracle-worker who does all the ground-levelwork with the outgrowers. In the picture in the previous post, I’m pictured with Kingsley on the left and George on the right in front of Kingsley’s second tractor, which he purchased without TNS support to increase his profits and better serve his outgrowers (in the first pic in this post I'm with George who, as the only person who speaks English in the village, is my translator).

Kingsley, however successful, is where the shortfall of the project is centered on. These nucleus farmers are still not at a point where they can supply direct to Guinness. TechnoServe still acts as the aggregator and single marketing point, and is in effect a crutch. Said Steve, “The project is successful, but it’s not yet sustainable.” Guinness doesn’t want to deal with 13 small nucleus farmers for one raw material, a very small portion of its overall production (the brewery produces three beers, plus other beverages). The next steps in the project need to be to attract bigger commercial farmers and/or group these nucleus farmers together. Anticipating this, Kingsley and others have already started doing this on their own, as six of them have formed a marketing company.

From Tamale we traveled to Kumasi to visit the Guinness brewery, where I chatted it up with employees about the project and even got to hang out at the company bar (see pic). Employees get a monthly allotment of beer – not a surprising, or bad, perk. That night, full of Guinness suds and exhausted from a week’s work, I spent some time out and about exploring the city’s nightlife before flying out the next day.


Despite the project’s shortcomings – they wanted it to be self-sustainable after five years – I like the approach of the project: linking the poor into supply chains with commercial entities that have a vested-interest (profit) in seeing them succeed. 1/3 of the funding for this $3 million project is coming from Guinness to develop this supply chain, and if the project is extended they are expected to put in a larger proportion. This is opposed to disconnected efforts like village-level standalone businesses which, certainly, have their own merits.

And supplying to a company like Guinness isn’t the only way this approach of plugging the little guy into a larger system can work. In another project I’m working on, TechnoServe’s Cocoa Abrabopa (meaning “A Better Life”) project, an input company (fertilizers, fungicide, insecticide) is selling its products to enlisted farmers. The company has an incentive to train the farmers to make sure the inputs are applied correctly to attain the huge yields that are possible, which in turn convince the farmers to keep buying more. Some farmers claim the inputs are too expensive (those who leave often come back), but in the end it's the best option when they get the enormous net profit increases. I’m not at liberty to say how big they are because the results aren’t yet public, but man, it’s incredible. It looks like the input company will fund most, if not all, of the project’s extension.

As Steve explained to me on one of our many drives, in the late ‘90s there was a big shakeup at TechnoServe as they made this change in organizational direction. People with open minds like him stayed; the stubborn ones were asked to leave. I think efforts on standalone businesses are probably more worthwhile when dealing with promising, high-powered entrepreneurs doing something bigger than village-level business, more like SMEs. When dealing with the small guys, it might be better to plug them into a system – not all of them have business capability, though certainly some should be given a shot (read: microfinance). I’m not going into the microfinance question, again. I think we’ve worn the tread off those tires.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finish Your Beer, there are Poor People in Africa, Pt. I of II

NGOs won’t touch tobacco – Mr. Billy Gates couldn’t honestly try to stamp out smoking in China while funding tobacco farming for the poor in Africa – but apparently booze is cool. That’s an oversimplification – rather the attitude is “Beer is gonna be brewed, let’s just brew it with something different that helps the poor.” That something different is sorghum, which is produced strongly in Western Africa. Guinness Ghana Breweries is using sorghum supplied by 7,000+ TechnoServe-supported farmers in the northern regions. Over the past 5 years, TechnoServe farmers have supplied nearly 7,000 tons of sorghum to replace 40% of the barley in Guinness’ Foreign Extra Stout, a meal-in-a-glass that I’ve taken to drinking to help the farmers (it even lists sorghum as one of the ingredients on the label…really cool stuff). Guinness is saving money by not having to import barley from Europe and is supporting local farmers, which has that nice corporate image thing going for it.

I was brought on at TechnoServe (TNS) – partly…this is one of my four projects – to document the project’s successes (and failures). TechnoServe recently sent me (way) up north for a week to drive around to villages and interview farmers on what impact it’s had on them. Throughout the time I was with Steve Mwinkaara (pic 1), the amazing sorghum project director who’s one of the most impressive individuals I’ve ever met. He reminds me of Gerson from CLUSA in Mozambique – a no-nonsense local who works his behind off and isn’t all starry-eyed about big aid plans to save the Rest. He just wants to pump out sorghum.

We started in Kumasi, where he picked me up from the airport and drove us up to Wa, about as far away as you can get from Accra. We stopped for lunch and met a friend of his who was looking to start up a commercial tomato farm and was looking at possibilities for sorghum to rotate with it (why he wanted to meet Steve). Two equity investors, both bankers, one of which was from the US, were also there to look at investing in the tomato farm (equity is pretty much the only way to go when loans bring interest rates of 15-20% or more). It was really cool to see how business deals get done.

In Wa we went to several villages where TNS had organized focus groups, and I was blown away by the response. When they ask farmers to come out, boy do they clear their schedules. At our first group in Sabuli village, I counted at least 50 people. At the second group, we were late and they waited over two hours for us. I got to try pito (not too bad), the local brew made from fermented sorghum. They were really talkative too. Person after person kept saying the same thing: We have to have this program. The guaranteed buyer (in Guinness) and bulk payment is key. Explained outgrower Francis Vuurong, “And these school fees – I have three brothers in secondary school. Now, with this project, when you get the money you immediately just go to pay the fee, and then you are free, waiting for the next year.” With bulk payments they can do something substantial instead of spending it bit by bit on things like pito as they wait for the price to rise.

TechnoServe has also made available over $3 million of credit through a microfinance organization. This has allowed bigger farmers to buy tractors and provide fertilizers and plowing services on credit to the outgrowers, who sell their sorghum to the bigger farmers who in turn sell to Guinness. Says nucleus farmer Augustine Sandow,“With [the tractor], I have now increased the acreage on my own. Initially, I could farm maybe 10 acres, 20 acres, but now I farm up to 100 acres on my own…And I’ve got workers under me who are paid monthly, men and women.” I made a comment about the credit being provided in the form of inputs, not cash directly to the men. Steve and the women joked that the men would just go and buy another wife. All the men laughed. They knew it was true.

Needless to say, I've been pretty impressed with the project thus far. I'll explain exactly why in the next post, but I'll also talk about the major failing of the program. As this project is ending next March, I'm preparing this report as a guide for what the next steps are Guinness meets with TNS and other stakeholders (I hate that word) later this fall. How this major failing fits into that is pretty important.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Absurdity in Ada Foah

This post has been a long time coming and mostly concerns one particular weekend adventure, rather than an attempt to say something smart about poverty...maybe I'll work something in to justify its existence. On a recent weekend I loaded a tro-tro to Ada Foah, a beachy place two hours east of Accra. I traveled with five Germans, only two of which I knew (and not very well...that's the nature of traveling), so you can imagine how disconcerted they were when a tall, goofy American showed up sporting board shorts, a Stars and Stripes bandanna, and a bright yellow Barack Obama family (yes, the First Family) sleeveless shirt. Oh yea, it was game time.


The occasion was a festival of some sort, and while we never really found out what the purpose was, there were cold drinks, food everywhere, jamming rap music, and as an added bonus people were hoisting the village chiefs up in chairs. It didn't really matter.


Another thing big crowd events bring is pick pocketers, and like most foreigners I'm sure I appear to be sweating dollar bills. It happened when I was taking a picture of the ceremony with my right hand. I felt a slight tug on my right pocket. That doesn't feel natural. I looked down to find a hand halfway into my pocket, and quickly connected it to the person to which it belonged. Without thinking I shoved him almost to the ground. Having been robbed and nearly robbed on multiple occasions over the course of my trip, I had a sudden urge to take out all my aggression on this one punk kid. It wasn't necessary. After finding out what had happened, the crowd, feeling extremely shamed, took out some kind of beating on this kid. Then they dragged him over to the cops. Meanwhile, Julian, one of the Germans I was with, just realized his camera was gone. Apparently it was a group effort.


I was asked to join in the police vehicle with Julian, another German friend, 10 heavily armored Ghanaian police (looked like a riot squad), and the kid who was now pleading his innocence to me, literally in tears. Oh, and this was after those police had roughed the kid up.At the police station they stripped the kid down to his boxers and threw him in jail, pretty much no questions asked. Oh, and this was after these police had roughed him up– slapping, hair yanking, and shoving included.


Two interesting things came out of this. First, there was an overwhelming sense of shame among the Ghanaian people that one of their own would steal. This was as opposed to Mozambique where, having been nearly pickpocketed during the middle of the day on more than one occasion, no one batted an eye. Secondly, the police just seemed like they wanted to assert their authority, show they had power. They didn’t even take the time to get straight that the kid had tried to rob me, not actually robbed Julian. They didn’t care. In Africa and most third-world countries, I’ve become very aware of the need for people with power and wealth to flout it. It doesn’t seem to be as prominent in the States, where many more people have it.


And I can’t talk about robberies without the recent rash of incidents. My friend is now heading home to Canada after multiple robberies (cellphone, purse, laptop, etc.) and sexual assault. My flatmate and her friend had a machete put to one of their throats by a group of guys on motorcycles, which resulted in the loss of everything they were carrying. And these machete-motorcycle robberies have been happening a lot lately.

We told the cops to let the kid go in a little while – he’d learned his lesson. The whole pickpocket incident didn’t really bother me, and it was quickly in the past when I was called on-stage to a Coca-Cola promotion. They said they wanted me to say something about Ghana and Coke, easy enough.


Well that quickly escalated into a dance-off against Julian with two rando Ghanaian girls who were clearly excited to be booty dancing with white boys. This was not in the contract. My attitude for on-stage dancing is a lot like that for karaoke – white boys can’t dance, so let’s not try (my German friend in the crowd actually overheard a local rhetorically ask “Do no white people know how to dance?”).


So instead of trying to look like a passionate first-round American Idol contestant who was clearly riding the misguided encouragement of his or friends, I tried to be silly and energetic (not hard), and just get the crowd into it. They got into it for sure (see crowd reaction pic), but when it came time to voting they weren’t picking up what I was putting down. Julian won the honor of “best of the worst” and an epically annoying Coca-Cola vuvuzela. Thank God I didn’t win that.


I have the full movies of the dance-offs, but I'm saving my last shreds of dignity by withholding this evidence.


That night brought more shenanigans which I won’t go into here and all in all it was a solid weekend, culminating in an entire tro-tro filled with whities headed nonstop back to Accra the next morning. Like most of my weekend endeavors, I was left with lots of memories in stow and little of my reputation still intact.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Microfranchising: Depth and Breadth in Development, Pt. II of II

(this might make a bit more sense if you read the previous post first)

Getting on with it, one way I like to think of development is in terms of breadth – how many people it can reach; and depth – how much it can really impact the poor at the ground level. Grassroots or bottom-up approaches generally have impacts that are pretty profound on a limited number of people. One organization with which I worked – Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC) – touches 12 children in its orphanage and another 200 in its educational and health outreach. They are doing amazing things in the lives of these 12 kids and doing much good for the others, but is this really changing the face of poverty in a country where 450 million live on less than $1.25 a day? You need a lot of AICs. A lot.

On the other hand you have top-down approaches, which tend to reach many more people but individually aren’t as impactful. A CLUSA management director explained the top-down push and resulting dilemma when we chatted last December: “A lot of donors are pushing us and myself included, and they said ‘Steve we need 50,000 farmers.’ ‘Well what can I do with 50,000 farmers? Yea I can make a little bit of an impact, but really, if Rob goes there, he can’t actually see it.’” This was contrasted to another NGO which I won’t name, who’d been there for 10 years and had gone pretty much nowhere with the traditional top-down approach – it was, in his words, “doing everything and nothing at the same time.” If you're trying to think in terms of government top-down, think of liberalizing trade between two countries, which may make prices slightly cheaper or products more available to all locals throughout the country, for example, but it’s not going to be hugely detectable per person.

This is one reason I like microfranchising. It has a wide-reach business approach that directly puts money in the pockets of the poor. In Ghana, FanMilk employs 7,000+ agents currently, and the company is also operating in Nigeria, Cote d’Ivore, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin. And this is just 7,000 at this given moment – the company has been operating over 40 years, with agent employment averaging eight years. This is all profit-driven: It has cost you, the Western taxpayer, nothing.

Microfranchising also works well for development for another main reason. The poor lack basic education and are, I’ve come to believe, generally uncreative. Expecting them to design and manage a profitable business is pretty unrealistic. For someone who is just trying to sustain oneself, I don’t think this should come as a surprise. I saw this with microfinance in Bangladesh – with the small-size loan groups, you see a lot of reselling. There wasn’t much value-added. Microfranchising takes the guesswork out of it.

So am I bashing microfinance? Only partly, because it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Microfranchises and microfinance institutions (MFIs) are two different concepts. An MFI is more like the franchisor in the microfranchising approach – it’s the central business unit. The microfranchise is more like group lending in the microfinance approach in that it’s the distribution channel for the products – ice cream and loans in this post, respectively. In this way, I think they are both quite effective. Yet, coincidentally they both usually result in microbusinesses, and this is where I think microfranchising has the upper hand. With microcredit, rural villagers are, as I already noted, not adding much value and not able to take advantage of scale economies. They are producing a very inefficient product, and often diverting resources (credit) away from more appropriate SMEs. At the same time, a microfrachising approach is very scalable or easily replicated, though the MFI’s microbusinesses aren’t (though the lending is…so again I’m comparing apples to oranges).

There’s a lot more to microfranchising, and I’m hoping to look into it more here since there are a number microfrachise schemes operating, like CareShops, but I’ll spare you the details and only suggest that if you’re in NYC, try to get your hands on that FanYo.