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.