6 Month Infographic

Updated April, 30, 2014: Video now added

This one is a little late as the 6 month mark was about a month ago, but hopefully it’s an interesting way to communicate the experiences. Hat tip to Belinda Li for the initial idea to track things like weddings and mosquito bites. I’ve been independently, dabbling in the whole “quantified self” thing for a few years now. Combined with regular journaling, I find it’s a good way to learn about yourself and track habits. Clearly, it’s not for everyone.

A note on methodology: This is by no means a scientific process and is purely subjective and heavily biased as I’m answering my own questions. My data collection approach has evolved over the years, so even though it looks like a lot of work, it really amounts to filling in a google form every night from my phone which tabulates all the results in a spreadsheet. After the initial set, the infographic is all directly linked back to the results spreadsheet, so it updates automatically.

Ghana Sounds II: Traditional Forms and Foundations


I have been trying to get a handle on the traditional or folk styles of music in Ghana. This is to better understand the foundations on which popular styles like highlife and modern music are built, but also because music is so inseparable from the rest of culture it provides an opportunity for greater understanding of Ghana in general. Any attempt, especially by a foreigner, to quickly sum up or essentialize what has been called a “limitless field of study”[1], is bound to be suspect and lacking, but hopefully this provides an invitation to dive into the topic more deeply. I am also not expert and have a ton more to learn, so I’ll speak in very broad terms.

A key point here is that any appreciation and enjoyment of music is highly dependent on context and culture. Sitting around listening to sterile, anachronistic digital recordings of traditional music on your mp3 player or computer is never going to be the same experience as being there live, embedded and invested in the culture. So in order for the music to “play you”, you first need to get yourself in “tune”.

Africa, being the birthplace of civilization, is, by default, the birthplace of music. However, even in retrospect its history and evolution defy easy classifications and simple linear relationships. There is some clear distinction between the more stripped-down and melodic, solo-oriented music of North Africa with its emphasis on melisma (singing each syllable over an extended number of beats), and the poly-rhythmic, layering and call and response approach of sub-Saharan Africa.  The music of Ghana shares a bit of this gradient with the southern regions featuring more textured and complex poly-rhythms and a mix of chants and harmonized singing. In the North, the Arabic/Islamic influence is felt with more stringed instruments and melisma, but still built on a similar poly-rhythmic foundation.

Structure and Elements

The more or less definitive feature of most sub-Saharan music is the poly-rhythm or cross rhythm. (While this is a distinctive feature of sub-Saharan music, it is not without precedence in Western music, for example Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.) The term was proposed by a missionary living in Zambia in the early 1900s named Arthur Morris Jones. Jones also studied the Ewe tribe of Ghana and Togo and noticed that the rhythmic patterns played on difference instruments with different meters would regularly mesh or “cross”.  The official definition is “A rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement that leaves the prevailing meter fundamentally unchallenged”[2], but you can get a better understanding of the effect by playing around with it yourself:  http://bouncemetronome.com/Polyrhythm_Metronomes/index.htm. The layering of the patterns repeating every 8, 16 or even 24 beats are syncopated and interlocked which keeps the whole thing from sounding like a cacophony. Still, as the ethnomusicologists put it,

“Perception is a key factor. The music’s density of notes challenges the ear’s ability to form stable grouping configurations…In this musical style creative hearing is at a premium. While never losing its stable rhythmic foundation, the music’s clever and artful surface design facilitates perception from several perspectives, a dynamic musical phenomenon here labeled as “simultaneous multidimensionality”.[3]

Why make it so complex? One theory has it that it may help train the brain to deal with the complexities of life (!):

“In Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, the technique of cross rhythm is a highly developed systematic interplay of varying rhythmic motions simulating the dynamics of contrasting moments or emotional stress phenomena likely to occur in actual human existence.As a preventive prescription for extreme uneasiness of mind or self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with impending or anticipated problems, these simulated stress phenomena or cross-rhythmic figures are embodied in the art of dance-drumming as mind-nurturing exercises to modify the expression of the inherent potential of the human thought in meeting the challenges of life. The premise is that by rightly instituting the mind in coping with these simulated emotional stress phenomena, intrepidity is achieved.”[4]


As far as instrumentation, there are a few uniquely Ghanaian creations and many that are borrowed and modified. In both cases the modern forms are the manifestations of a long history of experimentation and trial and error and do not represent a static history. Instruments are usually separated in categories according to how they produce sound. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the more iconic Ghanaian instruments:

  • Membraphones (drums) – Can be used to signal and carry messages, replicate speech, and provide the foundation for music and dance.
      • Djembe: Not originally from Ghana, but frequently seen and heard


      • Lunga/Lunna/Dondo/Talking Drum:

      • Gung-Gong:


      • Drum sets:

    akan kete Ewe

  • Idiophones (“sound like itself) – This includes things like rattles and bells, and tuned instruments like xylophones and thumb pianos
      • Balaphon:

      • Gangokoi Bells:


  • Chordonphones (stinged) – Usually used for soloing or in heterogeneous ensembles
      • Kora:

      • Bolon:

    • Gonjey: bons
  • Aerophones (wind) – Usually made from bamboo, wood, horn, tusk or clay and can be end-blown or played in traverse.
      • Antebene:

Create your own jam here: http://aviarts.com/demos/flash/abadjarhythm/index.html

Ritual and Celebration

Music is usually described as permeating the culture in Ghana and West Africa, but it’s more accurate to say that it overlaps categories of cultural expression that we would normally keep separated in the West [1]. For example, music, theatre, dance and other art forms as well as language and history are tightly integrated and not often regarded as wholly independent. Many festivals tell the stories of important historical events through music, dance, costumes and theatre, like the Bamaya dance of the Dagomba tribe in Tamale. This dance marks the end of a drought in the 19th century that was finally broken when the men dressed as women to ask the gods for help (apparently women get a quicker response!)[5]


There is music that is also born out of specific contexts and environments such as work songs, horn honk (!), warfare, hunting and even politics (see the atumpan in Ashanti culture[6]). Another, more northern tradition borrowed from Senegal and Mali is griot praise singing (also ‘jali’ or ‘gewel’). A griot is a professional royal musician who was born into a griot family or class and often attached to a specific chief or royal court. His primary role is to sing the praises of the chief and his family, but he would also serve as the keeper of the oral history and important folk stories of the past, not unlike the Homeric poets of the ancient Greeks.

Influence Locally and Abroad

Ghanaian traditional or folk music lays the rhythmic and stylistic foundations that are still used to create new songs and styles today. There are definitely some possible links between Africa music and American blues and jazz, i.e. pentatonic scale used in the donso ngoni harp could be seen as a precursor to the “blue notes” (slightly off key) used in modern blues tonality.  At the same time, it could be argued that West African guitar playing has been duly influenced by American blues to an equal or greater extent. It’s important not to put too much focus on the linearity and causality of the influence and instead see it as a continuing evolution and swapping of sounds and ideas. The history of most music is a mixing and melding where free appropriation from the past is not only permitted, but celebrated. In cultures everywhere, folk music can also be a force for social cohesion and cultural identity. Tradition and identity are passed down through the generations and music is both a conduit and a medium. From what I’ve seen in the North of Ghana, this passing of the torch to the next generation is alive and well, despite all the modern music that is available. Hopefully it continues for many more years.

References and recommendations:


Song of Legaa, Master Musician from Ghana – Kakraba Lobi, Valerie Naranjo, Barry Olsen

Music of the Dagomba from Ghana – Various Artists

Savannah Breeze – Antongo Zimba

Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways

Roots of Black Music in America – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p005xhqw



[1] http://spotlightonmusic.macmillanmh.com/n/teachers/articles/folk-and-traditional-styles/west-african-folk-music

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyrhythm#cite_note-5

[3] http://home.comcast.net/~dzinyaladzekpo/Myth.html

[4] http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.10.16.4/mto.10.16.4.locke.html#Beginning

[5] http://easytrackghana.com/cultural-overview-ghana_music-dance-ceremony.php

[6] http://www.cfiks.org/research/research/performingarts/musicalinstruments.htm

[7] http://www.jamplay.com/articles/1-general/161-the-powerful-influence-of-african-culture-on-modern-music

What’s Hot in Tamale?

I wrote about the cold in Mongolia as it was an important part of life and culture. Although they don’t use frozen cow’s tails as a metric here, the heat in Ghana is still a powerful force that pervades and affects all aspects of life. Since heat is so diffuse and insipid there is less of a battle mentality (as in the case of cold) and more of a brooding, uneasy standoff between life and the climate. This stalemate reaches a crescendo during the two hottest months of February and March and relents with the beginning of the rainy season in April. I was warned that March would be the most trying month as far as heat, but I am happy to report I seem to be managing with only a few more weeks of very hot weather left. For reference, we’re in and around 40C most days and 30C at night. This isn’t too shocking, but the fact that it lasts for several months and there is little A/C to be had, makes it more of a grinding psychological challenge. I’ve been looking into the cultural, physiological and psychological aspects of heat lately and have found, like everything else weather related, you can either ineffectively rage against it or try to adapt.


Fullscreen capture 3172014 74620 AM.bmp Fullscreen capture 3172014 74454 AM.bmp

The weather in Tamale is characterized by pronounced wet and dry seasons lasting April – September for the former and October – March for the latter. The Harmattan winds blow in off the Sahara from the Northeast during December and January bringing in tons of dust and dropping the temperature below 20C at night. When the Harmattan ends, the heat continues to build to a peak in March before breaking with the first real rains in April. After that, the winds pick up from the Southwest and bring rainstorm after rainstorm, like clockwork, up from the Atlantic.

This ongoing battle between wet and dry has been fairly predictable for the past several thousand years, but climate change is beginning to amplify this bi-polar behaviour leading to more extreme heat and precipitation. This has huge implications for crop production, especially for staples like maize which operates within a fairly narrow temperature band and can take decades to breed up to higher temperature tolerances [1]. The need for climate adapted crops is crucial for the ongoing food security of countries like Ghana and an important element of the raging battle over GMO foods that is taking place here [2].

African Maize Production (Source: http://www.climatechange-foodsecurity.org/)
African Maize Production (Source: http://www.climatechange-foodsecurity.org/)
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food)
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food)


Culturally, other than the regular rhythms of planting and harvesting crops and the associated festivals like Homowo, I haven’t heard too many urban legends with regards to the heat. I think there is a tacit acknowledgement that “you can’t change the weather” so most people don’t discuss it too often. Still, there are a few key phrases in Dagbani such as “Ti maasim” (“the morning is cool” used as a greeting) and “Ni ti wuntanga/wari” (roughly “sorry for you and the sun/heat”). Another important element is the acceptance of sweat as normal and natural part of life and not something you try to hide or are embarrassed about, which seems to be the case in the West.

Physiologically, it’s very important to have at least a basic grasp of the body’s mechanisms for thermoregulation in order to maximize the effectiveness of whatever method of cooling you are trying to employ. Below is illustration of how the body responds to and counteracts various ambient temperatures to maintain a steady core temperature. It’s important to note that evaporative cooling from sweating greatly depends on both the humidity and air flow. Luckily, in the North, the relative humidity is around 20-30% most of the dry season, which keeps the humidex quite reasonable. It’s like living in a giant dehumidifier so sweating can be quite effective, though water intake needs to greatly increase in order to keep up. It’s possible to lose as much as 10L of water per day [3], and dehydration, even if you spend most of your days like me sitting under a whirling ceiling fan, is still a risk.  As part of the body’s acclimation process [4], the water to salt composition of sweat readjusts, your overall output increases, and the hypothalamus becomes better adapted to the new temperature range. So, there is some truth to the idea that you can “get used to” to heat after some time.

(source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/c01/c01links/www.science.mcmaster.ca/biology/4s03/thermoregulation.html)
(source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/c01/c01links/www.science.mcmaster.ca/biology/4s03/thermoregulation.html)


Psychologically, I find dealing with heat is very similar to dealing with cold or any other external factor: you often can’t do anything about it other than to alter your psychological response. With cold I find the best strategy is to get positive and energized before going outside and generally being a lot more active and animated. With heat, obviously, it’s more a case of economy of motion, acceptance and calmness. The biggest issues are trying to sleep on foam mattress (pro tip: wet socks!) or sitting for long periods in a packed tro-tro. There is a powerful urge to “escape” and it takes a lot of willpower to avoid the agitation and anxiety that goes along with this discomfort. Like studying in a noisy environment, running a marathon or sitting through a Nigerian movie on the bus, it’s a mind over matter thing that takes time to develop. On the positive side, the appreciation for the slightest breeze, the few degrees drop of evening coolness, or amazing satisfaction derived from simply drinking water are all greatly amplified. The occasional Fan-Ice (ice cream in a bag) doesn’t hurt either!



[1] http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food

[2] http://foodsecurityghana.com/category/climate-change/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspiration

[4] http://www.usariem.army.mil/download/heatacclimatizationguide.pdf

Telecom in Ghana

Probably the most repeated and well-known success story coming out of Africa over the past decade has been the explosion of cell phones and Information Communication Technologies (ICT). This is usually cited as a prime example of “technology leapfrogging”, i.e. adopting state-of-the-art technology directly instead of going through all the iterative steps pioneered by others. Having worked a fair bit in the telecom industry in Canada (mainly setting up rooftop sites around Vancouver), I am very interest in the details of this story. Digging beneath the effusive excitement and “technologism”, I’d like understand how it all started and who actually controls and benefits from this huge industry.

A mobile mobile shop in Nigeria

Without a doubt, cell phones, internet connectivity and instant communications are a big deal here in Ghana–as is the case pretty much everywhere.  With a population of just over 24 million, the country has upwards of 25 million cellular lines in use and a penetration rate clearing 100%. Not everyone has a phone to be sure, but it’s also not uncommon to see people juggling two or three phones and many more SIM cards at the same time.  Even with this many phones and a population coverage rate of over 80%, there are still about 5 million people left in the digital dark. Most of the 5,583 base tower sites are grid connected and therefore not exceptionally rural. Of the 11% that are off-grid, only about 2% are fed by green energy, (the rest rely on 24×7 diesel generator power), so they are unlikely to be considered “economic” by their private sector operators. Driving along the main roads out of Tamale, brightly lit, modern cell phone towers stand side-by-side with un-electrified, traditional mud-and-stick huts without any acknowledged incongruence.

In Fulfuso, NR

According to the World Bank, telecommunications is one of the main economic sectors of Ghana behind agriculture and natural resources and is slated to grow rapidly.  The state-owned company RLG Electronics actually assembles a fair number of cell phones and tablets in Ghana, but like everywhere the bulk of the handsets come from assembling points across Asia. The cellphone towers themselves typically consist of a metal scaffold, microwave repeater dish and three 120deg azimuth RF (radio frequency) antennas broadcasting at range of up to 50kms. These towers can be erected and operational in a matter of weeks and the standardization and volume has dropped prices drastically in the past decade. Companies such as Helios Towers Africa have been doing record business slamming tens of thousands of these sites in across the continent (I am not sure if NIMBY-ism is given much consideration here). The data and equipment cabinets at ground level house the servers, switches and other equipment used to pick up, redirect, handoff, slice, dice and ship out your voice and data information along with hundreds of other peoples’ every few milliseconds. Most of this equipment, from my experience in Canada, was coming from the big telecom hardware companies such as Ericsson, Siemens, Alcaltel and Cisco. The typical business model in telecom is to “unbundle” the hardware business from the software side, i.e. these hardware companies build and maintain the infrastructure while the telecom providers operate the networks.

So who actually owns these “soft assets” and who is making the money from them? Below is a list of the five main telecom network operators in Ghana and their origins:

MTN – (45.43% market share, 12 million subscribers) This South African Telecom giant is the largest in Africa and operates in 22 countries. Annual revenues in 2011 were $9.4 billion.

Vodafone – (21.19% market share, 5.5 million subscribers). The Ghanaian branch is majority owned by Vodacom Group South Africa which in turn is owned by UK-based Vodafone (the third largest provider in the world). Revenues for Vodacom in 2011 were $7.7 billion.

Tigo (Millicom) – (13.89% market share, 3.7 million subscribers). Millicom is a Luxembourg based provider that mainly operates in the emerging markets of Africa and Latin America.  Annual revenues for Millicom in 2012 were $5.1 billion.

Airtel – (12.79% market share, 3.4 million subscribers). Part of the Indian company Bharti-Airtel, this is the world’s second largest provider (behind only China Mobile) and operates in 20 countries mainly in Africa. Annual revenues for Bharti-Airtel as a whole are $8.2 billion.

Glo Mobile – (6.08% market share, 1.6 million subscribers). Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria; Globacom is one of the newest providers to set up shop in West Africa. They are also the first African company to lay their own 9,800km, $800 million submarine fibre-optic cable from the UK to Nigeria in 2009. Revenue figures were not found.

There is one other provider, Expresso, but I haven’t been able to tell if it’s still operational in Ghana. The bottom-line being that there are a lot of hands in the very big African telecom pie and behind all the branding and “localization” a lot of the money from this major industry is ending up in foreign lands. Like a lot of industries, it seems information on revenues and ownership is hidden behind layers of subsidiaries, licensees, endless mergers and acquisitions, and byzantine corporate structures, so you’re never too sure what you’re buying.

I currently have SIM cards for all of the above providers plus two phones and have been experimenting to find reliable service since I arrived. Reports from people who have lived here for more than a few years seem to agree that the reliability and “choice” of providers has made amazing improvements from the early days of the single public-owned provider, Telecom Ghana. Still, when I pick up my weekly GHC 10.00 ($5) of phone credit from Gemina, the young women who assiduously attends her credit sales box on the street corner near my house for 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week, I can’t help but think the 5% profit she is making on the sale is a part of the story that is missing from the dazzling successes that are often reported about Africa’s telecom explosion.

Gemina at one of the 100’s of credit kiosks in town

[For another perspective on the topic, check out the always perceptive Belinda in Malawi]











WAIDH Part 3.1: Anibirds Farm

As mentioned earlier, one of the side projects I have been involved with here has been as a coach for the Mobile Business Clinic Tamale Edition. This has been an immensely satisfying and eye-opening experience and I am grateful to have had the chance to work with the lads from Anibirds Farm and see them progress.

The Mobile Business Clinic (MBC) is an initiative of EWB, the Canadian Government (DFAIT), and the Lundin Foundation. It is part of a larger multi-country, multi-year project to aid small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) in the agricultural sector and create an entrepreneurial ecosystem throughout West Africa. The MBC had previously held successful clinics in the southern cities of Accra and Tema, and Tamale was selected for the third iteration from November 2013 to January 2014. The SMEs were selected from a pool of applicants from the surrounding areas and asked to send two mangers to enroll in the program. The clinic itself was broken into two main components: six full-day training sessions over the course of the first month, followed by a two month implementation period supported by an outside coach. The sessions were focused on management topics such as leadership, finances, and project management and were presented by a mix of MBC staff and Ghanaian business leaders. While the training was very well done and practical, the trainees benefited greatly from the opportunity to immediately apply their new skills directly on their businesses during the coaching period.

Issifu Basideen (Photo credit: Mark Brown, Kulemela)
Issifu Basideen (Photo credit: Mark Brown, Kulemela)

I had the great privilege of being matched with Eric and Issifu Basideen of Anibirds Farm Annexe (ANImals and BIRDS) based in Tamale. After a slow start through December, due to increased demand for holiday fowl, we were able to meet several times in January and February and I was blown away by the progress they were able to make. Anibirds is full spectrum guinea fowl rearing, training, sales and consulting business that has capitalized on the resurgent popularity of the bird in Ghana over the past decade. Guinea fowl look a bit like large, long-necked chickens and taste a bit like gamey, dark-meat turkey. They are endemic to West Africa and are apparently healthier than chicken, likely due to their leanness. Basideen not only raises guinea fowl keets and (chicken) fowl chicks, but builds incubator equipment, sells live birds, formulates feed, consults and gives training to other farmers, and raises a few turkeys, sheep and goats on the side. Anibirds is also an investee of the EWB spin-off, Kulemela Investments, and has used debt-financing to successfully expand its business over the past year. Below is a video from January 2013 where Basideen explains his plans for a new brooding building, which is now underway:


The approach taken by Kulemela has its merits and drawbacks as mentioned in this article last year in the Toronto Star, but I can attest to catalytic affect this has had on Anibirds’ business. However, with many small businesses, both in North America and Africa, financial capital only goes so far without sufficient “managerial capital”. This is was what the MBC program was designed to address and I feel that, although much work remains, the limited interaction we had with Anibirds produced some tangible, positive results. For instance we were able to implement some basic recordkeeping and inventory management systems, get a first draft of a business plan and budget complete and take a crack at developing an “elevator pitch” (concise mission statement and vision) for the company. My actual technical knowledge inputs were minimal, but through some very open conversations I was able to help provide context and perspective around how good organization and recordkeeping set the foundation for informed and prudent business decisions which is the ultimate point of any of this management training.

Management consulting has been an important part of the ongoing efficiency improvements in developed world businesses and the developing world is beginning to seek out the same expertise. Whether or not it truly works as advertised hasn’t been established, but that hasn’t stopped major firms such as Deloitte, Ernst & Young, MacKinsey and others from setting up offices in African countries. As this article states, there is a lot of work yet to be done to better understand which interventions produce measureable impact and which do not. It is my hope that through rapid, iterative approaches such as the MBC, these assumptions and methods can be checked quickly and the lessons learned therein shared broadly.

I hope to continue an informal relationship with Anibirds over the rest of my time in Ghana and check in on their progress every few months. Seeing the tenacity, care, and passion Eric and Issifu put into their business and the positive effects it can have on the community has been a definite highlight for me so far and I have no doubt that they will have continued success.

Ghana Sounds I: Introduction to Ghanaian Music


Uhuru Dance Band, circa 1970 (Photo: S.K. Pobee) (via: http://www.thisisafrica.me)
Uhuru Dance Band, circa 1970 (Photo: S.K. Pobee) (via: http://www.thisisafrica.me)


I was originally hoping to feature a lot more cultural and musical aspects of Ghanaian life on this blog, as they were among the main reasons why I was excited to live in West Africa. I haven’t done much to this end so far, but hope to share a little bit of the amazing history of Ghanaian music and beyond piece by piece from now on.

Over the past few years (before I had any plans to visit Africa), I had been amassing a sizeable collection of African music (also borrowing inspiration and material from my dad, whose collection achieves sizeable and proceeds undeterred from there). Most of this material originates from the golden age of post-colonial, West African music in the 1960s and 70s. Nigerians like Fela Kuti, Tunji Oyelana, and Sir Victor Uwaifo, (to name only a few) were pioneering the Afrobeat style and Beninese groups like (Le Tout Puissant) Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou were releasing unfathomably quantities of amazing stuff based on their traditional Vodoun rhythms. Ghanaians, meanwhile, were blending their homegrown “high life” sound with influences from America, the Caribbean, the Congo, and other West African countries. Beyond West Africa, similar booms were happening across the continent from Angola, South Africa and the Congo in the south to Ethiopia and Kenya in the North.

It was not that the music suddenly appeared, (it has always been a central part of life and indivisible from history), but the favourable confluence of cheap recording technology, FM radio, relative post-colonial/post-war social freedoms to stay out late and party, and the extremely high competition between night club owners to attract the biggest and best bands created the ideal environment for sustained, high volume production of music and musicians.

Tip Toe dance competition circa 1971 (Photo: S.K. Pobee) (via: http://www.thisisafrica.me/)
Tip Toe dance competition circa 1971 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
(via: http://www.thisisafrica.me/)


“To keep up with the demand, every club had to invite bands from other parts of Ghana and also from abroad to stand a chance of surviving the fierce competition.”  – Sam Pobee, Modern Photo

“The 60s & 70s generation of Ghanaian musicians had birthed unique sounds based upon principles of excellent musicianship and recording techniques, with deep respect for traditional music. They had excelled to such an extent that the new hybrids of music they created still command respect all over the globe 40 years later.”  – Samy Ben Redjeb, Analog Africa

As the hey-day of the sixties and seventies began to die down and the optimism and glow of the post-colonial era began to fade, government coups and instability led to clamp downs on the arts and frequent curfews. This had a devastating effect on the music scene in places like Benin City, Cotonou, Accra and Abidjan, and effectively killed the music scene.

“…in 1979 we were hit by a second curfew. It was serious. The first one, which took place in 1966, didn’t last too long. It didn’t hit us too hard, but it was the third that knocked us out. It killed social life and the music industry in this country. Everybody had to be home by 10pm: no parties, no concerts, no boogaloo, no Miss Tip Toe. When after two years that crazy curfew was over most of our musicians had already left the country and DJs had replaced the bands. Live music was dead.”  – Sam Pobee, Modern Photo

Throughout the 80s and 90s there have been many revivals and tributes, but much like “classic rock” in North America and Britain, the blurry-eyed nostalgia for the good old days has fossilized an entire cultural movement into its most salient essence of a few key bands, faded photographs and hazy memories.

“If I hear highlife now, it will remind me of the past…But highlife can’t come to change Ghana again. We can’t play it like before because life is different now. The things that they used to sing about would change people’s lives! – Felicia Kudiah, June 19, 2009 (From the book: Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana, by Nate Plageman)

Amazingly, only a fraction of what was produced was ever recorded, (live music was where it was at), and an even smaller amount of that is still available for purchase today. Thanks to the efforts of a few key labels such as Analog Africa, Soundway, Strut-Records, Nonesuch, and Honest Jon’s, old records and master tapes are being dusted off from years in forgotten storage rooms and other places and are once again being discovered by people around the world.

“It doesn’t surprise me that our music is finally travelling because, you know, if you do something good, it will be remembered forever. That’s right, brother.”  – Gyedu Blay Ambolley 

By far the best online source for most of this music is through the subscription service emusic, which has an ear-boggling collection of every sort of weird, rare and random music you could hope for at about half the price of Amazon and iTunes. The Smithsonian also has a great collection of traditional and early forms of music for the more seriously ethnomusically inclined and, per usual YouTube is a great source of clips and video.

Over the next few months, I’ll attempt to dive into more detail about the traditional forms and instruments used in Ghanaian music; the palm wine music of the colonial era; the birth of Ghana’s most famous musical export, “high-life”; The post-colonial highlife music scene that was not only the soundtrack to the independence movement, but a major driver and, in fact, cause; the fascinating three-way ping-pong match of styles, rhythms, influences and culture between the American south, the Caribbean, and West Africa; and finally the current state of music in Ghana and where it might be headed.

Stay tuned…





The Role of an Embedded Consultant

I’ve previously mentioned that I am working as an embedded consultant. What the heck is that? While sufficiently generic to allow flexibility and sufficiently business-speaky to sound plausible, it still leaves a lot to the imagination as to what the role might actually entail. I’m still coming to terms with what it means exactly, but have started cobbling together a definition from various sources over the past few months.

Having worked as an engineering consultant, I know that this basically comes down to offering an informed opinion for money. Depending on your reputation, level of experience and the number of other qualified people who can offer the same advice, you can charge more or less money. Below the surface, however, there is the very important, but intangible element of trust.

I’d say at this point, almost all of my work with BDS thus far has involved building trust or working to maintain it in some way. As Maister & Green state in the “The Trusted Advisor”, “trust is not intuitive or learned at the first impression it accumulates over time…” It is also at least half emotional: technical competence in a field goes a long way, but technical skill without trust is not enough. Interestingly, we also do not tend to trust institutions or policies, because there is no personal relationship there on which trust can be built.

Even though I am here, ostensibly, to offer “technical assistance” with building business, process, and organizational systems, most of my role is not even remotely technical. My work is generally about clearing the paths and addressing hurdles and roadblocks so that businesses can move forward to wherever it is they’d like to go. The only way to do this effectively is to really and truly understand the people behind the business and to take the time to build these relationships.

This advisor/consultant role bears a lot of resemblance to the Enterprise Facilitation approach pioneered by Ernesto Siriolli and echoes the coaching aspect discussed in this article. The main tenants, (in my view, we are still clarifying these as a team) are

1)      Don’t motivate anyone (the business is these people’s lives, they already have enough motivation)

2)      Don’t bring in your own ideas, unless specifically asked to do so,

3)      Look at what is holding the business back in the first place and address these issues at the root,

4)      Work on the business, but not in it (i.e. be a coach and a trainer, not a permanent team member).

To these I’d also like to add the following “Honey Bee” attributes proposed by Anil Gupta in his great TED Talk about everyday innovators in India:

5)      Be sure you are being asked and invited to assist.

6)      Both parties need to benefit from the exchange of ideas.

7)      Don’t co-opt learning only for your own use; share it back with those who developed it.

Okay, this is all well and good you say, but surely there is a role for “hard technical skills”? Besides, Jon, what qualifies you to offer advice or an opinion in the first place? I definitely don’t have all the answers and there are huge swaths of historical, cultural, and technical information and context that I am missing. I won’t attempt to justify it here, as there is a never-ending debate about the value of “technical assistance” as means of delivering aid and development that I’d like to address in a future post.

From what I’ve seen, however, having all the answers is not as important as knowing where to look to connect the dots. For example, I don’t know much about finance and accounting, but I know enough to understand the issues and there are people in Ghana who ready and able to do this work. I am not an expert in mango farming, but connecting with students and faculty at the university up the road we are able to tap into this knowledge. I am also not a forester, but I can connect with a huge number of people through EWB’s vast network and find a specialist when needed. I am also able to draw on my varied experience growing up on a fruit farm, recently building (from scratch) a processing facility, engineering project management, and many other bits and pieces of information that helps fit into the bigger picture. Drawing the parallel to the engineering consulting world, quite often it is nigh impossible to know all the details of every system or component, the most important thing is being able “to know enough to know who to ask” and being able to fit everything together. Business development isn’t engineering or rocket science, but in some ways it is even more challenging as the systems involved are the slow, messy, complex human variety where ambiguity is guaranteed and there’s almost never a perfect answer.

I hope to keep collecting and refining this approach as time goes on, but I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the meantime.

What am I Doing Here? Part III.I: Taimako Enterprises

I’ve talked about how impact investing, socially-motivated businesses and technical assistance are supposed to work together to improve the lives of people in a community, why EWB Canada is involved in this area and why we suspect it to be a powerful leverage point for large-scale impact, and how this connects upstream to larger patterns in the development world. This time around I’ll finally get into the details of what I have been up to.  In short, I’m currently involved with three main projects and partially involved with a few others:

  1. My main focus is as a technical advisor and embedded business consultant within Taimako Enterprises based in Tamale, Ghana. My role here is to work closely with the ownership and management of this growing, second generation family business to catalyze change and to help them realize their plans for the future .
  2. Through another Business Development Services program, the Mobile Business Clinic, I am coaching a small poultry and animal farming business with their growth as a post-investment, early-stage start-up. (I’ll turn this into its own post once the program wraps up at the end of the month)
  3. Within BDS I am looking at Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks and internationally recognized social and environmental metrics. The goal is to understand how the social, environmental and economic impacts of many small businesses aggregate to form a lasting positive change in communities and beyond. (This is definitely another post, or even a completely separate blog!)

Taimako Enterprises


Taimako is where I spend most of my time and where I live. The story of the Taimako’s history, especially as told by the founder, CEO and family matriarch, Madam, Dr. Taimako, is one of the most captivating and inspiring I’ve ever heard. I wish I had a tape recorder with me the last few times she’s told it, but I’ll try to do it some justice here while keeping it brief.

Madam Taimako began as a healer, mid-wife and traditional medicine gatherer in the Northern regions of Ghana. This business soon morphed into the cultivation of traditional herbal plants and shrubs. After losing her husband, the mother of nine faced innumerable odds her, but was able to slowly grow the medicinal/herbal garden and break into the relatively new market for tree seedlings (trees after all have many important medicinal properties). With small steps she was able to expand this seedling business and, in the past decade, Taimako has grown into one of the largest suppliers of timber and fuit tree seedlings in Northern Ghana.

As the tree seedling business was growing, the Taimakos maintained their traditional medicine training and cultivation business, branched into ornamental plants and landscaping, and acquired a large parcel of land from the local chieftaincy to establish a 250 acre Mango plantation (one of the most popular seedlings they produce is mango). Furthermore, in the early 2000s a pronounced need for more senior high level schooling was noticed in the community, especially for those students left behind in the lottery based public school system. This led the Taimakos to establish a low-cost, private senior high school on their property. This school has since grown to an overall enrollment of over 500 students and plans are being formed to build a primary feeder school in the coming years. Finally, as if there wasn’t already a lot happening, the Taimakos are in the middle of establishing a food processing business to capitalize on the eventual output from their mango plantation and the seasonal gluts of produce and grain crops.

Through the years, the business has operated in a fairly informal manner with limited record keeping and management systems in place to track employees, costs and revenues. Taimako was introduced to EWB and BDS through a chance meeting several years ago and a relationship was built after a series of discussions. About a year ago, BDS was brought onboard to help address their self-identified need for improved business systems and overall organizational structure. So, this is where I’ve been working for the past four months as an embedded business consultant.

Below is a quick overview of what I am working on within each of Taimako’s business units with some pictures to bring things into focus.

Seedling Nursery


This is still by far the largest aspect of the Taimako’s business and produces the most revenue as well as the most challenges. There are three seedling nurseries located in the same general area just outside of town where a dam reservoir provides a year round water source. These nurseries collectively produced well over 1 million seedlings last year (!), with the primary contracts going to the government afforestation program known as SADA. Local mango farmers, municipalities and private businesses make up for the rest of the sales. The varieties of trees currently being cultivated include:

  • Mango: These trees are sold in large quantities to established mango farmers and government initiatives to develop the mango industry in Northern Ghana.
  • Mahogany: These trees are sold to farmers and land owners for land stabilization. They are also sold to government agencies as part of reforestation programs. Mahogany is also vastly used in the timber industry.
  • Shea: Shea trees are sold to farmers for income generation and to reforestation programs.
  • Ceiba, Kpalga, Ebony, Kacia, Albasia, Luccina, Eucalyptus: These trees are sold for reforestation programs and land stabilization. They are not produced in as large quantities as Mango, Mahogany or Shea.

The main challenges involved with this business are organizing the nurseries and work so that better records can be kept and waste and seedling attrition reduced. I am currently looking into ways of tracking the inputs and outputs and how the overall process can be improved and made more reliable.

Mango Plantation


As a way of diversifying their business (if you haven’t noticed, they really like diversity) and using the output from their seedling operation, Taimako establish a 250 acre plantation near Pong-Tamale in 2011. Since the trees are still growing and have not yet started fruiting, the work on the plantation is mostly pruning, manuring, mulching and watering. The latter process is accomplished via a tractor filling a large water tank from a nearby reservoir and laboriously hand watering each of the trees [~100 trees/acre x 250 acres = 25,000 trees x 4L of water /tree, every third day in the dry season (Nov-Feb) – it adds up quickly!]. There was an estimate done by another company for a large-scale irrigation system, but it was prohibitively expensive. What I am currently looking into is how such a system could be implemented piece by piece over the next several years, and what sort of farm record keeping would help facilitate this kind of ROI decision-making (i.e. cost of tractor fuel vs. irrigation system over 10 years).

Processing Plant


This is where I’ve spent most of my time so far. From a previous grant, Taimako established a medium scale food processing facility on their property complete with a solar tunnel food dryer. Though this business has been operational for a few years, it hasn’t really taken off as hoped do other priorities. Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that a steady flow of cash from this business unit would add much need stability to the overall enterprise. Furthermore, local food production, post-harvest losses, food security and rising transportation costs have been hot topics of conversation in Ghana and around the world lately. This food processing facility should be a win-win for Taimako and the local community if it can smooth out the large peaks and valleys of seasonal food production (mangos, tomatoes, groundnuts, etc.) by extending the shelf life through solar drying, juicing, and other preservation methods. It should also, reduce transport costs and dependence on imported foods (why are we eating tomato sauce from Italy?!), provide a number of relatively well-paying, stable jobs and provide a guaranteed market for local farmers to sell their products.

The building is currently being renovated to meet the latest health and safety codes (tiling, glass windows, A/C) and should be fully operational later this spring. I have been doing market research on the peak season of various crops, looking into the production line design of the plant, and doing some research into solar drying and other preservation methods.

The plant is currently slated to produce the following products:

  • Unimix Tombrown (mixed ground corn, soya, rice and groundnuts – used as a sort of morning porridge)
  • Dried mango, pineapple, banana, and coconut chips
  • Ground ginger and chili powder
  • Roasted groundnuts and groundnut paste (peanuts and peanut butter) and roasted sesame
  • Cassava, yam and plantain flour

So there you have it, Taimako in a nut shell! There is quite a bit going on and I’m constantly learning some new thing or another which is a blast. Beyond the more technical work on the business units themselves I am also working with the Taimakos to establish the accounting and record keeping systems befitting of an operation this size. We are also discussing company culture and philosophy in the way they organize their policies towards the community, the environment and their workers (they are already way ahead of what most businesses are doing, but want to be more deliberate about it).

I want to write a lot more about the role of a technical advisor and embedded consultant and some of the advantages and challenges with this approach, but I’ll save that for a future entry. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to question, comment, challenge or suggest a new topic.

Here are some more photos: