Lake Bosumtwi

About an hour outside of the city of Kumasi in the Ashanti Region lies a large meteorite crater lake that is quite out of the ordinary, but the people around seem even more so. I was hesitant to post anything about this trip because it was so short and I didn’t really get any good photos. Still, it’s was a nice break from Tamale and an item checked off my Ghana Bucket List.

Over the Dec 28-29th weekend, I made the trek from Kumasi with a few of the other die-hard EWBers who were not going out of the country for Christmas. The Lake itself is pretty spectacular, especially if you try to imagine what the meteorite impact would have looked like a million years ago:

Lake Bosumtwi (also spelled Bosomtwe), situated within an ancient meteorite impact crater, is approximately 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) across and the only natural lake in Ghana. It is situated about 30 km south-east of Kumasi and is a popular recreational area. There are about 30 villages near this crater lake, with a combined population of about 70,000 people.

The Lake Bosumtwi impact crater is 10.5 km in diameter, slightly larger than the present lake, and is estimated to be 1.07 million years old (Pleistocene period). Depth of crater is approximately 380 m, but, if counted together with the depth of lake sediments – 750 m. The crater has been partly eroded, and is situated in dense rainforest, making it difficult to study and confirm its origin by meteorite impact.

The Ashanti consider Bosumtwi a sacred lake. According to traditional belief, the souls of the dead come here to bid farewell to the god Twi. Because of this, it is considered permissible to fish in the lake only from wooden planks.

The legends say that in 1648 an Ashanti hunter named Akora Bompe from the city of Asaman was chasing an injured antelope through the rainforest. Suddenly, the animal disappeared in a small pond. It was as if this body of water wanted to save the animal’s life. The hunter never got the antelope, though he settled close to the water and started catching fish. This place he named “Bosomtwe”, meaning “antelope god”. This story suggests that at that time the lake level was very low. The large dead trees standing offshore in the lake also evidence this, for they are over 300 years old.

The following centuries saw several wars about the lake as both the Ashanti and the Akim clashed, each claiming the area. The Ashanti prevailed.

Lake Botsumtwi Map

What am I Doing Here? Part II: Social Enterprise, EWB and Business Development Services

About 3 or 4 years ago EWB found itself amidst a swirling movement of new thinking on development issues, disillusionment with traditional economic strategies, and the rise of the middle class in Africa, amongst other trends and developments. To understand a little better how a group of dyed in the wool, pocket-protecting, calculator mashing engineers became involved with business development work in Africa, it helps to know some of the recent history of EWB and the amplifying and colluding trends of business, finance and development of the past couple years.

In the last post I covered a few thoughts on the development world in general and the current state of affairs with regards to social finance and impact investing. This time I’ll drop down to the meza-level and explore a few of the main theories and concepts that have affected EWB’s current thinking and direction and provide an overview of our activities in these areas. This should help explain why Small and Growing Social Businesses (SGSBs) are a large part of EWB’s “systemic innovation” theory of change and how this connects upstream to the impact investing world and downstream to what we are doing on the ground in Ghana and Zambia.

If, after reading, you are interested in supporting this work, then head on over to our “We are” page which is part of EWB‘s year end fundraising campaign.

Concepts in EWB

EWB has always prided itself as being on the cutting edge of the latest thinking in the world of international development and, often, one of the few organizations small and versatile enough to immediately begin putting these theories to the test. Another strength of EWB has been its ability to gather and synthesize ideas and concepts from different fields (engineering, management consulting, finance, business, social science etc.) to create something unique. Here are a few of the main concepts that have had a significant influence on EWB over the past few years:

Systems Thinking – Something every engineer is intimately familiar with is the world of systems and how the interactions between individual parts work together to create a greater whole. Be it in control theory, system-on-a-chip design, assembly line optimization, or chemical processes, engineering more often than not is about combining increasingly smaller components into increasingly larger and more complex systems. This thinking began entering the world of business and management consulting beginning with the “Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge in the early 90’s and has since been adopted by many other disciplines. The aim is take a highly complex ever-changing system of players and interactions and approach it from a holistic perspective instead of piece-by-piece. The ability to better understand the system as a whole allows one to better find and exploit leverage points, synergies, and loopholes and nudge the system towards a new paradigm instead of just patching up symptoms.

Social Enterprise – This fairly ambiguous term has been used to describe everything from a purely non-profit organization delivering only social good all the way to a purely for-profit, traditional business which just happens to be generating some social good (i.e. jobs, health, education) as a by-product of its primary profit incentive. While no one can really decide where to draw the line, the basic concept is that a social enterprise is an operation that generates highly scalable, wide-reaching, positive social or environment impact to its community, stakeholders, or customers. These are typically headed by social entrepreneurs who are very much like regular entrepreneurs, except instead of starting a business they aim to start a movement. You can read a lot more about the concept in the excellent book “How to Change the World” by David Bornstein.

Blended Value – This is another slippery concept which, like social enterprise, is open to broad interpretation. At its core, however, blended value is about businesses or non-profits delivering a blend of economic, social and environmental value as part of it mandate. This takes the concept of “triple-bottom line” a bit further by arguing that these aims should be part of a holistic approach instead of just separate categories. (Unfortunately, due to the nature of some businesses the blending is more like oil and water than milk and coffee). Read more about it here.

SGSB/SME – Small and Growing Social Businesses or Small and Medium Enterprises are two terms used to describe up and coming businesses that have the potential to scale up and deliver far-reaching impact across many communities.

Base of Pyramid – This concept holds that there are an awful lot of people who do not make or spend much money in the world and are hence largely ignored by most mainstream businesses. The theory goes that if a company can reach BoP consumers with their products or services, this will have a profound impact on the overall economy (for better or worse). By serving the needs and demands of the base of the pyramid effectively, companies can make large returns from relatively small margins due to the economies of scale. Read more here.

Participatory Approaches – Based on the work of Robert Chambers in “Whose Reality Counts?” participatory approaches and methods are about reversing the typical top-down, expert-driven power dynamic of traditional development. Instead of designing (usually poorly) the project from a far, implementing something using experts from overseas and leaving. P.A. is about leaving the conception and control squarely in to the hands of the people who are living with the project and giving them discretion about how and where to use outside “expert” help. EWB attempts to do this (though not perfectly) through being a value add partner that local businesses and governments can bring in as they choose. We are aiming to be “on tap”, not “on top”, but there are many systemic issues in the nature of development that prevent this from truly being the case.

EWB and Systemic Innovation

Through its earlier work (2005-2011) in water and sanitation in Malawi, food system in Ghana and Burkina Faso, and governance and rural infrastructure also in Ghana, EWB was exposed to many levels of interactions from high level aid decisions, to local government program implementation, to the effect of these programs on the citizens of these countries. Through this perspective a trend started to emerge that was starkly different from much previous technology-based development thinking. The realization was that instead of focusing on broken water pumps, low harvests, ineffective government programs and other inputs, outputs or technologies, a better way to achieve lasting, resilient, locally directed, and scalable change, was to take a much broader approach. Instead of focusing on implementing “solutions”, EWB decided it was better to first understand the “systems” from which these symptoms manifest and design ways to create change from within. This systemic approach has since become EWB’s specialty and has allowed it to use its limited resources and people on the ground much more effectively. This approach was codified after much internal debate and dialog into EWB’s current vision as a leader in “systemic innovation” in January 2012.

This grand sounding idea, while flashy, modern and, yes, a little presumptuous, has definitely left many a head scratching both inside and outside the organization. How exactly does one plan to create systemic change a priori? Can these efforts be measured, evaluated, attributed, correlated to outcomes? How big of a system are we talking about? The past two years we have been grappling with these questions and experimenting with a new model as an incubator of systemic innovations and social enterprises. Instead of operating like a traditional NGO with projects and programs, EWB works more like a venture capital firm for social entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas and get “investments” of people, connections and some funding.

Business Development Services Africa

While EWB has maintained its work in water and sanitation, governance, and agriculture; through its iterative progression, it has come to focus more on the business sector as the vehicle with the most potential to deliver large-scale impact. Business Development Services Africa was spun off of EWB’s successful work in agriculture value chains, (itself an iteration of working with farmers and noticing major barriers and inefficiencies in the way inputs and outputs flow along a value chain). The BDS venture was pitched with the idea that expanding the number and impact of SGSB’s (especially in the agriprocessing sector) could leverage massive higher order effects upstream for farmers and suppliers of raw foods and downstream by creating jobs and locally sourced food products for BoP consumers.

This leverage point at small businesses within the system of a local economy has been repeatedly cited by politicians, economists and NGO’s around the world as a primary source of jobs and economic growth (both major issues and topics other posts for sure).  The question is how to rapidly and effectively accelerate these companies while not creating even more problems down the line. The answer may be in combing ecosystems of socially and environmentally driven companies together along a value chain to produce the most efficient outputs while doing the least amount of collective harm. No one has quite figured out how to do this yet and the North American model surely isn’t the most inspiring, but BDS hopes to push forward the thinking around this and help find new ways of operating.

BDS is a relatively new venture within EWB and is still very much in a start-up, exploratory stage as we tighten our business model, experiment in different roles and develop our theory of change. Within the next several years, it is hoped that BDS will become its own separate entity; based directly in the countries it has operations and employing mostly, if not all local staff. As of right now, we are only operating in Ghana and Zambia with a handful of client organization, but aim to grow and diversify as we iterate. Our current numbers on the ground as of the end of this month will be four in Ghana and five in Zambia.

Our model of assistance is meant to harness the power of small business to develop a self-reliant and sustainable form of poverty reduction and social betterment. BDS only works with clients that request our services and are able to demonstrate strong entrepreneurial drive and business models with tangible social and environmental impact. In essence, we are helping entrepreneurs build better business systems, and we are connecting those entrepreneurs with the right investors to scale up. Our solutions are co-developed, co-owned and co-executed with the entrepreneur and, therefore, have their buy-in from the beginning.

There are a variety of systemic failures in markets, institutions, and rules and norms that contribute to the demise of many small enterprises. This makes it harder for entrepreneurs to access “growth capital” to expand their businesses. But, there is more to it than that: businesses also need to be able to utilize that capital efficiently and sustainably in order to effectively benefit from it. This is why BDS is primarily focused on capacity development of entrepreneurs. From our perspective, both investors and entrepreneurs are losing out because often the underlying issues that make businesses “unbankable” are surmountable with the right approach. As David Packard (the P in HP) said, “More organizations die of indigestion than starvation”.

BDS is piloting and testing its operation in three main categories:

–          Pre and post investment technical assistance through embedded consultants: Here we partner with pre-investment (start-up to growth stage) businesses and work with them to streamline their business and technical systems, and prepare business plans and record keeping for investor due diligence. We also partner with impact investors and work with them and the client organization to ensure a smooth transition post-investment. That is, direct, client-based consulting to understand, diagnose and remove the barriers that stand in the way of the client’s objectives.

–          Business incubators: In this role we work with existing NGO or government lead business incubation programs to develop the tools, training, selection processes and monitoring and evaluation frameworks for the incubated businesses.

–          Mobile business training clinics and coaching: This stream, currently based in Ghana, brings together cohorts of small business leaders in groups from each geographical area for a three-month training and coaching program delivered by local Ghanaian business leaders. Training modules include management and leadership development, finances and accounting practises, and project management techniques. The training sessions are accompanied by regular coaching sessions to help the small business owners to immediately begin implementing what they’ve learned.

We are still very much working on the overall direction to take to increase our reach and effectiveness and continuously learning and discussing with local partners about what needs are not being met. In particular a lot of work needs to be done around understanding how these intangible and unpredictable things like “business success” or “positive social and environmental impact” can be influenced, quantified, qualified, compared, measured and/or evaluated. As we increase our understanding this system, we will be narrowing in our specific leverage points and value adds.

In the final installment, I’ll address the day-to-day operations here in Tamale including my work with Taimako Enterprises, Mobile Business Clinics, and some of BDS’s other projects and clients in Ghana and Zambia.

Thanks for reading!

Ghana Bucket List

Here’s what I’d like to have done before I leave Ghana:

[x] Mole National Park – See some Animals! – Done. Read about it here








[  ] Paga/Burkina Faso Border – Sit on a crocodile!

[  ] Moto Trip – Destination not important really, but maybe the Gambaga Escarpment


[  ] Bolgatanga – Upper East Region capital

[  ] Bui National Park/Cote d’Ivoire Border – Hippos!

[  ] Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary – “Where monkeys live happily with human beings”

monkey 6

[  ] Take ferry along Lake Volta – The largest “man-made” lake in the world, apparently it’s possible to take a boat from the North to the South over the course of a few days.


[  ] Mt. Afadjato/Togo Border – The highest peak in Ghana at 885m

[  ] Kumasi – The capital of the Ashanti Kingdom and home to some other EWBers


[ X ] Lake Bosomtwi – Meteorite impact crater lake near Kumasi – Done! Read about it here.


[  ] Kakum National Park – Do the nature canopy walk

[  ] Nzulezo – Village built on sticks on a lake


[  ] Elmina/Cape Coast – Visit the slave holding fortresses along the coast

[  ] Busua/Takoradi – Surfing!

[  ] Wli Falls – Highest water fall in West Africa (maybe)


[  ] Out of country trip to Burkina/Mali/Togo/C d’I/the Sahara – Travel outside the country at least once


Wish you could all come along with me, but hopefully reading about it is at least something. Any other suggestions or must-see things that I’ve missed please let me know. I’ll update this post as I check things off.

Eats For a Week

I know it’s recently become terribly uncool to post “instagramed” pictures of your food online, but I figure food is one of the main cultural expressions that is unique to each country and at least of some passing interest to those from elsewhere.

For the most part Ghana is not known for its culinary exports (other than raw materials like cocoa and fruit), but I’ve found the food more than satisfactory and have very few complaints, if at all. In fact, I’ve really needed to dwell on it to be able to dream up any major food cravings (broccoli and coffee are the two main ones). In Tamale, there is very little one can’t find in the way of western food (hamburgers, pizza, indian, ice cream, cheese, cake, etc.). In Accra, moreover, you’d be hard pressed to come up with anything under the sun that’s not available if you’re willing to fork over the cedis for it.

As a general rule, traditional Ghanaian food is centred around the ever present starch ball (either rice, yam, corn, or cassava or a combination) along with a saucy soup and/or meat vegetable dish. What it lacks in flavour and diversity, it makes up for with enormous quantities and tongue numbing saltiness. There are definitely some standout dishes (not featured herein, unfortunately), these included deep fried yams and hot pepper sauces, deep fried plantains and spice mix (Kelliwelli), banku (slightly sour, fermented maize starch ball) with groundnut (peanut) soup, and pavla sauce (cocoa yam leaves, the main green vegetable).

Overall, I’ve been surprised by how much fish is eaten, even though Tamale is quite a few sweltering, unrefrigerated kilometres away from any water bodies. Another, important fact is just how much of the food is imported from elsewhere. The traditional staples (cassava, yam, maize) are locally grown, but a lot of the chicken, rice, dairy, canned goods, and even fruit juices are imported from Asia, South America or Europe. This obviously has major implications for food security, trade balances, and local agriculture development as I’ll hopefully address more fully in a future post.

Below is a typical week’s worth of food (f0r my family at least).  I missed one dinner and one breakfast and went out to eat once. At this stage all the cooking is done by the two live-in nieces who are highly incredulous of my offers to help in the kitchen. So far I have been regulated to chopping vegetables and stirring pots, but with time I hope to take a more active role.

Nov 25 - Breakfast.png Nov 25 - Candy.png Nov 25 - Lunch.png Nov 25 - Gum.png Nov 25 - Dinner.png Nov 26 - Breakfast.png Nov 26 - Lunch.png Nov 26 - Dinner.png Nov 27 - Breakfast.png Nov 27 - Lunch.png Nov 27 - Dinner.png Nov 28 - Breakfast.png Nov 28 - Lunch.png Nov 28 - Dinner.png Nov 29 - Breakfast.png Nov 29 - Lunch.png Nov 29 - Snacks.png Nov 29 - Dinner.png Nov 30 - Breakfast.png Nov 30 - Lunch.png Nov 30 - Dinner.png Dec 1 - Breakfast.png Dec 1 - Lunch.png Dec 1 - Dinner.png

Mongolian Kitsch Back Online

I’ve been meaning to put my blog from my time in Mongolia back online. Unfortunately, this took longer to patch together than anticipated which is part of the reason for my blogstipation of late. Anyways it’s now up for anyone who is interested, minus a few of the photos and formatting I wasn’t able to reproduce.

I spent about a year (August 2007 – June 2008) living in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar as a VSO volunteer working on IT and website projects for various local partner NGOs. I’ve been thinking fondly about the experience often as I am now in Ghana trying to make the most of things. Though it wasn’t alway easy or fun I’m (re)realizing what an amazing, profound and extremely fortunate opportunity it was to live there.

Highlights include:

  • Encountering a huge herd of thousands of sheep and yaks outside of Hustai Park
  • Visiting the quaint second city of Darkhan
  • My short lived career as a Mongolian runway model
  • The Eagle Festival
  • Clubbing in Mongolia
  • Visiting the other planet that is the Gobi Desert
  • My short trips to China and India

Lost Gobi Pictures

Gobi pics for Ruth 045.jpgI’ve been back for 5 months now and, for the most part, I’ve forgotten about this blog. I still have another year of hosting left, however, and there seems to be at least a few hits per day so I […]


YHH June 29 Program

This is the major event my younger brother is organizing in South India. See India Post. I’ve been helping out with media and computer work. The links are yhh.futureindia {at symbol} and

It’s a Wrap!

Gobi pics for Ruth 197.jpgI’ve been back in Canada for a few days now, but I thought I should put on a closer post before everything gets mixed up again. (I’m still waiting for some photos from my Gobi trip, which I’ll post as […]



From May 7th to May 18th I went to India mainly to visit my younger brother, Manoj and see what he was doing. It was a ridiculously short trip and I didn’t make it very far from the medium sized city of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu (South India, a […]

Wrapping Up Work

“Whoa that’s awesome Jon, you’re going to write about how you spend all your time sitting at a desk staring at a computer while rarely updating the photos and posts with cool stuff about Mongolia, which is really why I am here”. Well believe me I don’t […]

French Graffiti/Mongol Wrestling

Keepin’er fresh! If not always consistent or relevant. I’ve only got another month and a half out here so I’ll forgo any formality and start throwing up a bunch of random posts as they happen. Here are two: […]

Volunteer Model…

…But not model volunteer. Here’s one for the WTF! Mongolia category. Another volunteer, Clare, who works at a university for fiber-arts and fashion, invited me and a few of the other volunteers to be models for the school’s annual fashion show. Apparently, they only wanted men as the women had many more costume changes to […]


I must have heard this song at least once a day on average over the past month and a half, it’s got to be the number one, but I’m not sure if there’s an official chart out here. Mongolian music (to me decidedly a misinformed foreigner) seems to fall into one of a few categories: […]

Hacksin’ at the “Military Rest Center”

The last post was super long and boring, so to appease my burgeoning audience of Finnish and Brazilian based viewers who reach my site with such inexplicable keyword searchs as “world largest rock concert” and “santiago de cuba“, I’ve posted some pix of a place I stayed at in the pseudo-countryside last weekend. Nothing too […]

6 Months Down, 3 Bonus Months to Go

A few days back was my 6 month anniversary of being in UB, FUNgolia, and it sort of passed without any explanation. This should be the end of my short-term NetCorps volunteer placement, but earlier in February I put in a request to extend for an extra three months and VSO was happy to have […]

Eagle Fest

What better way to add some excitement to the painful plodding pace of winter than to throw a good old fashion Kazak Eagle Festival? (Mongolian’s are all about animals and festivals. You name it, camel, yak, reindeer, eagle, antelope, etc., and it’s got its own festival at some point in the year). Last weekend it […]

In the Heart of the Nine Nines

A subject of anthropological and cultural, as well as environmental concern that I’ve yet to fully address is the fact that it is freakin’ cold out here. Not that that should come as a surprise to me or anybody else, and to be honest it’s pretty manageable. In fact I only mention it now because […]

Beijing: Up & Down

It’s been a while! I just got back from a week and a half in Beijing, so I thought I should break that down for ya. Left on the 20th of December and just got back yesterday; saw some amazing stuff, and definitely gained a lot more insight into the city, the people, and the […]

At the Rock Show

IMGP5467.JPG After having missed the biggest Mongolian Hip Hop show of the year in late September and just recently having missed a chance to see the legendary “Chinggis Khaan” (the biggest band in Mongolian for going on 20 years) play live, I got my fix Saturday night at the […]


Midnight Train to Darkhan

Not exactly riveting stuff, but I took another trip outside the capital last weekend and got to see a few new things and had some interesting experiences. Here’s the report: This weekend was long due to Mongolian Independence Day on Monday, so me and a few others lost no time in getting out of the […]

Some Recent Happenings

IMGP5098.JPG Halloween – After a slow start Halloween turn out alright, 2 weeks ago. Cumulating in two pretty good house parties (one with VSOs and one with PeaceCorps/Americans), a few costumes and even some practical jocularity! Spreading the message of Halloween to the Mongolian population was something I feel […]


What is it, exactly, that I do out here?

Bit of a downer last time, but the basic idea is that I’ve been brought over here at great expense and effort. Now I’m living in a comfortable apartment, consuming resources and taking up space. So, what exactly am I doing here? What work am I doing that couldn’t be done by a Mongolian or […]

Missing Missives

Extra-narrative Aside: Had some site issues last week, for which I apologize. My super-budget Italian web hosting company (“Largo Magnifico“) basically took a little holiday, unbeknownst to me. But were gettin’ her back together, slowly. While the technical troubles might be excusable my “blogastipation” as of late is largely my own fault. It stems more […]

Hustai Park

Took another rip out to the country last Saturday. It had been a few weeks since I’d been out of the city and I was totally feigning for some air that doesn’t taste like I’m living in a giant campfire. This trip was out to Hustai Park, about 90 miles due west of UB (3hrs […]

New Digs/The 9to5

Moved into my new, permanent apartment a few weeks back. Nice spot, pretty central, good neigborhood, lot’s of shops, bus route, etc. It’s your typical pink Russian monolith from the 60s; curves around in kind of an L-shape that appears to […]

One Month In/Homestay/Bogd Khaan/Countryside3

1st month down, can’t say whether it went particularly fast or slow; some things are a blur. others are in painful detail. Lifestyle was not sustainable–too much drinking, eating out and general errors in judgment–but that’s okay for the first month. Done my 5 week language course; can’t really do much with it, but I […]

BYOBuuz!/Smoozin’ at the British Embassy/Countryside2

As things are starting to blur and turn into the selective, indeterminate memories of life, I’m just going to relate some of the big events over the past week(s). Also, since no one is able to corroborate the accuracy of the details, you will all just have to except them as fact, (or at least […]

Week 2 Retrospection

Internet’s been a little flaky at the VSO office where I do most stuff, but that’s hardly an excuse due to the preponderance of cheap internet cafes in the area. Aw well. Everything still all good, a little more chill this week than it was the first week. […]

Tumen Ekh National Song & Dance Ensemble

This is a bit out of date as it happened last week sometime, but we went out to see this pre-packaged variety style show of traditional Mongolian songs, dance, contortionist, and a few other odd and ends thrown in. It was obviously focused on tourists as everything was super short and to the point. I […]

Terelj National Park Outside UB

Immediately after arriving in Mongolia, I went out with the group to this park east of Ulaanbaatar. It wasn’t exactly the “real” countryside with nomadic people and the bit, but it was definitely sweet to get out and do something so soon after arriving. The park seemed to be filled with a lot of […]

Week 1 Recap!

Whoa, super intense week over all feels like I’ve been gone for months. There’s basically too much to absorb, process, and relate back to you, so things will be about a week or so behind until I get bored and have time on my hands like in the winter. This one will just be about […]

Quick note to let you all know I made it..

I got in yesterday and did a trip out to the country. Everythings super sweet so far and I’m havin a great time. I’ve got some pix and stuff I’ll throw up tomorrow once I get myself organized. Use the RSS links so you can be alerted when something happens. Jon.

First Post

Site is up and running as of August 6, lots more content to be added over next little while, but you get the basic idea of how things look.


Mole National Park: Wild Animals & Party Animals

Ghana is often referred to as the gateway to Africa as far as tourism is concerned. I had not realized it before I arrived, but there is a little of everything here: the beaches and jungles of the bottom third are those commonly associated with West Africa; the Muslim areas of the top third are heavily influenced by North Africa; and the open savannah regions in the mid third are reminiscent of East or Southern Africa. Mole (Mo-lay) National Park is found in this latter region and is Ghana’s biggest wildlife sanctuary and, more or less, the tourist destination for animal viewing. The park is close to 5000 sq. km and has (according to the 2010 Brandt’s guide) about 800 elephants, 1,000 buffalo, and more than 90 other large mammal species including hippos, warthogs, antelopes and primates.

I was able to join a group headed to the park for the weekend and was pleasantly surprised by how much we saw during the 2 days (plus a travel day). I’m not entirely sure of all the species names, but the big one is obviously the elephants which we got to within 15m or so of. The rest of the critters were either too far to get a good look at (monkeys, waterbuck, kob, hornbill) or a little too close for comfort (free ranging warthogs and baboons that know how to open hotel room doors).

The only real place to stay within the park boundaries is the Mole Motel. Despite some pricey food and a few too many wayward college age students who seemed to have confused Ghana for Spring Break, Ft. Lauderdale, it is an ideal place to hang out with a pair of binoculars and take in the sights. The hotel overlooks a major watering hole and we were lucky enough to have several elephants come by for a few hours each morning and do their thing (mostly just stand still and flap their ears). The park office near the hotel offers fairly cheap jeep and walking safaris, but it’s mostly just a case of good luck to be able to see anything. Stomping around with 20-30 other foreign and Ghanaian tourists with cellphones a-ringing, mindless, high-volume conversations a-blathering, and cameras a-clicking, should be enough to scare or annoy away most of the animals for a huge radius, so I’m glad we saw what we did.

Despite these small annoyances and the travel on public transportation, that while not particularly dangerous, could be accurately described as Kafkaesque for its psychological intrigue, this was a great trip and definitely a big item crossed off of my Ghana bucket list.


Ghana Signs I

Ghanaians are passionate about their signage and have a knack for coming up with some pretty unique business names. They also like to label their cars and trucks with prophetic sayings, inside jokes, and/or cryptic messages to keep you guessing. Here are just a very few that I have been able to capture with my camera phone as I was driving or walking by. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post a few more over the coming months!

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What I am Doing Here Part 1: Historical Context and Impact Investing

[This is the first part of a much longer post about what I am involved with here in Ghana. Hopefully, it’s informative and not too long-winded! Again these are my opinions and ideas, not representative of any larger group. Next post I’ll have some pictures and more exciting stuff from my trip to Mole National Park this weekend.]

The world of aid and international development has been in a state of constant flux and commotion since the concept was invented near the end of the Second World War. The idea, namely, that a country or group of countries espoused to have “development” can pack it up and ship it out to places that are determined to need it, has proven extremely resilient and captivating despite an eye-popping history of failure, waste, and incompetence. The reasons why this area has been constantly picked apart, reorganized and reimagined are many, but some of the more important ones include the startling complexity of actually making this idea work, and the fact that everyone seems to have a different opinion about how to approach the issues or their own pet projects and ideas. This seems to lead, invariably, to a constant flow of development trends and fashions that rise and fall like the prices of their silver bullet point solutions.

I won’t attempt to cover the history of international development here, nor am I any sort of expert on the topic, but there have been countless books written, hands wrung, eyebrows furrowed and knickers knotted about what it is, why what happened in the past did not work and what new ideas would make it better.  Part of what fascinates me about this subject, is the multiplicity, dichotomy and contradiction of ideas involved and the fact that, despite the hard work of thousands of passionate people, the billions of dollars thrown at it over the decades, and the intellectual brain juices that have been squeezed into it, it is still hard to call international development a success with a straight face.

Trying to force development on a country or group of people seems to me akin to trying to make a tree healthy by air dropping soil, water and fertilizer on it, giving it periodic blasts of CO2 and UV radiation and showing it pictures of how other trees have grown. The tree already knows how to grow, in fact it has been around for quite a while already, what’s needed more than anything is a healthy environment, time to grow, and the removal of unfair barriers that are holding it back. Instead of poking and prodding it like a well-meaning but clumsy toddler with pudgy fingers, a better approach might be to begin with cleaning up the polluted air and water around it, removing the rocks impeding its roots, and maybe even trimming back some of the overgrown branches of the surrounding successful trees so that a little more sunlight can shine through.

Do not get me wrong, despite my delight in naysaying and cynicism, there have been many positive results, successful projects, and lives changed for the better. And, I wouldn’t be passionately interested and actively participating in this work currently if it was just a voyeuristic car-crash watching pastime that was beyond redemption. What I see is humanity struggling up against the boundaries of extreme complexity and coming to terms with its own deeply embedded systems that we shape and that shape us. Our collective ability to overcome massive hurdles from human rights and justice to poverty and development to climate change and global warming hinges on our being able to work with this complexity and each other.

Development is an answer no one was looking for to a question that still hasn’t been understood correctly. Still, the world keeps on spinning and the logical reductionism that says every problem must have a solution continues to hold fast.  The current iteration of this thinking finds us in the early 21st century having gone through the massive infrastructure projects of the 60s and 70s, the structural adjustments fiascos of the 80s, and the micro-finance explosion of the 90s, (among other trends). Arriving at the present day with a new set of buzzwords and theories with names like “impact investing”, “development impact bonds”, and “enterprise philanthropy”, we are once again just at the cusp of a new breakthrough solution.

Impact Investing is loosely the area of development in which I am working and is a relatively new trend, (or a rehashing of old ideas depending on your perspective). It falls under the larger umbrella of social finance which is an attempt to apply some of the successful approaches of business to the world’s social and environmental problems.

The core tenets of this approach are as follows:

1)      Business and capitalism have been massively successful and efficient at getting things done in many places in the world, and small businesses in particular are where a huge amount of the product and services we all rely on come from.

2)      “Historically, regulation – and to a lesser extent, philanthropy – was an attempt to minimize the negative social consequences of business activities. But there is a history of individual investors using socially responsible investing to express their values, usually by avoiding investments in specific companies or activities with negative effects.” (Wikipedia)

3)      “It’s going to take far more money than all the philanthropies and governments have at their disposal to make a significant impact on improving the lives of all the poor and vulnerable people in the world…Impact investing – which helps address social and/or environmental problems while also turning a profit – could unlock substantial for-profit investment capital to complement philanthropy in addressing pressing social challenges” (The Rockefeller Foundation)

4)      “Impact investments are investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return. Impact investments can be made in both emerging and developed markets, and target a range of returns from below market to market rate, depending upon the circumstances.” (The GIIN)

5)      “At scale, an impact investing industry could allow for a renewable and sustainable form of financing for an endless array of initiatives, from poverty alleviation and affordable housing, to natural resource conservation, and even clean infrastructure projects.” (RBC)

Growth Potential for Impact Investing. (‎)
Growth Potential for Impact Investing. (‎)

This approach builds on the ideas of micro-finance, i.e. that money and credit make the world go ‘round and that by keeping these flowing freely people and businesses will be better able to bootstrap their way out of poverty. Impact Investing also adds in elements from the venture capital and investment worlds with tools and concepts like “portfolios”, “asset classes”, “investment due diligence”, and “payback periods”. It also attempts to improve upon them by adding requirements for “social and environmental impact” as part of the terms of the agreements.

Types of Impact Investments (‎)
Types of Impact Investments (‎)

The quantifying of social and environmental impacts, both positive and negative, has been notoriously difficult (or conveniently ignored?) in traditional capitalism and these effects are usually grouped under the term “externalities”. Part of what social finance attempts to do is build a framework on which to compare and measure the externalities created by businesses. By standardizing these measurements, the extent or existence of social and environmental impact can be determined and thereby “re-internalized” back into the core operations of the business. One such framework is the IRIS metrics created by the GIIN (Global Impact Investing Network) another is an assessment prepared by the B-Lab (Benefit Corp) and ANDE (Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurs) which allows businesses to benchmark their activities and approaches to see how and where they might improve. This approach is still in its infancy, but I think it has enormous potential to create change as long as the right companies sign up for it.

Impact Capital Spectrum
Impact Capital Spectrum

Additionally, I see several other very positive things about this approach:

1)      Impact investing seems to be more equally applicable to both the developed and developing worlds. Unlike microfinance, which doesn’t find much of a niche in the developed world, Impact investing could conceivably be applied equally well to an agricultural initiative in Canada, or a housing project in Brazil. This might lead to us being a lot more fair and honest about what is working and what isn’t when it is in our backyard as well as someone else’s.

2)      Small and medium-sized businesses are not going away any time soon, and these entities meet many of the needs of society in a relatively efficient and fair way. (Large or multinational businesses beholden to shareholders are quite a different story). Giving these smaller players access to capital so that they can play their part in meeting these needs seems beneficial.

3)      Money makes the world go ‘round and it makes sense that if you want to have a profound and highly leveraged impact on the way the world works, you would go after businesses and the way the financial and economic world works.

4)      Impact investing is also helping challenge the core tenet of business, (that is, to make money at all costs), and is changing the conversation about what role business should play in society.

5)      As an investor myself, I’m very concerned about where and with whom my money is sleeping at night. Right now the choices for maintaining your values with your savings include storing them under your bed, investing in the typical mutual fund mixed bag of stocks and bonds, or maybe trying “socially responsible investing” which provides only a negative screen for the very worse companies. Having the option of putting my money somewhere that at least has the chance to do some active good, is very appealing.

Despite the potential, there are still many kinks to work out with the impact investing approach and questions left to answer. Here are a few to get you thinking:

1)      There appear to be few ways that fundamentally meet the needs of the poorest people that will generate any sort of return on investment. Healthcare, infrastructure, education are generally not regarded as money-making opportunities (though they can be) and as such are often highly subsidized by the government as examples of “common goods”. A corollary to this is do you really want to be making a profit off of a poor person’s healthcare or housing, and if so how much is acceptable?

2)      A lot of the major social issues that cause or are linked to poverty stem from existing government and/or market failures that require expensive and slow processes such as research and development, behavioural change, building a market, and maintaining ongoing services. The time frame for these sorts of processes is far slower than the 3-5 year horizon of most investments.

3)      What level of risk is acceptable for non-financial returns? If your stock investment loses 10%, the effects are fairly obvious. If your social impact investment in a housing project falls through, on the other hand, it could mean someone no longer has a place to live.

4)      Where did all this investment money come from in the first place? How did foundations like Bill and Melinda Gates or Rockefeller get their investment capital? And how might Impact Investing challenge or reinforce the already gross inequalities of wealth, power and privilege that exist in our world?

5)      Is it possible to maintain an objective, apolitical stance when dealing with social and environmental issues and values? Or is impact investing even purporting to be apolitical?

6)      How is all this investment and growth tied-in with the bounded ecological resources of the earth? Is it possible that all these new businesses will be able to operate in harmony with themselves, let alone with the planet?

Hopefully, your curiosity has been peaked about impact investing. Whether you see it as repackaged western imperialism, coached in the language of business and buttressed with pseudoscientific jargon, or as an extremely practical way to create change with a huge potential for worldwide impact, or somewhere in between, you’ll agree it is a very important topic. You will most definitely be hearing more about Impact Investing in the coming years so it’s important to be aware of it and start thinking critically about what is going on. What I am excited about is being involved with it from the early stages to see how rapidly and effectively we can test and iterate through all the bad ideas, before hopefully arriving at something positive. At this stage, I am equally concerned and hopeful, but there is still a lot to learn and explore.

In the next post in this series I’ll discuss how EWB Canada, ostensibly a group of practical engineers, ended up getting involved in this area and what we hope to achieve. Finally, in the last installment I’ll get into the details of the work I’m doing in Ghana and how it connects back to the big picture.

References and Resources:,%20Westley,%20Weber.pdf