Bots-Zim-Zam

Through the magic of air miles, I was able to swing a ten-day layover in Southern Africa, on the way back to Ghana, in early February. Ostensibly, this was to get reconnected with the other half of our BDSA team located in Zambia, but it was also an opportunity for a bit of anthropological comparative analysis between African countries. As luck would have it, my good friend, Jude, also happened to be in the area wrapping up a mission with MSF in Swaziland. So, we met up in Jo-burg and set out for a bromantic road trip up through Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Zambia.

This was the first time I’ve been a legitimate tourist in a while: camping at hostels, hassling the local wildlife, taking blurry photos of things, constantly asking people for “direction”, silently judging the other tourists and vigorously mispronouncing local place names. It was all-in-all a mind-blowing experience, but it was also very eye-opening in terms of how tourism works in this part of Africa.

Here are some observations:

Wildlife Viewing

This is what Africa is all about, at least in the essentialized, quick and easy reference we have of it in popular culture. You see amazing mega-fauna in their natural habitats and get all worked up about sunsets and “the circle of life”, Elton John starts singing, end of story. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing and totally worth the experience, and I would definitely recommend doing it if you have a chance, but there are some issues to consider.

First, humans are not evolutionarily inclined to seek out and follow around animals that might want to kill us, so this whole wildlife viewing idea is something of a super normal stimulus. And, like other super normal stimuli–action movies, high fructose corn syrup, pornography–we tend to need more and more of it to get the same rush. After seeing several dozen elephants every day, the novelty does start to take a hit, and you begin wondering what the next exciting thing will be (“Can I get a damn rhino out here, or what!”).

Second, there’s definitely a gradient in terms of “wildness” of animals. At some of the game parks you can go right up and pet the cheetahs or poke the hippos or whatever you want to do. But, these are no longer really wild animals, and you could have saved yourself thousands of dollars and just gone to the zoo. Even in the Moremi Game Reserve near Maun where I went, there are so many safaris land cruisers paparazzing their every waking moment, I’m surprised the animals haven’t taken to wearing hats and dark sunglasses.

Conspicuous Experiential Consumption

Something I’ve always been a fan of is the value of experiences over material goods. I would even go as far as to say if a lot more people adopted a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, the net environmental and social impact would be far more positive than a comparable sedentary life. Unfortunately, we also have a system that loves to put a price tag on everything, even experiences. This gives rise to the same sort of one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as is the case with material consumption. We need to go further, spend more, get more exclusive, and be more unique in order to differentiate ourselves from all the other hapless tourists. This may be a bit cynical, but I’m not sure how else to explain the prevalence of US$3,000/night safari lodges buried deep in the Okavango Delta, accessible only by helicopter. Short of sacrificing a lion every evening in your honor, I’m not sure what they do to justify the price they charge. I paid about $150 to go out into the Moremi Game Reserve with a guide for a night and two days, slept in a tent and still saw pretty much the same animals and took the same blurry photos as everyone else.

Unequal Distribution of Benefits

As far as tertiary, service-sector economic development, tourism is pretty hard to beat. Basically people come to your country to look at stuff and have a good time. All you have to do is make sure they are relatively safe, well fed, and not wandering around getting lost and you can go-to-town disuniting them from their money. Unfortunately, from my experience, this does not appear to be an equal opportunity enterprise. The vast majority of the money derived from these scenic public goods is being fed into private hotels, safari lodges and tourism companies. Relatively little finds its way back to the public in the form of park entrance fees and taxes. For the people who just happen to live nearby these amazing, highly valued public goods, tourism would seem to be a mixed blessing. The dozens of “curios” shops selling the same generic African carvings and knick-knacks, have to resort to ever-more elaborate Jedi-mind-tricks to get you to come into their stores, “I just want to ask you something..”, “I only want to talk..”, and the dudes standing around the entrance gate at Victoria Falls keep trying to pawn off their 100billion Zimbabwean bank notes as souvenirs, unaware of the tragic economic irony.

Australians

My God, are there a lot of Australians out there in the world traveling around! I have no idea how the country functions with half of their population between 18-24 diasporically self-actualizing all over the place. This is not a slight against Aussies, they are just the most noticeable; other privileged classes of North American, European and even Asian youth are doing the same thing. Overall, I think it is great for young people (who are lucky enough to have the opportunity, financing, and high-power passports) to travel and hopefully gain some humility and perspective on the world. It’s a bit disheartening to see, however, the tendency to cocoon in one’s own cultural context even when far from home. Every hostel I’ve ever stayed at seems to default to the same lowest common cultural denominators: Bob Marley for music, hamburgers and fries for food, English language for media, and some kind of weak-ass lager for beer.

Indicators of Progress

A big motivator for coming out this way was to gain some perspective on how Ghana fits into the overall picture of Africa. As a lower-middle-income country, it is supposed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of development, but it was fascinating to see how these macro level categorizations manifest in everyday life. What stood out for me were things like malls per capita in Lusaka, the cleanliness and existence of sidewalks in Botswana, and the number of kids with braces in Jo-burg. Other details like the prevalence of American fast-food chains, helicopters, Nigerian culture, and ethnic diversity were also the most notable differences to Ghana. In general, from my short stay, it seems like the Southern African countries are quite a ways further along in terms of being “nice places to live”. Botswana in particular is remarkably well-to-do as the Norway of Africa with its diamond cache. Still, I have to say, Ghana takes the cake in terms of cultural panache, friendliness and general joie de vivre.

I’ve managed to say almost nothing about where I went or what I did, but hopefully you’ve gained something from reading. Despite the crass commercialization and packaged, checklist tourism, this part of the world is truly primal, humbling, and definitely worth visiting. Please, don’t take anything I’ve said too seriously, I am only one highly-unique perspective. Not to get preachy, but being a tourist, I have (re)learned is rarely straightforward or easy. If you decide to visit, I would encourage a lot of reflection and research before, during, and after to get the most out of the experience and to contribute the most back.

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Lessons Learned w/ Taimako Ent.

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Taimako Enterprises Ltd, first detailed here, is the family own and operated agri business that I was first matched with when I arrived in Tamale circa Oct 2013. I worked on and off with them on a variety of projects over the 10 months of my first year. While progress was made and many good things definitely happened, the unintended and unplanned for consequences of the engagement actually yielded the most interesting results. In fact, looking back on the project and knowing what was actually valuable to Taimako is very informative and indicative of the whole small business consulting concept.

As a quick summary, the work at Taimako, at least ostensibly, centered around three main objectives:

  • Production Planning and Organization
  • Financial Management
  • Organizational Structure

These objectives were co-developed between Taimako and BDSA after having worked together for several months to gain an appreciation of the issues facing the company.  In the end, our approach was to try to offer a range of solutions and work with Taimako to pick and choose which elements to experiment with and adopt.

So what actually ended up happening at Taimako? What were immediate outcomes? When will we know about the actual, long-term impacts of the work? And, what is the counterfactual, i.e. what would have happened had we never began the engagement? At this stage we have some answers for the first two questions and can conjecture about the final two.

Key Successes

New Forestry Nursery

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Across Taimako’s multiple business units, the focus of the work shifted multiple times. First it was centered on the food processing scheme, but as the market realities of this business became clearer, it was decided to refocus efforts on the core business of tree seedling production. To this end, Taimako was able to procure additional nursery land near the centre of town, (their existing nurseries are located in surrounding rural areas).

This new plot is located in the Tamale Forestry Reserve, a sort of unintentional city greenspace that once served as a reservoir, and now mainly harbours the local Rastafarian population, wayward youth of all stripes, and various squatter farmers. Taimako worked through both the local government and the traditional authorities (chieftaincy) to secure a 2 acre parcel of land near the roadside. In the course of only few months, they were able to clear the land of many years of accumulated garbage; erect several structures, including a guinea fowl hatchery, shade cloth area, and a basic mosque. In short,covert an underutilized area into a beautiful nursery with thousands of tree seedlings, exotic plants and samples of local pottery .

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While the rows were not in straight lines and no one could tell exactly how many trees were in each one, as I would have liked, the nursery seemed to happily straddle both order and chaos. We were able to implement simple recordkeeping, inventory and accounting systems to track sales and expenses across the business and made progress towards organizing their production methods. In the end, this new nursery has been a remarkable success for Taimako. It has helped them find new markets for their products; it has reinvigorated and refocused the management on their core business of tree seedlings; and it has helped them become more independent of the highly variable government contracts that were once their mainstay.

Community Tree Sales

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This new pilot initiative was developed by Taimako after encountering many frustrations working with the government sponsored afforestation project known as SADA. There have been many tree planting initiatives in Northern Ghana over the past several decades. Most have been large-scale, government or NGO-driven projects designed to combat desertification, improve the livelihoods of rural people, and/or to mitigate the negative effects of climate change. While these large, top-down projects have had some success and were able to quickly achieve scale, there have been many issues with sustainability and local ownership after the projects have ended.

This community tree sales idea was borne out of Taimako’s interest in local communities and their long history as traditional herbalists and tree growers. This past year they piloted a “Base of Pyramid” social business model whereby individual families and groups combine resources to make slightly subsidized bulk purchases of tree seedlings and plants for their compounds and surrounding lands. At scale, this will provide a significant and growing market for Taimako’s products and provides a reliable source of tree seedlings and information for communities to champion their own livelihoods. At the same time, it avoids the major pitfalls of traditional, plantation style tree planting schemes, by focusing on small-scale, direct ownership of the trees by individual families.

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This project is expected to achieve a number of very important results. There are the direct quality of life and economic impacts for the individual families purchasing the trees, as well as the indirect social and environmental impacts on the community. The benefits or “returns” on the initial investment on these seedlings could be realized after only a few years of growth and include up to 20 years of production of cash and food crops (mangos, cashews, shea), animal fodder, fuel-wood, building materials and traditional medicines,  as well as a source of shade and wind/rain/soil protection. Each tree that is planted also has the potential to remove 1 ton of Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere over its lifetime.

BDSA was able to help Taimako with some basic business planning and modeling for this initiative, and to develop some marketing/information materials to share around the community. We also did a fairly extensive survey of grants and potential NGO partners to bring on to scale this project, but so far we are still looking.

Other Minor Successes

Recordkeeping & Evidence-back Decision Making

A significant transformation for Taimako has been in how they perceive the value of detailed recordkeeping and data-informed decision-making. This has been demonstrated in their adoption of recordkeeping books at the nursery and the use of financial modeling to predict the scope of the pilot version of their community tree seedling sales business. A large reason behind this transformation has been in closing the loop between collecting data, manipulating it in order to reach a conclusion and acting on that new information. Having seen this process come full circle, Taimako has realized the value and the potential to benefit their business.

Transparent Business

A primary objective of Taimako’s for this project was to raise its level from a large, but relatively opaque family business, into a more open, transparent and professional enterprise that could be easily be partnered with. Through a mix of financial policy development, labour practices, and written documentation, Taimako is now in a much better position to communicate and present its business to investors, granting foundations, financial institutions and other partners.  Using the goal of securing impact investment or grants as unifying force behind this work, helped focus efforts on a tangible outcome and drive the development in a cohesive way, even if partnering is still some time into the future.

Challenges & Failures

 

Processing Plant and Mango Plantation

While progress was made in other areas, these two business units were put on the back burner for the time being. The processing plant is awaiting an injection of capital, but more to the point it needs a passionate champion to take ownership and help drive it forward. This might come in the form of new employee or through partnership with other producers. Either way, the need and potential for local food processing and preservation is just too high to let this initiative sit idle for long. As for the mango plantation, with the advent of the rainy season, the need for regular watering, vigilance against brush fires and other direct interventions has dropped off. The farm is still a few years away from producing a viable crop, but Taimako already has ambitious plans for how to get the most out of this investment.

Over Emphasis on Securing Financial Investment

A main assumption made at the beginning of the project was that Taimako would be seeking outside investment in the near term and some of that money would be used to offset BDSA’s fees. It became clear later in the project that this was not the preferred tactic of Taimako and that they would prefer to self-finance for the time being. BDSA failed to adequately respond to this change and held fast to the belief that the company would be interested in pursuing debt or equity financing, without giving enough attention to Taimako’s actual financing requirements. This also stems from the current mania for financial products in the world of development, which assume a lack of capital is the primary stumbling block for companies.

Overemphasis on Production Efficiency and Technical Inputs

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Too much emphasis was put on production efficiency and backend process improvements in the form of planning tools and cost saving measures. By focusing too much on these technical inputs, BDSA missed the larger and more crucial opportunities to help the company clarify their direction and provide less tangible support like coaching and guidance on leadership and family business matters.

Lack of Co-Ownership of Problem Identification

The information asymmetry and power dynamic between the outside “expert consultant” and the passive/receptive client (inherent in these relationships), created a situation where it was very difficult to obtain direction and co-ownership with Taimako. The latter would often rely on BDSA to be both the problem identifier and the solution provider which made it difficult to achieve the necessary commitment and motivation to follow through with changes.

Isomorphic Mimicry

There was a lot of focus put on deliverables such as policies and best practices which were not necessarily valuable in and of them self, but hopefully representative of a deeper change in the organization. Unfortunately, in many cases this lead to the opposite effect of “isomorphic mimicry” where BDSA was helping Taimako look like a better organization without actually changing it to become one.

Limits to the Embedded Approach

The long-term, embedded consultant approach put too much pressure on Taimako to always be making use of BDSA, and put pressure on BDSA to find things to do to keep busy. The embedded approach is more appropriate for a project-based engagement than it is for general business system development. A more flexible relationship where BDSA could have charged a daily rate would have allowed the same amount of work to be completed, but would have made more efficient use of both parties’ time.

Final Thoughts

The 10.5 month relationship with Taimako was both very rewarding and very challenging, with many unforeseen events taking place in the timespan. A strong foundation has been formed for Taimako’s business and many of the right components are now in place to allow them to achieve their long-term goals. The next steps are in the very capable hands of their management, and there will no doubt be many more successes and challenges to face the company in the future.

On personal level, I cannot imagine having a better client and work environment than I experienced with Taimako. The entire family was unfailing open, welcoming and warm and I always felt we interacted in a very direct and honest way which greatly enhanced the relationship. Getting to know the family and being hugely inspired by their vision for both their business and their community at large has, without a doubt, been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. I can only hope that my contributions reciprocated a small part of this value and that the eventual impact of the work will prove positive and lasting. Thank you to the Taimako family, the staff, and their partners for a fantastic year!

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What am I Doing Here Part 4: Monitoring and Evaluation

No matter what you do or where you work, if you are spending someone else’s money, eventually, they are going to ask you what the hell you are doing with it, how effective you have been, and what you have been able to accomplish. This need for accountability and documentation is, however, only one part of the much larger picture usually referred to by the conjunctive phrase: monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Having not worked in the social sciences or studied development in school, my eyes have been opened to this fascinating and convoluted world of M&E, [sometimes also called Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (PMEL)], over the past year.

Though the idea of planning your work, making sure it is on track, evaluating the relative success or failure and trying to learn from the experience has been around forever, the M&E requirements of development projects have been turned into an art form. There are elaborate methodologies, old school tricks of the trade, hot new frameworks and cutting edge research papers being published on the topic monthly. Careers are being made and lost trying to prove what works and what does not, NGOs are pouring more of their budgets into checking all the latest and greatest boxes, and every few years there’s a renewed push by the major multilateral agencies and governments to “get M&E right this time”.

Despite all this, there still seems to be an air of general dissatisfaction with our collective ability to find out what works, make sure it happens, and to reproduce it somewhere else. There is also the frustrating realization that we may never be able to measure all the complex and nuanced subtleties that are inherent of change in human systems. Moreover, it may be that these unmeasurable changes are the most powerful and important, yet remain outside of our reach of understanding and reproducibility. As an always on point Albert Einstein noted, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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There is also a growing feeling, within the development world, that we need to stop looking at issues like diseases and poverty as linear effects stemming from directly linked causes. The so-called “systems approach”, which is the antithesis of this, has been gaining steam over the past decade. In this approach, the sum is greater than the individual parts, the relationships are just as important as the players, and everything is at once linked and constantly evolving. While this is a far more accurate representation of the complex, emergent, human systems found in development, it throws a bit of a wrench into the whole M&E thing. How do you know where you are going when you can’t see where you have been? How do you measure the change you intended to create, when everything is changing all the time? How do you learn from one instance of a system when those exact conditions are likely never to exist again? These issues are crucial across the board in development and social change projects. Within the impact investing world, where BDSA works and I find myself, M&E is where the rubber meets the road and is at the crux of proving the central concept that businesses can be drivers of positive social change.

Monitoring: The systematic & continuous assessment of the progress of a piece of work over time, which checks that things are ‘going to plan’ and enables adjustments to be made in a logical way.

Evaluation: The periodic assessment of the relevance, performance, efficiency, and impact of a piece of work with regards to its stated objectives.

The history of M&E begins several decades back, when the rigour of scientific studies and evidence based results began filtering over to the social sciences and government. Within a few more decades, these ideas had made their way into the development context and had been sufficiently evolved to the point where it became almost impossible to do a project without applying a logical framework (logfram) or Results Based Management (RBM) tool. In the former, the project planner (usually on-high, in an air conditioned office far, far away), lays out the overall intended outcome of the desired change. He or she then works backward to determine the measurable outputs or metrics that would indicate the outcome has been achieved, the activities needed to produce these outputs and finally the inputs needed for each activity. At the end of the project the impact of the work is determined by subtracting the counterfactual (i.e. what would have happened if no intervention had been made) from the outcome.

M&E Impact Chain

This approach works great in the sciences where experiments can be carefully controlled, economies of scale allow for statistically valid results, and where causes can be closely linked with effects. In the real world of development, these conditions are rarely met, and the logfram approach leaves you with a decent planning tool, but a horribly rigid and impractical measurement and change management tool.

Formula from the World Bank's guide on M&E
Sample formula from the World Bank’s guide on M&E

 

So, development project implementers find themselves in a bit of a bind: on one hand, they need rigour and accountability, and on the other they need flexibility and constant adaptation to a rapidly evolving reality. They need to be able to prove their interventions were effective, substantiate the attribution of the results to their donors (i.e. determine the counterfactual), and be relatively confident that these results are reproducible and sustainable (i.e. the project continues on, as designed). This drives an excessive focus on donor accountability; an obsession with control, causation, and attribution; and an overall rigidness and inflexibility that is more of a hindrance than a help. To say nothing of the fact that the beneficiaries/victims of these projects (i.e. the poor) are often cut out completely from the planning, evaluating and learning process and are left scratching their heads when the NGO declares the completion of yet another successful project.

In order to counter some of the obvious short comings of the traditional Results Based Management (RBM) approach, various tools, frameworks and approaches have been introduced over the years. Most of these attempt to capture the qualitative aspects of projects through questionnaires, interviews, stories and through participatory, beneficiary-driven planning and evaluation. They also attempt to design for, or at least acknowledge, the complex, emergent nature of the systems of which they are a part and to weigh the needs of the beneficiaries above those of the donors. And while there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach that is going to work everywhere, a mix of these different tools and approaches is helping to breakdown the orthodoxy of the purely quantitative result.

Here are a few key trends in M&E that have been getting attention lately and some sources on where to find more information. For a great overview of all these recent trends and others, see this paper.

Developmental Evaluation – This approach is basically an attempt to reduce the feedback cycle between learning, doing and correcting to almost zero. By collecting data in real time and making decisions based on a constant feedback cycle, the theory is that the project can adapt and evolve in conjunction with the system, thereby avoiding the need for major course corrections down the line.

Shared Measurement – In this case, common metrics are used across organizations on “scalable platforms” in order to facilitate the sharing and discussion of results and learnings on a much greater scale. It also helps organizations share responsibility for their data collection and learning.

Big Data – As the name suggests, this approach is based on the assumption that if some data is good, lots and lots of it must be better. Using short feedback cycles, real-time digital data from a variety of sources (such as website traffic, twitter, blogs, phone records, etc.), and data visualizations and infographics, it is hoped macro-trends and insights will emerge.

Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation – The PDIA approach is based on four key principles: First, focusing on solving locally nominated and defined problems in performance (as opposed to transplanting pre- conceived and packaged best practice solutions). Second, it seeks to create an authorizing environment for decision-making that encourages positive deviance and experimentation (as opposed to designing projects and programs and then requiring agents to implement them exactly as designed). Third, it embeds this experimentation in tight feedback loops that facilitate rapid experiential learning. Fourth, it actively engages broad sets of agents to ensure that reforms are viable, legitimate, relevant and supportable.

QUalitative Impact Protocol – Qualitative information is often hard to communicate between stakeholders, even though it provides rich and relevant learning. The QUIP approach is an attempt to get qualitative data taken seriously by collecting it in a systematic and structured way.

Most Significant Change – MSC is a story based approach to help identify the causes of a significant/critical change (positive or negative) relating to key objectives, rather than looking for trends related to a certain phenomenon. This makes it easier to track stories of changes related to less easily quantifiable issues such as “capacity building” or “gender equality”.

Here is a brief look at a few more:

M&E Summary

Even with all of these tools and techniques being simultaneously developed, piloted and perfected. There is still much to be done in changing the development system itself. Here are a few recommendations for the future:

  • First and foremost, there needs to be much greater trust between donors and implementers and a lot more freedom given to experiment, adapt and learn. By far the biggest hurdle standing in the way of creative solutions to poverty reduction is that donors don’t trust implementers with their money, and implementers don’t trust donors with their program designs.
  • Donors , implementers, beneficiaries and other stakeholders need to come together to create spaces for innovation, seed the soil for new ideas, and embrace the failure of some projects in the name of a better overall result.
  • Agreement on the big picture problem definition or mission is necessary between stakeholders. This shared understanding should then serve as the organising principle when adapting activities and plans to ensure that practitioners are beholden to the ultimate mission, rather than the activities themselves.
  • Direct attribution of an impact is neither possible nor desirable in a complex adaptive system. The need for implementers and NGOs to clearly attribute how their work created a specific change should never take precedence over achieving the highest quality and most impactful aggregate change in the overall system. If implementers were able to put as much effort into achieving absolute results, as they do into competing for and seeking credit, everyone would benefit.
  • Finally, we need to give up the obsession with finding a be-all and end-all, silver bullet solution to our M&E needs. There will never be one perfect technique, just lots of little imperfect ones and the goal should be to continuously inch them forward.

So what is this all about, and why should you care? Well, whether you are a rural farmer in Ghana, a student in the UK, or a hospital patient in Canada, your life is probably significantly affected by the type of M&E performed by the organization with whom you are interacting. It may be that your story is being left out, or that numbers are not accurately capturing the whole reality, or that the information and accounting needs of the donor/government are being put above the learning and adapting needs of the organization serving you. Or, it may be that people working in these organizations are not taking (or being given) enough time to adequately learn and reflect on their work due to outside pressures to reduce overhead and produce results. Whatever the case, if we can continue to push for a more holistic, systems-based, human centered monitoring and evaluation, we will at least have the chance to correct some of the major issues with the status quo and put ourselves on the path towards a better world.

References:

http://usaidlearninglab.org/lab-notes/taking-time-stop-and-think-shifting-aid-models-manage-systemic-change

http://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/cid/programs/building_state_capability/what-is-pdia

Andrews, Prichett, and Woolcock. “Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA).” June 2012. Working Paper No 240. Center for International Development. Harvard University.

http://www.springfieldcentre.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Evidence-Based-Policy-and-Systemic-Change1.pdf

http://www.seepnetwork.org/monitoring-and-measuring-change-in-market-systems—rethinking-the-current-paradigm-resources-937.php

http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/librarypage/capacity-building/discussion-paper–innovations-in-monitoring—evaluating-results/

http://www.fsg.org/tabid/191/ArticleId/964/Default.aspx?srpush=true

http://tamarackcommunity.ca/downloads/vc/Developmental_Evaluation_Primer.pdf

http://blogs.worldbank.org/category/tags/big-data

http://www.intrac.org/data/files/resources/145/Using-Qualitative-Information-for-Impact-Assessment.pdf

http://www.mande.co.uk/docs/MSCGuide.pdf

 

 

Ghana Sounds II: Traditional Forms and Foundations

Introduction

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]

Instrumentation

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

    Djembe

      • Lunga/Lunna/Dondo/Talking Drum:

      • Gung-Gong:

    4

      • 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:

    Gongo

  • 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]

bamam

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:

Music:

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

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p005xhv4

Links:

[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.

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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)

IMG_9051

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!

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References:

[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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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:

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Who’s Feeling Prepared?

IMG_4736Here’s the scenario: You have ten new long-term, overseas volunteers (African Program Staff, or APS) coming in for a month long training program at the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) National Office in Toronto. Each has vastly different skill sets, education, work experience, international experience, motivations, interests, and learning styles. Most will be going to completely different overseas projects, in different industries in one of the five countries where EWB operates.  The outcome of this training program is for every new recruit to be at least aware of–if not somewhat “prepared” to deal with–the vast number of potential scenarios, issues,  challenges and environments they might face.
Foresighting
Clearly, this is no easy task. Most people and other organizations would likely design a very technically rigorous curriculum to try to organize as much of the information as possible into concentrated chucks and fire away. Others would concentrate only on the basics (health, safety and security) and hope to fill people in more thoroughly on the ground. EWB‘s approach is somewhere between the “drinking from a firehose” method and the “figure it out when you get there”.  The array of topics covered is impressive, but the emphasis is necessarily more on the exposure of the issue, idea or concept than it is on deep understanding or mastery.

Here is just a sample of what we’ve been discussing lately:

  • African Histories
  • Urban/Rural Livelihoods
  • Anti-Oppression/Racism
  • Colonization/Imperialism
  • Gender Issues
  • Power Structures & Hierarchy
  • Root Causes Analysis
  • Systems Mapping
  • Behaviour Change Models
  • Human Centered Design
  • Participatory Approaches
  • Mental Health
  • Technology Diffusion
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Safety and Security
  • Cognitive Biases
  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Foresighting

Monitoring and Evaluation

Sometimes, what makes the biggest impact isn’t necessarily the content, but how it is being delivered. What really sets EWB Pre-Dep (Pre-Departure Program) apart, however is the amount of on the ground practise and the explicit connection between international development and local issues.  This has been by far the most interesting and valuable part of the past couple weeks for me as we’ve been able to connect and integrate the universal issues of oppression, embedded hierarchies, power structures and inequality that are at the root of many of the social issues both in Canada and in countries in Africa. We have been given the chance to make small, (yes, perhaps token), efforts to connect with the local African diaspora, First Nations leaders, women who have come through the prison system and the residents of some of Toronto’s poorer neighbourhoods. The exposure to these issues and the questions they have been raised will surely influence my time in Ghana, and I will definitely endeavour to dive more into Canadian social justice issues on thisIMG_0886 blog in the future.

About a week and a half left in the training program before I fly out to Accra on September 17th!

More to come…