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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Runin’ Tings

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Imagine if I told you there is a miracle cure-all out there that makes you healthier, lengthens your life, protects you from disease, improves your willpower, brings you good mental health and concentration, and also makes you look and feel better. You’d probably be asking “what’s the catch?” Well, the catch is that this miracle cure is called exercise and if you want all the benefits you have to force yourself to do it for a few weeks before it becomes a habit and a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle.

I know how annoying it can be to hear all this gushing praise for exercise. There once was a time when I saw people running at the crack of dawn and thought them crazy, delusional, or otherwise chemically imbalanced. (The last one may not be far from the truth as the brain is awash in a potent speedball of stress-crushing, euphoria-inducing hormones and proteins during exercise). I have been reading up on the many benefits of habits and exercise and it seems the two go hand in hand to form the single best thing you can do for yourself after eating right. While this is apparently “common knowledge” it’s surprising how many people choose to ignore it completely.

I started jogging regularly in the early mornings about two and a half ago years ago and despite some rather significant gaps, I’ve mostly been able to stick with it. I was very concerned that moving to Ghana would send my running habit off the rails for good, but happily (and it’s really no surprise, people jog here as everywhere), I’ve been able to stick with it.

(As an important side note, in Ghana the term “running” has stronger connotations of diarrhea than it does in Canada, so for the first few weeks when I told people “I was running in the morning”, they looked at me a little funny. I’ve since amended this faux pas and say that I’ve been out “training” instead.)

Like everything else, the first few times going on my 6km grandpa jog around the tamale sports stadium near my house was a challenge. I was super concerned about standing out, looking silly, somehow annoying people with my “foreigner ways”, and simply not being able to keep up in the heat. Thankfully, these have all proven to be neurotic non-issues and I’ve been able to establish myself a “regular”. The hazards one faces on the roads, even early in the morning when the traffic is light, still take some getting used to: treacherous open storm gutters, giant mounds of rocks, feral sheep, herds of cattle, garbage fires, and Harmattan dust clouds are just a few of the adventures that keep things interesting.

For the most part, I like to run solo. This gives me the ability to leave as early as I want (typically hitting the road around 5:45am when there’s just enough light out to see), and to set my own pace, tracking progress with my endomondo app. I had been meeting up with two high school students, Gannu and Yazid, who live nearby and doing most of the route with them on Sundays, but (being high school students) their reliability isn’t the greatest. I’ve also trained with another guy, Aziz, a few times, which is great because he is a much stronger runner than I am. He claims to have a certificate that documents him as the fastest 1000m runner in West Africa for his age group. I haven’t seen the certificate, but I can believe it after listening to him describe his punishing 50km+ per week training schedule. He’s probably the most passionate runner I’ve met anywhere; unfortunately, he’s finding that running doesn’t pay the bills unless you’ve got a sponsorship and can get to Europe to work the marathon circuits.

Other than these regulars, there’s a familiar cast of characters out and about on the street at this time of morning: street sweepers, footballers doing wind sprints, older guys power walking, and many regular folks already going about their days. In much the same way as in Canada, I’ve notice that a sense of community starts to form out of these early morning encounters. You may only get as far as a nod of the head or a quick “good morning/dasiba”, but after some time a sense of solidarity and shared purpose starts to emerge. Whether you are young or old, fast or slow, man or woman, foreign or local, in shape or out of it, if you’re out there squarely facing the day and getting your move on, then you’re on the same team.

Running is the great universal equalizer and a common thread which people from all over the world can connect to. It’s woven into our DNA, it’s what we were designed for, and it is just one part of the vast commonality we share as humans that often gets lost in our ceaseless need to differentiate and pick out the differences between people. Last year about this time I was hard at work training for my first half marathon and helping organize the Vancouver edition of the Run to End Poverty/Run to Enable Possibilities fundraiser for EWB. The team in Vancity is at it again this year, so if you are at all inspired to take part or make a donation, I’m sure you’ll be glad you did: https://r2ep.ewb.ca/vancouver. The event takes place on June 22nd and there are running meetups every week leading up to the race: http://www.meetup.com/EWBVancouver/.

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References:

http://www.designedtomove.org/

http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-exercising-makes-us-happier

http://zenhabits.net/excuses/

http://blog.bufferapp.com/what-the-research-on-habit-formation-reveals-about-willpower-and-overall-well-being

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/how-exercise-can-jog-the-memory/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

http://blog.bufferapp.com/10-scientifically-proven-ways-to-make-yourself-happier

http://99u.com/articles/7040/fix-bad-habits-insights-from-a-7-year-obsession

http://charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit/

http://timkastelle.org/blog/2013/12/dont-set-goals-make-new-habits-instead/

http://joel.is/post/24064139389/the-exercise-habit

 

WAIDH Part 3.1: Anibirds Farm

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

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

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

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSiaydmgTzY

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

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

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

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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Getting a Life

5:00am: Eyes open, brain sloppily starts firing neurons around trying to trial-and-error its way towards a cohesive thought. Lurching into gear, it presents a half-baked collage of blurry memories, smeared possible truths, and undigested bits of dreams. Why am I in a white net? Why are a goat and a rooster having a heated debate about when morning technically starts right outside my window? Where are these haunting, eerie minor key notes of Arabic announcing the Morning Prayer through tinny speakers coming from? Where the f#*k am I?

Two weeks in and just under ten months to go before my first tentatively scheduled return trip to Canada. My intention has been to get settled and comfortable as quickly as possible and to lay down a foundation for the long term. There have been the inevitable stumbles in the cultural department, (“Yes, I know it’s 10am, but good evening to you in advance, it’s the only word I know right now”); moments of extreme awkwardness trying to figure out the bucket bathroom/shower situation, (I dearly appreciate your solemn gravitas and discretion, old lady who pointed out the difference between the buckets); and the first furtive exploratory walks to the central market, (“Hey everybody, just trying to blend in and act natural. Never mind the stream of kids running after me yelling ‘hello’”). I am beginning to find a groove, but there much yet to discover.

10:00am: Driving through town to the nursery and business offices of the BDS client I am matched with, witnessing either the most beautifully choreographed and impeccably timed ballet of cars, motos, bicycles, pedestrians, herds of sheep, cows, and tractors all sharing the road with millimetre precision; or, the most spectacular affront to probability and statistics that has ever existed. Getting out of the city the landscape opens up to savannah grasslands and scattered trees. Agricultural initiatives of all types and levels of success are unceremoniously scattered around in plots on either side of the road. People on bikes carrying pickup truck sized loads of wood and kids in matching school uniforms stream by along the side of the road.

By all accounts I am living the dream: nice pad near the center of the small, but well provisioned town, plenty of people to talk with and kids that use my room for an amusement park after school, hearty home cooked meals to share with the families in the compound, and plenty of down time to sit and stare off into space wondering how it all came to be.  The next year stretches out in front of me like an ocean of potential; I can take an active role in shaping it or just as easily slide into tedious ennui. My goal is not just to survive, but to actually grow and thrive here. I’ve got a stack of books, a guitar, a yoga mat and some running shoes. I also have, what promises to be, challenging work in front of me partnering with a local agri-processing business to understand, synthesize and create lasting value in the community. Beyond that, I hope to take advantage of the opportunity to anthropologically, geographically, historically, linguistically and culturally come to know and appreciate this corner of the world as much as I am able. The apocalypsonian horseman of boredom, illness, loneliness and demotivation will always be in pursuit, but with enough mental maintenance and diversity of activity I should be able to stay well ahead.

5:00pm: The day’s heat is rolling back towards the west, it’s still light out enough to read and the mosquitoes haven’t wizened up to my presence yet. The girls next door are pounding the shit out of some poor, helpless root crop (cassava or yam) to make the classic dish fufu (kinda similar to doughy mashed potatoe). There is an ever expanding number of kids and babies tetering around, a wayward sheep has invited itself to try the scrap heap under the mango tree and the women of the house are shooting the shit around their outdoor charcoal fires. Out of the corner of the blue sky a small dark grey cloud is rounding up its posse to prepare for an attack. Within minutes, the sky is dark grey and Operation: Ahh! Get Everything Inside is underway. Several more minutes and the first drops start coming down, exponentially increasing to full tropical down pour. Not much to do but wait it out.

First Week in Tamale

After a mind-blending start in Accra, I made my way via the State Transit Bus up to my final destination of Tamale. Other than a 2.5hr delay in our departure due to “washing and checking the tires”, the rest of the 11hr trip was actually quite enjoyable and a good way to see some of the country.

After arriving, I got set up with my host family, who is actually the same family who runs the business I will be consulting with as part of my duties with EWB (much more details to follow). Accommodations are simple, but more than adequate: I have a private room in the multi-family compound, near the centre of town. Meals are also for the most part taken care of, so I’ve more or less got it made in the shade for the time being. Lots more to get used and to discuss in detail, but for now I’ll just let some photos do the talking…