Trust Relationships in Agricultural Extension

I spent the morning yesterday harvesting rice with some farmers in Kpandai.

As I was cutting rice stalks with a kitchen knife in one hand and collecting bundles in the other, I was interested in learning how the farmers I was with had chosen to use the agricultural practices they were using and what they thought of the Ministry of Food and  Agriculture (MoFA) and their programs in general. I was hoping they’d have some great things to say to cap off my last few weeks in the district, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case.

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The farmers I was with had planted a local variety of rice seed on their fields. This was interesting to me, as I knew these farmers had access to improved varieties of seeds through MoFA’s Block Farm Program, which had the potential to give them much higher yields. The Block Farm Program aims to increase agricultural production across Ghana by providing farmers with improved inputs (seeds,fertilizer, even tractor services) which the farmers then pay back in-kind after harvest. I knew these farmers were enrolled in the program, but they consciously decided to only take advantage of the fertilizer being provided through it, choosing to skip out on the tractor services, seeds, weedicides and the rest.

When asked about this decision, the farmers explained they came to it due to how poorly the project went in the past. Last year, when the Block Farm Program was first run in the district, farmers were put into groups and given all of the required inputs to farm. Due to a confluence of various factors, many of these groups had poor harvests and didn’t achieve yields high enough to pay MoFA back for the inputs they received. Despite this, the farmers were still required to pay back the government, often out of their own pockets.

At this point, it would be easy to criticize the government of Ghana for forcing farmers to pay back these funds, but it must be remembered that the program was always designed with an in-kind payback mechanism, which was supposed to be explained to the farmers beforehand. It’s just not feasible to write-off large scale losses without future programs suffering. While there definitely are valid criticisms of this project that can be made, including those related to its implementation, a greater and often underappreciated aspect of this type of situation is the effect it can have on future interactions between MoFA and farmers, as demonstrated quite well by those I was harvesting rice with.

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Ultimately, MoFA is a service provider. They provide agricultural education services and linkages to inputs (through projects) to farmers in their respective districts in Ghana. Like any other service provider in any other industry, recruitment and retention of customers is key to long term success. Although not driven by a pursuit of profit, MoFA’s bottom line, which I’d argue is broadly related to greater social impacts, can be achieved using typical business thinking from the service industry, namely through customer satisfaction leading to customer loyalty.

Both satisfaction and loyalty are built by first forming relationships with customers. Numerous studies from the business world have looked at these types of relationships, breaking them down into the different types of trust customers need to have with service providers, and the effects of these levels of trust on potential future interactions between the parties.

This is a great example here (Johnson and Grayson, 2005). In it, the authors discuss two separate, but equally important types of trust required in a relationship between customers and providers. Cognitive trust, also called ‘reliableness’ or ‘predictability’ relates to the level of confidence a customer has in the service providers’ competence – more of a knowledge-based trust. Affective trust is the confidence the customer has in the provider based on the level of care and concern being demonstrated – more of an emotionally-based trust. Both types of trust are required for different reasons in this type of relationship and are the result of different factors. For example, cognitive trust can be built through service provider expertise and product performance, while affective trust can be built by the perceived reputation of the provider and the similarity between the customer and provider. Importantly, both types of trust are needed to ensure the ultimate goal of successful future interactions.

So what does all this business-speak actually mean for MoFA and their relationships with farmers in Ghana?

It should be evident how important trust relationships are between extension staff and farmers. What’s also evident is how systemic challenges continue to undermine these relationships.

Taking the Block Farm example from above: some inputs were provided late and extension staff were stretched thin, meaning they had less time to counsel farmers. Both of these damaged the cognitive trust levels MoFA had with their customers. When MoFA went to collect payment from farmers who were part of the program but suffered from poor yields, their affective trust levels were negatively effected. These are two very small examples that can, and have, lead to poor future interactions between MoFA and farmers as can currently be seen with some farmers not interested in taking part in the Block Farm program this year.

As MoFA continues to be the implementer of choice for outside projects, I’m concerned these problems will just be exacerbated. If projects continue to be implemented poorly, MoFA will be seen as unreliable, unserious, and uncaring. The relationships that MoFA has developed with farmers over the years will be destroyed, and farmers will not be interested in taking part in MoFA’s services, an outcome which would be seriously detrimental to the agricultural sector in Ghana at large.

rice5 Solutions to this problem are difficult to imagine. Ghana’s governmental agencies are currently undergoing a decentralization process, which should theoretically give MoFA offices more autonomy in project/program selection and implementation. Ideally, this would lead to better tailored and contextually appropriate projects for each district, potentially increasing the reliability and perceived expertise of the delivered service. This, however, is a very slow process with too many unknowns to be relied on as a cure-all.

More immediately, MoFA staff need to remember how important investing in these trust relationships with their farmers actually is. They need to be open and honest with farmers when approaching them with a new project, fully explaining the potential risks and benefits in understandable terms. Farmers too, need to treat these relationships as important ones, prioritizing educational meetings and asking for help when they need it, as opposed to after the fact.

The longer I work here in agricultural development, the more I realize how little the problems I encounter actually have to do with the science and technologies involved. It’s seemingly more about the marketing, sales and customer service around them that truly matter.

Maybe someone should start a Salesmen Without Borders?

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Stranger in a strange land

I love travelling to a new country.

Experiencing all the new sights, getting to know new people and trying to unravel the mysteries I’d at that point only read about is uncomfortably amazing for me. Things don’t always go well, but those times are what usually lead to the best stories.

That idea of discomfort is what leads to culture shock in my opinion. Your mind has trouble reconciling your past experiences with all the newness that you’re currently experiencing and some people can get physically uncomfortable because of it. When, after a few days or weeks, the balance is shifted from a focus on differences to a focus on similarities, and your mind is better able to process your surroundings with respect to your previous experiences, you start to create a ‘new normal’ and your culture shock goes away.

I’ve rarely gotten to this stage, mostly by recognizing the fact that a place is bound to be different before I go. But I really thought things would be different in Ghana. This was my first trip to an African country and it was for completely different purposes than my other, solely travel related experiences. Add that to the fact that I knew I’d be living in a fairly remote area for long periods of time, and I was expecting the worst.

Ghana, as I’ve come to expect, proved me wrong. What I didn’t take into account was the Ghanaian attitude towards strangers and their approach towards hospitality in general.

Some examples:

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I arrived in a new district to do some research work early on in my placement. I was supposed to go to the local Ministry office to meet with some staff but didn’t know where it was. I called one of them up to get directions and as I hung up the phone, a random passerby came over and offered his help. He said he knew where the office was and could show me the way. I expected to walk the 15 minutes with him to the place, but he took me to the main road and flagged down another local riding by on a motorbike. After explaining to the new stranger what was going on and where the office was, he offered me a ride to the office, which turned out to be in the opposite direction he was going.

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I was trying to return to Kpandai from Tamale at one point in the summer and was waiting for a Metromass bus at the station. I’d been waiting for a few hours and nothing seemed to be happening, so I eventually went to ask if there was any change to the schedule. Waiting in line to speak to one of the station’s employees, I got into a conversation with another stranger who was curious as to why I wanted to travel to Kpandai. I explained the work I was doing which he was interested in (everyone’s a farmer so can relate to the work). I eventually found out the bus had been cancelled, and the previous stranger, now friend, insisted on driving me to the private bus station where he thought I’d be able to get at least part way to Kpandai. So he did, but the bus for that leg of the journey was just pulling away as I got there. He had some small boys run up and get the bus to stop so I could get on and sent me on my way.

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I was in Kumasi for the first time for some meetings and in a unfamiliar part of the city. I needed to get across town but wasn’t sure how and there were no taxis coming by. After waiting around for fifteen minutes, I decided to try and stop a car to at least get some directions. When I did and explained where I wanted to go, the driver told me to hop in and drove me to my next meeting himself. He explained it wasn’t something he would usually do, especially in Kumasi, but didn’t want someone obviously not from Ghana to have a bad experience here.

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These are just a few examples of the situations that seem to pop up everyday here in Ghana. People are more friendly than anywhere else I’ve been, and insist that outsiders are welcomed to an amazing degree.

This attitude seems to cut through the crazy external stimuli your brain can experience when seeing Ghana for the first time – livestock running across the road, nomadic goods-sellers with anything and everything on their heads, open-air sanitation and all the rest. The personal connection Ghanaians instantly form with strangers makes those things seem unimportant in some way, and makes culture shock, at least for me, a strange concept in itself. After all, once you get to know the people of a new place, isn’t all the rest just window dressing?

My friend Brian Venne put it best when he said “There are no strangers in Ghana, only people you haven’t met yet”. After living here for the eight and a half months, I couldn’t agree more.

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On gift giving and choppin’

It’s always an interesting experience going to visit rural farmers. Regardless of who I’m travelling with or the actual purpose of the visit, they always seem to turn into community-wide events. Naturally, a part of this is caused by the mysterious obruni stranger (also known as me) that has come to town, but it’s also due in some ways to the nature of the relationship that Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) typically have with the smallholder farmers they’re tasked with serving.

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Farmer visits usually turn into community events.

There aren’t enough AEAs in Ghana to provide adequate extension services to farmers, with AEA to farmer ratio estimates ranging from between 1:1500 and 1:4000. While AEAs are supposed to live in the operational areas they work in to be closer to the farmers, this typically isn’t the case due to poor living conditions or an outright lack of accommodations. Throw in a lack of transportation or available funds to operate the transport that is available, and it means that AEAs don’t actually visit these communities as often as they’d like or probably need to. Working in Kpandai, a fairly new district, I’ve even seen whole communities that have never received extension services from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

All of this adds up to a visit from an extension officer becoming an event for curious community members to gather for. To be sure, there are communities that AEAs regularly visit, where only farmers needed for the meeting show up. More often than not, just the possibility of something different is an enticing reason for passers-by to attend a meeting. This is usually a great thing – farmers pay attention to what the AEA is discussing and show genuine interest in learning new techniques or taking part in new projects. Even when the visit is only for information gathering purposes, farmers are generally more than willing to work with the AEA and provide them with any data they need.

It’s the end of these meetings that I find most interesting. Farmers in Ghana are some of the most generous people I’ve ever met and it shows at the end of a community visit. They will usually present the AEAs (as well as me when I’m there) with gifts of food, explaining that it’s customary to feed guests when they visit, but since we didn’t eat with them, they would provide us with something to take to prepare later. In the past, I’ve been offered yams, guinea fowl eggs, guinea fowl, and at one community, a dove. I usually try and politely decline these offers, even after having it explained to me that it’s culturally appropriate for them to occur and it would be insensitive of me not to accept.

I just can’t justify taking these resources from the community, especially when I haven’t given them anything in return. I’m also troubled by the power dynamics of the situation, believing the farmers in some way feel obligated to offer these gifts to people who they see as ‘important outsiders’.

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Being presented with yams or live animals is not uncommon after a community visit.

My main concern relates to the way these types of gifts can change the relationship between AEAs and their farmers. Beyond potentially having the AEA feel as though they would need to re-pay the farmers later on in some way, perhaps in the form of inputs or projects, there’s a real possibility of those on the receiving end of the gifts feeling like they’re deserved and/or required.

Case in point: this summer, an EWB volunteer went on a tour of different projects being completed by AEAs as part of an upgrade course at one of the Agricultural Colleges. This involved visiting different communities in various parts of the country, and after each one, the volunteer along with the other members of the supervisory group were given parting gifts. One community even presented them with 50GhC each – a large sum of money for rural farmers. These gifts were well received, with some even commenting that the communities that gave the best gifts were a sign of ‘good extensionists’. This sense of  entitlement is troubling and plays its part in the ever-present culture of chopping seen around the country.

In Ghana, ‘to chop’ is a verb that basically means ‘to take’. It’s possible to use in multiple contexts – from chopping (eating) food to chopping (stealing) money. It’s a common complaint among development workers and regular Ghanaians alike that money gets chopped at all levels of development projects, leading to inefficient, poorly resourced projects with little chance of success. In my opinion, this practice has become so accepted as to now be expected. The prevalence of this type of corruption is constantly discussed, but often only in humourous tones – as a constant in Ghanaian life and not something that can be actively dealt with.

It’s this perception that is most frustrating. Once there’s an expectation that things will be chopped, it makes going along to get along that much easier. I can just imagine the self-justifications going on: I’m a hard working, poorly resourced staff member, with no prospects for promotions or other work, given the opportunity to take a small amount from a very large, well funded project. It’s not really hurting anyone, is it? If I’m working on a project that’s benefiting farmers and the farmers are willing to give me some of their own anyway, why not just take from the project directly and not involve the farmers at all? 

Imagine that playing out at all levels in a hierarchical system and you can see how easily the problem is compounded.

I’m not trying to imply that the AEAs I work with are corrupt – as far as I know, they’re not. I’m also not trying to make it seem like gift giving in this context is a corrupt act – it’s not. There is a definite cultural context to the generosity displayed by rural farmers. It really comes down to how the receivers of these gifts choose to perceive them. If they take them for what they are, then there usually isn’t a problem. On the other hand, if they feel these gifts are deserved, that they are entitled to them, that it’s fine to take advantage of the generosity displayed, then they’re one short step away from convincing themselves to pre-emptively giving themselves gifts at the expense of others – also known as choppin’.

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The ‘Last Mile’ in Agricultural Development

Today is World Food Day.

This year’s theme on food price volatility is an important one – more than 70 million people have fallen into extreme poverty over the last year due to rising food costs. Volatility in food prices remains a very real threat to vulnerable people across the developing world, with some economists predicting continued rises in staple crops even past the historically high levels seen between 2005 and 2008.

When I learned of this year’s World Food Day theme, I couldn’t help but think of how my current work with Engineers Without Borders in Ghana tied into the overall question of food price volatility. A large part of my work over the last seven months here has been focused on understanding and developing innovative ways to increase technology adoption with small-scale farmers. I’ve mainly been trying to understand why farmers are not adopting certain good agronomic practices, like row planting or proper seed spacing, which have been proven to increase agricultural productivity (or the ratio of outputs to inputs). This, as I see it, is an important step in mitigating against future price volatility in staple foods, at least at the farmer level. Increases in agricultural productivity can increase access to local food as well as the incomes of smallholder farmers.

From visiting farmers’ fields in different regions of Ghana, I’d see the potential for higher productivity for most crops in the country, but continued to question why greater yields were not being realized. I was stunned after reading a recent University of Cape Coast study which stated that although the vast majority (more than 90%) of farmers in Ghana were aware of agricultural production practices such as row planting, proper spacing and timely weeding, adoption of these practices remained relatively low. These results matched well with what I was seeing on the ground, but didn’t seem to make intuitive sense to my engineering mindset. How was it that farmers who were aware of techniques or practices that could benefit them greatly not be practicing these same techniques?

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Sorghum field planted in rows (left) versus using traditional broadcasting method (right).

Enter Sendhil Mullainathan, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University. In his TED talk from last year, he speaks of this exact phenomenon, calling it a “Last Mile” problem. Basically, he states that even in the face of the “perfect” technological solution to a problem, human beings might still need to be convinced to actually use the technology due to a potential conflict with their mental models.

An example from my work: Many farmers I’ve met understand how to plant their crops in rows and know that by doing so, they’ll achieve greater yields (all else being equal). They’ll also say when asked that row planting takes a lot more time than the traditional method of broadcasting seed (basically walking through the field and tossing seed onto the ground), which is true. Does this mean that the farmers are lazy? Hardly. These farmers actually prefer to increase the size of their fields, believing it to be a better indicator of success. This practice, however, can be detrimental in the long run, since it actually leads to more time spent weeding and harvesting over the full growing season.

After realizing this, I was interested in experimenting with whether or not this type of behaviour could be changed and the best way to go about it. I thought that by using another farmer who was successfully using the practices to spread the message, the potential for change with colleague farmers would be greater. In essence, I wanted to convince farmers to adopt a new technique by listening to one of their own. I tested this idea by using video testimonials of farmers who were successfully transplanting and row planting their rice and showing it to other groups of farmers who were aware of the practices of transplanting and row planting, but not interested in actually doing them (mainly due to a perceived increase in time requirements). Results were positive, with around 78% of farmers who saw the video being interested in trying the techniques during the next cropping season (more detail can be found in the following briefing paper).

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Testing video testimonials with rice farmers.

This was a situation where the technologies were sound – they’d been tried and tested for decades – and yet farmers were not willing to actually use them on their fields. It wasn’t a question of just throwing the techniques at farmers and expecting them to use them, believing that because it was the rational choice, it would actually be followed. This came down to understanding that farmers sometimes need to be convinced to use an agricultural practice and that listening to a fellow farmer might be a good way to get the message across.

What does this mean for those interested in combating future food price volatility for a growing global population? Apart from the policy and funding shifts that are required at the international and national levels, we need to step back and re-visit some of our core assumptions at the farmer level. To start, we need to develop a much better understanding of why current agricultural best practices are not being adopted by a large percentage of small-scale farmers across Ghana and the rest of Africa. As Mullainathan says:

“We tend to think the problem is solved when we solve the technology problem. But the human innovation, the human problem still remains, and that’s the great frontier that we have left.”

Without spending the time and effort required to address the social and psychological challenges surrounding these issues and developing successful behaviour change strategies towards overcoming them, the true potential of African agriculture will never be realized and the effects of price volatility will remain a persistent problem in many of these countries for years to come.

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Perseverance

I went on some job-shadowing visits recently to see how a large baseline survey was being conducted on behalf of USAID’s ‘Feed the Future’ initiative in Ghana. The inner cynic in me thought this would be a great opportunity to trail a project from the very beginning to document problems with implementation from the outset. Instead, I was humbled by the people we visited and reminded once again of the persevering nature of Ghanaian farmers.

I started the day around 6AM with Stephen, one of the MoFA district staff from Kpandai. We headed out on a two hour motorcycle ride far into the neighbouring district of Nunumba South to a village called Monchani, well off the beaten path and at least an hour of hard riding from the district capital. After an intense journey through countless streams, over boulders and gravel, and dodging herds of goats and cows, we finally arrived.

Getting to the village Riding through water

Due to the distance from the district capital, Monchani rarely gets any type of agricultural developmental assistance – it’s just too difficult to get there by the road for most projects. In fact, they don’t even have a regular MoFA extension agent who comes to their community.

After initially greeting the village chief and elders, we were taken to their fields to do field plotting by GPS and to establish yield plots. These will later be used to determine average agricultural yields in the community and help in assessing which types of projects or interventions would be most useful to them.

While walking to their farms on winding rocky dirt paths too dangerous to take our motorcycles down, Jonathon, a recent high school grad, explained the local farming situation to me. Low soil fertility coupled with grazing animals had made farming nearby impractical, and the community members had to move farther away from their houses to farm to find suitable land. As a result, the community was farming almost 2 kilometres away, both on the side of, and in the valley below a small mountain cliff.

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I was shocked due to the distances the farmers would have to travel every day. With each step we took down the steep hill, I couldn’t help but think of the women in the community who would have to travel that same way back during harvest season, carrying heavy loads of maize, yam and rice on their heads.  This idea hit home when we reached the bottom of the hill and met a women starting to make the journey back the way we came. Her friendly nature shone through, smiling for a picture and trying to answer some questions I had. She explained that they needed to farm where the land would provide for them, and that meant having to travel further away every year.

I couldn’t help but be humbled by the attitudes of the farmers I met that day. Without receiving any outside help to tackle the problem of soil fertility near to their homes, they did what they had to do to provide for their families. Even though this entailed daily treks to the farms before hours of manual labour and backbreaking walks back with heavy loads, this was accepted with minimal complaints. These farmers would easily benefit from good agricultural practices that MoFA tries to promote, but they weren’t being provided with the extension due to poor planning and even poorer infrastructure. Although I was frustrated with the situation, the farmers of Monchani were accepting. Of course they would like help if it was provided, but they were determined to persevere despite it.

After we returned to the village at the end of a long day, this idea was displayed again by some of the children playing nearby. Like all Ghanaian children, they were obsessed with football (soccer) but didn’t have an actual soccer ball to play with. This didn’t slow them down at all – they used what they had and were having a friendly match using a previously eaten orange.

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It’s all about the implementation

Why is it that after decades of assistance to places in the developing world, amounting to trillions of dollars spent and untold man-hours across countless projects, that there’s still so much work that needs to be done?

There’s no simple response to the question above. Of course, there are always easy ones – waste, corruption, poor governance, etc., and to be fair, these systemic problems are definitely contributing to the problem. However, it’s unfair to leave it there and not search for a more complete understanding of the situation. I knew before I came to work with EWB how complex and difficult ‘development’ could be, and the past six months in Ghana have only reinforced that message. Working with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has given me a unique perspective, allowing me to see different projects, both from the government and outside donors, being implemented. This time has shown me how important proper implementation is to a project and how poor implementation can even contribute to negating any positives the project might have had in terms of development.

The Ministry of Food and Agriculture’s (MoFA’s) mission is “to promote sustainable agriculture and thriving agribusiness through research and technology development, effective extension and other support services to farmers, processors and traders for improved livelihood”.

While MoFA has historically worked towards these goals through agricultural extension services (technical education of farmers by MoFA staff), the inflow of agricultural development assistance saw their focus shift towards being the implementers of either government or donor-led projects due to their wide-reach and established relationships with farmers. In most cases this seems like the perfect scenario, ensuring MoFA staff have adequate resources and knowledge to promote best practices to their farmers. Problems arise when the implementation of these projects is done poorly, stunting any actual development that may have occurred.

One of the main focuses of the Government of Ghana’s agricultural strategy in the last few years has been their Block Farm program. Basically, farmers are given seed, subsidized fertilizer, and ploughing services for their farms and are expected to pay back in-kind after their fields have been harvested. I’m not convinced the basis of project itself is sound, mainly for it being too rigid in design and unsustainable in the long term, but one specific aspect of the Block Farm program this year has caused me some concern. The current best practice for fertilizer application is to use two bags of NPK fertilizer per one acre of maize. Although the research is dated and currently being worked on, that’s the rate that MoFA promotes to farmers and recommends for their fields. The Block Farm program however, is only giving farmers one bag of NPK to farmers for their fields. While some MoFA staff are informing farmers about this discrepancy and telling them they should be supplementing by buying an additional bag on their own, this does not always happen. The result is mixed messaging to farmers, with MoFA actively promoting a poor agricultural practice (one bag of fertilizer instead of two) due to project constraints.

This type of problem is unfortunately not unique. One of the families in the compound I live with in Kpandai are fairly successful farmers. They’ve got fields of yam, maize, and cassava and are always looked at as examples of good practice in the community. They’re involved in a project this year called the Root and Tuber Improvement and Marketing Program (RTIMP), implemented through MoFA staff. While there are many areas that RTIMP is trying to address, this family is specifically involved in trying out new yam planting techniques. The technology itself is not as important as the timing of the project itself.
Yam planting usually takes place in March or April, but this project only had farmers start planting in mid-July. The farmers themselves knew planting this late would not work, but put in the time and labour required to take part in the project. In fact, I helped with the planting this year and remember other farmers watching at the time, laughing at how late we were trying to grow yams. From the almost 5000 yam pieces we planted, fewer than 100 have actually germinated and started to grow. In this case, the project itself is going to be seen as a failure, not due to the techniques themselves which may be beneficial, but due to the timing the project followed. Maybe even more importantly, MoFA staff were again sending mixed messages to farmers about when yam planting should be done and actively promoting a poor practice due to project timelines.

These are just some personal examples to highlight the importance of project implementation in regards to agricultural development. Too often, projects can be written in places far removed from where they’ll actually be implemented and not take into account the realities on the ground. Moreover, there are rarely mechanisms in place for course correction after a project has started being implemented. For example, the RTIMP project actually had the same problems last year, and even with recommendations put forth through their monitoring report, little was seemingly changed this planting season.

Problems of implementation seem easy to fix, but of course rarely are. While difficult, there are some possible steps to mitigate some of these issues. First, I’d suggest proper scheduling of projects with strict cut-off dates for implementation. Since the agricultural sector is so time-bound, if funds aren’t released on time to get one started, there really is no point in moving forward until the next year. Second, ensure enough resources are put into a project to enable the promotion of best agricultural practices to minimize the mixed messages to farmers. Finally, allow for some kind of mechanism to course correct after the first year of a multi-year project if necessary. These suggestions are not revolutionary by any means, and are in place (at least in theory) for a lot of projects. The problem, as always, comes in actually implementing these aspects of a project properly when required.

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And, we’re back

It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog – almost exactly four months.

There’s no real reason this happened beyond de-prioritizing it over the other work that I’ve been doing, but I’ve been recently reminded of the importance of messaging that same work back to colleagues and friends across Africa and in Canada and decided to start writing some posts again (on a schedule even).

This week marks six months of me being in Ghana. The time has flown by and looking back, I’m slightly perturbed by how little I’ve seemed to accomplish. That’s not to say I haven’t been busy with work, because I have. It’s more a statement on the time periods involved in actually seeing processes or attitudes change – time periods that I’m not even sure are feasible to think about for people who will only be around for one or two years. Everyone in development will tell you that real change takes time, even Ghanaians will tell you that (Biela biela in Dagbani or Kakra kakra in Twi – meaning small small or slowly slowly), but its glacial pace can sometimes take its toll on someone in-country working towards it.

You can understand why I might have been feeling a little down on myself a few weeks ago when thinking of my upcoming six month anniversary. Fortunately, with the help of some awesome EWB staff (Mina, Wayne, and Romesh), a plan was devised to refocus and rejuvenate – a cross Ghana motorcycle trip!

I was hesitant at first when I heard of the idea since the first time I got on a motorcycle was after I arrived in Ghana five short months ago, but the opportunity was there and the people were willing and it seemed like a great way to see the country in a new way. One of the reasons I wanted to take this placement was to really understand what it was like to live in a developing country. I’ve travelled through them before, but there’s a stark difference between being a tourist and a resident in a foreign country and to be honest, I’ve missed being a tourist and wanted to experience it again, if only for a short while.

As my moto skills weren’t necessarily the best in the big cities, I decided to forego the first leg of the trip with the rest of the guys, which saw them travel from Tamale, through Kumasi and down to the capital of Ghana, Accra. Instead, I met them in the southern part of the Volta Region, near a city called Ho. It meant two days of long rides by myself in a part of the country I never really knew about, beyond constantly hearing how beautiful it was from people that have been (it’s the part of the country that most tourists stick to).

Leaving Kpandai Crossing the Oti River

I set out at dawn on from Kpandai with the call to prayers at my back and the open road ahead of me. I was racing to catch a ferry a few hours away which I’d been told only ran three times a day. Got there and found out there were small boats that can take motorcycles across any time of the day – should have realized Ghanaians wouldn’t leave an entrepreneurial opportunity like that wide open.

After crossing the Oti river, it was another few hundred kilometres to Hohoe, where I’d decided I would spend my first night. I got caught in a sudden torrential downpour on this part of the ride and was soaked in less than two minutes. This made for an uncomfortable few hours riding before I actually got to a guesthouse and settled down for the night.

The next morning, I took off again for the ride to Ho. This was a spectacular part of the country, with small villages lining the roads and mountain vistas in the background. I had all day to get to Ho and made the most of it, stopping often to take pictures and meet people – probably important since I didn’t have a map and needed to make sure I wasn’t going to the wrong way. The highlight of this part was taking the switchbacks to cross the mountains.  When I finally did get to Ho in the early afternoon, I couldn’t find the guesthouse I was looking for and got lost. Ended up taking a wrong turn and riding through the Ho market on market day, which was an intense experience. One of the reasons I didn’t want to make the first part of the journey with the rest of the guys was because I didn’t feel I had enough stop-and-go experience in the bigger cities. My trials in Ho definitely gave me that, and burned any doubts out of my system.

Through the mountain passes

The next day I actually met up with the guys at the Akosombo Dam – the hydroelectric system that provides power to Ghana and parts of Togo. We rode to a community renowned for their kente weavers and spent a lot of money before heading to a guesthouse up in the mountains. Riding in a group is a completely different dynamic than solo-riding, but it was great to get pushed by some more experienced riders in some tricky situations.

We stayed in the mountains the next day, checking out Wli Falls – west Africa’s highest waterfall. I somehow got turned around on the trek up to the high falls but eventually made it to where the guys were waiting. Amazing scenery that not many people were taking advantage of (at least when we were there).

Lower Wli falls Upper Wli falls

The next few days were all long rides. The first night saw us travel for about seven hours back to Kpandai and the day after was a similar ride back to Tamale. Both had stretches of terrible roads that I’m not interested in travelling over again, but I’m glad I got some experience on them. I really could have stayed back in Kpandai instead of following the group to Tamale, but at that point in the trip, I just wasn’t ready to stop. Arriving in Tamale was a really great feeling – no nerves about the craziness of the big city (people, traffic, goats, etc.), just a peaceful ride and a great way to end the short vacation.

All in all, over 1200 kilometres over seven days through some of West Africa’s most scenic landscapes. I learned a lot about myself and riding and can’t stop thinking about when and where the next trip will be. There’s already been some talk of an Accra to Amsterdam excursion in the future, but we’ll just have to wait and see how things turn out.

Riding through the Volta Region

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