WARNING: After the first several paragraphs, this post gets detailed. It really is the nitty gritty details, on a basic level, of the problems and activities I’ll be engaged in for my placement. So continue, but you’ve been warned… 🙂 PS this would be a great place to start asking me tough questions, not only for your own learning but also to push mine, and by extension improve my work. PPS I will gladly discuss concepts here on a much deeper level, I’ve left out much of the nuance to minimize my resemblance to Tolkien, but there’s a lot more there than I’ve expressed in this post.
So I’m sitting here in the office, it’s approaching 9 in the morning of what I consider my first “real” work day. Up until now I’ve either had the excellent security blanket of Marc-André, or been out of town with other meetings. Though all of my interactions, substantive or otherwise, are laced with learning and experimenting, I am excited to start consciously strategizing for my time here.
Despite absolutely no one being here, including my director who decided to make a personal trip to Tamale this morning, my motivation is near 100%. Why? I’m listening to the Ghana rice jingle. I’m thinking about Marc-André’s pictorial innovation to improve farmer understanding of contracts. I’m looking at Bill’s work on effective selection of farmer contacts. I’m on a team that does really really good work. And it’s to that standard I’m striving.
3 days later…
In our team meeting this past week, a heavy question was asked of the returning JFs. What is the one thing people SHOULD know about Ghana? The answer was incredibly simple, yet something I hadn’t heard clearly articulated. The potential of public sector vs. private sector work to fundamentally change livelihoods through improved agriculture is much higher, due to the consistency of the government as compared to business ventures. Ghana’s MoFA is not excellent, but its consistency is required for the high-risk situations that the average farmer works in. It has a high level of inertia, meaning we have to push hard to get the ball rolling. Of course, that means we want to make very sure we’re rolling it in the right direction, and this a difficult problem to overcome. There isn’t that much of a buffer zone separating a farmer’s livelihood from basic survival. Poor results don’t just look bad in the record books, they can seriously affect a person’s ability to exist. As a result, private sector ventures, which capitalise on market opportunities, and will abandon a low profit margin when necessary, may not necessarily have the staying power to both gain the trust of the people and sustain their activity long enough to have an impact on livelihoods. People are risk-averse in these situations, and need something more than private-sector flightiness. Additionally, the reach of a private-sector enterprise is very small, compared to MoFA. If policy influence is possible within the government system, it will affect entire regions or even the whole country.
My office environment is generally inspiring. People are welcoming, and willing to have conversations with me. The official Vision and Mission run like this: A district where there is improved socio-economic conditions through quality education, healthy lifestyles, food security, and incomes on a sustainable basis. The mission of the Karaga district assembly is to improve upon the quality of life of the people through harnessing human and material resources and effective co-ordination for the provision of basic infrastructure, economic, and social services to the people.
So why are they not doing it? What’s stopping widespread socio-economic improvement in Northern Ghana?
Getting people to change what they’re doing is difficult. It requires enough resources to change. It requires specific knowledge of how to change, and how the change may cause benefits. And people have to be convinced that the change will truly benefit them, and has a high probability of doing so, and the risk is far outweighed by the probability of benefit.
So this is the core of my placement, behaviour change. It seems like a tall order, but as much as I am able to learn and record, will contribute to our team’s collective knowledge and will be counted as a success, though it may only directly occur years from now, in an unrecognizable form. This uncertainty of impact seems to be the biggest thing returning fellows grapple with, so be sure to be gentle in this area 4 months from now.
Now, what does behaviour change have to do with agricultural improvement? My placement attempts to tackle improvement on several levels within my office.
The first way is through improved leadership capacity of the District Director of Agriculture (DDA), who is the head honcho in my office. He participates in the DDA Fellowship, a group of self-committed DDAs from across the Northern Region, who come together about once a month to learn about better management practices, problem solving approaches, capitalising on their strengths and mitigating their weaknesses. By improving their capacity to lead, we hope to increase the productivity of the district office because their employees are empowered to do their jobs well. Right now, it’s not quite the case, but my DDA, Dr. Saviour, shows promise in his vision, if not yet his actions. It’s also his second year as part of the DDA Fellowship, so we hope to increase his role as a facilitator for the Fellowship so that he can grow by leading his peers as well as his office. Besides the workshops that they complete together, the DDAs also each have a “change project” which they have now taken through ideation, and are inching (small small) towards implementation. This change project represents a need within their district which they believe they can influence, but is external to Government of Ghana or NGO pressures. In this way, getting these types of projects refined and off the ground is extremely difficult, because much of the office’s time is taken up by mega projects externally imposed by the centralised government, or by NGOs like World Vision, CARE, etc etc. The number of abandoned signs with NGO symbols I see in different crevices of the office’s storage is mind-blowing.
My job is to support the leadership development of Dr. Saviour as a coach (in disguise), and keep him accountable and moving with his change project. His strong will means that suggestions must be disguised as questions, and that a strong relationship built on respect is going to be necessary for open dialogue to occur. I’m excited to build into this role a push for Dr. Saviour to invest in his people. One of his oft-stated intents is to create an independent and effective team, which can operate even in his absence, and requires guidance, not management.
Whew. So that’s 20% of my workdays here in Karaga town. 15% is connecting back to Canada (as shown here), 15% is working on my own personal development, and the other 50% is examining technology adoption through the lense of behaviour change.
So what is technology adoption? It is the process whereby new ideas, processes, tools, or behaviours are integrated into general use by a target population. Here, we’re targeting the level of AEA’s (farmer extension agents) and farmers themselves, and investigating why, with all the cool and useful and potentially life-changing technologies out there, farmers are not changing their behaviours and using them.
For example, row planting, where instead of scattering your seeds, you space them evenly and bury them. Slower, but it means that the birds don’t eat your seeds and your plants don’t compete as much with each other. But if you’re a woman and your field gets attention last, it may be too late to do row-planting, because if you take that time, then it will be too late for proper germination of your crop.
As you can probably see, this problem is horribly complex. In order to start learning about it, I am going to be continuing the trial stages of a few prototypes that my predecessor, Marc-Andre, devised.
Firstly, many of us are familiar with the story of farmer group trainings, which happen with the same group of people on the same topics, conducted by a different NGO or AEA each year, yet the farmers are still not picking up what they are trying to “teach”. Which highlights the first problem. It’s not necessarily a question of the ability to teach a specific technique, but rather the impetus for the farmer to “learn” it. You can’t teach anything to someone who doesn’t want to learn. And despite what you learn, if there’s no feasible way to put that knowledge into practice, it’s still all for nought. So how do we know who is willing and able to learn and put that learning into practice? The training must be demand-driven. One way to do this is to invite the maximum set of learners to a meeting, and to get them to vote on a technology they want to learn about. At this point, people can choose to participate or not, depending on if they want to learn the chosen technology. This saves everyone time and energy, and means that those participating will be the more dedicated ones.
The second problem we see is the conviction that this technology is worth implementing. It’s one thing to know how to do something, it’s usually quite simple. But to know that it will be good for not only yourself, but your family, and your livelihood is a different thing altogether. In order to work on this conviction, we look to see how technologies are most readily adopted. It’s usually through a trusted source, such as by demonstration, or through testimonials by known success stories.
So build them into the session! See how it works! People that already want to learn are not going to turn a blind eye to a demonstration of success. This is harder than it looks, but one way this trial is building it in, is to have a “champion” in the group that gets a bit of help to demonstrate the technology properly, and can thus be held up as a role model for others within the group
The third constraint is resources, but this is self-selected out to a certain extent, when the farmers choose to participate or not. It’s also somewhat apparent that when people are convinced that they need to adopt a technology, they can often find the resources to do so. For example, a farmer group is asked how much they could put into a savings fund each month. 50 pesawas, about 32 cents CDN, was deemed far beyond reach. Yet at the end of the weeks of training, where it was clearly demonstrated how savings and budgeting could benefit their livelihoods, people bought in by setting a base of 5 GHC per month, or just over 3 dollars CDN. The difference was conviction, and with conviction many perceived resource constraints can be overcome.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. As in the example of row planting above, resources can really be the bottleneck for improved agricultural practices.
And that’s the basis for the top-down mandated Block Farm Programme, which provides inputs (ploughing, seed, fertilizer, etc.) to farmers on loan, so they can prepare and plant their farms at the right times of the year, and they don’t have to have the capital to pay upfront. Great idea, right?
Unfortunately repayment rates are dismally low (even as low as 30% in some districts). It seems that farmers have a lack of knowledge about this program, and at times believe that because it is a government program, they don’t have to repay, or at times they don’t actually have a clear conception of how much they must repay. The transfer of information here is broken, between the AEAs that are implementing the Block Farm Programme, and the farmers that are participating in it.
So how to salvage the huge potential of this programme, before it’s scrapped by the central government for poor success rates?
There’s this idea, that given farmers are mostly illiterate, long contracts in English are not in fact the most effective method of information transfer. Enter the Pictorial Contract. It’s a tool that combines a clear delineation of what the farmer has taken from MoFA in terms of inputs, and a visual representation of what the farmer must repay, in bags of harvest. It makes it easy, when you can clearly show a farmer what he or she owes, to also tell them that if they do not repay, they won’t be able to participate in the following year.
So between the Block Farm Pictorial Tool and the demand-driven information sessions (called Agriculture as a Science), my role will consist of going to the field with various extension agents to test these prototypes in a variety of settings which are not necessarily conducive to success. In this way I can start to evaluate how well these ideas and assumptions can be scaled to different communities in the future.
Now, of course, all of this work rests on the assumption that improved agricultural output is going to improve the livelihoods of Ghanaian farmers, who form the majority in this country and are largely very, very poor.