Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Entrepreneurship?

I am pretty passionate about the role of entrepreneurs in driving social change in Ghana, and I'm not alone.

"The potential benefits from entrepreneurship and innovation for developing countries are enormous. To this end most of the countries in sub- Saharan Africa champion the development of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a conduit to the alleviation of poverty, the generation of employment, and the promotion of national economic development" [Small and Medium Industries Development Organisation (SMIDO) 2004; Chipika and Wilson 2006].

"Fostering entrepreneurship is vital in every part of the world, especially in urban areas, and should be considered a key mechanism for development. Supporting young entrepreneurs in the developing world with education, financing, mentorship and encouragement is a critical pathway to foster the creation of sustainable livelihoods." Dr. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director, UN-HABITAT

And again:

"Mrs Sedina Tamakloe-Attionu, National Coordinator of the National Youth Authority, said the potential of the youth as catalyst for societal development had been proved empirically thereby attracting the attention of politicians, economic development planners, social engineers and development partners.

Mr Seth Oteng, Executive Director of the Youth Bridge Foundation explained,
"If indeed the population of Africa was projected at two billion by 2015 with majority being under 25 years, then Africa could boast of about 1.2 billion young people who would be better educated than their predecessors with better access to information technology and renewed confidence and resolved to push the continent forward."

I am passionate about building entrepreneurial skills in Agricultural College students in Ghana because I know and believe that we must invest in the youth as change makers if we want to catalyze a more prosperous future. Not just that, I believe "It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men"- Frederick Douglass.

Please consider supporting the work we are doing in Ghana, and exploring our perspective of development; https://perspectives.ewb.ca/robinstratas and https://perspectives.ewb.ca/marielleflottat

Thank you!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food: The Good, The Bad, and The Nasty

Today is World Food Day, Food is the theme for Blog Action Day 2011 and if there ever was a unifying theme for humanity, food would be near the top of the list. Some eat with their hands, some with cutlery, some with chopsticks, but who doesn't love food? Ice cream on a hot day? Chilli in the winter? Turkey dinner with family at thanksgiving?
Every person, everywhere, needs and loves food. The problem is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to consume the quality and quantity of food needed to lead a healthy, productive life.
Instead of writing an academic piece about food, malnutrition, poverty, or agriculture, I decided to share from my experience why food is so important, and a few different sides of malnutrition.
In coming to Ghana, I expected to see small children with bloated bellies, begging for food all over the place. I do see this sometimes, but more often than not the poverty I have experienced has been a poverty of malnutrition, not always hunger. Many have the basic food, but they lack money, and opportunity. Most Northerners in Ghana are farmers and thus, produce for themselves staple crops like maize and rice, and most compounds have at least a few animals; goats, sheep, chicken, cows, or more. Yet still, I have seen first hand that people may be able to eat every day, but it is often not nutritious enough.
Not enough protein, not enough fruits and vegetables, not enough variety.
Fufu with lightsoup is great, TZ with bra is not bad, but eating the same thing day in and day out is not the most exciting for your palate or your development.
Worse than this is eating nasty food. Nasty food may not appear to be nasty at first,it may actually be quite tasty and likely cheap, but the outcomes are nasty. Whether vomiting, or diarrhea, your body will try to reject whatever bacteria or parasite accompanied the other ingredients down your throat. I'm sure anyone who has been to a developing country has likely experienced this. It sucks. But even this state is manageable; you pop some meds for travellers diarrhea, likely Cipro, and before you know it your stomach is back to normal. But for some, this is a persistent lifestyle, and buying medicine is likely not high on the priority list, or just too expensive. And diarrhea remains one of the leading causes of death for children globally.
I think about children I know who look years younger than they are, children who miss several days of school every month because they are not well, and children who walk to school in the heat, hungry, without 5 pesewas to even buy water to drink, let alone food. For some, the dry season (or lean season) means they only get 1 or 2 meals per day. As the rainfall becomes more and more infrequent, they know their daily food habits are about to undergo significant changes.

The problem of food, hunger, and malnutrition is surely a global one but I hope we also see it as a very personal problem. I am grateful for the food I have each day, and that I have the luxury to invest in my health and nutrition. I pray for those who are hungry today, those who are malnourished, and I hope that with increased awareness and efforts by donors and development partners, 2011 and 2012 can be marked by significant strides in the direction of global food security.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The need to look again

In development, in Ghana, in life; I believe we need to take time to look again.

Often times, at first glance we see something and from there we begin to draw conclusions and make assumptions that forever influence us. We can end up reinforcing perceptions that are actually not true. Some call it Confirmation bias

In the context of my life here, I see it so often. I realize I may sound like a broken record, and I've likely blogged on this before but it can be very frustrating when people don't take the time to analyze, to reflect, to check if what they believe is actually true. I believe in Development we need to move towards more thoughtfulness, openness, and humility. We need to be ever ready to question ourselves and our work. Question our assumptions, the hypotheses that are underlying the projects we are implementing. Especially when working in a culture that is foreign from your own, you need to have the humility to recognize when you've misjudged, and the courage to go back and try something different having assimilated the learning from your failure.

I have always been fascinated by this photo, but just recently discovered that it potentially dates back to 1888! It seems people for centuries have been fascinated by the ability to comprehend 2 contradicting perceptions at once. When you first glance at the photo, you can be so persuaded that it is a picture of an old, ugly woman. Someone can try to convince you that it is actually a beautiful young lady and you will think they are a fool, until you really take the time and suddenly AH HA! You have seen that it is true!

Our perceptions in the world are often like this. Sometimes it is so hard to see the other side of the picture because you are fixated on the image you first saw. However, seeing only one side does not negate the fact that the other side exists. This co-existence of 2 contrasting realities is so intriguing to me.
Something you deem to be so beautiful, may upon further scrutiny and new eyes reveal something more difficult to look at. Yet still, we cannot be satisfied with the young beautiful girl, and be blind to the reality that is the old woman.

It is my hope that the development community can strive to always bear in mind all that is poverty and development; the good, the bad, the ugly. I hope that we can take the extra time to step back and re-examine, and be willing to put aside the initial perception, even if it is exchanged for something less romantic or beautiful.

Monday, September 12, 2011

2 Years Down

Rather nonchalantly I recently told a colleague that I guess I've passed my 2 year anniversary of being in Ghana; I arrived late August 2009. Not exactly sure which day I arrived, but I nevertheless thought it an appropriate time to step back, give thanks, and share my plans for the coming year.

I am excited to inform you that I will continue to work with EWB in Ghana for a 3rd year, until Aug 2012.. I will continue to work with passionate people to create change in MoFAs Agricultural Colleges to develop entrepreneurial, farmer first graduates, and committed social entrepreneurs. In addition, I will continue working as Team Ghana's Human Resources Director to build and retain effective, motivated change agents in Ghana, and finally I'll be working in Accra to support National level changes in the Agricultural sector… all of this, so that at the end of it all I can see in our trail throngs of people who are better off now, than they were before, as a result of EWB's interventions.

You might be asking, "but why?"

Well, I'm excited to be staying because:
• EWB is an incredible organization built by and on outstanding people. People who are brilliantly intelligent, and ridiculously passionate. Hard work ethic is an understatement, and its matched with a striving towards humility, and an ultimate commitment to our bottom line- the rural poor. These people support me, and push me to be smarter and more thoughtful- its a privilege working with and for them.
• In this organization, we are given a lot freedom and input into the directions of our work. My work has been carved around my passion/skill/interest while balancing the strategic needs of the team and the broader changes we are striving for. I appreciate that my employers recognize my passions and interests and consider this as we co-create my work plans each quarter.
• I know enough Ghanaians that love EWB and our work that I believe we are on to something great. We are self critical, and we want to achieve more. Our ambitions for systemic, transformative change are great; we're not there yet but believe we are going about it the right way. We admit failures, celebrate small successes, we co-create with Africans, and continue to ask ourselves tough questions. I think we are on the right track, and hearing that from Ghanaians is reassuring.
• I keep growing in the person I'm becoming. I'm learning to love more. To be intentional. To connect and support. To empathize. Beyond the professional growth I have had- the greatest part is looking back and knowing I'm a richer human being, and that I have been truly alive. Its truly been an amazing experience for me as a person.
• I love Ghana. Many of you know this. I feel right here. The people are incredible. I have made countless friends and family in the last 2 years. They have taught me about sacrifice, giving, community, life, co-dependence, joy, purpose, perseverance... so much more. Thank you Ghana!
• Apart from missing sushi, my cottage, starbucks chai lattes, and the abundant opportunity in Canada, The hardest part is obviously being away from family in Canada. Special shout outs to my mom and Holly for their endless love and support, and to Tiki Bear (my dog). Tiki is just as happy to see me if I've been away for a day or a year. She doesn’t resent me or judge me, but just bubbles with excitement, joy and love when I see her. She is forever happy and living in the moment. She inspires me and brings me lots of smiles. I really do miss her.. and all the other amazing people I love in Canada.

This job and experience has to be very powerful to keep me from Canada. I am so grateful for the support, understanding and encouragement of my family.

There are many more reasons why I'm staying- but these are the main ones I'd like to share with you today. Thanks to all of you who have followed me and supported me along the first 2 years in Ghana.

Here's to an even more transformational 3rd year!
Love Robin

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I have a few things on my mind: Nbapoka

Excuse me, I have a few things on my mind.
My name is Nbapoka, but many people in Sapoor call me Chairwoman, or Ma.
I am the leader of Pupelum Women's Group, and I really love farming. I believe in hard work. God helps those who help themselves, you see?
I keep quite busy. I'm fetching water; 3rd time today.
I've been thinking about the rain lately, praying that it will fall. Praying that it will come at all.
I'm a Catholic, see my rosary? My husband still holds traditional beliefs, same with his first wife. But I keep praying that one day he'll also be a Catholic. I'm his third wife. The second wife died just a few years ago. I also take care of my granddaughter, and she cries whenever I put her down. My last born is 6 year and he is a good boy at school.
I woke up around 4:30 and soon I'll head to the market, once I've finished preparing lunch for the compound.
We don't have electricity, but the clinic not too far away does, so sometimes my son charges his phone there. The politicians say they will bring lights to our homes soon but I doubt it will happen. But next year is election year, so maybe this will be the time.
I really wish we could get a loan though. For farming. Maybe we could process Shea oil. I heard if you sell it abroad you can be rich. I am proud of our group. The women are serious, and now when we call a meeting, almost all of them attend. We sit under the tree and discuss challenges and ideas and when we need help, we can always get it. The women are good. Now, the men even say that we the women are more serious about farming than them, and now its easier for us to get land.
You see things are just okay. Mostly we are managing and doing our best. The small money we make from farming together can help when the kids cry out for pencils and school sandals.
In the lean season, sometimes we struggle. But we are okay, by God's grace. We know things will improve small small, and we are just doing our best day by day. If only the rains will come, I hope we can have a good harvest this year.
These are just a few of the things on my mind..

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Class, Culture and Concepts of Community

As a Canadian working in Ghana, I am confronted with a lot of differences that I have to reconcile. One of the greatest mistakes I have seen myself, and others make, is to attribute a lot of these differences to culture. You hear of a woman being beaten in a village compound and say well, its cultural. You see people spend money as soon as they have it, with little tendency towards savings, and you think this is cultural. "In Canada, we…..", "but in Ghana, they….". This, I purport, is a very slippery slope, and also inaccurate in many cases.

I found myself saying these thing a lot, particularly the first year I was in Ghana living in Wamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana. It is easy to get into "we", "they" mentality as your mind struggles to make sense of things that are foreign, different, uncomfortable. In the beginning of living in a new culture, the differences are blaring- they jump out and you can't ignore them. I tried to take a stance of understanding; they are from a different culture, so a lot of what I do and believe will be different from them. It's okay to be different. But this not only emphasizes the "otherness" of the people and nation you are working in, but can also blind you to the complex, holistic nature of situation.

I can admit that I come from a middle/upper class family in Canada. We always had enough to get by, we were well educated, and had a comfortable lifestyle. When I come to Ghana, and live in a village with subsistence farmers, some people who are just scraping by, there will definitely be a lot of differences. In Canada, we all had cars; in Wamale, people are struggling for bicycles. In Canada, my cupboard was always full of biscuits, chips, cookies, fruit, vegetables, juice, milk. In Wamale, if you don't eat when everyone is eating, you'll be left behind and have to wait for tomorrow to be satisfied. Yes, there are cultural differences. But a lot of the differences I just mentioned are a result of differences in class, economic status, not culture. Perhaps I would have been better prepared for village life in Ghana had I spent time in "slums" in Canada...

I don't doubt that there are communities in Canada where people are barely getting by. Poverty looks different in Canada; surely. But having worked with some of the most disadvantaged children in Windsor, Ontario, I had my eyes opened; wow; there are Canadian families that can't afford soap or toothpaste!?! Many foreigners who come to Ghana are ignorant or blind to poverty in their own countries, so when they are confronted with poverty in Ghana it is seen as cultural. I purport that many (most?) foreigners living in Ghana are well educated, and at least middle class, in their home countries. Most who come to Ghana come to volunteer through a University program, or work in development (many with Masters degrees), or invest in business in Ghana (wealthy people from China). Let's not forget that merely getting to Ghana is a great expense (flight). I believe it would be hard for a very poor Canadian to find him or herself in Ghana.

As I've started working in more affluent, "developed" parts of Ghana, I have seen that there is wealth in Ghana! I have seen mansions and cars in Accra that I've never come face to face with in Toronto.

The other day, as I sat in a home in Accra, a group of people came to the door to talk to the father of the house. They sat down and discussed how they are starting a neighbourhood committee to address challenges in the community, namely; improving the roads and sewage system. He started by apologizing that he has never come to greet him before, and remarked that these days, we don't know our neighbours. Unless there is a problem we don't enter the homes of our neighbours. He vowed that from now on he would be a better neighbour and visit just to see how the family was doing. As I heard them talk, I thought wow; this could be Canada. Truthfully, I don't know or "care for" my neighbours in Canada. We are all busy doing our own things, leading our own lives, as we happen to coexist in the same geographical area. But I was part of "community" in other ways, beyond the physical neighbourhood, and I know that urban Ghanaians too have "communities", but they are likely not tied to neighbours based on physical proximity.

When I first came to Ghana one thing I loved about the culture was community. Everyone greets each other, knows each other, cares for each other. Everyone in the community is the mother/father of the children. In Wamale, I have never had any theft. Whereas in bigger cities, theft can seem inevitable. In a lot of villages, there is a strong sense of community; and even if someone does steal, within a matter of hours you will find out who did it. I have always loved the sense of community in Wamale, where everybody truly does know your name.

As I listened to these middle/upper class Ghanaians talk about the fact that they are now isolated from their neighbors, I smiled to myself thinking about the days I boasted of Ghana's community culture. I believe this difference is in fact more a result of class, and not culture. Yes, those in Accra are still Ghanaians and part of Ghanaian culture, but as a result of their jobs, education, and lifestyle, their sense of community is quite different from a rural village who is deeply intertwined, interconnected, and often times interdependent.

All this is not to say there are no cultural differences between Canada and Ghana; clearly there are. Nor is it to paint a simplified North versus South picture of Ghana. What I have seen is that villages in the south aren't entirely different from villages in the North, and that there are similarities that cut across cultures but may align along class difference. Further, it is not to say that there is a universal culture of poverty*; that all people who are poor have the same values or behaviours. I have merely noticed that many differences attributed to cultural clashes may in actual fact be class clashes.

Instead of painting Ghana as all beautiful, or totally different from Canada, I am striving to see people as people, continue to check my assumptions and biases, and live lovingly among people wherever I find myself in this complex intersection of culture and class.

**For more information on the culture of poverty, have a gander below.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chocolate covered licorice, and other frivolities

Hmmm.. Personal hypocrisies are hard to come to terms with, right?

I find myself torn sometimes..

I came to Ghana with EWB because I care about people who are poor, or merely subsisting with unfulfilled, untapped potential. I hope and trust that the actions EWB Canada staff are undertaking in Ghana and across Africa are impacting the rural poor in a positive, lasting way.


But I'm still a partaker of this consumer society. In a discussion with my colleagues about "the things we love and hate about Canada", I shared that what I hate about Canada is how materialistic I am when I am in Canada. Oh the thrill of shopping on boxing day!

At first I wanted to hate Canada for excessive materialistic, consumer drives and obsessions. But I have to face the fact that as much I as I am trying to live out my beliefs and values- I want to lead a simple life- I am not perfect and I get sucked into it all and I have no one to blame but myself.

My mom recently came to visit me in Ghana which was amazing. Apart from all the memories we made and great discussions we had, I enjoyed gifts from Canada; my favourite purse- how I've missed it! A curling iron! Maple syrup! Chocolate covered licorice!

After she left, after a week of beautiful hotels, sightseeing, and tourism in this country I've been calling home for the past few years, I am back to normal life. No more air conditioned rooms; back to the heat.

I sat there, sweating under the fan blowing hot air at me, eating off the melting pieces of chocolate covering the sweet, chewy red licorice and I thought to myself wow. What a world. What a life. What a challenge.

I had hoped that after knowing so many impoverished people, after living with people who literally have no money, after seeing sick person after sick person who do not seek medical attention…. I had hoped I would be different. I hoped to be some kind of saint. I remember after coming back from Ghana in 2008, I vowed I wouldn't buy new clothes unless I actually needed them, and if I had to they would be second hand. I vowed I would use my money to support others and invest in transformation, not selfish, pride- driven indulgences. I wanted to become a type of modern day Mother Theresa; one who is selfless and sees the world for what it really is… merely a place filled with opportunities to exude love.

And yet I find myself still wanting to buy unnecessary things. The fact that we have a term "disposable income" is so telling of the middle and upper class reality. We have more than enough, more than we need for ourselves, and we dispose of it.. This is not an attack on anyone person or any one group, or a tactic to solicit guilt; this is more of an attack on myself, and a shared reflection on my personal shortcomings to live the life I want to and know I need to.

I believe that there is enough food and opportunity on earth for everyone, and that with an increase of compassion and love the world can and will be transformed (beware; idealism!). When I take off my "more, more, more!, me, me, me!" glasses and put on my "empathize! Love!" glasses I see that money spent on chocolate covered licorice and other frivolities could be better spent to invest in opportunities and people that will cumulatively become change and transformation.

Sincerely yours, with love, from recovering consumerist and aspiring revolutionary.