Friday, September 12, 2008

This is it

This is really just to say good bye (for now...)

I have finished up a fabulous year in Zambia and I feel overwhelmingly lucky to have met so many amazing people, learned so much and simply gained an understanding (howerver narrow) into life in Africa. I don't think I have fully processed what I have gained from this experience but I know its touched me in ways that I may only discover years from now.

As a segway between volunteering for Engineers without Borders and returning to a full time job back in Canada, Scott and I have planned a 2.5 month adventure around Southern and Eastern Africa. He joined me last week in Nairobi and we are slowly working our way towards South Africa. We have a flight booked out of Johannesburg back to Canada on November 22nd. Between now and then we have a few plans (climb Kilimanjaro, check out the spice islands of Zanzibar and hit up an outdoor concert on the shores of Lake Malawi) but we are going to be making a lot of it up as we go along.

One day I will have to get back to 'normal' but until then I'm very much appreciating how pretty darn good life is at the moment.

Lots of love and best wishes and I really look forward to catching up at Christmas.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wonderful Women

I am winding down. As a means of closing out this year, Thulasy and I were asked to research and write an evidence based assessment of the last 12 months of the sorghum project. We presented our findings and recommendations last week. Fortunately everyone on the team agreed with us that there is a lot of room for improvement, what followed was a very productive discussion with the whole sorghum team about how to improve the project for this coming (and final year). We finished the week long meeting by developing an operating plan for remainder of the project with the whole team. The plan incorporates the majority of the recommendations Thulasy and I identified in the assessment as well as the teams lessons learnt from the past 12 months. We hope this will lead to more success in year two!

An additional outcome of the meeting was a request for Thulasy and I again to team up, but this time to do a market research study. We have been asked to look at the sorghum market in Zambia, demand versus supply as well as more details to help identify the best output markets for the cooperatives we are working with. In order to do this research the two of us are stuck in the capital, Lusaka for a few weeks. Lusaka is not an inspiring place at the best of times, right now it is even less so because as the end of my year draws near I would prefer to be spending time with my friends, family, co-workers and the farmer cooperatives in Ndola.

However, just the other day, in the midst of doing some research for the market study, I met Africa’s Most Innovative Women 2008. Mrs Banda is inspiring. Meeting her made me think even more about all the wonderful women friends that I have made in the last 12 months. And since I am thinking about them I thought I would share a little bit about them with you.

Mrs Sylvia Banda

I met Mrs Banda at the Lusaka Agriculture Show pretty much by accident. She owns and runs a catering business that sources vegetables from small scale farmers. I learnt from her that she came top 6 in last year’s Africa Business Awards for Women in Business and has been crowned Africa’s Most Innovative Women this year. She told Thulasy and me that she grew up in a village, one of 7 girls in a family of 8 children. She learned at a young age that as a girl child she was less desirable than a boy child. But she believed that she could do and achieve whatever she wished and proceeded to capitalize on her amazing natural business abilities and pursue a very profitable and successful business.


Milimo is 12 years old. She grew up in a village in the South of Zambia with her mother, the second wife to her father. But when she was 9 her sister came to fetch her and bring her back to her father’s house in Ndola. Since the age of 9 she’s been living with her father and her sisters and brothers (from her father’s first wife) and me since January when I moved in. Already at the age of 12 she’s preparing most of the families meals and is responsible for other chores such as cleaning and washing her own clothes. It’s a far stretch from a North American child but pretty typical in Zambia. Compared with her, my childhood was a cake walk, despite the fact that I was convinced doing the dishes and occasionally vacuuming was equivalent to child exploitation.


I’ve already introduced many of you to Mary. I lived with her for my first 5 months in Zambia. She is an amazingly fun and easy going lady. We would have a beer or two together on a Friday evening and chat about life. She was widowed when her two children were still very little and has been supporting them and two nieces on her teaching salary ever since.


Chileshe is 9 years old and Mary’s daughter. She’s a spunky kid that has a ton of personality and is a lot of fun. I’d promised to take her swimming, so one Saturday we ended up (with Milimo, Chileshe’s brother Chisanga and her cousin Mukuka) at the Savoy hotel, swimming in the pool. None of the kids know how to swim but they had fun splashing around. When it was time to go Chileshe decided she wanted to see the hotel. So she marched up to the life guard and asked to be given a tour. He obliged and before we knew it we were all being ushered into the hotel’s elevator and shown around the roof of the hotel. None of the kids had ever been in an elevator before but Chileshe out of all of them seemed the most at ease. She never questioned whether, she a 9 year old from the compound outside Ndola was entitled to a tour of the fanciest hotel in Ndola. She’s got more confidence than the average Zambian and I think Mary has a lot to do with that. I love it!


Christine started off as my bemba teacher to begin with but we soon became good friends. She’s a year younger than me, married with a small boy. She and her husband live in a two room house with their son and her husband’s nephew. I go by her house a few times a week, sometimes she gets me to help with the cooking or teaches me a thing or two about being a mother or if we are really motivated we do some bemba lessons, mostly we just hang out and she feeds me. She has started working as a teacher and doing some small trade (purses, clothes, perfume) to help support her small family.


Beatrice is the mother of 9. She lives in a compound on the outskirts of Ndola and travels into the city center everyday to sell fruit in the market close to my office. She’s always ready for a chat and insists that every time I see her I take a seat for a few minutes to catch up. She likes to joke with everyone that I am her daughter. Despite working long hours at her fruit stall to make ends meet, she always sends me on my way with a few apples or a banana in my pocket.


Isobel is the first born child of the family I live with. Her mother died when she was going to university in the UK and so stopped her studies to return home and take care of her family. Her father married again and had an 11th child (Milimo) but that marriage didn’t last and Isobel took over the role of mother to the whole clan. As her brothers and sisters got older they started sharing the responsibility of looking after their younger siblings with her. Now that almost all the kids are grown up and moved out Iso has me and my parents (when they are visiting) not to mention a pretty constant flow of muzungu volunteers (other EWB folks) to look after!

Mrs Finka

Mrs Finka is a grandmother in one of the villages where I’ve been working on the sorghum project. She is the best farmer in this particular village with the most impressive sorghum harvest out of them all. She lives with her 5 or 6 grandchildren and farms to support herself and her many dependants. She is typical in that many grandmothers end up looking after some of their grandkids, she stands out because she does so with confidence and ability.


Abigail is 18 and a neighbour when I lived with Mary. She just graduated from grade 12 in December. Because Grade 12 results only become available in April or May students have to wait a year before they can apply for post secondary education. She wants to become a writer and is thinking of pursuing a journalism degree next year, if not journalism she is considering development studies.

So those are a few of the women/girls in my life right now. I’ve been thinking about how amazing they are and recognizing how fortunate I am to know them. There are amazing people everywhere and it's worth taking the time to appreciate them.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Learning and Adjusting

The last few months have been up and down. I’m slowly starting to recognise the extent to which they have been down (I’m pretty good at ignoring the negative). I was initially going to write about all the great things that have been happening (and there have been lots – my parents visit was a highlight – showing them around my home and introducing them to my friends and Zambian family, not to mention paddling on the Zambezi, seeing loads of wildlife and Victoria falls).
Me paddling on the Zambezi surrounded by some pretty incredible scenery

But the reality is the project I am working on is far from achieving the results it set out to achieve, failure is a strong word but in a lot of senses this year has failed to live up to expectations (profitable sorghum enterprises, food security and increased income amongst small scale rural farmers). There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost, the sorghum crop has done poorly. Farmers have not harvested the yields we had forecasted, meaning farmers do not have the sorghum for home consumption, let alone the sorghum to sell to get a ‘profitable sorghum enterprise’ off the ground. The rains were heavy and sporadic this year resulting in poor germination and then poor growth.

The amazing part is that the farmers still manage to be optimistic – “we have learnt a lot and we will know better next year". I guess we will, but it doesn’t change the wasted effort this year. I can’t imagine being ok with someone interfering in my life, telling me to try something new, investing my time and resources only to see it fail or fall seriously shy of expectations. Maybe I’m not used to the life of a farmer. I think farmers knew well ahead of the project team that things were going badly. We put our blinders on and tried to be optimistic, telling ourselves that thing’s might work out. The farmers on the other hand knew way back that the yields were going to be next to nothing this year, perhaps they were prepared.

This farmer (on the left) harvested the sorghum that is drying on her roof. She did better than most.

So where do we go from here? I think the first step is understand why sorghum did badly – is it due to the rains, or is it the soil type, the seed variety, the planting dates, insufficient weeding, or alien invasions? Can we learn from this year and prevent it in the future? I also have to recognise that this year was a lot more than just growing sorghum; we spent a lot of energy on skills development. The skills that we’ve been developing with the farmers are more long lasting than the sorghum season. Hopefully the business skills we’ve been working on with farmers and their cooperatives are transferable to another crop or even sorghum if it still makes sense? Perhaps it is these skills (finding inputs like seed and fertiliser, arranging the sale in terms of transportation, price, timing and quality) that will benefit the farmers in the long run.

This is a side of development that some would argue is best not to talk about. People need to feel like their contributions (financially and in kind) are benefitting people. The reality is some of it is and some of it isn’t. Even in Canada people are debating the wisdom of development – and on the ground here it is a very common topic. I believe it’s better to do something – even if it’s not as efficient or effective as you would like it to be- than to do nothing at all. I think that maybe you need to change your expectations – instead of hoping 2000 farmers grow sorghum and increase their annual income by $100, why not accept that that might not happen but if a handful do and another few learn more about business and a few more think diversifying their crops is a good idea. Maybe the key is understanding that the wins take different shapes, a lot of them unpredictable but equally valuable. I definitely agree that development has to be more effective – it’s ridiculous to spend so much money and NOT improve people’s lives. But if it were easy there weren’t be poverty anymore. We have to keep working, learn from our failures and mistakes and keep trying. The key I think is to LEARN and ADJUST. So if sorghum doesn’t make sense can we try something else?

The trouble is that these aren’t lab experiments – this is real life and real people and when I say sorghum failed, it doesn’t affect me the way it affects the people that have invested their time and resources. It’s not comforting to know that some farmers appear used to it. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think the most important thing is that development organisations recognise when something’s not working (like sorghum) and actively work to address it. Unfortunately I think that is the exception rather than the rule (other priorities like reporting to donors, keeping staff employed, etc get in the way). Pushing the organisation I work for to LEARN and ADJUST will be the focus of my last two months in Zambia.

My mom and dad doing a bit of learning and adjusting.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I got a message from a friend...

I got a note from a friend of mine recently implying that I must have some thoughts on the questions I posed in my last blog and maybe even some answers. I definitely don’t have answers. But I recognise that asking questions is A LOT easier than answering them so I should at least attempt at sharing some thoughts.

My first question was regarding the logic of working with cooperatives. This debate is very much alive and actually is the most common topic of conversation between my CARE colleagues and I. Not to mention a topic that the South African EWB team is trying to get a handle on.

I am walking and chatting with two sorghum farmers

I think cooperatives in theory are a great idea: a group of people with a common interest banding together (cooperating) to take advantage of the benefits of working together. Some examples are buying farming inputs in bulk, reducing transport costs by bulking, revolving loan schemes, having more of a voice in business transactions, etc… A cooperative is meant to provide services to members in addition to making money to reinvest in the cooperative and pay out in the form of member dividends. The trouble as I see it is that human nature gets in the way. When does making money for your community take priority over making money for your own family? Cooperatives become political bodies, the board are elected members and in many cases the general membership are like disengaged citizens. From my observations (limited to the 6 cooperatives here in Copperbelt Province of Zambia), the general members do not hold the board accountable and in many cases the board don’t have any business skills. Lose – lose.

My colleague Sunday (pointing) chatting with farmers about sorghum - this field hasn't done very well.

Since we can’t change the project design*, and the design is to work through farming cooperatives; what can we do to increase the chances that the farmers will benefit from sorghum growing and selling after CARE pulls out? One idea is to encourage what one might call ‘anchor farmers’. This means work within the cooperative model but create a group of dedicated producers that will have a vested interest in seeing the sorghum business succeed. Thulasy has an excellent example of what this looks like, one of the cooperatives she is working with is running a dairy business, of roughly 300 members, 20 produce 75% of the milk. These are the ‘anchor farmers’. Now the next question is what does working with ‘anchor farmers’ look like?? And will this small group of stronger farmers ensure that the sorghum business continues to function? Aaahh, there is always an abundance of questions! And I am guessing the answers will only be discovered by looking back from the future! But it’s better to try something new not knowing if it will succeed or fail, than to keep doing the same thing that you already know will fail (I am sure someone has said that better)

(*Why can’t we change the project design? Another good question – the answer has a lot to do with accountability to donors, CARE philosophy, the way the development sector works in general – somewhat related to my last question from the previous post)

Lots of love to everyone,


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Big questions, small questions...

Bag of Sorghum Grain

I haven't been as eager to update my post recently. Part of the problem is that I have very much settled into my life here, and I find it hard to think of the things that others might find particularly novel or interesting. I know many aspects of my life are very different from my life back in Canada – but it’s become so normal that I don’t instinctively know which observations or experiences are worth sharing. That is part of the problem; the other issue is wanting to share with you some more meaningful thoughts on my experience working in the development sector. I have hesitated on that front because I feel quite overwhelmed with the complexity of what development is trying to achieve. Even closer to home, I am not sure what is the best approach to take within the context of my specific project! So instead of sharing insights, I thought I would share some of my questions related to the sorghum project and development in general:

We are working with cooperatives – many of which were formed purely to access government fertiliser subsidies (The Zambian government said – “Form farmer’s cooperatives and we will deliver fertiliser!”…or something along those lines). Do these organisations have the desire and ability to run a sorghum business? Are we (the sorghum project proposal writers and implementers) expecting too much of these loosely formed farmers groups?

If we are not expecting too much: how long does it take to learn adequate business skills to run a bulking and selling business? What attributes are basic prerequisites and which ones can be learned? What incentives are needed to keep the right people involved once the project implementation phase is over (we are no longer involved)?

The new cooperative leaders having a look at last season's sorghum harvest

Farming is an unbelievably risky business – this year there was too much rain causing significant losses to farmer’s crops. Last year it was drought, the year before disease, the year before de-valuation of the local currency, next year higher input prices due to the big leap in bio fuel demand, higher transport costs, alien invasions, etc... How do farmers reduce their exposure to calamity AND increase their profit margins?

How much are subsidies necessary to keep an agriculture sector alive?

What do you need first: a stable and competitive supply or a sufficiently substantial demand?

And one bigger picture question:

Development organisations need to promote their work in order to gain access to further funding. In light of this I feel that all internal evaluations by an organisation are going to be biased by the need for ‘self preservation’. I understand the need to self promote in order to maintain funding and continue helping – but at what point is shameless self promotion unethical? What would honest evaluation look like? What would ensure development organisation are accountable for their projects successes and failures?

Wonder what I am doing??? Sometimes so do I.

I will leave my questions at that for now(save some for another day!) . If you are interested I've updated a bunch of photos to my web album that give you an idea of some of the things I've been up to since January.

Big hugs,

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Perceptions and Assumptions

I have decided to move, I had moved in with Mary on the understanding that I would only be there for 3 months. 5 months later I finally tore myself away. I think we are both sad to be apart but for many reasons it made sense; for me was the struggle of commuting daily and for her it was getting a separate room for her son Chisanga.

But now I live in a much fancier part of town called Kanini. Again I am with a Zambian family, but instead of 3 bedrooms there are 5 and what is called a servants quarters in the back yard. I don’t think these two families differ all that much, their day-to-day lives are very much the same and their opportunities are similar. But there is a perception of us and them. The one example is that recently Zambia (and a lot of the region) have been experiencing black outs. They call it load shedding which essentially means the power company shuts off the power during peak times because it can’t meet the demand or needs to conserve power. Different parts of the city are without power at different times. It must be human nature to assume that others are always better off than you, folks in Kanini assume that they are without power when folks in Mushili (Mary’s neighbourhood) have it and vice versa. The reality is that both neighbourhoods are without power at different times, but as far as I can tell to the same degree.

Another funny assumption was made by the family I stayed with last weekend; they are sorghum farmers in a rural community outside of Ndola. I wanted to spend some time with them to understand more about their lives and in turn they learnt a bit about me. Many folks I’ve met want to know what I eat and even after 6 months of living here, people are shocked to find out that I eat the local nshima (ground maize) The assumption is that a mzungu can’t eat Zambian food – I managed to convince the family I was staying with that I could eat anything they were going to eat (There is a bit of double standard though – I really can’t drink the water they drink without some uncomfortable consequences). But apparently I wasn’t quite convincing enough. I couldn’t figure out why there was a separate pot of nshima for me. It turns out the nshima the family normally eats is what is called roller meal – the corn kernels are ground into flour and then cooked – they figured my tummy couldn’t handle it and were preparing me mealie meal that has been dehulled before being milled into flour! I think in reality my stomach prefers the roller meal – it has a bit more nutritional value than the dual processed mealie meal!

I guess what I am trying to say, is that it is very easy to assume things about others, but reality is often quite different than what we expect.

Me, Mrs Chitundo and her grandson Malama (love the t-shirt!).

Sorry for the lack of updates recently. I've been busy running around looking at sorghum - but I did manage to post a bunch of photos from Scott's Xmas visit to my web album.

Hope you are well,