The Remoteness Deterrent

Staying in Accra over the Christmas holidays with friends I found myself in a discussion surrounding  a serious barrier to development in rural Africa that I had seen in Zambia, this time the context is Ghanaian but the issue still remains the same. The issue is getting educated human resources for development (doctors, teachers, agric. extension workers, or business people) to remote areas and keeping them happy. When I was in Zambia, I was in the remote community of Kacholola, there I first encountered the barrier of this “remoteness deterrent”. Many of my friends were teachers because when I first arrived in the community I was not conversant in Chinyanja (the local dialect). The teachers all taught courses in English. None of the teachers were from Kacholola, and few were even from tribes in Eastern Province.

I was in love with Kacholola and was thrilled with working in a remote area, but I was working here by choice. I didn’t take long to realize that almost all of the teachers resented the location of their teaching post. The place was ‘bush’.

“We are suffering here, there is no light, the water hasn’t flowed in years.”
“This place is just boring.”

Most teachers studied at teachers colleges in the cities and come from the urban forty percent of the Zambian population, where more creature comforts are a regularly accessible, provided that they can be financed. In Kacholola this was not the case. I didn’t have to look far to see how some people almost felt cheated by having been posted to a job in the ‘bush’. It was also often negatively affected the way that people work. How can you really commit to students or projects or initiatives if deep down you are praying for a transfer the following week?

In Ghana, I noticed the same phenomenon with some National Service Staff. Upon completing university, all graduates must complete one year of mandatory community service for their nation. Our project were given several. We have seven field offices and I can remember hearing some grumbles at the training from students saying “I just hope that I am near Accra”. It wasn’t all of them and to be fair some were passionate about far off postings too, but it brought me back to this barrier that I had seen before: If people in remote areas lack extension services the most and they are the least likely places for qualified staff to want to work, then how do we send people there that will work at a high capacity?

Over Christmas I was hanging out with some new friends that were also recent graduates. After having pondered the “remoteness barrier” in a few contexts, I was quick to judge when someone said “I am in my national service year but I refused the position that was in that isolated northern part of Volta Region.” I was also quick to challenge, and quick to judge.
“But you know that place is really remote, even the nearest hospital is sooo far.” My mind was still judging and my ego brought out a feeling of how “hardcore” or “badass” I am in that I wouldn’t complain over such a situation and I strive to get to the frontlines of the field. Amid my questioning, another friend brought me back down to earth.

“You know my friend I introduced you to a couple of days ago? The one who is not ‘all there’ mentally? He suffers from spinal meningitis. There was an outbreak in the village where he was carrying out his national service and he was infected. He was completely normal before but he hasn’t been the same since. The vehicle would only leave for the town with the proper hospital once per week. And the national service program has no extended health coverage. You like to work in bush and it’s your choice but its different when it’s not.” It is also different when my employer provides an extensive health insurance plan and his does not.

..And so my ‘badass’ ego shrank back down as I realized that I was sounding like an overpriveleged foreigner that thinks he can solve complex problems so easily.

I’m not.

But checking my privilege still didn’t address the fact that many educated people would prefer not to work in places very far from enjoyable amenities. Unfortunately, these are also the locations where so many underprivileged farmers live.

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On Zambia and Ghana: Part One

Maybe they are not fair to compare. Maybe my experience in each nation is too limited and I should instead compare Eastern Province of Zambia and Eastern Region of Ghana. In fact, maybe it would not really be fair to extend past comparing Kacholola with Somanya. Well, I am going to compare them anyway. I will qualify the comparison by defining it: Through the narrow scope of my lense, I will be comparing my view of my two experiences in Kacholola and Somanya. This is part one because I’m sure more will follow.

Population Density

One of the biggest differences between Zambia and Ghana is population density. Zambia is sparsely populated, with 12.9 million people. There are 17.2 people per square kilometer. Ghana on the other hand is in highly densely populated West Africa and with 23.8 million people and a much smaller area, it has 100 people per square kilometer. The difference in population densities between the two nations is huge. This is very significant factor for agricultural development.


Population density affects a nation in many ways. For the purpose of conciseness in this post I will focus on one that stands out in particular: access to transport. Since I have been in Ghana there have been a couple of times where I have waited fifteen minutes for a trotro (the local name for a minibus). That is when I haven’t checked for any indication that a bus might be leaving and I just showed up at the station, or even the side of the road. This includes waits in big cities and small rural areas.

In Zambia, when I would buy a ticket on the coach line from Lusaka to Kacholola, the nine o’clock bus would bus would depart at eleven on the good days but sometimes even after twelve. Getting back from Kacholola was another story altogether. There was no bus station so I would wait at the police barrier and my policeman friend would ask passing vehicles if they could take me back to town for an appropriate fare. Sometimes it would be a private car, sometimes the regular coach, sometimes it would be a transport semi-truck. One day I started waiting by the roadside at seven a.m. with my friend Pio and we finally caught transport by three pm. When I compare Zambia and Ghana at a glance population density and ease of transport stand out the most starkly.

Two assumptions for Agricultural Development…

Simply put: Densely populated areas are likely to have a more services and cooperative capabilities. Access to transport eases the flow goods in and out of farms.

For a seed or fertilizer shop to open, the entrepreneur will need customers. If the shop is hard to get to and available to few customers and all other things are equal, the owner will have less business than someone who opens a shop that is easy to get to for many farmers. It is also easier to find other farmers to collaborate with to procure inputs or find markets for crops in areas of higher farmer density.

Transport is a means of accessibility for many things. For agricultural development, seeds and fertilizer must be brought to a farm by transport and harvested crops must be sent to their markets via transport.

As a generalization, Ghana – or to be safe I will say Somanya, has a higher population density and greater access to transport than Kacholola. Easier access to transport, inputs, markets and other farmers give an agricultural economy strong points on which to grow and develop. Its like having the pieces to a puzzle that hasn’t been put together yet. It is exciting to be working in an environment that is so primed for economic take-off. It also makes me miss Zambia and think about the farmer group that I worked with there a lot.

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African Agriculture Baselines 3: Mango Interview Followup from last Episode

Episode 3: Interview with Nii Adjei Sowah, ADVANCE’s Field Business Facilitator for mango answers questions from around the world on what PAB/ADVANCE is doing to make Ghana’s mango sector more productive and competitive. It’s a little late but internet connections have not been bountiful so thanks so much for your patience.



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African Agriculture Baselines: Mango Farming in Eastern Region

Sorry for the delay but this one took a while due to a constantly crashing computer. Post Questions for Nii Adjei Sowah, the ADVANCE projects mango market facilitator below! He will be interviewed and asked your questions next episode!

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I have been living in Somanya, Eastern Province for the last few weeks and I am really starting to fall into the rhythm of Ghanaian life. The people here are incredibly friendly and the mangoes have been delicious. Everyone is so open and welcoming and I have made a lot of friends and eaten heaps of delicious food, especially Banku and Tilapia with pepe. I have also learned a lot! I have been living with my counterpart, Nii Adje Sowa part time for the last couple of weeks. He is one of the Field Based Facilitators on the ADVANCE project. Building a relationship with him has been nice and has shed a lot of insight on what it is like to be a market facilitator. It is not as easy as it sounds. When I haven’t been staying with Sowa, I have been staying at mango farms with farm workers. I have also been visiting mango aggregators and exporters and taken a look into the structure of mango farming FBOs (farmer based organizations. You can hear much more about what I learned there in an upcoming episode of African Agriculture Baselines, so stay tuned.

Mango minor harvest is coming into full swing which means that the hamatan season is upon us where winds blow down from the Sahara and give the sky a foggy look.

I have been starting to play some soccer with the local Division II team. It has really been nice to get solid exercise because often it can be tough fit in to the day. The team will be playing in the Ghana FA cup on December 26, go for it boys!

In the new year, I will likely be getting my own place. Even though I have been bouncing around a lot it will be nice to have a place that feels like ‘home’. On the topic of home, I have been thinking about my friends and family a lot this week as the countdown to Christmas is on! All my love, joy and blessings at this great time of year! I would love to be seeing you all but it will have to wait until next year. Also if you are looking for a way to spread holiday cheer, come donate to my perspective at ! I only have three supporters so far and I still have a ways to go!

Lots of love, Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings!

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African Agriculture Baselines: Rice Production in Akuse

Check Out Episode One of African Agriculture Baselines

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My Perspective: Business Partners not Hand Holders

Season’s Greetings,

This holiday season I am encouraging people who are keen on giving to charity my perspective. Please click the link to take a look if you are interested.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah and Happy Kwanza

One Love

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My Placement, Value Chains and Market Facilitation

My New Placement

I am one week in to my new placement in Ghana and I am very excited. It is an agricultural initiative called ADVANCE. One of the things that I am particularly interested in is the fact that it is a private sector based approach, which I see as having the potential to teach farmers and agribusinesses “how to fish” as opposed to “giving them fish”. To me this presents an opportunity to push some sustainable changes that do not disappear as soon as the project ends.

Why agriculture?
This is an important first question to address. Across rural sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture is by far the primary economic activity. It can be seen as logical, or even obvious to some. Farming produces food. Food is important. The funny thing is, growing up in Canada in an industrialized, arguably overdeveloped country, many lose touch with the reality of the importance of farming. I am guilty myself. I was raised with little experience on farms and developed a peculiar notion that food comes from the grocery store. Really, this is not very different from believing that a stork delivers babies. My ignorance blocked me from perceiving the economic reality of my country. I think that much fewer rural African kids have a disconnection to how food gets to their plate. In rural Africa, agriculture is a way of life. It is how most families meet their basic needs.

Rice Farmers in Akuse, Ghana

Lack of economic opportunity exists in urban settings as well. Lacks of opportunities are also attributed to other barriers as well such as access to health services, safe drinking water, infrastructure and many others. For me, I see hope in agriculture. Agriculture is a strong asset for rural Africa. I believe it is an asset that can and will be built.

The ADVANCE Project in Ghana

The ADVANCE (Agriculture Development Value Chain Enhancement) project is a $30M project that aims to increase the economic productivity and competitiveness of Ghana’s agricultural sector. The project works in nine of Ghana’s ten regions (it will operate in all ten by next year). It seeks to achieve its aims by working in six main commodities; the staple crops of maize, rice and soyabean as well as fruits such as pineapple, mango and citrus fruits. The project uses a market facilitation approach to achieve its goals. There are seven field offices throughout the country with different implementing partners. To understand more about agriculture value chains and market facilitation, read on…

Agriculture Value Chains 101

A value chain is an economic term that is related to the concept of a supply chain.

A supply chain is the path of economic production, from raw materials to consumer. In agriculture, it starts with inputs such as seeds and sometimes fertilizer, along with soil and water. The farmer then does his work and transforms these initial products into food. This food is then bulked and transported and sold to consumers. The following is a very oversimplified Agriculture supply chain…

Simplified Supply Chain

When we use the term value chain, it is because we will be talking about how much value each actor in the chain attributes to the chain’s overall production. This value is not measured with how valuable any individuals perceive that work, but how valuable the market environment perceives that work.

An Example of a Value Chain
Let’s look at a totally made up example. We will introduce some characters. Their names appear in the box that corresponds to the economic activity that they carry out.

At the Supermarket there are pomegranate juice is sold for Twenty eight shillings the store usually sells about one hundred boxes of juice a month. Everyone in the supply chain makes some money when you buy a pomegranate.

One day, in the store you get curious and ask the store manager how all this stuff gets here and who has their livelihood related to pomegranates. His name is Kamwendo and he is a really nice guy so he invites you in for a glass of milk and explains.

“Actually I know nine other people that work in the pomegranate industry, let me tell you about them…”

“Hideki and Ayano each have seed operations where they acquire, refine and breed the best seeds. After they balance their books in the big scheme of things, their profit is about three Shillings for every pomegranate sold. They compete with one another but they both do great work.

All the farm guys work really hard. It’s funny to think that they are the guys that do the magic but they make less money than anybody in the industry in this town. I don’t buy directly from them. There are a lot of pomegranate farmers in this community which is starting to attract a lot of attention from other places which could be great for the community. For the time being, the high number of farmers does two things:

– One, having to outcompete each other drives the price down.
– Two, having to share the market means they each only get a smaller portion of the sales.

Diego and Hector are business people like me. Diego was on the scene first, pressing pomegranates into juice using this old device that he got from his grandpa. It took him a lot longer in those days, and he sure charged a lot more for his product. Now Hector is a really innovative mind, he found a way to speed up the process and started undercutting Diego a little. I was happy when the price came down, when it did, I sold it for cheaper in the store. People started drinking it a lot more and sales really rose. Hector coming on the scene really helped the local pomegranate industry if you ask me.

As for me, I do make a lot of money and I kind of have a little monopoly going on here in town. Everyone gets their groceries from me. You know what though. It was really hard setting up this business and it was a really big risk. I had to borrow money from three family members to get it off the ground. I love this community and I charge reasonable prices. If I didn’t, someone else would come along and start up a competing grocery store in a second.”

A value chain showing actors and their value add

A value chain showing actors and their value add



Market Facilitation 101
Market facilitation is a value chain intervention approach that focuses on helping develop relationships between actors as opposed to replacing or overlapping with actors.

An example of an Intervention that is not market facilitation…

In the above example, many people believe that the farmers are undervalued. A foreign NGO promoting farmer empowerment comes in to town; they have received a big grant from an international donor to help farmers with little opportunity. They arrive and start providing seeds to farmers for half of the typical price thinking that a temporary increase in farmer productivity will earn them more cash and make them more capable to farm as a business in the future if they earn some extra cash.

An intervention that replaces a value chain actor

As time goes on…

– Farmers increase production.
– The processors start paying less for pomegranate, the price of juice that Kamwendo sources it for remains the same.
– Hector and Maria start earning more for their activities
– The share of seed sales is by and large taken away from Hideki and Ayano, sales plummet, they eventually go out of business.
– The NGO leaves once their term is completed. The seed suppliers are out of business and the value chain is worse off than it was in the beginning.

An example of an intervention that is market facilitation…

A market facilitator meets individually with Dan and Shirley (farmers), Diego (processor) and Hideki (input supplier) to assess the barriers to their businesses expanding.

– Diego says that he can prosper if the farmers produce more
– The farmers say that they can produce more but the timing of their payment from the processor is too late every season to purchase inputs for the following season, thus hindering their growth.
– Hideki has a reasonably stocked store but cannot afford to discount his products, he would like to sell more but this will only happen if the farmers grow more.

A market facilitator fosters relationships without entering the value chain

The market facilitator sees that if these actors could empathize with each other’s troubles they could work something that could benefit them all. He briefs them all on his findings and invites them all out to lunch. At the meeting, Diego agree to pre-finance inputs from Hideki’s shop for the farmers that will be taken off of the transactions after harvest as long as they promise to sell an agreed amount of produce to him.

As time goes on…

– Hideki sells more inputs thanks to Diego’s farmer loan
– The farmers produce higher quantities with their increased amount of inputs
– Diego purchases and produces much more juice than the year before and starts to outcompete Maria
– Maria hears what has happened and approaches Ayano and the remaining farmers and offers an even better deal so that they will cooperate with her instead of Diego.
– The value chain produces more and everyone’s profit margin increases after three years, although Maria’s profits actually fell after Diego’s first loans.
– The Market facilitator leaves the community having facilitated sustainable progress

This is obviously an oversimplified example of the complexities of relations between value chain actors and the work that a market facilitator must carry out but it serves to show a general overview of how market facilitations should work. It shows how market facilitation is sustainable, whereas an organization temporarily inserting itself as a value chain actor is usually unsustainable.

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A Tale of Two Villages: Kacholola, Zambia and Pense, Saskatchewan

I recently worked on a commercial scale farm in Saskatchewan for July and part of August. Having worked with a small scale farmer group in Zambia in 2008, I found the scale of farming in Saskatchewan very different, which was expected. I knew that in a more commercialized system, there was going to be a higher input (fertilizer, seed, pesticide) investment, higher yields, higher returns and a higher degree of mechanization with a lower degree of manual labour. That said, I had no idea that it was to the extent which I was about to observe.

A Technology Gap
Two years ago in Zambia, walking through the farmyard in Kacholola I would see a modest woven maize storage bin that could hold several tonnes, handmade axes, hoes and picks, backpack pesticide dispensers and some oxen. Much of the technology carefully and creatively made by hand with skill and practice and others carefully saved up for by careful management of finances with spare cash.

This summer I would walk through the farm yard in Pense gawking at dozens of full grain bins that each store tonnes of grain, several combines with half million dollar price tags, seeders and sprayers with GPS autosteer so that inputs will not be overused. It was really apparent that the technology was the biggest difference between farming in Kacholola and farming in Pense. I asked an older farmer in a pub in Regina what the most significant changes were in farming since he had first started and without pausing for a second he replied “The technology…. and it really is great!”

A farmer near High River, Canada

Two Farmers near Kacholola, Zambia


My friend and colleague Mina Shahid is working in Ghana and recently tweeted about applying herbicide to maize which took four hours to complete two acres. With the mechanized sprayer on the farm where I worked in Pense, it was possible to spray 280 acres in a single hour.

This massive gap in technological disparity is due to a complex array of reasons but the grand daddy of them all as far as I could see was Canadian farmer’s access to loans. Agricultural loans come in many forms including credit unions (which were started by farmers), government programs like the CALA program and the banking sector, after the profitability of agricultural loans presented itself.The two main causes to this disparity are differences in perceived collateral by financial institutions and the vicious cycle of conventional interst rates.

Differences in Perceived Collateral
In Pense, farmers own or rent the land that they farm. In cases where they own it, they can use it as collateral against loans for equipment or inputs. In Kacholola and the rest of Nyimba District, families farm in areas of a chiefdom that the chief has designated to them, often farmed by the same family for generations. Unfortunately, banks that follow a western model do not see this as viable collateral since the farmer doesn’t hold legal title, often despite effort from the chief to provide his subjects full access to use the land to obtain loans.

Viscous Cycle of Interest Rates
At the time of writing, the Canadian Prime interest rate was 3.00%. In Zambia agricultural interest rates to small scale farmers can be anywhere from 20 – 50% depending on the scheme. The fundametal rule with interest rates is that the higher of a perceived risk on an investment, the higher the interest rate. As a certain type of borrowers default on loans that have inappropriately high interest rates, the financial institutions grow more weary of the that type of borrower and the rate increases further, perpetuating in a viscious cycle. This lack of positive loan history to small scale sub-Saharan farmers has kept interest rates for them very high and their ability to pay loans back very low.

If you are interested in learning more about what actions are taking place in the search to resolve the dilemma’s in this post please check out the Zambia Land Alliance, who work hard to get Zambian farmers better access to land title or Rent to Own, a searcher who takes a shot at a different format to providing access to agricultural technology.

The Wheat Board
Colloquially known in many parts of the praries as a “communist scam” because there is no freedom to market one’s own crops internationally. Instead, farmers sell to the Wheat Board at prices and quantities set by the Wheat Board. The Board then does all of the bulk marketing overseas for Canadian grain. In Zambia by contrast, small scale farmers are often excellent and produce decent yields but are still desperate to find a market for their crops. Many would gladly welcome a magic elevator and railway, where you could drop your crops and recieve cash and have the entire marketing process covered.

If Keynesian economics, says that in times of economic troubles, government spending and economic interventions should occur and in times of economic prosperity governments should allow the free market to operate uninterrupted, nations are backward in their agricultural government interventions where underdeveloped agricultural economies like Zambia lack significant government marketing mechanisms and highly developed agricultural economies like Canada leave no option to escape them.

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Why Kulemela?

Kulemela is a Chinyanja word meaning “to get rich” or “to prosper” I like to use terms like Kulemela in language as opposed to terms like “poverty reduction”. The architects of Western agricultural economies did not focus on farming as a tool of “poverty reduction”. The focus was on empowering farmers with systems and technology that would have them prosper and bring food security and economic prowess to the nation or region where the farmers live.

I see no reason why we should be aiming for “poverty reduction” through agriculture and speaking as if there is a financial ceiling that we expect to hit the minute underdeveloped communities “get out of poverty”. I don’t work with colleagues to just “get people out of poverty”. I work with groups, cooperatives and firms in developing nations with the same attitude as I would with groups in the West: striving for increased prosperity to the client in a way that helps the wellbeing of the enabling community rather than hinders it.

Call it what you want “increase earnings”, “maximize returns”, “bring the bling”, “make it rain”, I say “Kulemela”!

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