Author Archive for DanielleSewell

Ghana’s Growing Pains

By any factual account, Ghana is charging into the 21st century. But if you ask a Ghanaian, he or she will say “we have a long way to go and far too many problems.” This critical self-awareness from many Ghanaians is, itself, just one of many signs that the country knows its potential and is striving toward it.

I’m writing from the bustling neighborhood of Osu, nestled in the heart of Ghana’s capital city of Accra. At first glance, one might fixate on the battered assemblies of metal that haphazardly navigate the streets, or the blue-green sewage slime carrying bags and Coke cans out to sea. On the other hand, Osu’s Oxford Street is lined with electronics stores, mom & pop print shops, banks, internet cafés, and restaurants, all teeming with activity from 7am to the wee hours of the night. And most importantly, it is not the “obrunis” (white tourists) that fill this demand, it is Ghanaians.

The numbers are there to support what I’m seeing: according to IMF statistics, Ghana is the world’s fastest growing economy in 2011. The entire West Africa region, in fact, has tracked at around 5% average growth per year for the past decade. In a recent feature article of The Economist, the message is clear: this is not a short-lived burst, this is meaningful change.

However, as my Ghanaian colleagues keep pointing out, many challenges remain. I’ve been doing a deep-dive into the food processing industry in the country. There are countless producers of shea butter, edible oils, dried fruits, and many other food products (for a first glance, check out West Africa Trade Hub’s website). For the most part, these enterprises produce on a small scale, and have trouble expanding their operations. They cite three major obstacles:

1. Getting financing for capital investments
2. Finding high-quality packaging that can compete on the supermarket shelves
3. Government policies which affect industry development

Some mentioned other challenges, including finding well-trained, globally-minded staff, and meeting the stringent requirements of export markets.

However, if one thing has come through clearly during my research, it is that Ghanaians claim full responsibility for meeting these challenges. In the past Ghana, like many African countries, has been heavily dependent on foreign aid; today, as a staff member of a packaging company told me, “if we want to make this happen, if we want to build a successful industry at home, it is not up to America or Europe or Asia to do it. It is up to us.” This mentality is perhaps best reflected in Ghana’s educational achievements. For example, reforms in the 1980s established additional schools, science centers and teacher training colleges, yet there is still record enrollment every year; girls’ enrollment alone increased 8% from 1990 to 2000. It is this growing class of educated Ghanaians that will shape the country’s future.

What does all this mean? It means we owe Ghana and many of its neighbors a big congratulations, and a little more patience. Everyone has growing pains, and at around age 50, these West African nations are still in their youth.

Brilliant ideas should be shared

Two weeks ago Eric Schmidt visited MIT, and talked about the incredible potential of technology to create a collective intelligence, a “global mind,” that can solve the world’s biggest problems.

And while modern technology giants have their proponents and detractors, last weekend’s Farm Hack epitomized this ideal of a collective intelligence that can improve our lives in a concrete, measurable way.

On November 17th, 25 farmers, scientists, designers, and agriculture enthusiasts gathered on Dorn Cox’s organic farm in New Hampshire for a design charrette. According to the wiki dictionary:

A design charrette is a method of organizing thoughts from experts and the public into a structured medium that is unrestricted and conducive to the creativity and the development of a myriad of scenarios.

We spent all day Saturday looking at the innovations Dorn had rigged on his farm, and thinking about how we could all get more creative about small-scale agriculture. Dorn had rigged a tractor to automatically install fencing; he set up a backyard biodiesel processor, so his equipment could run sustainably; he used radishes to reinvigorate his soil, avoiding the need to fertilize or over-till his fields. I watched, enthralled, as Farm Hack attendees dug into Dorn’s inventions, asking questions and “reverse engineering” his equipment so they could recreate it on their own farms.

We also discussed some high-tech innovations that could revolutionize smallholder farming. One Farm Hack attendee has been working on GardenBot, which is open-source software for, well, a robot that uses a tiny computer (called an Arduino) to help you monitor what’s happening in your garden. It can even automate your cooling and watering systems.

Farm Hack participants brainstorm new tools for small farmers, including a forum for idea- and invention-sharing

Farm Hack participants brainstorm new tools for small farmers, including a forum for idea- and invention-sharing

But this design charrette wasn’t limited to practical tips from one farmer to another. Small-scale farmers encounter obstacles every day, and often struggle to connect with a larger community that may have already solved that day’s challenge. So Farm Hack’s ultimate goal is to build a forum where farmers can access one another’s innovation in a lasting, scalable way.

In this vein, Sunday we brainstormed what farmers need to be wildly successful in their work, and how we can create a virtual community to support that. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition is now starting an open source forum where agriculture practitioners and researchers can share blueprints and inventions, or seek help and guidance for everyday challenges. This forum will help farmers build off the momentum and brains of their colleagues – down the street, or across the planet.

I think this is exactly the good stuff Eric Schmidt was talking about.