Thursday, July 29, 2010

Into the Wild

Well, it’s been almost 8 months since I first arrived in Burkina and about 4 months since my last post so I reckon it’s time for us to reconnect. Sound good? Wicked.

My last post dealt almost entirely with Engineers without Boarders’ / Ingénieures sans frontières ‘(ISF’s) strategy in Burkina Faso so I’ll delve more into the set up of my actual placement with this post. This ought to give the two people reading this blog a better understanding of the context I’ve been working in for the last 7 months.

Prelude to a Placement

Upon arrival into this beautiful hot and dusty country it was yet to be determined where exactly I would be based. ISF has continually strived to maximize its impact on the sector it chooses it work in within its partner countries. In order to do so, it has to go about conducting a fair bit of ground work. In the case of Burkina Faso and ISF’s Entrepreneuriat Rural Agricole (ERA) team, as we’re called, this involves looking at the agricultural sector, figuring out who the major players are and tallying their respective strengths and weaknesses. Also important is gauging a prospective partner’s willingness to change and their openness to constructive criticism as these aspects contribute directly to the depth of positive change we can bring about.
In Burkina, one of the players selected for partnership with ISF was the FEPA/B or Fédération des Professionnels d’Agricoles du Burkina. I reckon they were primarily selected for the fact that they are the largest farmer federation in Burkina, having adhering farmer unions established in 37 out of Burkina’s 45 provinces. They are also in the early stages of developing their CEF (Conseille d’exploitation familial) program giving ISF an opportunity to play a large role in the conception, testing and adaptation process. The CEF approach aims at instilling a business-like mindset in farmers with respect to how they go about minding their family farms. The idea is to move from subsistence farming to farming as a business. You can read more about the CEF approach in my previous post entitled “The Nitty Gritty”.

The goal of FEPA/B national federation is to provide various services (trainings, projects, access to inputs etc) to small holder farmers. To do this they are affiliated with external donors who fund projects which the FEPA/B then oversee and coordinate down through their structure from provincial unions (UPPAs) to departmental unions (UDPAs) and finally to farmer groups at the village level. The principal donors of the FEPA/B are AFDI (Agriculteurs français et développement international) and Agriterra.
ISF’s partnership with the FEPA/B is structured so that volunteers are embedded with various unions at the provincial level (UPPAs). The idea is that we diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of our respective unions, share lessons learned and work together on joint initiative projects. Generally speaking, our mandate is to improve the efficiency with which these unions operate as well as the effectiveness of the services they provide to their members. The selection process, used to decide which unions would receive an ISF volunteer involved recommendations from the FEPA/B, an onsite visit from our team co-director Florian, and a questionnaire aimed at having the union identify their own strengths, and weaknesses. Results were tallied and the final UPPAs were selected by members of the technical staff at the FEPA/B federation offices.

My Placement

Our first month on the ground is considered as “in-country” training, where among other assignments, we were given exploration projects to familiarize ourselves with the agricultural sector in Burkina. By the end of this month our partner unions were finally selected and unveiled to us. I was to be partnered with the UPPA in the south central province of Nahouri. Honestly I was stoked; I’d heard good things about this union. It had a dynamic woman president who also happens to be the vice president of the actual FEPA/B federation. The union is also located in a high productivity zone for maize and, being close to the Ghana boarder, was apparently looking into trade opportunities with markets in the Northern region. Sweet. Then I was told this union was based in a village called Youkka in the department of Ziou. Strange. Usually provincial unions are based in the provincial capital or at the very least large towns that are centrally based so as to be able to easily support departmental unions within the province. Also being based in a town usually means better access to financial and training institutions, NGOs, larger markets, and in terms of human resources, access to individuals with higher levels of education. Ok, a bit odd,
but do continue. Finally I’m told that the village the provincial union is based in doesn’t have electricity. Outstanding. When I heard this I honestly thought the team leads were just taking the piss out of me. Both Frenchmen were practically on the floor paralyzed by laughter. As it turns out, the French seem to have a perverse sense of humor. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have immediate reservations about being based in a village with no electricity for the next 11 months. Already, having to work in my second language is a challenge and a bit of a drain on efficiency. Now, having to work with limited access to electricity, in relatively harsh conditions, yet still having the same performance expectations as other APS (volunteers) was slightly alarming. Nevertheless, in the spirit of whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger,  rolling with the punches, sucking it up, building character and all that jazz, I geared up and on Christmas eve ’09 made my way down to the village of Youkka, in the department of Ziou, found in the province of Nahouri, Burkina Faso.

"Whal-lai la vie en Burkina n’est pas facile mais ca va aller!"

                                                                                            "*Et Dieu est grande*"


Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Nitty Gritty

Hey/Salut/Halla Balla! Hope everyone is doing well out there and that your 2010 is off a rocking start. I’ll get formalities out of the way and wish you the very best for the New Year. Health, prosperity and all that jazz (3 months late). This post has been a long time coming. Sorry for the delay, I swear it has nothing to do with me procrastinating and everything to do to my access to electricity or the lack there of. That’s the story and I’m sticking to it.

As promised, here’s all the dirt on what EWB is up to in Burkina’s agric sector  (Note: this post may be a bit dry and lacking in my typically incredible wit, but I urge you to read on, it gets better I promise. Make your mother proud. Plus, I’ve added a few wicked drawings for your viewing pleasure)

Right on, let’s get cracking:

Agriculture in Burkina Faso – In Brief:

Here’s a quick rundown of the Agric sector in Burkina Faso and EWB’s place in it:

In 1991 the IMF (International Monetary Fund) introduced a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) in Burkina. The aim of the SAP was to reduce poverty through macro-economic solutions. To do this they recommended the following:

•    Burkina to devaluate its currency, which would in theory increase its exports
•    Burkina to liberalize its markets
•    Burkina’s government to disengage from the agricultural sector

The disengagement of the government from certain parts of the agricultural sector gave rise to agricultural federations which are very much in action today. These federations play a role similar to a Ministry of Agriculture in terms of technical support provided to its provincial and departmental level branches or “unions”.  These federations are EWB’s primary impact points in Burkina Faso’s agricultural sector. EWB volunteers (or APS:  African Programs Staff as we’re now called) are embedded within these federations either at national or provincial levels. The scope of our work with the federations is primarily based on capacity reinforcement of groups and individuals on a variety of technical and organizational topics. Our
team currently works with three federations:

•    FEPA/B: Fédération des Professionnels Agricoles / Burkina Faso (I’m embedded with this federation at    the provincial level)
•    FNGN:  Fédération Nationale des Groupements Naam
•    UGCPA/BM: L’Union des Groupements pour la Commercialisation des Produits Agricoles de la Boucle du Mouhoun

The general focus is to shift farming attitudes in Burkina from subsistence (farming to live) to entrepreneurial (farming as business). One of the key elements in enabling this shift is the CEF (Conseil à l’Exploitation Familiale - Family Farm Counseling) service offered to farmers by federations through their provincial and departmental unions. The basic principles of CEF services are:

•    A comprehensive approach to running a family farm as a business. This means farmers are thought to consider not only technical, but also social and economic issues when managing their farm.            
•    Long term learning support and visioning on a variety of topics in the aim of achieving diverse and sustainable goals (namely financial autonomy)
•    Decision making that prioritizes the health of the family and the durability of the family farming business
•    Teaching methods (training sessions, exchanges between farmers) and decision support (technical and economic analysis) that values writing and calculation based on existing management tools
•    The use of existing networks in rural communities for exchanging technical knowledge between farmers
•    Open to others, especially women in the family, for the management of farm and family resources.
•    Inspires curiosity and innovation

Basically, if you were to summarize it, the CEF service doesn’t only give farmers the “Savoire Faire” (how to do) but also the “Savoire Etre” (how to be). It aims at changing their mindset from farmer to farmer – entrepreneur; from a family farm, to a family business. It’s like an MBA for farmers (..well, kind of).

Before we go on I figure it’s best to lay out the structure and make-up of a typical farmer organization at the federation and union level to get you familiarized with the nomenclature. 

Note that Farmers Unions can be broken up into provincial unions which can be further dissected into departmental unions and finally farmer groups that operate at a local village level. All are members of and supported by the federation at the national level. Here’s my lame attempt at a drawing to represent this:

The following lame drawing aims to represent the organizational hierarchy specific to my placement with the FEPA/B:

UPPA - Union Provinciale des Professionnels Agricoles   (Provincial Union of Agricultural Professionals)
UDPA - Union Départemental des Professionnels Agricoles (Departmental Union of Agricultural Professionals)

If a picture is worth a thousand words then a “smart art” drawing by our resident artist Noémie Paradis is worth like a bazillion. (Merci Noémie, la glace délicieuse vous attendra à Danny Ice au prochain RM!) Here’s a breakdown of a farmer organization at the federation and union levels:

President: Pretty self explanatory, ou bien? The fat cat in charge of overseeing operations, having a vision for the organization and leading the organization towards that vision.
Representatives: The executive board of the farmer organization. This includes all the usual suspects: Vise-President, Secretary, Vise Secretary, Treasurer, Vise-Treasurer Program Coordinator etc..
Field Agents: Most technical support provided by the union to individual farmers or farmer groups are carried out by these agents and as such, the reinforcement of their capacities is an important part of our strategy. Notably all CEF services are provided through field agents so the evolution of their skills has a clear and immediate impact on the quality and effectiveness of the CEF approach.
Field Agent Manager: Situated at the provincial level, the field agent manager will regularly supervise, monitor and evaluate the performance of field agents operating at the departmental level. His reports are sent to the technical staff at the national federation level who can then identify improvements and innovations to their field staff training programs.   
Reaseau Gestion (Management Network): This is group of representatives from several different farmer federations that convene to share best practices and exchange information and ideas regarding changes and developments in Burkina’s agricultural sector.
Also worth noting is that interactions with the government, NGOs, financial institutions, markets and the private sector can take place not only at the federation level but also at the union level. Hence, provincial and departmental unions have the opportunity to innovate on their own and are not totally dependent on support from their federation. This decentralization means unions can take the initiative to set up various projects or revenue generating activities without relying on higher powers. This means going out and interacting with all those players with the ultimate goal of having a completely autonomous union. Seeing as how I work at the union level I get to play a significant part in this innovation process which, I reckon, is pretty damn WICKED!
EWBs – ERA   (Entrepreneuriat Rural Agricole) Strategy
Our strategy in the Burkina’s agric sector can be broken up into three different yet interrelated streams. Essentially we’re looking to impact three groups of players to bring about the systemic change that will lead to increased economic growth through agricultural activities. 

•    Farmer Organizations
•    The Government
•    Financial Backers

Here’s a quick overview of the change we want to bring about with each group and the proposed action plan to make it happen!
Farmer Organizations (Farmers Federations, Farmers Unions, Farmer Groups etc.)
What we want to see:

1.    Farmer organizations have the ability to create and put in place their own programs that are pertinent, efficient and best support the needs of their members (smallholder famers). Note: Programs can be anything from technical training courses (eg. Cultivation of Mais) to revenue generating activities (eg. Growing and selling of improved certified seeds) 
2.    Farmer organizations have the ability to monitor these programs, evaluate their impact and make the necessary innovations so that they continually evolve to match the needs of their members

Action Plan:
•    Creation of a practical CEF guide that will increase the quality of the service by sharing best – practices and experiences between farmer organizations
•   Capacity reinforcement of CEF animators (field agents) with respect to communication, reporting, planning and innovation to ensure the quality of the CEF services offered to farmers
•    Capacity reinforcement of farmer organization leaders with respect to their management and innovation skills to ensure the proper evolution of CEF programs as well as other programs that respond to the needs of farmer group members
•    Investment in the leadership of the young Burkinabes, so that new resources in management can be invested in rural development
•    Innovation in financial services and services providing access to the inputs (fertilizer, high quality seeds etc.) offered by farmer organization. The aim is to streamline these services so that they yield higher profits.
•   The harmonization of monitoring and evaluation of farmer organizations to allow for a prioritization of activities based on effectiveness


(Now I know I mention that the government had to disengage from certain areas of the agricultural sector with the advent of the fated SAP program. They have now however, in the past few years, started to re-merge and have already caused a bit of damage with possible dangerous implications to come in the future)

What we want to see:

1.    A sharing of responsibilities in supporting the agricultural sector between the government and the existing farmer organizations of Burkina Faso. (This is highly important so that the government and federations don’t work against each other which would obviously have disastrous consequences)
2.    Valorization of experience gained by farmer organizations over the past two decades. For example, using the CEF guide as a base for agricultural counseling in Burkina Faso. (Again, this is important so that the government doesn’t start from scratch and repeat the same errors made by farmer organization during the learning process)    
Action Plan :
•    Creation of a practical CEF guide which will set a standard of quality for all agricultural counseling services offered (either by the government or farmer organizations)
•    An impact study of all activities carried out by the 5 famer federations of Burkina Faso. A valorization of these impact studies in the form of articles that can be presented at national and international conferences on agricultural counseling
•    Pushing for higher inclusion of the expertise gained by farmer organizations for use in governmental approaches and implementation of agricultural services
•    Active sharing of all knowledge and skills related to CEF services between farmer organizations and the government

Financial Backers:

What we want to see:

1.    Financial backers finance local organizations based on their performance on the ground as well as the effectiveness and the relevance of the services they provide to the agricultural sector
2.    Financial backers prioritizing investment in the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the local organizations rather than the implementation of ambitious action plans that are outside the capabilities of these organizations

Action Plan:

-    Documentation of “best practices” with respect to capacity reinforcement of farmer organizations that can be shared with and used by financial backers
-    Innovation in the relationship between financial backers and farmer organizations which employ better skills and tools in monitoring of results so as to incite new types of financing programs – l reckon you call this “results based financing”
-    Documentation which promotes and advises on the need for capacity reinforcement in farmer organizations as opposed to ambitious external projects    
My placement:
As you may have seen from my DaVinci-esq smart art drawing, my placement is with the FEPA/B federation working in the south central (represent!) province of Nahouri. I’m based with a “provincial” union (“UPPA/N”) in a small village called Ziou. So in terms of our strategy I’m working in the farmer organization stream. That said, if I play my cards right I can have an impact on the government and financial backer streams of our strategy. Time will tell. I’ll delve deeper into the life and times of my placement in the next posting, which hopefully will be out in less than 3 months. What I can say is that so far, my placement has been pretty tough, physically, emotionally, professionally and personally. I feel like I’ve been slapped/punched/kicked in the face/head/gut several times, figuratively speaking of course (well, mostly).  But whatever, according to my dad it builds character (frankly I feel like I’ve got enough character, I don’t see why I need more - just sayin’). Anyhow, I’m making it through with support from good friends, a great team and some type of perpetual motivation machine that luckily, seems ingrained in me.
No worries.
Right on, hope this gives you a better understanding what my team and I are trying to accomplish out here. If you’ve got questions or need elaboration / clarification let me know. I promise the next post will be a lot juicier.

And say hi to your mother for me ok? You’ve made her proud.

Hello Moto!

Being out in the wild has some advantages. Namely beautiful scenery sliced by red dirt roads that I now get to rock on my new moto! Almost all means of personal transport out here is found on two wheels.  It’s no substitute for the DH bike but it does mean I can rock up to the closest village with electricity (22 clicks) and get some work done. So without further ado, here she is for your viewing pleasure:

I call her “The Black Volta”. Nothing fancy: 125cc, single cylinder 4-stroke air cooled engine. She’s made in China which means by the time you read this I’ll have rebuilt the engine twice and swapped out the primary at least once. I’m told, with rigorous maintenance the Black Volta will maybe last 3 years. That said, I have rocked a few major road trips. My first ever was 210km from my village in the south right up to the capital Ouagadougou. It was pretty wicked, met French girls and saw elephants!

Unfortunately Burkina is flooded with cheaply made Chinese products from bottle openers to cell phones. Depending on the product, the expected life span can be limited from one month to one use. They call it “Le Chinoiserie”. On one hand, it gives Burkinabés access to a variety of semi-essential products at very affordable prices. On the other hand, it stifles African innovation and destroys any entrepreneurial spirit that could have lead to locally made products of higher quality.

Just my 2 FCFA.    


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merry Xmas

I'll start off by apologizing for this quick and easy post but my limited access to electricity and internet sort of dictates it's necessity.

Just got back from Christmas mass here in the small village of Ziou in southern Burkina Faso.  There was more dancing and singing than preaching and even the preaching was so animated it was entertaining  (despite me not understanding a single word of it). Anyhow, it was pretty wicked to watch how a small community, in a remote corner of the world, celebrates Christmas.  Here’s hoping that you're  in good health and surrounded by friends and family in whichever corner of the world this message may find you.

A huge "Happy Holidays/ Merry Christmas!!" shout out to you from West Africa!


P.S. Someone seriously needs to send me some eggnog. The rum's been taken care of…

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ready to Rock

Hello and welcome/ bienvenue/ velkommen to the development diaries; thanks for checking it out! Three years in the making and I’m finally overseas with Engineers without Boarders as a long term volunteer. I’m presently undergoing my month long in-country orientation as I gear up to start my placement with a partner organization at the beginning of January. Over the next year or so I’ll be sharing my life, both professional and personal as I work and live in beautiful Burkina Faso, West Africa. 

Looking back the last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind. After two amazing years living it up in Norway, I had to bid farewell to my troll-loving Aquavit-drinking friends, pack up my few worldly belongings and set sail back to Canada. Once in Montreal I had a few days to spend with friends, have a few drinks, play a little poker, shake some hands, kiss some babies and piss off the folks. Before I knew it, it was time to pack up again, this time I was heading to that God forsaken hole in the ground commonly referred to as Toronto. Spent a month undergoing an intensive learning experience, drank a lot of whiskey, slept very little and met some truly amazing people who I miss already. Finally it was off to West Africa, more specifically Ouagadougou, Brukina Faso where I find myself presently, waiting for the dust to settle, writing this under a Karite tree.

From late October to late November, myself and five pretty amazing and “awkward” kids were put

through the ringer, also know as EWB’s pre-departure training. Led by our fearless yoga-bashing truck-loving teacher, Robin, we were bombarded with case studies, project presentations, frameworks, personal development plans, frameworks, a behaviour change project and more frameworks. It was pretty daunting at times, but with a little team support, invaluable coaching from Robin and a hell of a lot of scotch we all seemed to make it through just fine, albeit a little tipsy. The purpose of this intense month of training was to expose us to the tool-kits and critical thinking we’re going to need as effective change agents during our time overseas. A lot of it was new to me and although it could have felt overwhelming at times, we were given plenty of opportunities to apply what we learned in the form of assignments and mock role playing.  The challenge now is to valorize and internalize it so as to apply it to real world Africa that’s about to step up and smack us in the face.


Touched down into hot and humid Accra, Ghana, had a nights rest and then started the laborious trek north to the Burkina border and on into the capital city of Ouagadougou. Two days and several taxi, trotro and bus rides later I finally arrived, dirty, hungry, exhausted but excited.

The next few days I met up Florian as well as power couple Boris and Alanna, and the rest of the team. Florian and Boris are pretty wicked dudes, which is surprising considering they’re both French (Quoi? Je rigole!). Florian will be acting as my coach, manager and drinking buddy during the next year or so. He was the team lead for EWB’s water and sanitation sector and now, luckily for us, has brought his considerable talents over to the agric side. Boris shares the team leadership and drinking buddy roles with Florian and has been working in the Burkina agric field with EWB since 2007. As such, he’s got an impressive wealth of knowledge concerning the sector, our strategy and the major players involved. Alanna is ex-EWB and now works as a teacher at an international school in Ouagadougou. She had invaluable tips on what not to eat, where not to eat, a few precautionary practices to avoid getting malaria and what to do when I inevitably do get malaria…because you know there’s a mosquito out there somewhere just waiting to stick it to the white man (Yeah, that’s right, I’m considered a white man over here, get over it). Rounding out the group are all-stars Etienne, Rosanne, Charles and Naomi who, after first impressions, all seem quite lovely. Also joining the team last week was Nasser Zongo, a local Burkinabè volunteer who we’re very excited to have on board.

First Impressions

Ouagadougou is bustling, with hundreds of motorbikes, scooters and cycles rallying for road space against their four wheeled counterparts. It both excites and worries me as I know I’ll soon be part of that two and four wheeled helter skelter, I only hope I don’t end up gutter-bound road kill (No worries mom!). Despite the chaotic traffic, there seems to be a higher degree of efficiency and organization here when compared to my experience last December in Tamale, Ghana. Busses tend to leave on time, meetings seem to start on time and the whole city is divided up into an aesthetically pleasing grid pattern. A jaunt through the main market, Le Grand Marché, and you’ll notice that vendors are neatly divided up into sections: the arts, clothes, electronics, food etc.  This may just be speculation, but I reckon the Frenchmen dig their frameworks! The French influence also extends to food in the form of mouth watering pastries and the smell of fresh baguettes cutting its way through all the exhaust.

For the last week and a half I’ve been staying at “Le Centre National Cardinal Paul Zoungrana”- we

call it “Chez Zoun” for short – which is a bit of a sanctuary from the noise and smog of Ouagadougou. It’s part of the Catholic Diocese and was originally built for religious retreats and ceremonies but is also open to social groups and NGOs. As far as I’m concerned it’s absolute luxury. Imagine a compound set in an orchard with blocks of concrete rooms littered about. Each block has about 6 private rooms with a communal WC. My room has electricity, a ceiling fan, bed, desk and its own shower and sink. Oh yeah, and the tap water is drinkable (what the what?!). Anyhow, trying not to get too used to this as I’m sure my actual living quarters will be quite different.

All the Burkinabès I’ve met so far seem quite open, friendly and honest, which comes as no surprise seeing as how I’m in “the land of upright people”! As I’ve been in the same area for the last few days, I’ve managed to build a few relationships although they’re still quite superficial. I’ve made a few friends like the two girls who run a little resto kiosk and “Le Docteur de faim” who happens to make the best burgers ever! There’s also the security guard who gave me a detailed recount of Burkina’s political history and a few merchants along rue Babanguida who now call me by my proper name instead of “Le Blanc”. Well, you have to start somewhere. In an attempt to get to know the people and understand the culture better, I’ve taken to wishing good day/evening/night to everyone I happen to make eye contact with. It seems to solicit some enthusiastic banter so I reckon I’ll keep it going. I’m also struggling with the Burkinabè French accent so the more conversation there is, the easier it becomes. Ou bien? 

Business Time!

It hasn’t been all fun and games. The past week and a half has involved a lot of sector learning as well as an in depth look at the agric team’s strategy for the next two to three years.

Sector learning is key as it involves identifying which companies, organizations and NGOs are involved in Bukina’s agricultural operations. It’s a foreign environment for me, so to find my bearings, I’m working on a stakeholder analysis which will define the players and their respective roles. I’ll also be gauging their contribution, impact, influence, mindset, expectations, motivations and incentives related to EWB’s strategy.

Understanding EWB’s strategy in Burkina’s agric sector will enable me to better position myself within my partner organization. This in turn will make for a more effective working relationship and efficient use of resources leading, hopefully, to big-time impact! To accomplish this, I’m working on a “What needs to happen” study. It will define the current state of the sector and a step by step, year by year accounting of the associated activities, risks, resources and milestones needed to advance the strategy.

Pretty wicked eh?!  So I know you’re on the edge of your seat right now, wondering what exactly the agric strategy is, who the major players are and what precisely our projected effect will be on the sector. Well, in the spirit of “always leave them wanting more” I’ll quit now and dive into the nitty gritty of it all in my next post. Hopefully by then I’ll know who my partner organization is and where in Burkina I’ll be setting up shop.

Make sure to stay tuned! Until then, stay classy!