TEM Lab: Ghana – GlobalResolve
June 25, 2011: Accra, Ghana
It is 8 am and I realize today is my last day in Ghana. I am not sure when I will get another opportunity to visit this part of the world. Sipping hot chocolate and looking out over the roofs and mushrooming cell towers of Kumasi, I recall my mission for this trip to Ghana in the first place. I’m here in Ghana as a consultant to rollout a business plan to set up a production facility for Gelled Ethanol as a cooking fuel substituting the venomous charcoal that kills scores of women and children through its smoke every year. I was passionate about this project as it empowers women within their territory to lead a better life in a smokeless environment that will facilitate in upbringing her children in a pollution free environment. I must admit that the nature of this idea teased me to launch a venture. When I look back I realize that more than what I offered to this society, I learned from them the challenges and hindrances that can derail the best of innovations in a developing economy. Before I came on this trip I could empathize with the social, cultural and business landscapes in emerging and developed economies. But, this trip made me get my hands dirty and showed me a thing or two about doing business in a developing market.
Without any slightest doubts in my mind, I feel that Bio fuels are going to be buzzword in Ghana in the coming years. From all the side trips I noticed there are several acres of untapped vegetation that has produce and yields of diversified crops that could be used as a feedstock in producing bio fuels. I’m sure organizations are already fostering ideation catering lean thinking to deploy a viable solution that will source affordable bio-fuels to Ghanaians. As a developing economy, the Ghanaian market will be categorized as a high volume-low margin cluster. Any consumer product that hits the Ghanaian turf will have a better reception if sold in smaller units with an affordable price. The biggest consumer base is the bottom of the pyramid. As per Maslow’s pyramid, a significant percentage of the population is still within Physiological and Safety needs, but has a deep sense and urgency to grow up the hierarchy. Though bio-fuels will be much more welcomed by women, it is still the men who hold the final say in switching to eco-friendly fuel. As i recall the many small chats that i had with people in rural and urban regions, I learned that men do resonate a value in bio fuels if the price is cheaper and women appreciate the same if something is good for their health.
In addition to learning about the buying habits of this consumer market, my side talks with the women also revealed another not so nice reminder about some of the realities of Ghana being a male dominated society. The dominance of men over women at times results in domestic violence. These side talks in Ghana convinced me that launching a product in developing world has to be dealt with in a totally different way. Even if it is a simple or a sophisticated innovation, there is going to be a longer gestation period before the product is embraced by various sections of communities.
Thinking about these issues and seeing the needs, I was torn between the ideas of me becoming an entrepreneur or should I continue as a consultant for this forthcoming business opportunity. So, as we often do as consultants, I tried to put myself in the eyes of the businessmen who would eventually take this idea to market and the consumer who would buy my product.
If I have to become an entrepreneur in Ghana and setup my own little facility to produce bio fuel, I bet that the amount of patience, tolerance and persistence would need to be abundant within me. More than the conventional challenges, I might experience more of the unconventional challenges. I will think of competing bio fuel with charcoal in terms of price, but in reality the competition will often be about weight or volume. Well, what is so different if it is weight or volume? Well, I see an average person paying merely pesewas (cents) for the amount of charcoal that he/she can scoop with both of his/her hands. Sometimes people fill a polyethylene bag with charcoal and pay a small price. Hmm!! I have to be thinking out of the box to ensure i make a sale with tiny little margin. When I think of transportation, there are decent roads in Ghana; however, given the nature of the environment, my truck can breakdown on a highway for maybe days before it reaches the destination. Roadside assistance is still being integrated with the infrastructure, and until that happens I have to run a few contingencies. When I think of other aspects of the supply chain, I might strike a deal with a supplier of raw materials and enter into a contracted agreement, however during the course of time the supplier can change his mind for a better economy and my contract will become void with little potential recourse. I might create a larger pool of customers, and at the same time I run the risk of building a big pile of account receivables. These kinds of trivial hindrances if not rightly dealt up front can often manifest into a much bigger problem that will create tremors in my business. To thoroughly embrace the overall landscape of a developing economy I re-iterate to myself besides the technical skills and business acumen, I should cultivate patience, tolerance and persistence. ,
As I replenish my hot chocolate, I switch from an entrepreneur hat into a consultant one and try to see how the landscape is from the lens of a business advisor. Wow, I can think of quite a few items. Again these are not conventional challenges but unorthodox ones (at least from a Westerner view). Though bio fuel has footprints in Ghana, yet the production costs are still on a higher side and seemingly attracting external consultants to make a process optimization pitch. As a consultant I have an advantage to advice about this industry; however, there isn’t authentic printed information about the region for me to champion a business process. In an emerging or developed economy, the challenge is to funnel the information into a business process and I learned here in Ghana that gathering reliable sources of information can be at times demanding. Once I get past that stage and build a business process, the next hurdle will be to lead the entrepreneur to establish the process and implement the business strategies. And in the process a consultant turns into a surrogate manager to ensure the sustainability is created. The consultant will probably have to hand-hold the entrepreneur until the organization reaches a vantage point. As bio fuels are yet to stabilize in the region, the other challenge that I foresee in this model is to create and nurture a knowledge management within the organization. Last but not least, I’m afraid that after I detach myself from this engagement, I strongly sense a feeling that the processes and values that i created could collapse, given the fact that environment is still developing and will need a pillar of support for extended period of time. I do convince myself that these kinds of challenges are not very common in developed economies but are very prominent in developing economies.
Well, It is 0830 AM there goes my last sip of my hot chocolate and as i look beyond those buildings and towers into the clouds I can for sure vouch that I started to understand the dynamics of a developing economy from both an entrepreneur and consultant’s standpoint. This trip to Ghana has certainly opened for me avenues of thoughts that will be put to test in the coming years. The key take away for me from this trip is that for manufacturing a competitive bio fuel in developing economies the business strategy is “Supplies, Manufacturing and Target market encapsulated within a localized region with minimum transportation”. I’m very convinced that Ghana has all the elements to create a bio fuel industry and transform itself into an emerging economy and all it requires is deeply committed entrepreneurs coupled with qualified consultants. As I get ready to pack my bags and leave for the airport, I want to take a moment to thank the KNUST guest house (Kumasi) staff for showering us with Ghanaian hospitality and making this trip very memorable. I thank all the readers for following my blog and am looking forward to your comments. Until I blog next time, here I’m signing off and “Midassi” or goodbye from Ghana!!!
By: Aaron Ohms
Wednesday June 22, 2011: Kumasi, Ghana
It is hard to believe that our time in Ghana, working on this gel fuel project, is coming to an end. I find myself reflecting on what we have accomplished. Having a consulting background, I am reminiscing about the skills I have utilized here and where I learned those skills in the past. The location and scenery have changed but I see now the similarities and differences between this client engagement and my previous client engagements when I was working in the private sector. The only thing that is different is there are no $100 million ERP systems to implement. Instead, those are replaced by cook stoves and feasibility studies at a grass-roots level.
Having been an IT consultant for a large multinational company, I can see the similarities to what I am doing on this consulting project in Africa and how those skills have helped me succeed here.
The first similarity relates back to project methodology. Sure, the terminology is different; yet, it is the same preparation and mindset of how you go about managing a complex project such as this. You start with building a high-performing team that has various drives and motivation. Throughout this project our team had each other’s back and we were there for one another when times got tough. Then you shift to building a framework under which the project will operate and the specific tasks and assignments that go along with it. It is important to hold work sessions and interviews with the client and other stakeholders early on to understand the scope and business requirements necessary. Once you get these, you hit the testing phase, more or less, where you begin to realize if your framework and assumptions make sense. You try to work out the kinks and make adjustments where you can; however, there is a time constraint and sometimes the most effective decision is to continue moving forward in order to deliver high impact client value. When these facets come together, it is time to deploy your recommendations to the client and “hand over the steering wheel”, so to speak. This is a true test of grit to see if what your team has done actually makes sense and pays off for the client in the long run.
The challenge on this project has been working with multiple clients and managing expectations in a complementary and appropriate manner. Sometimes you need to go slow to go fast and keep in mind that we do not have all the answers. Ghana is an unknown environment to me. I had no clue what to expect, nor did I want to plan too much. The key here is to remain flexible [see Debra's blog on flexibility], just like in any other position in life; that is our greatest asset- flexibility. Along with this foreign location comes a new culture and language style that we have to adapt to. I have worked in China before on an enterprise implementation project but I have never been to West Africa, let alone, this type of developing country. I was continually reminded of the challenges this country faces, and the fact they will still remain when I return home. The thing that kept me going and what I had to focus on were the skills I learned as a consultant; that was key because that is what would help me, and the team, the most on this client engagement. Ghana is truly an emerging market and developing nation. It was not without its frustrations, but I did come away with an understanding of where they are coming from. That is what happens when you are living in a location for more than just a week. I think that is the best quality of TEM Lab; putting you in this position to find your way out while solving a complex social issue at the same time. It’s intriguing, it’s enlightening, and it’s exciting.
This experiential learning concept that we engulf ourselves in is one to be reckoned with. This has been more challenging and rewarding than I could have imagined and I challenge someone to find me another project like this, working with a team in an emerging market, where what you think you know is obsolete. It comes down to instincts; you say to yourself, “what would I do if I were in [the client’s] position?” I have seen things here that I never thought would work in a million years, but it turns out they do. You will have to see for yourself to believe it. I leave you with this: Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. In the words of my running friends –finish hard Ghana.
By: Aaron Ohms
Friday June 17, 2011: Kumasi and Accra, Ghana
What is synergy? What does it mean? To me, it means multiple points that complement one another coming together and to create a common working entity. How we get to this point is the tricky part. One way I do this is B.R.T; also referred to as building relationships and trust. Don’t worry, this acronym will catch on soon enough; just you wait. Let me explain how the team did that and where we are at this point.
When we started this project we did not know what to expect. The only thing certain was the uncertain. After four weeks in Ghana, meeting with all of the stakeholders and a variety of other valuable acquaintances, I think we are starting to see synergy come together. It is really bridging that gap of connecting people so they may work together. The team has a good understanding of what needs to happen and who needs to do what moving forward to make gel fuel and this project a success.
For example, just this past week, my colleague and I went to Accra where we were able to hold important meetings and introductions. One was with the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre or GIPC. Using this tool of B.R.T, we laid a foundation for this relationship moving forward. GIPC would be a key knowledge resource as we develop this market for gel fuel. Additionally, we also visited one of my colleague’s personal favorites, Blue Skies Juice Company. Seriously though, he is obsessed; everywhere we go, “do you have Blue Skies?” Response: “No”. This goes on and on; I think my colleague needs to work on his success rate. Anyways, I digress (which I forgot to do in the last blog, my apologies), back to the Blue Skies meeting. The premise of the meeting and company tour is the idea that the project may be able to use excess waste of pineapple and mango from the Blue Skies factory to help produce the ethanol in the still. This was a fantastic company visit, complete with an assembly line tour and a drive to their waste site (very important). We also were able to meet the CEO of Blue Skies by his request, upon from his prompt return from London. Of course, this information was brought to our attention on short notice, so I made my colleague and myself by a tie and shirt from the street market in Accra. We needed to roll in with style.
It was not until we arrived at Blue Skies and met the CEO and other managers, that we realized a tie was not needed. It is a very flat organization, where everyone collaborated and worked together. I was surprised and pleased by this at the same time, and was extremely impressed by the man himself that ran the show; he was already able to create that synergy. Before we could even finish our pitch and explanation of the project, Blue Skies had offered to help in any way possible regarding utilizing their waste for out ethanol purposes. The CEO expressed, “Hey, why not take a risk? You are helping the local community, we want to help you.” I attribute that to B.R.T. This is the first step in that synergy and long-lasting relationship. I strongly feel that Blue Skies could be a strategic partner for this project moving forward. At the least, to see how you run a successful and sustainable company that benefits the local Ghanaian community directly. Point taken my friend, lesson learned.
Bye for now,
By: Debra Wheat
June 12, 2011: Elmina, Ghana
I have been trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to learn some of the local language. It has been harder than normal for me to pick up. I think it is partly because it is so far from any of the other languages I speak, partly because the majority of my time is spent with my team of fellow English speakers, and partly because Twi is only one of many languages spoken throughout Ghana.
Whenever I feel like I have mastered a few phrases and try to put them to the test outside of our Kumasi bubble my efforts are often met with blank stares—typically followed by smiles and giggles (the universal unspoken version of thank you for trying but my dear white girl we have no idea what you are saying to us.) I guess it comes as no surprise given the myriad of dialects and languages permeating the country, but it still frustrates me that I have been here for almost a month and am hardly able to say hello.
It continues to intrigue me to think about how such a small country (about the size of Oregon—which is about two times the size of Pennsylvania for my fellow East Coasters) has been able to retain so many languages. English is the country’s official language, but Ethnologue lists a total of 79 languages, and once you leave the main cities, the less and less English you find. Native Ghanaian languages are divided into two main linguistic families and depending on how far removed you are from a city, even locals may not be able to understand each other. Many of the people we have met so far speak enough of at least a handful of languages to get by, but definitely not enough to truly communicate if they find themselves alone in a rural region far from home.
In addition to piquing my curiosity as a natural lover of language, learning about Ghana’s linguistic legacies serves to remind me yet again of how complicated this country’s history really is and how little I am capable of understanding (literally and figuratively) about the subtle legacies of colonialism, corruption, and compassion hidden in so many corners of this coastal land.
My attempts to speak the little Twi I have picked up were mostly futile this past weekend when we traveled to Elmina, located on Ghana’s Atlantic coast, where they speak Fanti, not Twi like I have been trying to learn in Kumasi.
As I waded through the small fishing village of Elmina my attempts to converse in the local language were again met with giggles and smiles and the occasional helpful gesture. At one roadside stand where a young boy was selling crabs (that looked suspiciously like Maryland Blue Crabs), I met an American woman struggling to ask a question presumably about the origin of the crabs or price of bananas. We struck up an instant kinship as we laughed about being blue crab snobs and bonded over our inability to communicate with our young salesman. We overpaid for our bananas and went on our way. And, as is often the case among travelers, especially in the more touristy areas of a country, our paths crossed again later that day inside the Elmina Slave Castle.
A stately behemoth that could have easily been just another citadel built for protection or vanity had we been on any other continent. With its enormous white walls, red-tile roof, palm tree lined exterior, and backdrop of crashing waves it could easily be confused for a Mediterranean resort. But, instead Elmina Castle is one of 20 buildings running along the Ghanaian coast that housed African captives before they were shipped off in shackles to the New World. A beautiful building serenely holding the secrets of such an ugly past…
My new friend and I reminisced about the events of that morning and smiled our way through the normal pleasantries, but quickly turned to more substantial topics as we wandered through the castle’s only stand alone building. Built by the Portuguese as a church, used by the Dutch as a storage room, and then by the English as a school, it is only fitting that in its fourth iteration it has become the slave castle’s museum. As we looked at decaying photos of the site’s turbulent and dynamic history our conversation seemed to pace back and forth between the rise and fall of the various empires and the rise and fall of languages. Stopping here and there to ponder how the two histories (of language and power) were so inexplicitly linked.
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By: Nick Davis
June 15, 2011: Accra, Ghana
You hear a lot of talk these days in both business and nonprofit circles about tracking “multiple bottom-lines”. This trend comes from a growing recognition that net profit – the proverbial “bottom line” – is by itself an insufficient measure of the true value an enterprise has to all its stakeholders, and that a business’s stakeholder group includes more than just its shareholders and employees. Therefore, “good” business – as opposed to both “bad” business and “evil” business – needs to be conscious of the impact that it has on the lives and the livelihoods of all the people its activities touch upon so as to maximize both its economic and social bottom-lines.
The potential business whose feasibility we have come to evaluate is envisioned by our clients to become a social enterprise – i.e., a business that is aware of its economic and social impact on the broader community in which it operates. This requires careful, circumspect business planning and an awareness of the issues facing the businesses potential stakeholders. One of these issues – which has recently surfaced as a common buzzword in international development circles – is that of food security.
The link between biofuels – like this gel ethanol we’re working with – and food security in developing countries – like this place we’re working in – is one that has been widely studied and commented on. With so much of the world living in poverty and so many people going to bed hungry every night, does it really make sense to take what could be turned into a nice meal and use it to fuel your car? The sharp rise in food prices in recent years has been widely blamed on the biofuel boom: food prices suddenly had to compete with fuel prices in order to attract the attention of farmers. In poor households, where food constitutes a much larger percentage of the weekly budget, the price spike was an especially painful one. In terms of our project, then, what’s the point of lighting up a stove if it’s fueled by the very food you otherwise would have cooked on it?
In order to ensure the maximum social value of this potential ethanol business, we of course need to be asking ourselves how this project, if implemented, might impact food security in Ghana. A definitive answer to this question is beyond the scope of our assignment, but it is an important one to keep in mind as we formulate the final recommendations to our client. Our client has of course already considered this question at least to some extent. For example, cassava, a starchy tuber, is a staple crop throughout West Africa and is apparently a very viable feedstock for ethanol production. It is, however, also a key ingredient in Ghanaian cuisine, used to make banku, fufu and gari, and is therefore not a source of feedstock that our client is particularly keen to consider.
So what feedstock would provide the greatest social benefit? Even other crops, such as sugarcane, which are not staple foods, may still use up farmland that would otherwise be put to use producing more essential food crops, like rice. The pros of creating a market for farmers who might supply an ethanol plant with its feedstock must be weighed against the cons of repurposing land and labor that might have gone to other, perhaps more productive or essential uses. Alternatively, instead of producing new crops for the sole purpose of generating ethanol feedstock, we could look to piggy-back off of industries that create useful byproducts: Ghana’s thriving cocoa, cashew and fruit juice industries all produce waste that could theoretically be fermented and distilled to create ethanol. But each of these options comes with a number of other drawbacks: low yield, seasonality, or the risk of depending upon other businesses’ performance. Perhaps, in the end, some mixture of all of the above will prove the most viable.
Now keep in mind that food security is only one of the ways this kind of enterprise might affect its stakeholders. When you start looking at things like deforestation, climate change, education, health, i.e., all of the other potential social impacts a business can have, it becomes clear that while setting up a basic, profit-driven business can be pretty complicated, setting up a social enterprise is exponentially more so.
June 14, 2011: Kumasi, Ghana
I have spent over 3 weeks now in Ghana. I have been able to travel; meet few people; and have begun to look through their eyes at the dreams and vision they have for Ghana’s future. I got the opportunity to meet individuals from the banking sector, educational institutions, entrepreneurs, small businessmen, street vendors, house wives, children, students and last but not least a former bureaucrat. Most of them shared a common viewpoint: they are all eager to contribute to transform Ghana from a developing economy to an emerging economy. This ideology was very apparent from their thought process and inquisitiveness about developments happening around other emerging economies. As i tried to share my opinion about other emerging economies, i could see them emulating these examples in their head as they thought about a future Ghana. As I was interacting with people from diverse economies of scale, I tried to get their perspectives about the cooking habits and also get their opinion on using alternate sources of cooking fuel.
The road trip from Accra to Kumasi offered me various insights about the prevailing conditions in the rural part of the country. First and foremost, the highway that connected the top 2 cities of the country was well paved and I could see quite a few outer ring roads being developed to avoid passing through some important towns and villages. This reminded me of the Chinese proverb “If you want to become rich then build roads.” Driving etiquettes were followed by all kinds of vehicles even at a busy intersection during rush hour. Guess what!! I saw an array of automobiles and taxis ranging from Toyota, Honda, Kia, Tata, BMW, Mercedes, Ford in Accra and Kumasi. Buildings and other structures along the highway were painted to display various consumer products. This way of advertisement created some kind of revenue stream for that establishment and also created a platform for marketing products. I thought it was a novel idea that stirs up the economy at a grass root level and also enlightened me with another marketing channel.
Our taxi driver Mr. Isaac shared many interesting facts about the towns and villages that we were passing through and also mentioned that mobile phones have taken the country by storm. He noted that the average common man can now afford to have his own. Telecom providers such as MTN, Vodafone, Airtel, and Tigo have flooded the market with various data plans that will meet the demands of diversified consumer base. This kind of overwhelming response in the market is a bright sign for Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) to enter the Ghanaian market and foster the economy. I could see that people are more willing to embrace newer ideas and innovation that will improve their quality of life and also create more jobs in the country. This belief of mine was supported by a KNUST (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi) Professor of Economics, Mr.Kwame Opoku when we discussed the monetary and fiscal policy deployed by the Ghanaian government. He mentioned that inflation has been under control for a while and the policies are framed to support the common man; however, there are other challenges that need to be addressed before actual goals are realized. Some of his thoughts will serve as inputs in our research that will help us determine the feasibility of gel ethanol as a cooking fuel in Ghana.
During my visit to Mt. Olivet School in Kumasi, i interacted with children, teachers, and the principal. I learned that over the last few years the education system has been one of the country’s primary focuses. The establishment of private and public schools has encouraged many parents to send their children to a nearby school. Also, as an incentive the government has mandated that two meals a day be provided for all school going children. Through this government initiative our clients are able to use Mt. Olivet as a testing ground for testing and promoting gel ethanol for large scale cooking. I think the nation is strategically planting seeds in the education system that will sow great benefits in the coming years. The children with whom I interacted had big dreams and this street vendor with whom I struck up a conversation mentioned that he is working twice as hard to save money to send his 10 year old girl to medical school. He was very confident that in the next 5-8 years Ghana will be a much different country than it used to be.
The mushrooming of IT training centers across Accra and Kumasi to build the technology infrastructure, and the rise of professional artisans in Suame magazine (largest village accommodating small scale engineering industries) aimed at national industrialization are key proponents in the GDP growth and are sure to increase potential immigrants to Ghana.
From my observations and by talking to people, I strongly believe that there is a growing trend which is slowly increasing the middle class community in the urban areas and towns of Ghana. This trend is due to multiple factors and people are very cognizant of what is happening outside the sovereignty of Ghana either in underdeveloped/developing/emerging/developed nations. It is to my understanding that Ghana is certainly on a growth path and in the coming years it will certainly transform from a developing economy to an emerging market.
By: Aaron Ohms
Monday June 13, 2011: Domeabra Village, Asante Region, Ghana
At the end of the second week in Ghana, the team embarked on a journey to a village called Domeabra. This is the test facility of the ethanol still and home to one of our main stakeholders, Nana Frimpong, Paramount Chief of Domeabra, which in Twi means “if you love me, you will come”; I will leave it up to you to determine if that is a good or bad thing. This man is quite the chief; not only does he reside over 20 villages covering 25 square kilometers in the Asante Region of Ghana, but he was also educated at MIT and started a cosmetics packaging business in the Bronx for 30 years. Suffice is to say he is a Yankees fan. BTW, the word nana just means “chief” or “boss” in Twi. Nana likes to think of himself as a mayor or sorts- do you understand what I’m saying?
Before we go any further, let’s shift gears for a second and talk about the bus ride, if you can call it that, to Domeabra. If you follow my blog, once again I am at a loss for words. We rode in what I will call a moving contraption on wheels. Local Ghanian’s would call it a Tro-Tro. Most of us know it as public transportation. Fortunately, we survived, but with some funny memories and stories to share with you guys.
Back to the main focus of the trip- meeting the Chief of Domeabra and seeing the ethanol still. Nana was very candid and genuine with us when we arrived. I was taken-aback and pleasantly surprised by this at the same time. The team was able to have a rather informal conversation with him without the presence of anyone else. Granted, he was wearing his chief sandals was sitting in his thrown. What the team came to realize though was that he is on-board with this project and very optimistic about its potential. The team was also able to clearly understand how the ethanol still operates and what components were necessary to make the thing run. All of this was a critical component to the success of this project.
After a few hours, our GlobalResolve client arrived. From there, we gave another presentation of the TwigLight and the newly designed gel fuel cook stove; the chief was impressed by both, even offering his own thoughts and insight on the design and distribution aspects of the cook stove. I am looking forward to working with the chief in the coming weeks and having a successful finish to this project.
Bye for now,
By John Grobowski
June 1, 2011: Kumasi, Ghana
This last weekend, our team went to Lake Bosumtwi for some much needed R&R. The lake is a sacred site to the Ashanti, who believe the souls of the dead travel here to bid farewell to the god Twi. The only permissible form of travel over the lake is through the use of plank boats, which I and various members of our team attempted to use to much comedic effect.
Despite the fact that Bosumtwi is situated only an hour outside Kumasi, it felt at times like we were on the other side of the world. This season’s rainstorms had caused massive power outages for the villages on our side of the lake, and severe flooding had washed out several sections of road. Road conditions were so bad in fact that our taxi refused to take us any further, and the only way for us to reach our lodging was to walk there. In the rain. It was quite the introduction to the transportation infrastructure here in Ghana.
By: Debra Wheat
June 6, 2011: Kumasi, Ghana
Suame Magazine is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It is the area of town where the prototype of the stove (and just about anything else you can think of) is being made. You can have anything from a gun to a toilet to a real life ball and chain manufactured; you can have an old car engine turned into a lawnmower; watch someone turn the chassis of a tractor trailer into an oven; see someone sculpt curtain rods out of rebar; and find any number of other unbelievable metal refurbishing projects around each of the many convoluted corners. It is kind of a cross between a Home Depot and a junkyard, superimposed on top of a favela (Brazilian slum district) with a twinge of landfill meets recycling plant meets welding studio… Its winding dirt roads and dilapidated store fronts meander through roughly nine square kilometers with smoke, toxic fuels, and jagged metal everywhere. Yet, it is remarkably organized, efficient, and productive–if you are willing to take off your americanized safety glasses to look beneath the surface at the innovation and ingenuity taking place. There is no denying it’s a little bit of a danger zone, but if you hold your breath and squint your eyes it feels like you are walking through a life size Chamberlain sculpture in the making.
In addition to providing some hefty discussion points among both the engineers and sustainability folk in the group (about the long term effects–both good and bad) and reminding us of why we made sure our tetanus shots were up to date, our trip to Suame also gave me the opportunity to put some of my espoused skill sets to the test. Much of my professional career has centered on getting the necessary stakeholders to the table, cultivating authentic relationships with them, and then serving as a bridge between their various perspectives, languages, and paradigms to better solve problems. Typically, I am pretty good at breaking abstract ideas down into manageable pieces; explaining them in ways that make sense to a wide range of people; and serving as a translator between people who do not entirely understand each other be it for language or perspective barriers.
I really put these skills to the test last week during our first trip to Suame Magazine. After being in complete awe of the shear magnitude of the scene, playing a few rounds of “don’t get run over by the make-shift flatbed truck carrying fifty tons of rusting car parts, chains, and wire,” a game or two of “dodge the unrecognizable liquid at your feet without falling in the open sewage canal” and a bonus round of “guess the unregulated toxic spewing into the air,” I spent much of the morning playing translator. I did my best to serve as a bridge between the very different mindsets of the American engineers, Ghanaian welders (through a translator), and designers (of both dissents) collaborating on the stove project. It was pretty fun—and often quite funny—as we all struggled to find the words, pictures, and gestures to communicate. The backdrop of screeching saws, sparking metal, and crackling fires added an interesting element to making sure everyone could both listen to and hear what was being said. Overall, it was a successful morning that reminded me of just how useful our “Cross Cultural Communication” courses—roleplays and all—really are. We found a welder to do the new prototype and are confident that our contact there (who runs the KNUST—the Science and Technology University in town—on site welding program) will be able to manage and train those involved in the future if the project is determined to be feasible. And for the record, the best part was being respected as a female in this very male dominated part of town…but a close runner up for favorite moment was having Brad (one of our clients who had been to Suame a number of times) remind me and the other two females on the trip to “be sure not to wear our hot pants during the visit…”