mardi 24 juin 2008

Lessons learned on killing a tarantula

If you try to kill a tarantula with your flip-flop, make sure you’re wearing closed toe shoes.

At six a.m. a few days ago, just awaken Alanna opened the door to what first looked to us like a massive hairball. I searched my foggy morning brain to recall if I had seen anyone having a hairdo in the courtyard the day before – a pretty common sight - when one of the hairball’s legs moved.

My reaction was surprisingly rational, for someone who still screams high-pitch at the sight of an eight-legged bug in the shower: I wondered how come it was only the first time in nine months I had ever seen a big spider or a dangerous bug for that matter.

As I was searching for a solution (the flip-flop) I remembered my last evening in Canada, right before taking the plane for Burkina…

It was early August 2007. I had a pretty good idea what Africa looked like, as I had watched TV, read the papers and lookup up the internet: Africa was an inhospitable, dangerous bug-ridden, arid and dusty landscape overcrowded with hungry kids in ragged clothing. I was lying in my bed, literally paralyzed with fear, imagining the malaria loaded swarms of mosquitoes that I knew would attack me the very next day, the instant I would get off the plane. I could not even begin to imagine how many spiders, scorpions, snakes and other lovely creatures I would have to fight over the course of a year. I did not feel ready. I felt terrified, yet too proud to mention it.

That fear did not leave me until a few weeks in Burkina and it did gradually. So much so that, had it not been for that spider, I would have forgotten my preconception of Africa. As I was lifting the flip flop up in the air, focused on the motionless yet intimidating creature I realized that whatever I had thought I knew about Africa had been wrong. The hopelessness and danger picture I had built could not be further from the truth.

As I quickly slammed down the flip-flop on the spider, crude fear made my hand miss half of it. I jumped back. I had crushed its back legs and part of the body I think. The spider sprung on its back legs, showing its face to me, waving its front arms at me. I could see the two pronged teeth under its mustache aggressively trying to bite; its mouth was gasping open and closing in a trance. I was frozen. That’s when I realized I wasn’t wearing anything but a cloth – traditionally a women’s clothing – and that our whole host family was watching me. Despite the ridicule, it gave me ego-fueled courage to hit again twice, making the incident history and a big stain on the concrete floor.

Killing a big spider revealed surprisingly easy for someone with a visceral fear of that species. Yet it served me a good lesson: there is a big responsibility in being people’s window into a different world. I could have told a breath taking story (re-read paragraph two and six alone, you’ll see…) about the killing of a spider. You would have thought there are spiders everywhere in Africa and would have built the same fear I left with. You would have never considered coming here on holidays. By watching the news, you probably think Africa is hopeless. You would never consider investing in it. Yet this is definitely not what I have seen either.

lundi 12 mai 2008

Optimism for a change…

Thank you.

Your comments and reactions on the price of cereal and subsidies were much appreciated. You made me realize that my last message wasn’t really happy and encouraging. And since media has taken over the food price increase subject, I bet you’re feeling even worse now.

Yet the past two months have shown me that there are tremendous opportunities in Burkina. It’s some of that good spirit I would like to share with you. The march and april sun contributed largely to the mood, so I’ll make sure to share images with you. Let’s start with mangoes…

Mango flowers came out almost three months ago.

They progressively yielded tiny green balls.

Those grew steadily…

and changed color

Such that today, it’s harvest time.

Mango is the fruit Burkina exports the most. Have you ever bought a mango at your grocery store?

Did you get lucky enough to find a big one, just ripe, not too green, not to rotten?

Did you delicately slice it and tasted the sweet yellow flesh?

Then you have not even scratched the surface of how good a mango can be.

I recommend you make the trip to Burkina in late April. Tasting one mango will make flying worthwhile. Or you can go back to your grocery store and ask for West African mangoes. You can also ask Alanna more details about mangoes, she’s the expert in our team.

April is also the months when cashew nuts ripen. They take much less time, and the harvest is shorter. Maybe three weeks, maximum.

At that time, we start to see women walking into town with neatly arranged cashew apples on platters, on their heads. The apples are really juicy and sweet. They taste a bit like strawberry gum. One can process them into juice, wine or liquor. The nuts are collected and sold for export or for local processing (5 to 10% of total production).

Below I am in Banfora. I just bargained an 80kg bag for 10,000 Fcfa (~CDN25). It’s April 4th, 2008. The date is important as the cashew price fluctuates very fast.

That’s why many of the small collectors are tempted to speculate with the nuts.

One of the major influences on the nut price is the arrival and departure of the major international purchasers from India. Once they get in the region, the nut price increases, as their collectors are searching for nuts quickly rather than cheaply. When they leave, the price drops, and small purchasers and local processors come into the game.

Since no one wants to get stuck with a bunch of bags at their farm gate, producers tend to sell fast, to the first client they get, whatever the price. This tendancy is changing with the recent creation of producers groups.

March and April are also the period for irrigated vegetable growing. Bobo is privileged to be served by many farmers with tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers all year round.

It is also the period for tree blossoms. Quite a sight.

Néré flowers are intense red balls. They yielded long beans late april. Those dried and their seeds are now pounded into a flour called soumbala. This is a spice flavoring a lot of dishes here. Yummy.

Bougainvilleas are also in full blossom

And we found tiny flowers which we don’t know the name of, but are nice anyways.

In April we also had the pleasure to welcome seven newcomers in our home. They don’t take much room. I can’t wait for the chicken soup…

This one just got out of its shell. Its eyes are still shut.

The two mothers help the chicks find stuff in the backyard’s gravel.

We also recently welcomed a guinea fowl (can’t wait for the soup either…) It’s a one-legged male. The thights are still there though, it’s just missing one foot so no worries for the soup. Its foot was lost as it stepped on a trapper’s trap. You’d think it won’t be hard to catch it on soup day. Well, Alanna and I have tried and failed. Two people outsmarted by a one-legged guinea fowl…

So there it is. Possibilities for enterprise here are enormous. It boggles my mind how much one could do with the land, the sun, the animals, the flowers here in Burkina. Not all is gloomy and desperate, quite the contrary. Yet I think you and I have a big role to play in making sure everyone lives a life of opportunities. Here is a small attempt at two steps:

- Make sure that people in the north and the west are more open to free trade. Subsidies at home kill entrepreneurialism everywhere else. It means that when our government assures you they will keep subsidizing our country’s cattle with hopes you’ll vote for them, remember that it means someone in Burkina will have to sell his cattle at a loss.

- Make sure that our government sticks up to the commitment it made in 1970 in front of all western heads of states but has yet to respect: to attribute 0.7% of GNP to bilateral aid.

Once again, I greatly appreciated your comments. I hope to have left you with a sense of optimism this time and that you won’t hesitate to comment again.

Talk to you soon.


lundi 3 mars 2008

EWB Day in Dedougou

Dear friends,

March 6th is Engineers Without Borders Day (EWB Day). Student members will get out in the streets and organize a big information campaign throughout their hometown. The aim is to get people to realize that national choices affect people’s lives everywhere. Hence EWB members talk about fair trade, agricultural subsidies and public scrutiny in the administration of the national aid budget.

Alanna and I were in Dédougou last weekend. We told a few people what Canadians will be doing in just a few days... They got pretty excited, and we filmed their reaction. Check it out for yourself.

Joke aside (It was a mask festival, dummy) ; knowing that Canadian students are rallying against international injustices is very important for EWB overseas staff (a least it is for Alanna and I). We often have the feeling that the work we do here won’t go far without a more responsible attitude of global citizens such as Canada. We even feel that Canadians should become a role model in this quest. They’ve done it before and many times on other cases!

Two concrete examples: PAMER assists entrepreneurs in their enterprise creation and in the expansion of their activities. The Bobo office follows the progress of their portfolio of beneficiaries through a database.

One of my first activities here has been to organize and implement a census campaign of the reasons for failure of micro enterprises in our portfolio. In fact, while our office had a good idea of the net gains of active micro enterprises, we had no information on those who had stopped their activity. Knowing why would have great interest in fine tuning our activities!

Amongst the most numerous failures were dyers and weavers of traditional cloths (The pattern on my blog is that of a traditional Faso Danfani). The reason all of them gave: competition from imported second hand clothes (they come from our donations, and are sold at unbeatable prices on local markets here) and the arrival of China, Ghana or Ivory Coast made cloths which are cheaper, albeit of lower quality. (I added a photo of a proud weaver on my french blog)

Amongst failures were also tomato paste makers. Unanimously, they mentioned that the activity was not profitable. Meanwhile, on our trip to Dédougou, we visited a vegetable growers union.

Veggie growers group in Di, north of Dedougou. Did you notice the second hand shirts?

In the field around Di, north of Dedougou (Upper west Burkina)

They cultivate 7 irrigated hectares of tomatoes and produce several hundred tons of fresh tomato a year. Lately, they lost a portion of their crop, which rot in the sun, for lack of a buyer. Yet, in Bobo, if I want to buy tomato paste, I have only one choice, and it comes from Italy.

The one choice of canned tomato paste, held for you by my friend Aime

If you want to know how many euros or dollars one kilo of your national tomatoes receives in the form of subventions, please, ask your local MP. Remember that they are also the ones carrying your voice to government. If your country’s behavior isn’t aligned with your values, they should know. People here are not poor for no reason.

vendredi 22 février 2008

Riots, global trends and poverty

Wednesday, Feb. 20th. This evening is remarkably quiet in Bobo Dioulasso. No one really ventures out. The day has been marked by violent looting and rampage in all the major streets of the city. Youth have left virtually no street light, no road sign and no side road stalls functional. As the night sets and radios announce a day off school and work tomorrow, I try to recap what I heard in the course of today.

People gathered this morning at city hall, to sign an official protest against price rises, and about government hypocrisy in pointing to the shop keepers for raising them. They were met with tear gas, spread into factions, and walked back to their neighborhoods, breaking and burning everything on their path. Shopkeepers breaking side road shops…

Karim, 25, turned violent in the streets today. He explains: “The government has raised taxes on commerce. When you had to pay 30,000 Fcfa annually for your business, today you have to pay 80,000 Fcfa. I import motorbikes to Bobo. I have to pay 130,000 cfa per bike (worth 250,000) at the border. After that, they accuse the shop keepers of raising their prices for no reason!”

Indeed. The price of cooking oil has jumped from 850 to 1050 Fcfa per liter in the past few days. Rice, sugar, gas and basic necessity products have followed suit. In the second poorest country in the world, gas is more expensive than in Canada, almost the same price as in France, with 40% tax on it. More than one person in three here makes less than a dollar a day. The end of 2007 has seen the rise of bread prices from 100 Fcfa for a baguette, to 125 until last week, and 130 today in Bobo. Overall, a 30% increase in prices in just a few months.

It doesn’t help that the agricultural season has been disastrous this year. “People are worried” says Aimé, 30, “the rains have started late, and stopped early last rainy season, not giving time for crops to mature. Now maïs prices are already sky high.” In fact, yields in the region have been five times less than that in good years in some areas. The 100kg bag of corn is worth between 10,000 and 12,500 cfa today, for 8,000 last year at the same period, almost 50% more expensive. Maïs is the main staple for Burkinabés and many people in the city don’t grow enough of it to sustain their family and therefore need to purchase it.

Yet on the other hand, only half of the streets in Bobo are paved, and one cannot help but notice that the government here needs funds, desperately. People here seem to have no trust in a government that is believed to be wasting the funds. People notice small details, not big projects. Lamine, 35 and father of two, shows his frustration: “To officially launch the construction of a small city hall in a small city 500km from Ouagadougou, the capital, the government sends a cortege of 20 SUVs full of officials instead of sending the local representative. People want cheaper goods, but we explode loads of fireworks for the 20th anniversary of democracy instead”.

How does a government collect taxes in a country where a great majority grows their own food, runs informal businesses and does not trust it for the use of the money? How will the poor get basic services like access to roads, electricity and water, if the money is funneled into repairing the damage, trip stipends and blowing fireworks? How does a government face trends like global warming, leading to the shortening of the already tight agricultural season, and increasing oil prices, when people are already stretched?

mardi 12 février 2008

The truth about SUVs and my work

You know… the foreign-funded, all mighty, white trucks that big projects drive around the country looking all important, that cost pretty penny… Tonight we were coming back from Banfora, a regional capital. Cruising along, I was checking out the vast orchards of mango, cashew and nere trees in bloom, with already significant amount of almost ripe fruits on them, while chatting with the driver (Well, yes, SUVs are expensive, they also come with a driver). The afternoon sun was making the green of the tree leaves luminescent, in strong contrast with the ground, charcoaled by recent bush fires... So, cruising along, in our air-conditioned, all wheel drive, clean, white pickup truck, we encountered a family of goats. Goats like to check out the road side in the evening it seems, my guess, because over-loaded transport trucks often loose a few cereal grains, or cotton balls during their trips, and those are delicacies for the cute creatures. The family was a mom with big utters, a kid (literally) probably 4 months old by the size of it, and a third goat I didn’t get a chance to check the gender. The fact was, they were crossing the road, and while the two adults were fast enough, we ran over the kid. Front right wheel, right under my seat. We almost didn’t feel a thing. I just saw the goat fly off the side in my rear view mirror: dinner for the neighborhood, confirmed the driver. There was something I had to say about those white SUVs…

Those trucks… they have pretty good shocks, hey?

In reality, this blog post is about my work, not about roadkills.

After six months with PAMER, I’m starting to understand a few things. Time has not desensitize me to goat killings, I felt worse being in the car than you did reading my bad joke – in fact it was the first road kill I experienced here, to make things clear. On the other hand, I can say that only now do I feel able to explain what PAMER is, mainly because explaining it earlier, I would have relied on my ignorance and culturally biased views of what should be, instead of what is. Even today, I must say that the picture I draw is mine and only mine, and reflects my little knowledge of a big project.

Let’s set the tone of this post: PAMER (Projet d’Appui aux Micro Entreprises Rurales) is a pretty impressive project.

Conceived in 1997, it was born in 2000 and close to two years before it could walk. In those two years, the head (UNCP), the arms (Antennes Locales, including that of Bobo, my employer), the hands (Conseillers en Entreprise) and the fingers (Rédacteurs Locaux du Projet, RLP) grew steadily. The heart, pumping resources into the body, is called IFAD, and relies also on a pacemaker, the BOAD (West African Bank of Development) to distribute the blood. The PAMER is an odd-shaped body, in that the heart pumps blood into the head, which then allots it to the arms, the hands and the fingers, much like in a drawing from a five year old.

In 2000, PAMER progressively started assisting rural people in becoming micro enterprises and now leads activities in four sub-Sahel regions of Burkina. In total, the Bobo branch has seen some ~1070 micro enterprises being created between 2002 and 2007 by motivated individuals and groups. The process in which micro enterprises are given birth is quite outstanding in my opinion.

Start with people (men, women or youth) who either do not lead income generating activities (IGA), or lead an IGA but with minimal knowledge or mastery of the trade, like shelling cashew nuts using a hammer or a rock and grilling them using engine oil.

The first step is called “Information on the project”. The Conseillers en Entreprise (CE – the hands) gathers people in a village, and explains what the PAMER offers: namely, skills training, micro enterprise management skills training and assistance in obtaining micro credit in a partner bank institution (Réseau des Caisses Populaires).

Safiatou and Djeneba, two Conseilleres en Entreprise

Then there is “Identification and diagnostic”. The CE finds out who is interested. Namely, some people approach him saying they’d like to try it out. Not everyone is daring: it is a pretty big decision. Then there is a series of conversations and skills diagnostic. What can you do well already?

Then there is “Elaboration of a plan of study”. The needed training is identified by the interested party along with the CE, and planned over a 1 year period. This plan is validated by the Cadres in Bobo (the arms) during a visit to the aspiring trainee on the ground.

Then there is the “Implementation”. Technical training, women learning to make soap with Shea butter for example, is contracted to service providers, specialized in workshop delivery in their trade. Simple business management, commercialization, accounting training and help in making a solid application to obtain a credit when needed are provided.

A meeting with honey makers in Sindou

After the first year, as the first bar of soap is proudly sold on the market, the micro enterprise is “Created”: it enters the project’s database as a micro enterprise.

In the subsequent years, the micro-enterprise (group or individual) are monitored by the RLP (the fingers) who collect data on revenues, number of employees and difficulties. RLPs are young people from the area they cover. They are paid by the task. Their advantage is that they know well the people they work with and therefore have an easier time building trust, since they re locals. There is one RLP per department, 190 in total in theory for the project, although sometimes, multiple departments had to be covered by one RLP only.

Two RLPs meeting Oumar, Cadre at the Bobo antenne, under a big mango tree

The CE manages the team of RLP for his region, gathers the micro enterprises demands for training, and sets up workshops when enough people have expressed the same need. He or she also plays a coaching role to (ideally all) a good part of the micro enterprises.

After a few years, a few micro credits obtained and reimbursed, a few markets won, a panel of products diversified and a marketing strategy in place, the CE is able to tell that the micro enterprise is “Autonomous”. (It feels good just to type this word).

Elhadj, proud owner of three cows, and a ranch to fatten them up

As a final note :

The CE are pretty impressive people. They know on average 100 micro enterprises like they were their best friends. Well… after a 5 year relationship that led to some dramatic life changes for the new entrepreneurs, they indeed are pretty good friends.

Ideally, each CE would need to know in average 220 micro enterprises each, since there are 5 CE for 5 regions and 1070 rural micro enterprises. The CE team is understaffed in my opinion.

Something exciting I’ve heard from a CE: “The most important thing in all this, is the process [the process of Information, Identification, Plan Elaboration, Implementation described above]. It is the process that changes people’s way of thinking about their own livelihoods, and makes them entrepreneurs.”

lundi 24 décembre 2007

Christmas Book Reviews

Voyage aux pays du coton

Eric Orsenna, de l’Académie française, 2006

Eric Orsenna, nous emmène dans un tour du monde à la toile. Du Mali aux Vosges, en passant par les Etats-Unis, l’Egypte, la Chine et bien d’autre pays mystérieux, ce petit précis de mondialisation nous fait découvrir les coulisses d’une industrie sans mercis, le coton. Orsenna sait garder une position d’explorateur, sans prendre (trop) parti mais en révélant les fils et la trame d’une toile complexe, des fois aberrante. Après avoir lu Orsenna, les chaussettes que vous recevrez à Noël ne seront plus les même…

J’ai trouvé les raisonnements d’Orsenna, et certaines de ses anecdotes de voyage un peu hautaines, certaines fois même naïves, d’où les deux étoiles blanches. Mon jugement est peut être un peu trop dur, pour un livre toute fois bien écris, facile à lire et divertissant.

Voyage aux pays du coton est édité par Fayard.

The Elusive Quest for Growth

William Easterly, 2001 (paperback in 2002)

Incentives: wrong ones, or lack thereof. Easterly gives an outstanding analysis of the development failures since WWII. With the benefit of hindsight, the modesty to include his own mistakes in the analysis, humor and accessible style, he writes about the complex subject of economic growth in the poorest countries. Reading this book gave me “Incentive” lenses for weeks and tools to think critically about the projects I encounter in Burkina. Nicely documented, this eye opening book is a great intermediate between academic paper and entertaining novel. A must read.

My taste for analytical books must be reflected in the grade I gave. It might not be such an easy read for non-nerds. Yet, with multiple practical examples, it is refreshingly accessible for such a hard subject.

The Elusive Quest for Growth is edited by MIT Press.

Madame Bâ

Eric Orsenna, de l’Académie française, 2003

Madame Bâ essaye tant bien que mal de faire rentrer de longues histoires dans de petites cases, sur le formulaire 13-0021. Le formulaire, c’est la clé vers un petit fils enlevé par le football français. A travers sa quête obstinée d’un visa vers la France, Eric Orsenna nous révèle la triste réalité du développement international à la française. Madame Bâ, grand-mère, est un peu la « Forest Gump » des pays d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Traverser avec elle le fil du temps d’une indépendance nouvelle permet de regarder la France depuis l’Afrique. Un paysage pas toujours reluisant.

Ce livre est superbe. Divertissant et touchant, il est aussi fidèle à la réalité, sans maquillage. Les sujets abordés sont toujours d’actualité. Lecture obligatoire.

Madame Bâ est édité par Fayard/Stock.

Future Positive

Michael Edwards, 1999 (first edition) – revised in 2004

International cooperation is not a luxury. It is a necessity, if nations are to live peacefully. In the first part of his book, Edwards looks back. He gives a compelling analysis of past interventions from the north in the south and argues that from humanitarian intervention to large scale projects, the wrong priorities were often set by the wrong people. “Standardization, and an obsession with quick measurable results and size as measures of success, crowds our action on deeper problems” he writes, and concludes that “Consistency, continuity and coherence” is what is needed for better cooperation.

Looking forward, he argues that the solution lies in global governance, brought to life by a new set of globally aware constituencies, basing their language on positives, and facilitating the transition “from donor and recipient to relations between equals.” An appreciable aspect of his book is that it is neither naively optimistic, nor a dooms-day pessimistic. Edwards recognizes that the transition to a cooperating world requires the engagement of each of us, and a difficult compromise from today’s powerful nations. Overall, Future Positive challenges its readers: Is your thinking conventional, or are you ready to engage in something new and better balanced?

Future positive is very well written and well documented. The analyses are clear and the suggestions pragmatic. Yet, because it treats a heavy subject, it is a heavy read. Analytical minds will love this book as much as I did.

Future Positive is edited by Earthscan.

Epilogue; My headlamp or why I went to Toussian-bandougou

Once again my thoughts focus on my lower back pains. My right hand searches for a new Rônier leaf on the courtyard dirt. I wonder how long until my second bee house will be finished weaving. Night has come four hours ago already. I observe the dancing shadow of a knife resting beside my oil lamp. Moussa is beside me, sitting on his tiny stool, as usual. He’s almost done his sixth bee house. It’s nicely symmetrical. His hands are agile. He adjusts his flashlight, and takes this chance to relax his neck. He felt my look, and turns to me. It is at that very moment, after five evening weaving beside him, that it finally dawn on me. At first, the thought just froze me in place with shame. I almost said nothing. Then I got up. In my hut, I searched my backpack. There it was, nicely wrapped, at the bottom of it: my headlamp. I showed it to Moussa. He didn’t know what it was. I installed it on his head and turned it on. He understood pretty quickly and looked at me. His eyes and his smile were a mix of surprise, amusement and impressed-ness. He was laughing at his own surprise.

In this look I understood that Moussa and I were friends. For a long second, neither of us spoke. Then he took the lamp off his head and gave it back to me. “It’s going to deplete your batteries; I’m going to work late again tonight.” I understood quite well, so I refused categorically and gave the lamp back to him. He put it back on his head, and started weaving. Sitting on my stool, I felt sad to see how hard Moussa is working everyday to make sure his daughter will go to school in a few years. Maybe being the same age contributed to my feeling. That evening, the only difference between Moussa and I was our birthplace. I was overwhelmed by that thought and had to get up and go to bed.

Once in my bed, I thought about Moussa’s situation. At thirty years old, with a three year old daughter, his fiancée and his remarried father, Moussa is a farmer full time, and a honey maker at night. His energy at work, his determination and his entrepreneurial spirit were inspiring to me. I wondered where this attitude came from. For sure, his own character is a reason. Necessity is another. But I think there is something else: the coaching relationship he and Safiatou have developed over the years. Safiatou lives in Orodara, not far from Toussian-bandougou. She is an enterprise counselor for the PAMER. Living in the area, she knows everybody, and she understands the life realities of the people she works with. She has earned their trust, and can adapt her coaching and encouragements to each of them.

To be able to offer such a service, the PAMER necessarily has to trust people like Safiatou to know what is best. In fact, leaders at the PAMER try as much as they can to engage the enterprise counselors in the planning process. They also try to plan their activities to answer demands from the project’s beneficiaries.

Coming back to Bobo Dioulasso, in the coordination office, after seven days in Toussian-bandougou, I am better able to make plans that fit Moussa’s reality. More importantly, I have understood that decision power is better used close to the field. From Ouagadougou, Paris or Rome, plans are good in theory. In Orodara, or in Toussian-bandougou, they are good in practice.