Laughter.

It knows no language,
time zone,
country,
continent,
color,
size or
shape.

It simply is.

It unites.
It separates.
It energizes.
It pains.
It stitches.
It weeps.
It rejoices.
It stops.
It stares.

It simply is beautiful.

Jinja, Uganda

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Rediscovering my passion.

Midina – farmer in Kikunhu Parish and agent of Sukura, Iganga

Please don’t tell me you are “proud of me” or that I am doing a “good cause”.  I am just another person – saying things as I see them and telling people what I think – I am no genius and I definitely should not be getting any respect because I am “in Africa” (why is this so special?).  If you care to tell people about me, tell them about what I am saying.  Tell them that the perception of Uganda and more largely Africa needs to change, this is not a pity party and lollipops and handouts are not needed.  Give your respect and words of praise to farmers.  Farmers like Midina who work tirelessly but carry a smile and laugh that could light up the world; who rely on farming for their livelihood, not just as a hobby. Listen to their plights; what systems are holding them back? Why do choices between school and food need to happen? Ask questions like how can we support change where deciding between food, water, health and education DOES NOT happen? Where the word decision is between what to eat not if you eat!  These systems are so complex and the solutions will have to be equally as complex…from my limited understanding, from my limited scope of knowledge, I am trying to support sustainable systems that allow Midina to access good, reliable seed, fertilizer, pesticide yesterday, today and tomorrow.  Systems that guarantee access where there is demand and allow farming to shift from subsistence to a means to earn one’s livelihood.  Maybe I am naive, maybe I am young…fine; I will agree with you on both of those accounts but the world we live in is NOT the one I see in my head and I am not satisfied sitting back, putting my head down and pretending it is.  The only way I know how begin to figure out where to start is to experience many different things, get many perspectives and move messages around; challenge assumptions and to push for change.  But the biggest question that I have been juggling is where does change begin? Is it from the inside-out? Or, outside-in? Where should I begin? How do I begin working towards a world where the questions people must ask themselves do not challenge their existence but what they do with their existence?

 

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Creating a sense of ownership.

What does ownership look like? How do you create a sense of ownership? How do you get actors within the system to drive their own change? For me, I think these are fundamental questions that development projects should be asking themselves.

From working within and interacting with people in this sector for the past month, I have observed and seen the aftermath of numerous development projects. Many of these approaches were riddled with handouts and a one size fits all solutions leading to a mentality that development projects come and go, as does their money and their solutions.

But what if a project decides to take a different approach; can it stick? Likely these players have been exposed to development projects that have been functioning in a certain way for many years and are currently embedded in a system that continues to perpetuate a lack of ownership. This hinges on the idea: how much power do the players have over the system vs. the system on the players?

So from all these questions and variables, what do you see? What can you make sense of in defining a way forward? For me, it appears that long-term change is about impacting the pressure points (players) that hold the right amount of power; in way such that the change is driven by them and not by outside actors. “Light-touch”, an idea that I introduced in one of my first posts – What is market facilitation and why does it matter for smallholder farmers?.,  is fundamental to this idea of creating ownership. Light-touch is defined by remaining outside the system; not creating dependency but stimulating innovation.

So if creating an enabling environment for ownership can be achieved through a light touch approach, projects must: continually question their approach, assess its impact and choose a way forward that leaves any solution owned by the system and not outside actors that temporarily inject themselves into the system. Ownership of the system over the change is crucial to its adoption, validity and sustainability.

Now it’s time for you to share your thoughts. What triggers an idea? What key assumptions are being made? How do you think that development projects need to adjust their approaches? What is the way forward?

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Perspective.

I have been doing a lot of reflecting recently on the idea of perspective; hope you like analogies because this post is jam-packed! At both work and home and life in between, my perception and what I learn about different things moulds and adapts. Like a lava-lamp, it is building into something fascinating and intriguing as I meet different people and am exposed to more and more perspectives. At work, I have been diving into the Village Agent Retail Model (VARM) from the business’s perspective; learning about how it works, how it is monitored and evaluated and its general effectiveness. Now, I will be going into the field and living with an agent; looking at what makes a high capacity agent and gaining farmer insight on the service. It will be very interesting to see how these ideas align or potentially where the misalignment occurs. Fundamental to the idea of perspective is its impact on the ‘story’- what you hear, what you are told, how you are told, how you see, what you choose to see/not see etc. This filter built up from our past, present and future is the one thing standing between you and me, between me and the ‘story’ I am trying to piece together. Every extra day I spend in the office, I become more and more persuaded that my value-add is in the field. My value-add is to piece this puzzle together with a wide variety of perspectives. Hinging on my conviction that the pieces of the puzzle should  not be forced together but rather should naturally align, I am wondering how my perspective impacts the puzzle I am making. Further, if recognizing the distortion that exists is the first step, how do I account for its magnification?

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My work.

This summer, I am working with an early adopter firm in Iganga, Iganga District, Uganda. Sukura is owned and managed by a lovely, energetic man named Godfrey Butoto. As an early adopter firm, Sukura is adopting the village agent model through the assistance of the LEAD project (Livelihoods and Enterprises for Agricultural Development). The village agent model looks at bringing inputs closer to the farm-gate through the use of agents. Agents are farmers selected by the community and serve as the link between farmers and stockists. I am working with this firm to see how to assess agent performance, how to remunerate agents in a standardized and transparent way and more generally at how the agent network can be effectively managed. It is fascinating to dive into this system and work to understand perspectives of the firm, agents and farmers. Currently, I have been working with the business to better understand the model from an organisational and implementation side. In the coming weeks, I will be working more closely with agents and farmers to better understand other key limitations and leverage points.
Written on June 7, 2012

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Choice.

As I close my eyes and picture my life in Guelph, I am frustrated by how little I appreciated my surroundings and all that I have. I am challenged by the idea of choice. Within a simple day at school, I can bike, walk or take a bus; within each of these I have at least five routes that I can take. When I arrive at school, I can get coffee at more than ten locations within a one kilometer radius and have over 100+ options for food. Today, I completed the final day of my village stay. I spent one week in one village (Otorulee) and a few days in another (Alwars). In rural life, the word ‘choice’ seems insignificant. Day in day out, the women walk many kilometres water, something that flows freely; I could roll out of bed, walk two steps and fill up the same size jug that would take at least an hour to fill in the village. The ease of living to which I have become accustomed, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. From dusk to dawn, my host mother, Mary, works tirelessly to put food in her childrens’ mouths and to offer good water to drink. She wipes every tear, settles every fight and supports other women in the community. Mary does this day in day out; her life seems predetermined. In the village, women marry at an early age, they have children, they must know how to cook and please their husbands, and must learn to grow a tough skin since the life they will lead will be paired with many challenges. This is not an option or choice, this is reality. What Mary works tirelessly to achieve in a day, I brush off in as a small chore and enter into a world where choice is endless and opportunity to do with my life what I CHOOSE is unquestioned.
Written on May 31st, 2012

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Paint me a picture.

As I rode along the flat and recently paved highway from Lira to Dokolo, I found myself lost in the natural beauty of this place. The never ending blue sky, speckled with marshmallow clouds, a rainbow joining earth and sky, the rolling green grasses blowing gently with the wind and mango and banana trees spot the landscape. I sat breathless, taken away by the beauty and life of this place and began to reflect on the beauty of people. I began asking myself, “What makes people beautiful?”. I think for everyone the answer may vary but my ponderings led me to the following end: I notice that the beauty I see in people deeply reflects my values. I identify beauty initially by a smile; from smiles that move the face slightly from stationary to smiles that take up the whole face. I see beauty in the moment where laughter unites. I see beauty in discussion or in someone lost in deep reflection. What makes people beautiful to you?

Written Sunday, May 20, 2012

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