The chronicles of Dominique Dagenais travelling to Ghana with Engineers Without Borders. Dom is one of two employees from TransCanada to join EWB and work alongside volunteers on a farming initiative in rural Ghana for 6 months.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Shea Butter: A Quick Primer


Shea butter is an oil extract from the kernel of the sheanut produce of the shea tree. It grows profusely in the wild without any special nourishment and attention. Every part of this indigenous tree is found to be useful. Its distribution is exclusive to sub-Saharan West Africa in the savannas, particularly in Burkina Faso where it provides economic sustenance to rural women. Its distribution extends from Senegal to Ethiopia and Uganda over stretch of savanna nearly a thousand kilometers long covering an area of 1 million square km of wooded grassland (about 500 million trees) across 19 countries of the region.
A Shea tree growing in the wild
The shea tree, though slow in its initial growth, has a useful fruit bearing life span of 15–20 years. Under indigenous farming system when clearing land for other agricultural activities, Shea trees are preserved and its exclusive plantation is restricted to avoid shading of other crops; however the operations of weeding and management of soil fertility adopted for other crops also facilitates shea tree growth. The shea fruit matures into the shea nut which has the shea kernel within it. The kernel is the source of the shea butter that is extracted through an arduous several hours of processing, over 22 steps, to produce 1 kg of the butter. In Ghana as in other countries, it is the exclusive prerogative of rural women to harvest and process Shea nuts. In Burkina Faso it is also known as "Karité" which is also the French name for the tree. The fruits are shaped like large plums and have smooth skin with an egg-shaped nut with the kernel that yields the fatty shea butter.
Shea nuts still in the shells


The product that is extracted as fat from the kernel of the shea nuts, which has five primary fatty acids namely, palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic, and arachidic; stearic and oleic acids constitute 85–90% of the fatty acids. Though a fat, it is not extracted in a fluid state like other oils, but is processed in the form of a white, odourless, and nearly tasteless creamy paste or somewhat firmer than butter..


The quality of shea nuts and butter, both of which are also exported in large quantities from Ghana, are basically dependent upon post harvest processing; in this process parboiling of shea nuts is carried out at the beginning of the season as it the eliminates germination and helps in faster drying. Better quality is obtained by sun-drying of the shea nut since smoking the nuts over a fire contaminates it with hydrocarbons.

The butter at different step of the process

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The DDA Fellowship; The last Conference

We had our last conference of the year for the District Directors of Agriculture Fellowship on November 16th. Our aim was twofold, on one hand have the DDAs present their change projects and to try to create a vision for a way forward in 2012 along with getting some feedback from the DDAs.
The Directors hard at work during session 4 in September
It was somewhat disappointing; only 3 of the 7 DDAs showed up; Dickson, Savior and Ahmed Adam were the ones present. Apparently the 4 others were all very sick and couldn’t make it; one of them was actually in the hospital, the malaria season has been brutal.  It’s hard to say if we should read something into it? Does it indicate a lack of interest from some of the members? Perhaps they were not happy with their change projects and didn’t want to share with their peers? Or perhaps they were just all very sick?

Considering the low numbers we did some really good work and got some really good outputs from them. I may have to visit some of those DDAs before leaving; we’ll see.

The Change Project presentations were good although they reflected the initial planning. More care should be given in the future in coaching the Directors for the planning phase. They should be introduced to basic tools of Project Management. The projects would greatly benefit by having things like scope and deliverables well defined.  It is also important for them to limit their initiatives to something that is achievable during the period of the Fellowship. From this last year working with the DDAs  we now better understand the types of constrains the Director are facing, therefore  our coaching should improve for the 2012 new DDA Fellows.

What was lacking in proper planning was easily made up by the hard work they put into it.

One Project that stood out was Dr. Savior’s from Karaga. The problem was well defined and the strategy made sense and the project is unfolding as planned. It will be ongoing for a while since his nutrition project is only the beginning of a bigger initiative. His project aims at teaching people how to use soy in their day to day diet.  They teach the family recipes and how to incorporate soya into their regular dishes without changing the taste. In his district, as in many district in Ghana, a fair amount of children suffer from malnutrition. The children don't suffer from lack of food but from  a lack of protein. There are many reasons for this and they are mostly cultural; people believe for example that eggs and meat are bad for children. People already grow soy as a cash crop so the project simply aim at changing people behaviour by having them incorporate 20% of soy with the maze they use for making Fufu and TeZed.

Ahmed Adam's from project Kpamdie was very challenging. I think that he may have tried to take too big of a bite at building capacity of its staff. One of the aspect that was clever and that used skills acquired from the DDA Fellowship was to create n Performance Based Incentive for the fuel allowances. In each district Extension Agents (EAA) and Directors of Agriculture (DOA are directors reporting to the District Director of Agriculture) receive a fuel allowance. Disregarding the amount of travelling the EAA and DAO receive the same amount every month.

Director Adam instituted a system where the EAA and DAO record their travel in a log and they are compensated according to their travelling. There are also spot audits. He also has included non-monetary incentive as reward for the better performing staffs. This part of the project seems to be getting some traction with the staff.

Interestingly enough when I visited his district in Kpandie the EEAs and DAO were very vocal about this system and there seem to be a strong buy in.

Doctor Dickson's improvement project from Bunkpurugu involved improving the distribution of Government sponsored fertilizers. His first phase was to acquire some hard data on the distribution in his district. His assumption is that by having better distributor locations the access to the program could improve drastically for the more remote farmers. His initiative, although simple, could have a very important effect on the delivery of this particular service.

Overhaul  I believe that the three projects were very good and will  be on going and will have substantial effects for their respective districts. Equally important, the sharing of this information within the |DDA fellowship could be a way forward to institutionalize some of these changes down the road?

The afternoon was a discussion about a way forward for the DDA Fellowship and work on creating a vision. We were able to come up with draft of the DDA Fellowship Vision. There is more work to be done but it is a good start. I have worked with Doctor Dickson in creating a simple Blog that we'll use to dissipate and share the information.

I'll write some more about the “Way Forward” in a future blog

Keep well allowances

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My name is Suhuyini.

Many people coming to Ghana get a Ghanaian name. For example Siera, one of my surrogate daughters was named Tunteya (which means progress) by a woman’s group from a village near Tamale. I never asked for mine and no one has volunteered to give me one; Father Dom works just fine with me. Olivier was giving his by a hairdresser located near the Gumani House. Within hours of arriving in Tamale the hairdresser and her daughter named him Hunpini which means God’s gift; God has a weird sense of humour.
Olivier became good friend with some of the nearby shop owners. I rarely talk to them besides the regular greeting when walking by or stopping to buy something. By Ghanaian standards I am an old grumpy guy who gets annoyed by the overwhelming friendliness. I rarely give my phone number and if someone ask me to be their friend I usually tell them that I already have enough friends and if I take them as a friend then I would have to fire one of my existing ones.
Tunteya and Suhyini on the bus to Mole
So I am not exactly the poster boy for the friendly face of the white race. I used to think that I was a bit of a cranky man; now I have graduated officially to being a cranky old man. I guess I became old because I am reminded every day in so many ways that I am so old. My EWBer colleges have certainly contribute in that departmernt, I guess the difference is just there. For some reason Ghanaian people won’t let me carry my own bag. So it feels pretty much the same, gray hair and wrinkles and all, but I am being treated like if I was 90 years old and not able to start my own motto. Not a big deal; until I came to Ghana I never though of myself as being old; I feel more like a man with a fair amount of millage? ;)

Being old is like getting a title, you may get it but it doesn't mean you get more money. Unstead of the title I would have gladly taken the raise. ;)

As I walked by the few days following Olivier’s naming, the shop owners start calling me Suhuyini when I was greeting them. They just decided that I needed a Dagbani name.  Suhyini means the “One Heart” the one who inspires, who brings people together, the one one who thinks and feels for the group. So those people who barely know me gave me a pretty awesome name. I asked a few different people what it meant, just to make sure. When I ask one of the men in Taha he simply said: “it’s you, One Heart”.
Maybe they are just polite and couldn’t find a Dagbani name that meant “Cranky Old White Guy who doesn't want to be my friend”? Or maybe they saw some of the “One Heart” in me?
I can’t say that my Dagbani name is totally fitting, maybe I am somewhat of a “One Heart”. It’s more about what I aspire to become but I feel that there is a long way to go; I struggle in being inspiring and bringing people together. I just wish I was much better at it.

The good news is that I still have many good years left in me. There still some fighting left in this dog . I may comeback in Africa in the future even if it’s only to visit my Ghanaian family. Nevertheless from somewhere in West Africa I am bringing back home a reminder of what I should become; what I should be.
My name is Suhuyini and I don't give a flying (Beep, Beep, Beep) how young I am. And I can carry my own bag.

Cheers you all,

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What is one supposed to think? (take 2)

Two things in the past week that have happened:

I have been asking myself why I am ready to invest my hard earn cash into some Shea Butter processing somewhere in Northern Ghana? As I write this the first building is been completed and things are moving ahead of schedule. I know that what I am doing will not change the system or make "systemic and disruptive change"s as George would say.

In part it’s because of the personal connection I developed with the Taha community. It has to do also with their response to be challenge I gave them. In the end there are maybe thousands of small communities in more remote areas that deserve a hand. Maybe they have even more pressing needs. Taha is my surrogate Ghanaian village, my family here on the Dark Continent. From a development point of view it may not make much sense but much of what is being done in the development sector doesn’t make much sense anyway.

It’s also in part because of my own African experience. After spending a full month in Toronto “learning” about development and all the different ways we are at EWB making changes. After spending the past four months on my own change project and observing what all the other EWBers are doing; I want to make concrete changes. I found my Dorothy and I want to do something that will make her life better. I have seen the impact of similar projects on a community and it doesn’t solve their problems but it helps and makes their life a little better.

And thirdly, all of the above could be just a pile of bull droppings, perhaps I am just being self indulgent.

While in discussion with the 5 member, executive the subject of the Secretary came up. Abdulai will be the interim Secretary and I didn’t understand why. They explained to me that they couldn’t find a woman qualified for the job, a woman who could read and write. You hear it right people; a village of 800 souls and there is no woman or young girl who can read or write. How on earth could this be? Taha is a stone's throw from Tamale the biggest city in Northern Ghana. It’s a small village with no electricity but already under attack from urban sprawl. I could write in length about education, or the lack thereof, or it’s necessity but all that I can think is the how the hell is this possible?

I took Siera to the Tamale Teaching Hospital on Monday for a follow up on some of her tests. The attending physician did his consultation on a table with a few plastic chairs in the middle of the mens ward. He made it clear to Siera that she should never be admitted to this hospital, it’s not a healthy place. We sat there between a few beds with patients in them and it took some time. When the doctor finally came he apologized profusely for making us wait.

There is a man who came to the hospital some time ago to be treated but didn’t have insurance. He was prescribed medications but his family having problem raising the money ($15 Canadian) only bought half of the medication. But after taking the meds he felt fine for a while. He came to the hospital that evening because he got sick again. He waited longer then he should have because the family had difficulties raising the money for the consultation ($6 Canadian). As we were sitting there he was already on oxygen and without a special med ($15 Canadian) to reduce the swelling of his brain he would die within an hour. The family now was struggling not only to get the money but to find the meds since it seems that everyone in Tamale was out. While sitting there during Siera’s consultation I couldn’t help peeking once in a while at the curtain down the hall with the dying man behind.

After the consultation we drove back to Gumany and by the time I went to grab some dinner the man was dead. I have a very hard time driving by someone with a flat tire on the side of the road, or by someone stuck in a snow bank. It made me feel that I just drove by and didn’t stop and yet there is nothing I could have done. The money in my pocket was useless. From the ignorance of that person in not understanding the initial treatment, the constraint that getting the equivalent of $15 Canadian and the nonavailability of a fairly common medication; the outcome was cast.

Ghana has been beautiful but it also has been hard. Walking by and seeing but choosing not to see. Knowing but forgetting that we know. Remembering just enough so that we can carry on and do our job. I am glad that I am leaving soon because this place could syphon the marrow out of my soul. Maybe I am just not cut out for this place.

I am on my last sprint to the finish line; I have to focus on what I came here to do. I have to stop looking around. In my free time I can play with pieces of wood, concrete, small diesel engine, grinding mill and build stuff; that is something I can do. It feels that it is the only real thing that I know how to do, building stuff.
Who knows, maybe some day a few young girls from Taha will be able to make it to High School? Maybe the Shea Butter processing will help? Just not this year.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rock & Roll Gushiegu and the Malaria Blues

Three weekends ago I was preparing for my visit to Gushiegu to spend some time with Director Joseph. I don’t know what happened that weekend; I may have got hit by a chronic case of laziness. I could barely get out of bed and get the regular stuff done, like the laundry generated by 5 days of being on the road on the motto.
On Monday morning after packing my stuff I waited for the clinic to open and got tested for Malaria and parasites. The two previous nights I had a short period of high fever, hit the 102 in the middle of the night for a few hours. Then it went back to normal for the rest of the day. I have to mention that I take my temperature often. It’s a tell sign of Malaria and Typhoid Fever. About every bacterial or parasites infections will have the same set of similar symptoms, fever eliminates many options. The oddity with my temperature is that it always registers low. At first I thought it was the calibration of my $10 digital thermometer but after comparing with other thermometers it appears that I am always in the 97.1 to 97.7 degree C range. As opposed to the normal 98.6 C.
Maybe this is why I start sweating before everybody else??? Anyhow I tested negative to everything.
After getting a negative on the entire battery of tests; I hit the dusty trail. I made it to Gushiegu just in time to find out that my Director had been call for a meeting in Tamale and was leaving. Trying to salvage the situation I manage to tag along his MIS officer and get some insight on the District. The next day I went out with one of the extension agent, I least I could spend time getting a good feel for the District. The first night at the guest house, no fever and I got great sleep. Second night, Tuesday, I got the fever and barely slept. So on Wednesday I went to the Gushiegu Hospital to get tested again.
If you are sick, or healthy, the hospital is probably the last place you want to be. The waiting areas were just overcrowded with people sitting on the floor. By the look of it they were just camping waiting to be care for. Fortunately paying cash accelerated things; Paying for the initial consultation, getting the initial consultation, paying for the tests, getting the tests, getting the tests results, paying for the medications, getting the medications, only took 6 hours. Meanwhile people who came before me were still waiting to see a physician. Infants with severe diarrhoea had accident on the floor. Someone would wipe it with a dry cloth and 5 minutes later there would be someone sitting on the same spot. 
One of the waiting area, Gushiegu Hospital.
 I tested +1 for Malaria, which means it was in the early stage. If you are +2 it is very serious, +3 you’ll probably die. The doctor wanted to keep me in for 24 hours and I just refused. I just wanted to get my meds and go back to the Guest House without touching anything. Although I got started right away on the medication my condition kept getting worse. For the rest of that day and the next I just couldn’t get out of bed. Zachary, the innkeeper, made sure that I had food and water at all time. He even did a run to the Chemical Dealer (pharmacist) to get me some re hydration salts and help me to the bathroom a few times.
By Friday morning I was back on my feet. I packed, fed myself and finally got to spend 3 hours with the Director. The ride back home was uneventful except for the many breaks I took along the way to rest and rehydrate in the shade. It took me a while but I made it home safe and before dark.

This is Africa and we get sick. Sometimes it’s really bad, sometimes it’s just a pain in the ass; there are always cheap drugs available to fix the wide array of ailments we can host. But we get sick. You do all the right things; apply copious amount of bug repellent on your body, religiously use the mosquito net, wear long leg pants and long sleeve shirt at night. But you still can get Malaria. We try to eat the right “safe” food and drink the good water but we still end up with diarrhoea and bacterial infections.
As we speak Siera just finished her Malaria treatment, the second in the past month. Marielle was treating hers a few weeks back, Binnu last week. I am just starting to feel better from a severe case of the runs; my first one since my Malaria bout. It wasted my Wednesday and half of my Thursday. By Saturday I felt much better… I could list the ones from the team who got sick in the past month, one way or another, but it would include just about everyone. Maybe there is something we can do better? What can we do better?

Or maybe that’s just the way it is. It’s just where we are.
Africa is beautiful and exciting Mistress, exotic, full of surprises; but she is a demanding one.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Making Shea Butter Part 2:

Things have progressed drastically since the last time I wrote about the women group. I went back a few days after giving them the 100 GHC and they had already processed the first batch of butter. They had turned a net profit of 20 GHC. It seems like a lot of work for this little money but they were very happy with it.
So they can make a profit, humble but still a profit.
The mixing all done by hand
 I gave them another 400 GHC so they can have a bigger working capital and make bigger batches and be more effective. Now the group is up to 60 women and the energy is just intense. As of today they have increased their net profit to around 350 GHC. Essentially in a few weeks they could reimburse me the initial $500 and have some working capital to keep on going.
Cooking the Shea oil to remove the excess water.As it colls off it will take a creamy texture
Meanwhile I connected with Walesu an independent project coordinator. His work is mainly with the Illich Family Foundation. He acts as the project manager and liaison for the Foundation when they sponsor the building of a school or other facilities. He also has a good working relationship with the Taha community; he was the project manager for a school the Foundation build in the village. He is also involved with different Shea processing facilities. With the support of different NGO they have set up processing plants, train the women groups and also have acted as quality control to ensure the produced butter meets international standards.
Abdulai and 2 elders from to women group
A small diesel engine drive the crusher and the mill. If you want to change tool you just move the strap.
 Together we worked out what it would take to build a processing facility with the mill and all. We are still working on the details but it will be over 11000 GHC ($7500 Can.). Meanwhile Karie went back to Canada all excited about the project. She dusted off the rolodex and start contacting wholesaler of cosmetic ingredients; she is getting some traction. In her past life she had a small manufacture of bath products.
The store room for the final product. The black bags are filled with butter. Next it needs to be package in 25 KG boxes.
Last weekend we took 3 of the leaders of the women group to another town where the women have set up shop 30 years ago. They produce on average 1000 Kilos of butter a month that they make for Body Shop. They show us around in details the process they use. They talked about the importance of consistency and quality control. They talked in length of what it did to their community. The women were so impressed and so excited. When they went back to the village and share with the other women of the group all hell broke loose.
They reeeeeaaaalllllyyyy want to do this.
So here’s what I told them:
1-     If they form an official group with a charter and a bank account (in Ghana they can officially register a group and it enables them to do business)
2-     If they get the support of the chief and the chief is ready to give the group the land they need
3-     If the men of the community commit to provide the labour to build the facility
4-     If the woman group commits, as the facility comes on line, to bring their production standards to meet export regulations
5-     If they commit to the training that Walesu will provide
I will find the money.
I just receive a txt on Monday morning and the chief has officially given the land to the women. The men have committed to the building. The executive of the group is in place and Abdulai is part of the executive as the community liaison. They are working on the official papers and the bank account.
We already bought the roasters; they should be delivered to the village as we speak. We are buying some of the other equipment that can be an immediate net benefit for production. Mostly small things like the proper mixing bowls. Since the price of the nuts is likely to rise because of the season we are looking at securing 5,000 to 10,000 KG of nuts to enable them to keep producing for the local market till next July. When I return we’ll work out the final sequence of events for acquiring the mill and the construction and the final budget. We also have to account for ongoing operating costs.
Example of a drying rack in the back and a washing rack in the front. The fence prevents animals like goats to contaminate the site.
 The normal interest for a loan in Ghana is around 28%. I suspect that the total amount including the working capital will be around 15,000 GHC ($11,000 Can.). Our agreement with them is for 10%. It is a decent return if it works but there are substantial risks attached to it.  Ghana is a little far to look after an investment.
The group getting debriefed after the visit.
Until they are fully set up and trained they will keep supplying the local market. We are looking at some of the aggregators like the Body Shop. We are also looking at the Canadian markets; we have a few wholesalers who are interested. The preliminary costing of the different transports and fees indicate that it would be a viable “cottage” business.
So I told Karie to get my sock out from under the mattress and get a thick pile of US dollars to Olivier; my son is coming for a visit on the 15th. It will be more efficient than using the ATM, 400 GHC at a time.
The game is on.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Ghana:

How was thanksgiving in Ghana? It was awesome!
We had the WAR near Bolga (West Africa Retreat) which was great but is not the subject of this post. I am quite sure that many people have already posted thousands of lines about how inspiring and awesome the WAR was. It was good, don’t get me wrong but I will leave it to the academic types to chronicle all the workshops and the EWB stuff that happened there.
This is about what was the most memorable to me.
Karie and I on the motto
 It started with riding the motto from Tamale to the Farmer Training Center near Bolga with Karie riding shot gun. Sierra (one of my surrogated daughter) was kind enough to take our backpack on the Trotro with her. It took us all day to drive the three hours ride. We first stopped in a Japanese garden where they grow all kind of medicinal plants. We had a tour and were so impressed by the two kids telling us everything about the garden. We stopped chasing those yellow and fluorescent orange birds on the side of the road, taking pictures. We stopped having a chat with Mina who had the crazy idea of riding his bicycle from Tamale to Bolga. We waited for him in Whalewhale while having beans and a beer. He jumps on the Trotto from there and we carried on just enjoying the scenery.
Having a chat with Mina on the side of the road
Sidebar: A guy who doesn`t train or ride much and end up doing more than 100 kms in this kind of heat… kudos Mina.
Dan, a potentially crazy person like me if he doesn`t smarten up, brought a live turkey, it was thanksgiving weekend after all. The problem was, although the turkey looked fine, it was a small bird. After the plucking and the gutting it was a 10 pounds bird max and there were 30 of us. You don’t need to be an experienced chef to know that we had a major shortage of proteins. So I decided that we needed a pig… and I found one. Well, actually I found the person that knew where there was one and Karie walked for miles sealing the deal while I was doing some of the EWB stuff that many people have written thousands of lines about in their blog…
The guy selling the pig brought it to the center on a leash and did the slaughtering. It was a very good deal for him We paid regular price, I  think, and he harvested all the stuff that us North American don`t care much for (like the trips and the brain) and left us with a headless carcase.
Don and I massaging the pig
 Sunday morning after finding a shovel, digging a pit and lining it with stones scavenged from around we were ready to start. I bought a giant bag of coal, gather some wood and we lighted it up. A few of the kids, Maxim, Dan and Romeo, helped with the tending of the fire which was welcomed in the 30+ heat. Meanwhile Don and Dan killed the turkey and prepared it for the oven.
Don and Dan with the plucked bird
 I made a dry rub with whatever I could find and some of Mina’s coffee. Karie made an awesome BBQ sauce. The pig was firmly rubbed and then covered with BBQ goodness. The wrapping was a bit of a problem since we bought a long piece of cloth that we believed to be cotton. It was something synthetic. Since it was Sunday and most of the stores were closed we didn’t think that we could find something in Bolga. So we begged and bribe to get a used piece of cloth that, we were promised, was clean. It was too small but with the help of a few big banana leaves (that were inadvertently freed from the trees in the guest house inner court) we made due.
So we buried the swine in the hot coals and walk away for 7 hours.
Me crrying the coal.

Dan and Maxime helping withthe fire
Lindsay, Siera and Rebecca working at it
Bimu and Romeo working on the desert
 As dinner time came closer the kitchen just became very frantic. Rebecca was working on mash potatoes and Yams. Sierra was on the Tomato salad, Binue was on apple pie. Dinner came a little late which was great since the pig took longer than expected. The last time I cooked a whole pig it was buried in coals for 6 hours and the meat was just falling of the bones. This one after 7 hours was cooked but needed to be carved.
getting the pig out of the coals
Here’s a first for me; it’s the first time ever that I carve a large mammal with a Swiss army knife, the only sharp thing around.
The table got set up buffet style and we all dug in. At some point while eating I told Karie; “this really feels and smells like Thanks Giving”. Seeing all the people eating, laughing and enjoying themselves after all the hard work every one put in; it felt like a big family.
That's a table!
After dinner we had the poetry slam. Not being much of a poet I just told a story. That’s what I do best and like doing; cook and tell stories.
I am thankful that I came to Ghana.
I am thankful that I had Karie with me that wonderful Thanksgiving Sunday.
I am thankful that I got to spend that special weekend with all the EWBers from Ghana and Burkina Faso.
I am also thankful that I was born in Canada and that I am going back there.
There are many more things that I am thankful for, the list is long but it belong somewhere in a more private venue. It should be Thanksgiving everyday just to remind us to be thankful.