Lunch on the Farm – Friday Flims #3

Welcome again to Friday Flims! This week we’ve got a short clip of lunch on the farm. Check out Dery, Emelia and I as we eat some tasty boiled yams and groundnut soup after a long morning out in the sun.


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Strategy Development – In Small Meal Sized Chunks

A quick personal update before I get into the meat of this post. As you might know if you’ve been following Erin’s blog there have been some staff changes and rejigging of roles on our team this year, which has left me in charge of driving our strategy development process for the next three months. This is a great role for me – I love thinking and acting on strategy and it’s allowing me to test out a bunch of ideas on how we can incorporate elements of Customer Development and a great framework on business models called the Business Model Canvas from the fantastic book Business Model Generation. I’m really excited about pushing these ideas into our strategy process so we end up with more scalable, more exciting, and more impactful interventions.

For the next couple of posts I’ll be writing an overview of strategy development process for a few reasons. First, we’ve got five fantastic university students that will be joining us this summer for our Junior Fellowship program, and they will be integral to this process. I want to capture the process and articulate it to bring them on board, and as a resource for new folks in the future. I also want to use the series as a way to better articulate our approach so that we can get external feedback on its validity and share some of the ideas with the broader development community. Lastly, this will both make me think out the details of the process, and practice articulation of a somewhat technical topic. I originally was hoping that they would be “bite-sized” chunks, but I’ve revised that to “small meal-sized”, which I think is more appropriate – so get ready to dig in!

Before I get into details on our actual program, it helps to know a bit of the theory behind our approach. We focus on capacity building for local partners, in my case with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), in order to improve the operations of those partners. Part of our value-add as EWB is to take the time to search for new ideas, test their ability to achieve impact and then work out the details to actually take that idea to an appropriate scale where we get a good return on the investment in searching for new ideas. This sometimes is talked about as the [Search] -> [Prototype] -> [Pilot] -> [Scale] model. While this may seem like an obvious cycle for many of the engineers reading this blog, it often doesn’t happen that way in the aid sector. What we see more commonly is something closer to [Write Proposal in Washington/Rome/Accra] -> [Confirm Funding] -> [Execute at Scale]. The more common approach leaves little room for learning and adapting. See my previous post comparing the aid sector to high tech entrepreneurship for more on the downfalls of this approach.

While there is still some debate exactly what each element of the [Search] -> [Prototype] -> [Pilot] -> [Scale] looks like, the general principle is to end with more effective approaches by taking the time to test the potential ways the idea could fail or be improved before the full-scale execution phase where there is a lot of money flowing into activities and little room to adapt if the program’s assumptions don’t match reality. The important take-away is to know that EWB’s work focuses on capacity building by searching for great ideas and working with our partners to then take them to scale effectively, getting more bang for our buck.

For this post I just want to share some of the background thinking and reasoning behind where we’re at and what we’re doing. As you may know, my team has been largely focused on implementing and scaling the Agriculture as a Business Program (AAB) in MoFA district offices. We’ve been developing the program with MoFA over the past three years or so. We’ve seen some positive results at the farmer and district level, and one of our staff is working on a much bigger impact exploration that will be taking place over the next three months. As we’ve attempted to understand how it will scale, it is clear that it will be difficult to keep AAB on MoFA’s radar without an EWB member driving the implementation in a district. Having staff in every district from now until AAB is no longer useful to farmers is not a sustainable route. We’ve come to the realization that the program is not offering enough value to district staff (or possibly we’ve just done a bad job at marketing it) to have it prioritized over the other development partner projects that seem to be bombarding districts recently. Going forward we need to understand how to avoid this problem and improve the process by which we invest our limited resources.

Over the next few posts I want to explore how our experience with AAB, the fundamentals of the [Search] -> [Prototype] -> [Pilot] -> [Scale] model, and influences from the high-tech entrepreneurship world (namely Customer Development and the Business Model Canvas) will be driving our overall strategy development process.

You may have noticed that I’m very interested in applying concepts coming from the high-tech startup world to our team. Is this wise? Why would ideas from a completely different context work here? While I’ve blogged a bit about this before, I’ll add another piece of justification from one of Steve Blank’s blog posts called What’s a Startup? First Principles. Steve defines a startup as “an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” Substitute business for impact and I think this is the essence of what we’re about at EWB. At the end of the day, we don’t have the resources to hire staff to implement our projects on a long-term basis, which is why we work with partners. Our job is to search for what that repeatable scalable impact model is and pass it off to our partner. In this sense, we’re operating exactly like a startup and so I’m betting that tools that work for startups will work for us too.

So, what’s next in this series? The first piece is to get up to speed on the big picture of our strategy development before diving into the Business (Impact) Model Canvas and what we’re actually learning. Here’s my rough guess at what the next couple of posts will look like:

Thanks for sticking it out through a pretty technical post – and hope you enjoyed it. There’s lots more to come!

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Harvesting Termites for Chicken Feed – Friday Flims #2

Friday Flims #2 is here! And on a Wednesday! My apologies – apparently there was a small problem on the server where my blog is posted and it’s causing some issues with my pre-scheduled blog posts. So while I thought I was posting new posts every week, turns out I wasn’t! I’ll post one today and then we’ll get back to weekly posts on Fridays in two days. Thanks for your patience!

Check out Alhassan talking about how to harvest termites to feed your chickens at

Thanks for watching!

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Alhassan on Mango Grafting – Friday Flims #1

Hi everyone,

Sometimes it takes a trip home to remember how much video you have saved up on your computer! I had great time showing videos I’ve taken over the last year when I was home for Christmas so this year I want to do a much better job of sharing them with you. So this post is to announce a new segment – Friday Flims! And no, that’s not a typo, it’s in the spirit of the Ghanaian accents you’ll have to get used to hearing.

I spent some time uploading videos while I was back in Canada so I have 10 in the pipeline. That’s all I promise for now but hopefully life will continue to be interesting here and I’ll get some more great shots!

The first video is of Alhassan from Blema, my village stay way back in March 2010, almost a year ago. Here he is explaining mango grafting.

Alhassan on Mango Grafting

Have a great Friday and weekend!


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Me Talking About Failure and Aid

This is a short update to share a quick one-minute video of yours truly on the Globe and Mail website talking about one of my favourite topics – aid and failure. Check it out at

That’s all for now – working on a post about where we’re at with our strategy development! Stay tuned!


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Tech Startups and Human Development: Different Worlds?

This is the first post in what will be some sort of a series or at least a recurring theme on what I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past few months. There is way too much to put into a single post and a lot of ideas that I’m not sure exactly how to connect yet so expect a lot more shorter, potentially less coherent and flowing thoughts as I try to piece things together.

Tech startups and human development – in some ways these are the two most opposing worlds I can think of. One is about satisfying the consumer, adding another gadget to the already overflowing box of electronics on the bedside table or building the next viral web service. So many of the icons of the self-centred consumer-driven Western value set that for many people define my generation and the next originate from this world. The other is well-meaning philanthropists trying to solve the problem of extreme poverty, giving people the opportunity to think beyond where the next meal will come from or how to scrape up school fees in the lean season. Different problems, different worlds. Right?

While everything on the surface puts these domains at odds with each other, I think they have a lot more in common than initially meets the eye. The more I read about the challenges of entrepreneurship, the more I see the same patterns contributing towards the development system’s failure in trying to solve the problems of extreme poverty and a lack of opportunity. I’ll try to draw some of those parallels and explore what I think it means for the development sector. Instead of dropping a giant post all at once I’ll be doing more regular updates in smaller chunks – I hope that will make it a little bit easier to digest! This stuff is probably a bit more dense than some of my previous writings.

The foundation of the comparison rests on the types of problems that both entrepreneurs and those in the development sector are trying to solve. By definition entrepreneurs are working in an ambiguous environment where not only is the solution unknown, but the problem (or at least how important that problem is) is unknown as well. I would argue that development is in the same situation. The world is complex whether you’re in business or in development and no one has the answers, nor knows exactly what problems are worth tackling. In development it is especially difficult to pinpoint what the root cause of the broken system is.

Let’s explore exactly what I mean by this. Entrepreneurs often start with a vision – a product or service idea – that they think will be able to turn into a scalable business by providing value to their customers. This vision doesn’t often match reality however, and startups sometimes need to change direction in order to deliver what customers actually need. Startups need to validate that they are actually solving a problem that matters and provides real, lasting value to customers in order to grow their business. Doing this early before spending money on the expensive parts of running a business is a good idea – this reduces risk.

Development is in a similar boat. Development organizations are trying to have scalable impact by providing services or programs that will sustainably benefit the intended recipients of that aid. This is a difficult thing to get right. Most of my thinking and work right now focuses on agriculture. How can the development sector benefit small-holder farmers living in rural Ghana? The general goal is easy to state, but identifying exactly what problem a program is trying to solve and how it will benefit farmers is much trickier.

Let’s say you wanted to help farmers in Bole district increase quality cashew production (your vision). Recognizing and accepting the assumption that cashew farming is in fact a viable money-making venture in Bole, where would you start? The goal (more money for farmers through cashew production) is easy to state, but the actual problems that need to be solved in order to get there are less obvious. Is it training? Training on what? Access to credit? Improved seedling varieties? Access to output markets? There are so many things to learn about in terms of what works and what doesn’t work. The problems and their solutions both need to be tested before scale can be achieved efficiently.

I would argue that the majority of development projects today are not set up to do this. Many of the agricultural projects that I’ve seen are very high budget projects that attempt to operate on a large scale from day one. A project proposal and plan is written in a head office somewhere, is approved for funding, and then the focus is on execution as if the model is perfect. To me the most fundamental flaw with this model is that a scalable approach does not need to be demonstrated before at-scale funding is given. Compare this to the business world where success at a small scale leads to more profits which allows the company to grow based on their ability to perform. Development projects don’t have this feedback cycle. Unproven guesses are funded at scale right from the get-go and successful projects may end after their funding timeline without capturing the lessons learned and how to get it right the next time.

As an interesting comparison, think back to the dot-com crash. Capital was cheap and startups were able to raise huge amounts of money without a proven model or understanding their customers. And guess what, for the most part it didn’t work. It’s possible that the development sector is making similar mistakes today, investing large amounts of money before a proven model exists. The only difference is that a development project or development agency doesn’t go bankrupt. This is a crucial difference.. but I’ll talk more about that in another post.

I hope that this quick (ok, maybe not as quick as I thought) example illustrates some of the similarities between the startup world and development – the problems are not well defined with solutions that are even less clear. Although the differences are many I think the development sector can learn a lot from what has and hasn’t worked in the private sector world of startups. Stay tuned for more comparisons and eventually some implications for what I think this means for me in my work. I’m hoping that this will be the longest of these posts as it’s the intro, but I’m learning to stop making promises like that.

Thanks for reading if you made it this far – would love some feedback. Too dense? Not interesting? Really interesting and make it even denser next time? I realize this is definitely a bit of a departure from my usual style. A big source of inspiration for this thinking has been reading the entrepreneurship articles on Hacker News when they come up and more specifically Steve Blank and his ideas around Customer Development and Eric Ries and his on Lean Startups if you’re interested in further reading.

Posted in (Human) Development | 8 Comments

Who’s coming to EWB National Conference 2011?

Hey Everyone,

It’s EWB’s 10th anniversary and we’re having our biggest conference yet to celebrate in Toronto this January. For the past three weeks I was seconded to the conference team to build a website to generate some buzz about who’s coming to conference. Check it out here:

Anyways, that’s my quick status update on the project I’ve been working, it’s been tons of fun and I hope you enjoy playing around with it!

I’m heading off to the West Africa Retreat in mere minutes – should be a great weekend.



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Welcome! (Plus an intro to SLAM)

Hey Everyone,

For everyone moving over from my old blogspot blog, welcome to my new online home! I apologize for the extremely long vacation from writing (and for the e-mail of all my past blogs to those of you signed up on my e-mail list – was hoping to avoid that in the migration but it didn’t happen).

This is just a quick update to say I’m alive and well and to share a quick video that Erin and I made for the University of Waterloo chapter a couple of weeks ago. They put it all together for us and uploaded it to YouTube at It is a quick introduction to the new Systems, Leadership and Management (SLAM) strategy that Erin and I are heading up.

Get ready for more posts on that strategy in the near future! I’ve been reading a lot about startups and customer development lately and I hope to share some of the interesting comparisons between the human development world and the tech startup/business world.

Hope you’re all doing well and more to come soon!



PS I’ve been MIA for the past two weeks working on a secret project for the EWB 2011 Conference. It launches tomorrow so expect more details then!

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Positive Results

Last Saturday started in typical fashion. After a 4:30am wake up and quick trip to Wakawaka so Dery could get some local ‘performances’ done (read: local medicine/magic/whatever) we pulled back into the market square around 9:30am to sit down at the market side. After taking the requisite pot of pito, a couple of health workers pulled up and organized a meeting just beside the road. Dery said we should sit and join, so I downed the last couple of drops out of my calabash. I sat down and the nurse started speaking in Dagarre. I am still nowhere near conversational in Dagarre but the topic of conversation was obvious about two minutes in with the mention of three English letters: HIV.

I tried my best to hear what was being said, lots of references to ‘do’ and ‘po’ (man and woman), some questions that various people volunteered to answer, some talk of food for some reason, koko (porridge), fufu (pounded yams), zevarre (soup ingredients) and fairly regular chuckles from the growing crowd. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the talk wrapped up.

Dery asked if I had understood, and I said small small. He explained they were talking about HIV/AIDS (yes, caught that part) and the different ways it is transmitted, from unprotected sex to blood transfusions. Turns out the part about the food was trying to encourage healthier eating so that the risk of needing a blood transfusion is decreased. Last but not least, the most important part of the talk:

“She said they’ve brought HIV tests and they are giving them free of charge.”

“So will you get tested?”

“Oh yes, I will do.”

Wow. For some reason I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t know why I expected there to be more resistance to the idea, but from Dery’s perspective it was definitely something to get done. I was impressed. Dery is usually ahead of the curve, and I was glad he was leading on this too.

If that impressed me, the next two minutes were almost astounding. Not only was there a significant interest in the tests, there was a rush! I A couple of men fought about who got to go first, with Dery managing to secure second place. Very soon there was a lengthy line up for the test as people registered their names and ages in the log book.

It wasn’t long before the inevitable happened:

“Nasado! (White man) (a bunch of Dagarre that I can’t remember)?”

“They want to know if you’ll also get tested.” Dery chuckled a bit.

I thought about it for a minute, but it was pretty clear I would have to. And why not? I suppose I was taking up some donor’s money that wasn’t intended for me, and I would be an additional person in the line, but other than that, there wasn’t a good reason. I should set a good example too.

I said yes, and signed my name. Despite signing 16th, I got the usual bump to the beginning of the line. The man in front of me finished up and I sat down with the nurse. She asked if I had understood the meeting, I told her not really, so she gave me a quick recap of the general ideas before asking:

“Are you ready to know your status?”

I responded in the positive and took a deep breath. As most people know, I’m not a big fan of anything medical related. I guess you would call it squeamish. Luckily for me, this test didn’t involve a needle and it was over in a minute. The nurse pricked my left ring finger, pipetted up some blood and squirted it onto a piece of plastic with three labels: “HIV 1; HIV 2; CONTROL”.

“Alright, come back in five minutes and I’ll tell you the result.”

I stood off to the side, holding the alcohol swab to my slightly sore finger. A couple of women waiting in line looked at me, and giggled a bit. I smiled nervously, pacing a bit. It was a long five minutes. The women laughed some more. Finally the nurse called me back to sit down and receive my result. To my relief only one dark red line cut across the white test material.

Dery and I headed back to the house. We sat down.

“So what did they tell you?” he asked.

We exchanged results, and I asked him if he had ever been tested before. To my surprise, he said yes, this was his third time. He had gone to the clinic himself the past two times. He knows that the nurses recommend getting tested every six months but he says he doesn’t always get time, so aims for once a year. I asked him if he thought other people also have been tested before and he said no, this was likely the first time for most.

I don’t hear HIV/AIDS talked about much here in Ghana. There are certainly billboards and radio ads, but I’ve rarely heard anyone talk about it. I have no idea what prevalence rates are in Bole Region, or how many people tested positive that day. For some reason I assumed the relative silence would mean there would be resistance to getting tested, to knowing the the answer to a scary question. But at least on the Dagaarte side of Seripe, I was impressed by the way people reacted. I’m certainly no HIV/AIDS or health expert, and testing is certainly only a small part of effectively managing HIV/AIDS, but to my uneducated eyes it looked like some pretty positive results.

Posted in (Human) Development | 3 Comments

Good Enough

I would be lying if I didn’t say that the past five months have been a struggle for me. In many ways this blog has been a reflection of those challenges. I’m not sure how noticeable it has been for others, but one thing I’ve struggled with, and struggled to write about is the actual work I’m supposed to be doing here. I have a great family life where I learn something new every day, and I’m having a lot of fun sharing that with people. Work has been a different story.
My commute is almost a passage between worlds. The freedom of the road turns quickly transitions to the stagnation of my seat behind my computer at my desk. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting out of this mode. Things move pretty slow here in general, but by the end of a day I often feel stuck. Some days I know I’m not bringing what it takes to move things along in a district and I wonder if maybe this isn’t the place for me. And most days that all melts away again with those fifteen kilometers of asphalt and wind in my hair that lead back to Seripe.
One of the reasons I’ve struggled is insisting on perfection before I start implementing. It has been easy for me think of ways things will fail, why they aren’t perfect and to delay pushing forward based on that. I’m learning that I won’t be able to get very far if I keep up that strategy. Instead of perfection I need to do a better job of recognizing ‘good enough’, at least for the first implementation of an idea. There are a lot of roadblocks in development, and I need to admit that I’ll never be smart enough to think my way through them.
The same goes for my blog. Thank you all so much for the extremely positive feedback you’ve given me on my first few posts – I really enjoy writing and putting something together that makes people think. That said, I’ve found myself looking for ways to one-up myself. I want every post to be the new ‘best’ post. Unfortunately this isn’t exactly a sustainable solution, nor does it work well for anyone reading – I’m certainly writing less and posting even less than that!
At the end of the day I still want to create excellent work. I don’t want the pendulum to swing too far to the side of poorly thought out ideas that I’m rushing to implement for quantitative numbers of prototypes created, or pieces posted on this blog. I see enough of that here to know it isn’t the way forward either.
I hope this post is a start along that path – it certainly isn’t my best post, but as I read it over I think it qualifies as ‘good enough’, something I’m happy with. I’m not sure I’m 100% satisfied with the ending, but that’s ok. I’ve been applying that lens to all of my work over the past week or so and my motivation has been going up, I’m feeling busier, more productive, and happier to be at work. And based on that, expect to see a lot more ‘good enough’ from me in the future.
Posted in (Personal) Development | 2 Comments