Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Changing to (another) new blog


Well, this blog, while only in operation for a few short months, is being wrapped up.

I've started a joint blog with Thulasy Balasubramaniam and Hans Hesse, two colleagues of mine from EWB, both of whom work in Lusaka, Zambia. We're using this new blog as an outlet for our work related ideas, though I'll still write a personal note from time to time. Together we're investigating future business plans here in Malawi and Zambia and have created this blog as a first step to networking ourselves and our ideas with others who are interested.

Check it out. It's called "The First Mile" and it's hosted here:


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

4 Ideas for agriculture sourcing systems

Note: this is still rough, but with limited internet access I decided to send it anyways. Apologies in advance for shoddy grammar, spelling, and the like

As an EWB overseas staff member I’ve been partnered with a private company, TreeCrops. My work is this: set up a system of depots along a strip of lakeshore from Mangochi to Monkey Bay that we be used by rural Malawians to process, store and bulk baobab fruit. TreeCrops buys this fruit and exports it to the EU.

This is my second week in the field. My first job was to clean up and outfit a depot in Maldeco, a small town north of Mangochi. Yesterday, the depot was full of Malawians industriously cracking, separating, and bagging thousands of kilograms of fruit, each in her or his own way. Charming, but troublesome when trying to have hygienic food-quality baobab pulp as our end product. 

So I chatted with each of the dozen folks at work, sat down and wore my hands a bit raw extracting baobab pulp and fibre, and observed how each person went about their work. I stayed until quitting time, then helped clean and close up shop.

There’s a lot of need for improvement to the workers’ processing methods. It’s clear, however, that to change workers’ from what they’re doing to what we’d like them to do is going to take more than lecturing and demonstrating repeatedly. Everyone processes his or her own way, and for a reason. I want to get behind their eyeballs and see their work as they see it so I can understand how they might want to change what they do.

Thinking of all of this reminded me of a cantankerous English development architect, Eric Dudley, and his principle of designing for “maximum tolerance to failure”. This Dudley principle urges me to think not of how fantastically efficient everything could be, but of how I could set things up so if everything that could go wrong goes wrong, I’ll still achieve my most basic goals for my work.

All of this thinking meshed well with my engineering background, particularly control systems courses. Here are four ideas of ideas that should be incorporated into designing workable systems for rural agriculture purchasing.

A useful metaphor to help explain things comes from a course project in which we had to design a control system for a ball on top a “balance beam” of two parallel stainless steel bars. A disturbance knocked the ball off centre and our system needed to tilt the parallel bars until the ball was again safely at rest. Here are some general principles.

1. Definition of failure

What do I actually consider a failure when it comes to processing baobab? Germs found in a sample? Foreign matter above a certain threshold? Different grades mixed together? Perfection may not be required (or much less be achievable). With the balance beam failure is easy to spot—the ball falls to the floor. With baobab processing, failure is a fuzzier notion. A first step for me will be to adequately describe what actually is processing failure before I can design to avoid such an outcome.

2. Response

When controlling a balance beam, if the corrective action is too slow the ball will fall before the system is able to respond. If the corrective action is too fast, the system produces all kinds of jerky over-reactions (called over- or under-shoot) that will never let the ball actually settle down. With baobab powder, how long can we have people using substandard processing methods before we “fail” and also, what are the dangers of trying to quickly swoop in and correct every minor infraction? There will also be lag-time for any corrective response, but finding lag-time that is neither too fast or too slow is tricky.

3. Convergence

I expect that workers will eventually find methods that work well for them, and get themselves into a groove; they won’t endlessly change how they processing the baobab fruit. I don’t expect everything to go right the first time, but I want their eventual methods to be sufficiently hygienic by TreeCrops’ standards. How do I get people to converge on these targets instead of diverging towards bad practices? With the balance beam, how does the system produce the right type of feedback (positive or negative) that will cajole the ball back to a standstill? For us, what type of feedback helps people track towards good practice, not away from it?

4. Variation

No dynamic system will be in one state 100% of the time. There’s always variation. Even with the best balance beam control the ball will still oscillate back and forth a bit without the system having to respond. So should it be with us. If we overreact at every minor infraction—someone forgetting to remove their shoes, a newcomer mis-sorting grades, an unswept floor—we’ll burn ourselves out while frustrating our workers and gaining very little. Every control system must accept some level of variation about its target.

Each of these four points is just an idea inside of a balance beam metaphor. I’ll have to get out there and see if they actually apply to what we’re trying to achieve. Luckily, my next objective is to set up three other depots. This reminds me of another principle: the lack of truth in small numbers. I shouldn’t be okay with drawing many conclusions from one depot, or one dozen people. I’ve got to get out and see much, much more.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

There will be a herd of angry elephants

My new German manager, Chris Dohse, is—I’ll be the first to say—a bit of a nature nut. On my first field trip of my new job (I’m assisting his company to improve processing and harvesting of baobab fruit) we were hacking through vines and slashing our way through elephant grass in search of some rare medicinal plant to which Chris would only refer to by its traditional Latin name. Go figure.

This past week, he called to warn me (three weeks ahead of time) that Africa Parks will be rounding up a herd of fifty-or-so elephants west of the lakeshore (near our area of fieldwork) to relocated them to a national park down south. I half-expected Chris not to be warning me but to be looking for a way to get in on the action. Then something struck me: why on earth is Africa Parks relocating fifty-or-so elephants a hundred-or-so kilometers south?

I did some digging. Turns out that the government of Malawi has a relocation program where Malawians from the densely populated southern region of Chikwawa have been moved up into the Mangochi region (where we work). The newly relocated had a number of elephant complaints—absolutely shocking when considering they were relocated into the elephants’ backyard. Up until some of the relocated villagers had their houses trampled, nothing was done. Now, the Government of Malawi is organizing the elephants’ relocation.

It just seems to happen like that, doesn’t it? Humans make a mess of things (overpopulation), come up with a half-baked solution (relocation), which makes a brand new mess (elephant demolition), to which the answer is that Nature will now have to accommodate our inept new “solution”. The end product is that twenty years down the road the elephants’ original habit will be entirely destroyed by slash and burn farming and further overpopulation. Then it will be same old problem, but worse.

Chris foresees this all already, which explains his frequent exasperated “harrumphs” when discussion the subject. Whether the Malawian government sees the same thing or not, I’m not sure, but their course of action would either suggest they don’t, or that they’re caught between the rock and hard place of overpopulation and environmental degradation. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

(Maybe) why it’s hard to find a good mechanic in Malawi.

After my shock and horror of witnessing a Malawian “mechanic” use a stone and a chisel solution to what was my motorcycle’s 10-spanner problem, I stepped back and thought for a moment: why is it that a good Malawian mechanic is so hard to come by?

Truth is, most of the mechanic work I see here in Malawi reminds me of my own handiwork in junior high. If my bicycle chain was stuck, I took the garden trowel to it. If the bearings squeaked, I smeared grease indiscriminately until they didn’t. After finishing a particularly shoddy patch job on a blown tire, I tossed my dad’s tools into my mom’s flower bed. It seems these are also the methods of local mechanics.

This is my armchair answer for why my teenage ways are the modus operandi in Malawi: over the years Malawians were bestowed plenty of serviceable equipment, with none of the tools with which to service it.

The English were first. With independence in 1964, the colonial administration packed up for England leaving behind the electric transformers, the train tracks, and their one ferry in Lake Malawi, but took with them whatever wasn’t bolted down: the socket sets, spanners, welding torches and the like. This kicked off a generation of half-hearted repair jobs nation-wide. Following hot on English heels, NGOs arrived, put up plenty of infrastructure of their own, though never brought the tools or the parts for said infrastructure’s maintenance, and another round of in-a-pinch fixes were born.

Thus, today, while a boy who’d fathom using a set of vice-grips for pliers in places like Leduc, or Moose Jaw, or Brandon would earn a swift cuff upside the head from his father, this is simply standard practice in Malawi. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Whirlwind trip to Zambia

Just got back from a whirlwind trip to Zambia.

It amazes me every time I travel to Zambia just how different it is from Malawi. There is big city life in Lusaka. There is huge mining activity in the Copperbelt region. The size of the farms in Southern Province dwarf the estates in Malawi. Victoria Falls—Mosi-o-Tunya, The Smoke that Thunders—is a sight so jaw-dropping it leaves me wondering if Malawi can ever wow me again.

Next door neighbours, yet just so different. Malawi, small land mass, scant urbanization, and high population density. Zambia, thousands of hectares of wilderness and 60% urban, 40% rural. I wryly joke to myself that if I ever want to find rapid development in Malawi all I have to do is drive West, straight into Zambia.

I am being a bit whiny, a bit over-the-top. Adventures always bring out wonder in me, though, and this recent adventure to Lusaka, Livingstone, and even to Mwinilunga near where Angola and the DRC meet, all have me hyped about the neighbour next door.

Luckily, this next week, I’m out adventuring in a region I’ve never been before: the south end of Lake Malawi. So expect my shine to be back on for Malawi. Just give me about a week.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A little homecookin'

My Japanese neighbour, Tomoko, and I hooked up to do a bit of home cookin’ this past Saturday. Pooling together her big salary (to by gross quantities of meat) and my little salary (to chip in for beer), we bbq-ed (or brai-ed, as it’s said in Malawi) and drank our way from mid-afternoon into the evening with the company of good friends and the luxury of Tomoko’s veranda. 

A highlight for me was seeing our landlord and landlady make it out to our little party. Mr. and Mrs. Kwanjani own my bachelor pad, and Tomoko’s house, along with a few other flats, and it’s to them that we pay our monthly rent. They’re both retired—and both sweethearts—so to see them stop in for a bit of chicken and some chickpea salad made our day.

Two days before our brai, Tomoko returned from a work trip out to Mchinji (on the Zambian border) with a live chicken. Giving a chicken to a visitor is standard practice in Malawi to a visitor of sufficient importance, but receiving a chicken isn’t quite so common for us non-Malawians. So, Tomoko stopped at the Kwanjani’s place and asked if they’d like to have the chicken for themselves. Being the kind folks they are (and realizing a non-Malawian was a bit out of her depth) Mrs. Kwanjani told us she’d keep the chicken inside tonight, and we’d all have chicken and nsima for dinner tomorrow.

Helping Mrs. Kwanjani with dinner preparations, I was quite sure I had never seen an animal go from “living” to “on-my-plate” quite so quickly. Can’t say that it diminished my appetite, though. Maybe it was how she cooked it, but that chicken was particularly tasty. (Here’s some pictures showing Mrs. Kwanjani doing her butcher work.) Though, at the end of it all, I was still glad we could just buy our chicken at the supermarket and skip the plucking and gutting.  

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Less than a dollar a day

Enam and I spent our Easter weekend at the lakeshore: reading, relaxing, and eating pizza al forno. Seeing “Pizza Sundays!!” in bright, gaudy chalk letters on the specials board did make me look twice, but it really did exist, and it certainly was tasty. The cute English couple who manage the backpackers at which we stayed must have had a pizza hankering and a pizza business idea that coincided.

On Sunday afternoon, Enam bumped into a friend of his who offered us a ride in her truck back to Lilongwe on the next day. Nkhata Bay (where we were) is a good 400km north, which quickly turns into an 8-10 hour trip when you have to rely on minibuses and dumb luck. So, yeah, we accepted her offer.

My luck only improved that Monday morning when I climbed into the back seat and found a copy (albeit dated by a couple weeks) of the New York Times. Malawi is a bit starved for current events. Well, I suppose that’s not exactly true, there is, after all, two daily national newspapers. But while Malawians may love their Daily Times and The Nation, I don’t—too much poor grammar, too many mixed metaphors (though these sometime provoke fits of laughter) and too thin on international news of note. Thus, even a dated New York Times is kinda a big deal.

Flipping through the arts and culture section, something fell out of the sports section and landed on the floor of the truck. I leaned over to pick it up, and this is what it said:


And with my brain being hardwired for these kind of things in Malawi, I thought, “Oh, another quaint tale about poverty in Malawi to solicit a donation.” Then I looked again and saw that it was an ad for a NY Times subscription.

Huh. The sale price of this newspaper, delivered daily, was more than what many Malawians live off of.

Don’t worry, I didn’t have a weepy-eyed reaction to reading this, and I didn’t fill up with anger either. For better or for worse, I’m way beyond that stuff. To me it was really the amazing quality of context that struck me. “Less than a dollar a day” could either be rolling off Rod Black’s lips, as he guilt trips you from a Sunday morning World Vision infomercial, or it could be the sales pitch of one the world’s premier newspaper dailies. I’ve gotta take note of this as a writer: the importance of context.

Ok, I’m not solely wrapped up in notions of how to improve my prose. It is pure global injustice that $1 is both a daily subscription price and a level of income that millions of people do not attain year in year out. But better to take something useful from it, though, instead of starting down a spiral of pity or shame. A pity party is the last thing that Malawians need. Being able to afford a daily newspaper would be a much better start.