Dispatches from Ghana: (2) “We Are Not Here to Be Popular”
November 1, 2013
In November 2012, Junko Tashiro traveled to Ghana under an Acumen Global Fellowship to help launch a social venture aimed at empowering smallholding rice farmers. In her second report, Tashiro describes the nearly overwhelming challenges she faced on her arrival and the life-changing experiences by which she learned to surmount them.
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I awoke to the unfamiliar sight of a blank, white concrete ceiling. I ached all over and could barely move; my body felt like lead. My head throbbed, and my mind was in a fog. As I lowered my gaze, I noticed the IV tubing taped to my arm. Beyond my feet, I could see an open window with a green screen. There was no curtain, nor any hint of a breeze coming through it. Outside, it was dazzlingly bright; inside, the air was stifling. The smell of rubbing alcohol filled the small hospital room.
On the last Sunday in November, just 10 days after arriving in Ghana as an Acumen Global Fellow, I had been taken to the local hospital in the town of Sogakope, my post for the next nine months. It was a public hospital and fairly large for rural Ghana. But because it was the weekend, not a single doctor was on duty.
A nurse walked in. “Oh, you’re awake,” she said. “I’m afraid the doctors aren’t here today, so we can’t really examine you or provide treatment. But I’m going to give you an emergency injection of quinine* before it’s too late, in case you have malaria.” The nurse quickly produced a syringe, and I watched the glinting needle approach. Without thinking, I pushed her hand away.
The following morning I was transported to a modern clinic in Accra, where a blood test revealed that I was suffering not from malaria but from some unexplained systemic inflammation. The doctor assured me I would recover with a week of treatment and bed rest.
It was a miserable way to start my assignment. The more my colleagues worried over me, the more embarrassed I felt. This is what it means to feel like crawling into a hole, I thought.
A week and a half earlier, I had arrived at the GADCO Farm office in Sogakope at the end of a two-hour taxi ride from Accra. The tiny office was at the top of a staircase tacked onto a large warehouse filled with bags of agrichemicals and fertilizer. Feeling a bit nervous, I knocked on the door, but the noise emanating from the workshop set up in one corner of the warehouse made it difficult to hear. I pushed the door open to see several staff glance up from their work, then immediately go back to what they were doing. They had no idea who I was, nor did they seem very interested.
“Hi, how are you doing, everyone,” I began. “I’m Junko, and I’m going to be working as a member of the GADCO team starting today. I’ve been sent here to launch the Copa Connect program to promote collaboration with smallholders. I look forward to working with you all!”
A few of them returned my greeting or raised their hands a bit awkwardly. It was soon apparent that no one really knew who I was or what I was doing there. The main reason was probably that GADCO’s senior executives overseas—the people to whom I reported—did not have a chance to formally inform the local team of my arrival.
The whole concept of sourcing from smallholders was foreign to the local, nucleus farm operations team, and Copa Connect meant nothing at all to them, as the program was completely new and I was the sole team member. Apart from that, the all-male staff was probably confused by the idea of a non-local woman suddenly entering their midst in the capacity of a senior manager. Long after I had introduced myself, some of them remained under the impression that I was either an outside consultant or someone sent from Human Resources, or possibly a short-term intern dispatched by a GADCO investor.
I felt it was important to integrate myself into the local team, but I also felt pressured to get down to work as quickly as possible and prove myself through deliverables. This was not a case of pressure from my supervisors overseas; I simply felt that the best way to win the local team’s trust while building the support I would need to launch the new program successfully was to start accomplishing my mandate.
The naked truth, though, was that I knew next to nothing about the ins and outs of rice cultivation and the circumstances of smallholders in Ghana, not to mention GADCO’s nucleus farm operations and team dynamics. Moreover, I was struggling to adjust to the Ghanaian climate and establish my own living and working environment in Sogakope, where there was so little access to the goods and services that I had taken for granted all my life. And yet, it was obvious that nothing would happen unless I got to work visiting farms, talking to people, and gathering information.
That said, none of this could be done without help from the local team. I hesitated to ask for their support, as almost everyone was already extremely busy, working seven days a week (there are no weekends off for farmers!). My compunctions grew by the day until I was agonizing over every question or request, however small.
As the stress mounted, I found it more and more difficult to cope with my surroundings. The office was so cramped that if seven or eight people showed up, there was no more space. Each time the electricity went off, the temperature inside the ferroconcrete building soared, making it hard to think straight or work efficiently. Occasionally I saw colleagues collapsed at their desks. One of the biggest challenges for me was the lack of sanitary facilities. As there was no running water in the office, one was obliged to do one’s business on the ground outside the warehouse. For privacy, there were three panels of corrugated metal, about neck high, that left one’s back exposed to view. Overcoming my embarrassment, I brought this problem up with my supervisors overseas and some local team members. They all urged me to permit myself more flexibility in my work routine and do whatever I needed to do so I would be able to work effectively; after all, the mission was the most important thing. Noting that other team members also came and went, and that it was not the sort of work that demanded my presence in the office each day, I resolved after the first week to appear at the office only when I had a particular reason to go in. Preoccupied with getting things done, I put efficiency ahead of other important priorities.
Friction and Courageous Conversations
During week two, I spent two or three days conducting a field study in a distant village accompanied by another GADCO manager. Returning to the company compound on Friday evening, I walked into the kitchen and was confronted by one of my colleagues. “Hey, why didn’t you tell me you were going to the field today? You should have asked for my company since you’re new here.” After pausing for a few seconds, he added, “Has it ever occurred to you that as you try to make your own situation better, you might be making everyone else’s worse? I have to put up with a lot, too, you know. Why should you get special treatment?”
Those words stung. I went back to my bungalow and curled up on my bed in a blanket, oblivious to the oppressive heat. My colleague’s words echoed in my mind, though I inwardly protested that that had never been my intention.
When I awoke the next morning, my face was burning, my body was shivering, and the ceiling was spinning above me. I was stricken with nausea and abdominal cramps and I could not function normally. The next day I was taken to the hospital. I had wanted so much to get off to a flying start—just like a sprinter at the starting blocks in a crouching position. But I lost my balance and fell hard. Perhaps I simply did not have enough “muscle”. Or then again, perhaps I had pushed myself too hard too fast, approaching it as a sprint instead of a marathon. In any case, here I was in a hospital bed, with so much left to do.
During the week or so that I spent convalescing in Accra, I immersed myself in reports and studies to learn more about rice cultivation and Ghana’s rice industry. I also began reviewing the preliminary data I had gathered during my first field study and figuring out how the Copa Connect concept would function in practice. As soon as I was well enough to go out on my own, I hailed a taxi and began calling on nonprofits and other Accra-based organizations that had knowledge to share about smallholder sourcing programs. Most important of all, however, was the time I spent reconsidering my approach to interpersonal relations and resolving to make a fresh start.
I thought back to the Adaptive Leadership retreat I had attended during the second week of the Acumen Global Fellows fall training in New York. One of the key takeaways had been the importance of empathy. Adaptive leadership, we learned, involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes—understanding the circumstances and values underlying their attitudes and considering what those people stand to lose by interacting with you and agreeing to a shift in course or change in environment. With all of that in mind, you need to identify common long-term goals and hold “courageous conversations” regarding the means of achieving them together. In retrospect, these seem like obvious prerequisites for building sound relationships with anyone. But after analyzing the clash with my new colleague in that context, I came away with a new resolve to empathize more and understand others better, even while keeping my own emotions in check.
(In the end, that colleague later made an invaluable contribution to the implementation of the pilot as a key member of the Copa Connect team, spending several months working with me to improve the lives of smallholders in Ghana.)
This is not to suggest that the rest of my mission was free from friction. In fact, as in any process of substantive change, conflicting interests and values collided repeatedly. At various times I found myself at odds with my colleagues, the partner organizations and investors supporting the program, and senior government officials with vastly greater knowledge, experience, and influence—and sometimes even with the very farmers for whom the program was conceived. These conflicts also often played themselves out as internal struggles within me. In time I learned to focus on communicating and sharing my mission and goals with others by consciously entering into the process of “courageous conversation,” as we had been taught to do in New York.
One of the most frustrating obstacles I encountered while working in Ghana—and one I encountered a great deal—was the issue of “entitlement,” or entrenched privileges. In Ghanaian society it is hard to accomplish anything at all without an official title and its associated privileges. Actions that encroach on people’s vested interests will not be regarded in a positive light, even if the goal is correcting existing inequities. If an initiative in some domain bears fruit, the person whose title appears to give him jurisdiction over that domain insists on taking all the credit. The higher up the hierarchy one goes within a given community or organization, or within the academic community or society as a whole, the more conspicuous this trend becomes.
This happened when I was working to implement a pilot program with the cooperation of some small, independent farmers enlisted in one of the local irrigation schemes sponsored by the government. From the beginning, the manager who had been put in charge of this irrigation scheme was intent on securing his own interests by controlling the farmers’ access to Copa Connect. He insisted that the farmers enlisted in his scheme had no need of a program like Copa Connect because they already had sufficient resources and services—though in fact, we knew from previous interviews with the farmers that the scheme he managed was performing very poorly owing to major problems with water-supply management and market access, and that it was particularly remiss in providing services and assistance to farmers.
The scheme manager claimed that the farmers were under his jurisdiction, and that even if any of them did want to participate, the final decision lay with him. If Copa Connect wanted to deal directly with the farmers, we would first need to submit a contract for his approval. I tried repeatedly to establish a meaningful dialogue with this scheme manager, but he seemed incapable of getting beyond his own interests.
Ghanaian society is extremely hierarchical, far more so even than Japan’s. It places a high premium on seniority and has a pronounced tendency toward authority. With this in mind, I decided to see if we could get the negotiations moving by talking to the scheme manager’s superiors and bringing their influence to bear. Once we had their backing, the scheme manager quickly changed his tune, and the program began to move forward. While appearing to cooperate on the surface, he would sometimes still resist our initiatives. The scheme manager’s support was a prerequisite to the program’s success, but I began to feel that continued negotiations with him would get us nowhere. I wondered if we might not be better off focusing on another irrigation scheme for our pilot; if we could showcase its success, then this scheme manager might abandon his irrational resistance. But to give up on this particular irrigation scheme for the time being would have meant letting down the farmers with whom we had already met—and abandoning my own conviction that it was the farmers’ right to choose, not the scheme manager’s.
I also came into conflict with one GADCO manager who was unable to keep his ego from interfering with the pilot launch. This manager was over 10 years older than me and a major figure in his native village, for which he was acting as our liaison. Out of his eagerness to recruit as many participants as possible, he often made promises to the farmers off the top of his head and informed them of “decisions” that we had yet even to discuss. This consequently led to confusion and later undermined the farmers’ trust in our company. He was also full of ideas about spin-off projects but for that very reason had a tendency to neglect his assigned job. Occasionally he even failed to show up for a planning meeting or a field visit because he was off following up on some side issue that had snagged his attention. As project leader, I spoke with him on several occasions about aligning with the goals of Copa Connect, work priorities, the dos and don’ts, and other matters related to liaising with the community, but nothing ever changed, and my frustration mounted.
Apparently, the frustration was mutual. One weekend, unable to contain his resentment, he ranted at me over the phone for 45 minutes. His basic complaints were that I, a newcomer, had refused to listen to him despite the fact that he, with his extensive experience and knowledge, knew all the answers, and as a result the entire project was headed in the wrong direction; that I was stealing his job; and that I was trying to claim all the credit. His anger continued to build, peaking around harvest time, when he spewed forth his vitriol in front of the farmers who were busy harvesting and shipping their yields, going so far as to try to stop the truck that I was riding.
This might have been a perfect occasion for initiating a “courageous conversation.” But in the end, I was only able to do little more than just express my anger and regret honestly and collide with him head-on. I might have lacked patience, but I also felt strongly that his priorities were misplaced, and that the importance and urgency of our work simply did not permit us to waste time and labor on people’s individual egos.
Not Here to Be Popular
I had always been eager to demonstrate my values on the ground and never imagined that delivering on that professional aspiration—or merely executing in the field what I previously considered simple tasks—would subject me to so much friction. Often I felt as if I were walking into the wind’s eye all alone toward some impossibly remote goal. At such times, it was the support of the other nine Global Fellows that helped keep me going. While the location and content of their projects varied, they had come face to face with similar problems and struggled with the same feelings, and their words of advice and encouragement were invaluable to me.
One of the most important words of wisdom I received came from Natalie, another Global Fellow. She had been assigned to the town of Gulu in northern Uganda, which is recovering from more than two decades of civil war, and was supervising an office staff of 35, as well as 50 buyers, in a program to source organic produce from 40,000 smallholders in the region. She was struggling to improve the efficiency of the supply chain and institute systems to improve communication and teamwork so as to achieve her goal of improving the lives of small farmers by growing a key social enterprise in a community scarred by war—and in that process she was meeting with friction from many directions. But as she reminded me, “We’re not here to be popular.”
Much of the time, we will feel alone and embattled. But when we remind ourselves of why we are here, we can see where our priorities should lie. However alone we may feel, however strong the opposing current may feel, and however often we may stumble, we need to get back up again and keep going.
These lessons are best summed up by the Acumen Manifesto:
It starts by standing with the poor, listening to voices unheard, and recognizing potential where others see despair.
It demands investing as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short. It makes capital work for us, not control us.
It thrives on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be. It’s having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.
It requires patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope. It’s leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption. Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.
Acumen: it’s the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world. Changing the way the world tackles poverty and building a world based on dignity.
* Despite its sometimes serious side effects, quinine is still frequently used to treat severe falciparum malaria, which is common in Ghana and other parts of West Africa. Severe falciparum malaria is a particularly lethal form of malaria that can worsen rapidly if not promptly diaｓgnosed and treated.