(IAP ’18 EXPLORE) Sruthi Davuluri
I embarked on my journey to Ghana on January 1st 2018, from SF to Amsterdam to Accra. Just a year prior, on Jan 1st, 2017, I was bolting out the lyrics to Toto’s Africa in the streets of Edinburgh. Even before I knew it myself, it seems that this trip has been in the works this whole time.
Listening to the artist describe the meaning of his artwork
My friend from MIT, Sika, picked me up from the airport after waiting in a never-ending immigration line. I spent two days touring Accra with her; we visited Independence Square, the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, the market and the Cultural center. I got to pick up some gifts for my family,
My attempt at cooking okra stew
practice my haggling, and play tourist. We even squeezed in an interview with an MIT alum who is working in the energy industry to start of the research we set out to do in Ghana. We were supposed to meet Sika’s mom for dinner, and she suggested a place that had Western food options. I argued that I wanted to try authentic Ghanaian food, so we relocated just for me. (Sorry Sika/your mom for being difficult) Perusing through the menu, I ordered fufu with light soup because “I have read so much about fufu, I have to try it!” I usually don’t mind the chicken broth when I order pho, but the taste of the meat (or fish) in the soup was really difficult for me to swallow. Well at least I tried it right?! For future adventures out to restaurants, I will stick to okra stew, thank you.
Urvashi and I graduated from Cal together! Now she’s working at Burro Brand
Jan 4, 2018
The drive from Accra to Koforidua was beautiful, and the driver pointed out the house where Bob Marley stayed! I reunited with my friend Urvashi and met everybody at Burro Brand, which is a social enterprise that sells rechargeable batteries, agricultural tools, and solar products to rural people in Ghana. I spent a lot of time learning about solar in Ghana, and in West Africa in general from the person at Burro in charge of the Pay-as-you-go solar pilot (also known as PayG). Burro Brand was piloting a new program where customers pay a down payment, and must complete regular payments in order to continue using the device. Most of the solar home systems available include lighting options, a method of charging one’s phone, and multiple accessories such as a radio, a flashlight and maybe even a television at an additional cost! I got to understand the different actors involved: the producer of the solar product itself, the agent in charge of the software necessary for the Pay-Go feature, the mobile money agent, and telecommunications company to remind customers of when they must pay. Once a company decides to use the Pay-Go feature, they are locked-in to certain partners and processes. I took the first week of my time to try to understand the solar industry in both West Africa and East Africa (which are immensely different), and the Pay-go industry in rural Ghana specifically. Meanwhile, I finished Bright Lights, No City, which is about the story of the founder’s experience starting Burro Brand. It was truly a special experience to read about the story while staying in the founder, Whit Alexander’s, room.
The Burro Brand Guest House had some guests over that weekend, and I tried to entertain one of the children who seemed really bored. We started playing ping-pong, and at first I was trying to go easy on him, because he is younger (I am very confident in my ping pong skills). About halfway I realized that I had underestimated him, and tried my best to catch up. This teenage boy beat me about seven games in a row. To me, this game of ping pong seemed like a metaphor for the way developed nations underestimate those in developing countries, and people in Africa, from a policy perspective.
The waste pickers collecting glass for the glass beads
One of my favorite memories from Koforidua was visiting one of the biggest bead markets in W Africa. I tried to understand the meaning behind different Akan symbols and jewelry from different parts of West Africa. We watched women sort through and pick up glass, which they would later turn into glass beads. Out of curiosity, we tried to gain a deeper understanding of the glass bead-making process. In return, we learned that the women simply followed the rainbow until the end, and dug and dug and dug up these necklaces and jewelry. You could have just told me it was confidential, M’adamfo!
Meanwhile, I got some practice drinking water out of sachetes, ordering Ghanaian food, learned some Twi, got a few dresses stiched, went on a few hikes, and made many new friends!
Thank you to my tailor for stitching two beautiful dresses for me!
On Friday, January 12, I took a trotro back to Accra to meet with my Professor, Libby McDonald. If somebody asked me “Why Ghana?!” in the future, I would admit that I chose to attend Ghana, out of all of the African countries, because I was meeting with my professor during a part of IAP of 2018. To be honest, this whole trip was spurred out of my desire to spend more time in Ghana than that allocated with Professor McDonald’s trip. She is working on the “Pickit Project,” in collaboration with Environment 360, Ashesi University, FanMilk, and Environment 360, which is intended to work with waste pickers of the Team region to help women to start and sustain their own businesses. Our program on financial management tools is one section within a larger program.
So we met on Jan, Friday the 12th, and planned the rest of the crazy week. On Saturday, we held a focus group with waste pickers in two different communities. We tried to understand their income patterns and spending habits, and to really understand their needs. Some of our most interesting findings we found include the fact that: out of all of the women we interviewed, all of them said that they dealt with the finances of the household. We conducted an income savings activity where the participants had to organize their income into several different categories: Food, Business, Education, Health, and Education. This activity was especially interesting to me, as I was reading Poor Economics, which is about the way people in poverty view these different spending habits, and the effect of different institutions that are set up to
facilitate in this process. (I am not doing a great job explaining, but I would highly recommend reading the book!) Many of the participants playing the game created a new category for Savings, which was not explicitly determined before conducting the activity. This shows the natural inclination of the waste pickers to save money, even if they are hiding it in a hole in their backyard. Finally, we learned that the women were investing a large portion of their income in the Business category, sometimes even more than what they were spending on food. This shows their natural inclination for entrepreneurship, which is truly special because I believe that the entrepreneurial spirit is something that you cannot teach in a classroom, but something that you are born with.
I learned a lot beyond the game, as well. Culturally, I found that Ghanaians really value the well being of the entire community, as a whole. I also learned that people tend to spend money as they get it. The reason why people drive recklessly around sharp turns and heavy traffic is because they leave everything up to God. What will happen will happen regardless, right? So why take this turn slowly?
Following the workshop on Friday, I had an amazing experience at one of the best Ethiopian
restaurants I had ever been to, while making new friends and meeting the owner of the restaurant. Then, my new friends and I watched a performed at Alliance Francaise, called Ebo Taylor. It was fun watching the musicians and all of the dancers, and getting a better sense of night life in Accra.
After working with a team of Ashesi Students on Sunday and reviewing the research we found the day prior, we narrowed down which companies/actors we wanted to speak with during the next few days. We met with Microfinance Institutes, Fidelity Bank, mobile money account holders, and different institutions that could help with our process. On Monday, I met with the founder of MoringaConnect, which helps moringa farmers in the North sell their products as both natural antioxidants, or a superfood if you will, along with cosmetic products. It is so rewarding to hear about all the amazing things that MIT alum have done all over the world. It encouraged me to hear Kwami’s success story – quick plug to check out some of their products – the tea is very tasty!
On Tuesday, I got to spend the morning giving a presentation to our female waste pickers of Tema on our findings from the workshop we previously held, and our plans moving forward. I was so happy to have the opportunity to speak with the women; I really wanted to make a lasting impact. I learned a lot from giving a presentation with multiple translators, such that your phrasing or tone will never be captured perfectly by your translator. And a lot of the times, you don’t even know! At one point, there was somebody translating my questions from English to Twi, someone to translate Twi to Ga, and then send the answer back from Ga to Twi to English. Aunty Esther snuck me away to get my nails painted, which made us late for our next appointment. In the afternoon, I met with Hayley Bron, of PEG, which is one of the successful Pay-As-You-Go Companies in Ghana, and now spreading to Cote de Voire. I learned about how their company picked up momentum, a recent switch they made in products, and difficulties that they had faced. Hayley told me that the directors are required to spend one week out in the field, with one of the sales representatives for at least one week during every financial quarter. During this conversation, I realized that I had spent too much of my time in Ghana in an office. I needed to go out and speak with the customers that these companies are targeting!
I remember feeling so amazing walking back to the office after this interview, with a FanYogo in my hand and a smile on my face. To be honest, this was one of my favorite days in Ghana. I got to work directly with the waste pickers of Tema, and learn more from PEG, one of the main providers of solar energy to rural Ghana.
On Wednesday, we visited Ashesi University, to meet with the entire team, to discuss our findings, and create a plan moving forward. We talked more about the financial management aspect of the PickIt Project. We planned a full-day workshop with the waste pickers to play a life-sized SikaGoro, or “Game of Money”, which will be very similar to the board game Life. After explaining the multiple aspects of financial management through this activity, we decided to give a presentation on the existing financial management tools that we see fit to meet their needs. Then, the waste pickers will take part of a design workshop to co-create the best management tool (or hybrid of multiple management tools) that will allow them to save their money in a sustainable manner. Work aside, I had lunch with Kofi, a previous Burro Brand intern, and learned more about the student experience at Ashesi University. I was pleased to see they had vegan options at the restaurant! It was fun strolling through their library and visiting their engineering laboratories. I talked to some of the students taking a controls & feedbacks course (one of my favorite classes at Cal) and the same tension testing apparatus that we played with in college. After our tour and visit of Ashesi University (which reminded me incredible of Stanford, UC-B’s rival!), we got dinner with the CSR representative from FanMilk.
On Thursday, January 18th, I had the very memorable experience of visiting Agbobloshie. As somebody who focused her Girl Scout Gold Award on starting an e-recycling center in her high school, this visit of the biggest electronic waste dump site in the world was very special to me. I put on my detective hat, and tried to uncover the mystery of how the supply chain of the electronic waste dump site operates, how people decide who receives what waste, and what the people do with it.
“You’re here to see Accra’s filth?” These words stung me, and I tried to explain that I valued the work that this waste picker does, and I was dying to learn more. From how I understand it, people come to dump anything; and it is not restricted to electronic waste. And it is almost a free-for-all, where you can collect whatever waste you decide to take. Then, it is somehow categorized: I saw piles for automobiles, computer desktops, bicycles, and more. After taking apart the products, extracting the useful parts, and sorting accordingly, they sell the productive parts like lithium and copper to any buyer they find, usually in Tema. Then, the parts that are deemed useless are burned in a large pile of scraps. As an environmentalist, watching a large amount of television screens, computer hard drives, and random household items being burned, small children walking about in merely nothing, and goats grazing all throughout, my heart ached for the environmental and health impacts that I can hardly do nothing about.
Following the Agbloboshie visit, I separated from the D-Lab group to conduct my own solar interview. I met with someone from Strategic Power Systems (SPS), which is one of the five subsidiaries of the larger holding company, Strategic Security Systems. SPS started by installing solar-powered street lights and is now one of the sole producers of solar panels in Ghana. Personally, I am a strong proponent for locally-produced goods. Most of the solar products that these companies provide were designed and produced in China. Therefore, the work that SPS is doing is very special and exciting to me. I got to meet one of the directors of the business administration of SPS, and she introduced me to the head engineer of the factory where they actually produce the solar panels. I was so ecstatic; it was my version of Charlie visiting the Chocolate Factory, and I could not have been happier. My guide, the head engineer named Stafford, was so patient with me and tickled my nerdy, engineering-curiosity of each nut and bolt of the factory. I had studied the production of solar panels, but it was so special to see how the raw materials were drawn together to create such a productive tool, such as a large 250-Watt Solar Panel. After my tour, I had the privilege of having dinner with the co-founder of PEG, understanding the difficulties they went through, the existing intricacies of their business model, and plans to expand to Cote de Voire. I think I lied earlier; this was one of my best days in Ghana.
Friday, Jan 19, 2018
Friday was a fun-day, to explore Accra after that long week of meetings and dinner meetings. After a nice long, exhausting run, we visited an art exhibit in Accra. We had a cool experience of discussing the meaning of some of the art with the artist himself. For example, this piece was made out of the 1 Pesawa coin, which most Ghanians deem as useless. By manipulating natural dyes and creative patterns, the artist organized the coins in a way that produced a very valuable piece of art. I always find it fascinating the way people take such cheap materials and produce something incredible. After visiting the art exhibit, haggling for some more presents for my friends/family, and trying some of the moringa smoothies sold by MoringaConnect, we were on the road to the beautiful Cape Coast.
Saturday Jan 20 – Jan 22 While there were intense women’s marches halfway across the world, I was struggling to understand the depths of colonialism, Christian missionaries, and the historic sites of the slave trade. To be honest, Cape Coast was one of the most beautiful, peaceful, isolated beaches I have ever been to. I really enjoyed reading my book, running on the beach, and collecting my thoughts. On Sunday, we visited KaKum National Park, which was filled with breathtaking, old forests and wildlife. Then, we visited the Cape Coast Castle, where the Europeans held prisoners during the slave trade.
After reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, I really felt like I related to the ancestors that were held here. I wanted to search on the floor for the lost treasures that Effia buried before she was thrown on board a slave ship. As an Indian who has a similar sentiment towards British Colonialism, I had a lot of introspective thoughts while visiting these historic sites.
Monday Jan 22, we took a trotro back to Madina; the drive reminded me a lot of PCH with the palm trees and ocean on one side, and mountains on the other. After reaching Accra, I separated from the group to take another trotro back to Koforidua, and return to the Burro Brand Guest House. In the time that I had been gone, they adopted a very young puppy! We solidified some of the details of the Pay-Go documentation we had been working on, and I dove deeper into their Pay-Go financing and data they will be collecting during the pilot. On Wednesday, we woke up early to do a field visit into the rural part of the Eastern Region. We conducted interviews with farmers, and tried to understand some of their lighting and irrigation needs. After a little malaria scare, I bid farewell and set off to the Volta Region by myself.
On Thursday, January 25th, 2018, I met with Ezekiel, one of the lead Sales Force Managers of PEG. We stayed in Battor, a small village near the Volta Region of Ghana. On Friday, he graciously took me to visit some of the existing customers and watched him make sales to new customers. To be honest, in addition to learning about how PEG operates, I learned a lot about sales and business operations that I do not have any experience with. I got to really talk to the customers, understand their likes and dislikes, and needs for future products. We spent a lot of time in a fishing village, where the community members did not have access to reliable electricity. A lot of the people we interviewed relied on PEG’s D-Light products as their sole source of light and power. Many of the women we interviewed paid off their products at a faster rate than requested, and ended up owning the product at a faster rate than expected. It was a truly special experience, something I could not have read in a book, speaking with and learning from the community members of the fishing village.
After the long day with the SFM, we went out to celebrate Ezekiel’s birthday. If there is one thing I can commend Ghana for, it would be the best dance hall music I had ever heard. And it is not just the music! They got the moves. There is a whole treasure of dance moves to be learned in Ghana – I would highly recommend a visit if you want to learn some new tricks. Even most Ghanaian children can move their body in a way most American adults cannot.
Finally, on Saturday, I traveled back to Tema with my new friends of Battor. Somehow, I crashed a wedding. I really appreciated all of the warmth, and happiness, and love in the air as the Ghanaians sang and danced during the ceremony. Then, I went to catch one of my last sunsets the Beach of
Accra. Did you know that the equator and Prime Meridian intersect a few hundred kilometers off of the Ghanaian coast line? ☼That would make Ghana the center of the world! I was definitely feeling emotional about leaving Ghana, and this fact made me very happy.
Last day in Ghana (for now): 28/01/2018
Sunday morning, I visited Jamestown, one of the oldest neighborhoods of Ghana. I watched some boys fishing, doing backflips, and smiling and laughing. I noticed all of the European architecture existing in this part of town, and how it contrasted with the newer, but more broken-down buildings. I watched some kids playing football after they visited Church, while enjoying my daily coconut. It amazed me that the 2 Cedis I paid every day for a coconut a day could provide somebody with solar powered light, a phone charger, and a radio. After visiting Jamestown, I adventured to the Achimota Forest Reserve by myself. It felt so rewarding to get away from the street noise, the marriage proposals, and people hissing or honking at me. This part of town had once been a part of
the Accra Zoo, but it was not used for people to pray in private. Since it was Sunday afternoon, I was completely alone. Cherishing the sound of silence, I embraced my surroundings and drew for a few hours. Once I was content, I stayed in the airport hotel on my last night. Thanks to the PKG fellowship, I could afford the conveniently located hotel. I swam in the pool until it closed, and savored one last Ghanaian meal and visit to the beach before embarking on my journey back to the States. I’m going to miss my daily coconuts, the fire red sunsets, the dance hall music, and all of my friends.
If I learned anything, is that you cannot stay anywhere for one month and expect to change anything. I’m really glad that I came in with realistic expectations (with the help of my advisors) to be a sponge, and not a catalyst. Thanks to the MIT connections (and specifically those of Joost Bonsen; that man knows someone doing interesting work in every country!) and my passion for learning more about energy from global perspectives, I don’t think traveling abroad will be the same ever again.