June 20, 2015
Many thanks to one of our 2015 Summer Fellows, Lila Holzman, for submitting this blog entry!
Akwaaba! Welcome! My name is Lila and I am Potential Energy’s Summer Fellow based here in Kumasi, Ghana, where I am desperately trying to pick up some phrases in the local language called Twi. So again, Akwaaba! Ete sen? How are you? Eye! Good!
After a short, but intense training session with Potential Energy’s passionate staff in Berkeley, I departed for Ghana to put into practice the business skills I’m learning in the classroom now that I’m halfway through my MBA program at Wharton. I arrived to the capital city Accra on the night of June 8th very jet-lagged and disoriented, but I hit the ground running nevertheless.
My first challenge early the next morning was to meet a fuel supplier to find out more about his business, purchase a sample of his clean biomass briquettes, and take it with me to Kumasi for testing. The meeting was fine and I was pleasantly surprised that the supplier was willing to meet me at my hotel so that I didn’t have to deal with finding his office. The sample was a bit larger than I expected, but I was able to fit the 25kg (55 pounds!) in a large plastic bag I had with me, carry it when necessary (great workout), and check it as a piece of luggage on a domestic flight from Accra to Kumasi. Not only did I get the normal stares for being white, but I got the added expressions of genuine surprise from people confused at my baggage.
Imagine a tall blond girl with a huge backpack on my back, a smaller backpack hanging off one shoulder, my purse strapped across my other shoulder, and carrying this in my arms. Quite a sight!
Still thankful they let me bring my big load on this small airplane.
Landing in Kumasi.
After settling in Kumasi, I began work with Potential Energy’s partners here at a local improved stove manufacturing company called Man and Man (both father and son are nick-named “Man,” hence the name). This company is open to working with PE to expand their stove offerings and promote advanced models in addition to their normal substantial workload. My partners are named Michael and Overath, and the more I get to know them, the more I like them. They are hard-working, kind, care about issues like poverty, health, and the environment, and they have great laughs. This is important considering I fully believe the success of this pilot project (or any development initiative) depends a great deal on people from very different cultures and backgrounds coming together on a shared goal – a concept I learned well as Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama.
Overath and Michael teaching me how to eat local fufu.
Michael and Overath explaining that this stove will make less smoke and use less fuel.
But the work and the environment are challenging. The first major hiccup I’ve experienced is that while the stoves were supposed to arrive before I got here, they are only now being prepared for release from customs. This surprise has caused us a considerable amount of unexpected work and has delayed much of the initial work we’d planned for my first two weeks. Throughout this time, additional challenges continued to pop up. Our only stove for demonstrations is old and malfunctioning. Ghana’s electricity rationing causes power cuts at random and inconvenient times, disrupting our schedules and inhibiting Man and Man’s manufacturing productivity such that they are running into money troubles. Everyone in Ghana tends to show up for meetings 1-4 hours later than planned (or sometimes they just don’t show up). I feel I miss out on communicating effectively with our beneficiaries because I can’t speak the local language. Etc. Often, I’ve thought of a phrase that I remember hearing PE Executive Director Michelle use during our training: “It is what it is.” To me, this phrase has two sides to it. One side could seem a little pessimistic in the sense that there are some things that you can’t change so it’s not worth trying. But I view it more positively. To me, “it is what it is” notes that in order to achieve progress in a foreign environment, we have to adapt and acknowledge that there are differences and challenges, but that does not mean we should give up. It means we should work with what we have and keep going.
Overath kicking off a Focus Group that we had to cut short due to technical difficulties.
Michael stopping to help a friend who got his front wheel stuck in a gutter.
So that is exactly what we’ve been doing. We have continued working and planning as best we are able. Then at the end of my second week, we received the good news that our stoves should clear customs very soon and be in our possession by early next week. It truly surprised me how abruptly this news came after so much time spent worrying, planning, coordinating, and feeling frustrated. And then just like that, the issue seemed resolved. It made me realize that while we had worked with our reality that our new stoves were stuck, one of our “it is what it is” challenges suddenly “wasn’t!” With this important obstacle removed, we can now move on and continue making progress. And while not all problems can be so immediately resolved, it is important to keep at it and work through them however we can.
Carrying wood for cooking long distances is typical daily work. For this woman, “it is what it is,” until it isn’t …