Thursday, February 2, 2012

Day 13

I’m sitting here in a day hotel room they have booked for us to use as we come and go on our own schedules this afternoon .  It’s our last day in Ghana.  We leave for the airport and then England later tonight.  As a bonus, we will be attending a reception at the Canadian High Commission before ducking out to the airport.  Cutting it a bit close, but how can we pass up that opportunity?!

We all noted how it’s hard to believe that two weeks have passed.  For most, the days were long. The conditions rough (but not so rough as those who live here, especially in the villages and remote areas).   Coaches were up and going by 8 am, and often working on their reports and recommendations til later in the evening.  A bit of food and refreshment and then off to bed to start it all again.  My own schedule didn’t involve coaching, but I was averaging 3-4 visits a day (one day five), which was challenging all on its own. Still … looking back, the time just flew by. 

So much we have learned.  So much we realize that we didn’t see or experience.  Plus … we all realized the privileged existence we have had here in this country.  We had dedicated drivers, essentially cultural liaisons, to get us around and help us navigate a very foreign culture – and to help us avoid the bigger mistakes we could have made.  (Let’s not talk about all the tiny ones we probably made along the way!!)  CUA - the Ghana credit union central - and CCA worked hard to pre-plan as much as they could and work out the biggest kinks.  (Not always successfully, but they tried!)  If we’d tried to come in to as individuals, our level of access, mobility and general comfort would not have been nearly so successful.  And our results would have probably reflected that, too.

This morning was spent at CUA, briefing the management team there on the experiences of the coaching teams and the key recommendations they made to each of the local credit unions.  I also was granted a few moments to reflect on my learnings, and didn’t realize til then what I had, in fact, experienced.  It will take me a few more days, possibly weeks, to process it all.  I took copious notes of the coaches’ stories, so this should help to round out some of my own reports and possible articles.  We will have our own team debriefing in London when we hook up again with the teams from Uganda and Malawi. That is when I will help the teams focus the key elements of the stories they’ll be presenting to various audiences once they are home.

Also in the morning meeting: we sang the credit union song (a truncated version of It’s a Small World – seriously!!), had an opening and closing prayer and a few of the CUA staff made some presentations.   CUA also presented us with thank you gifts, lovely ceremonial scarves.   Then, off to lunch at a local restaurant.

Once we’d eaten (90% of us had chicken and rice, our fall-back meal), we dispersed to savour our last moments in Accra.  I joined the Irish contingent and went to a market to see what trinkets I could purchase. Notice to my nieces – you SCORED!)  Others went swimming, while still others found food and drink to pass the time.

I am sitting here in the common hotel room just getting ready to head to the Canadian High Commission.  I have packed and repacked, and managed to get my two suitcases into one weighing marginally less than the maximum allowed. It will be so much easier to navigate the tube in London as we make our way to the hotel from Heathrow using only public transit.  I am in my travelling clothes – long pants and long shirt.  The air conditioning is keeping me comfortable; how soon will I regret my clothing choices when I venture into the city again, I wonder.

So sad it is over.  I will miss this place. The  things I have seen and done here have made some preconceptions of mine soften, and given me a new part of the world to explore, if only through Google and the Internet.

Talk to you soon,

Day 12

Up and out by 7.30 am. Visited a local credit union that had received coaches a number of years ago, and then visited a tiny, tiny credit union that had sent its women manager to Canada as part of the Women's Mentorship Program.   Then ... literally drove til 10.30 pm to get back to main hotel in Accra where all the Ghana coaches were assembling before heading off to a local debrief, our visit to the High Commission and then the flight to Heathrow.

Was absolutely exhausted from sitting so long.  Drove through some great rural areas at night where the road side stands were lit by candles, flaming torches or the occasional CFL light bulb.  So nice to see the spots of lights near the road and further back.  It was soccer night - Ghana was playing Guinea in the African National championships.  The game ended up tied 1-1.  In every village we passed, every stand with a TV had a crowd of locals gathered around watching the game.  Houses that looked like the most primitive shelters glowed from the light of a TV.  It made me smile. And another reminder that all is not always what it seems.

Passed a number of nearly empty outdoor church services.  Football/soccer beat out the Lord by a long shot, at least for this evening.

Got back to the Paloma hotel and met up with my buddies, who had been drinking for quite a few hours.  Nothing more needs to be said there!  :-)

Am looking forward to my last day in Ghana.  So there will be at least one more post on our adventures here.  Plus ... I will have a few posts on my reflections ... and a summary of my trip to London.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Providing a hand up, rather than a hand-out

Even in Ghana, it’s the real thing!
It normally takes a bit of effort to get me motivated on a Monday morning. Not today!

After battling the local traffic jams, we ended up at Mount Zion Co-operative Credit Union in Bechem.  The credit union, formerly called Bechem School for the Deaf CCU,  was also being visited by Anthony and Fintan, two CCA coaches who were about to begin two days of coaching and mentoring the manager and board.  I had a few moments to observe them in action as they initially met with Ernest, the manager. Their style was easy going and laid back.  It will be interesting to see what suggestions and tips their final report to the manager and board will contain.

From Bechem, we drove to Dormaa, to spend some time at Dormaa Teacher’s CCU, a thriving, five-branch operation.  I met with Patricia, the acting CEO, and learned of their success with the Youth Savings Program, a way to encourage savings in Ghana’s young people, while also grooming new members for the credit union.

Me and Youth Savings Club members at Dormaa SHS.

One of their managers took me to Dormaa Senior High School, which has more than 500 students enrolled in the YSP.  I spent some time with some of the students, and like my earlier visit to Sege, I found the students polite and interested, but offered little information about their involvement in the Youth Savings Program unless I pointedly asked one person a specific question.

Again, like in Sege, once I got the students outside, their personalities exploded.  I got them to pose for a number of photographs; my favourite is the one with their hands in the air in what we have called our ‘bonsai’ pose.  [a long story, suffice to say that it began with the coaches at CCA in Ottawa having fun during their own photo session].  I also got the Headmistress of the school to bonsai.  [And some other school children who were waiting for their bus outside my hotel earlier in the morning!!] Fun all around.

Headmistress of Dormaa Senior High School Margaret Otchere Pomaah
Teacher and Youth Savings Program Co-ordinator Emmanuel Obeng Asare,
and CUA staff member, Clara Nyarkoah.

CCA coaches Fintan & Anthony  and staff at Mount Zion Co-operative Credit Union.

The original bonsai pose.

I ended up staying at the same hotel as Anthony and Fintan, so we all met for dinner.  I had the most Ghanaian of dishes:  Pineapple chicken, essentially Chinese food.  But it was sooooo good!

Things are starting to wind down for this coaching mission and there are so many other stories to tell – and many more to experience.  What doesn’t get blogged will get reported by CCA, myself, the coaches and others.  This is a country rich with heritage, pride and determination.  I feel so blessed to be a part of this mission and to be able to provide a hand up to these wonderful people, rather than a hand-out.

Thanks for being part of this!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Checking in on the coaches

In addition to the CCA coaches in Ghana, teams are also mentoring SACCOs (savings
and credit co-ops) in Uganda and Malawi.

Here are excerpts from some of those coaches. To read the full posts, click on the link shown, and to link to other coaches’ blogs, use the links at right.

A beautiful beach in Karonga.
Heidi Hyokki, Interior Savings, BC

Well we had another long journey today as we travelled 4 hours north to the city of Karonga. I had no idea how beautiful a drive it was going to be!  You come down a winding road from high in the mountains and as far as the eye can see is this beautiful lake with a white sandy beach bordering its shore.

We stopped in at the Karonga Teacher's SACCO late this afternoon to meet their President and Manageress....they were so warm and welcoming! We are all set now to start work first thing in the morning and they are so excited to be chosen as one of the SACCOS to have Canadian Coaches.....they referred to us as International pressure or anything.....I know we will work really hard the next 2 days to help them in as many ways possible.

Bev and David visit a savings and credit co-op in Malawi.
Bev Maxim, retired, SK, and David Domes, Sanford Credit Union, MB

The day spent with the MUDI Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO) on Wednesday was like old home week for us Prairie folk. 

This SACCO has grown from their original location operating out of a 40 foot shipping container into a facility that Dave says is about the size of his credit union office in Manitoba.  The Board, staff and 2,700 members are understandably very proud of this accomplishment and they have had many visitors from near and far.   Mercy, the general manager, invited us to sign the guest book that she keeps (she was surprised and pleased to learn that Bev also keeps a guest book at home).   Looking through the pages of previous visitors it became apparent that the world of co-operatives is indeed small.  We see that many people that have Canadian Prairie roots have walked through the door before us. 

Karen McBride, Concentra Financial, SK

Today Craig, Quay Que (our driver) and I went on the Dodi Princess boat cruise up Lake Volta to Dodi Island and back.  When we got to Dodi Island they gave us 20 minutes to walk on the island. It turned out to be very disturbing because the people from the nearby village come to this part of the island when a boat is coming and all the tiny children follow you along the path, begging for money. They were all in need, but it was not possible to give because there are so many of them and they swarm anyone who takes their wallet out.

What they need is a cooperative that sets up one donation bucket at the dock and then share it among the villagers. They had dancers and singers at the dock so all they needed was to organize themselves so people had a way to give.

When we got to the dock, a fellow we had asked to make us woven bracelets for our family and friends had managed to complete all but about 8 of the 43 we asked him to do. Basically he had to weave the names into the bracelets so I am sure his fingers were ready to fall off! He brought the rest to the hotel tonight...a very nice young man. Tomorrow we are off to Somanya for two days and then back to Accra.  We are looking forward to learning about Somanya Community Credit Union and hoping we can offer them something of value.

Employees at Kebisoni are working hard to improve the lives of members.
Deb Edwards, Coastal Community Credit Union, BC

On Thursday we met with the Kebisoni SACCO to provide our report. The board, management and some staff were in attendance. It was a national holiday however the SACCO was open for the morning and quite busy as we began our report. The board and management were very receptive and appreciated our recommendations. They were pleased to hear we thought they had good leadership and practices.

The real fun began after the meeting concluded. They invited us to drink some pop with them and explained when you are invited to share you are being invited to share in love. It was like being welcomed into their family.

It was a very special day, I feel truly blessed to have shared this experience with warm, caring, individuals. They are in fact a lot like our credit union board and employees. They want to help the members to improve their living.  They want to do it in a caring and thoughtful way, bringing value to the relationship. They want to improve the economic condition of their communities and through their credit union and cooperative lift their families and communities out of poverty and into prosperity.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Out and about

CCA has been a partner with CUA in Ghana since 1988.
While the coaches are visiting credit unions and providing the managers and boards with the benefits of their experience, I am moving about the area learning more about the credit union system here, and experiencing the interactions between CUA, CCA, the credit unions and their memberships.

Yesterday I visited a credit union based in the Ghana Broadcasting System, the national TV network.  The Broadcasting Employee’s Co-operative Credit Union membership is restricted to GBS employees, and very recently, to their families.  (They are talking about expanding their membership further so that they have a larger base of savings and loan activity.)  Theresah, the manager, is a graduate of CCA’s Women’s Mentorship program.  In 2009 she visited a British Columbia credit union and took part in sessions CCA hosted at its Ottawa offices. 

Theresah, with the support of her board, implemented many changes to her CU based on what she saw and learned in Canada.  While her board was initially resistant to many of the changes that their manager brought back, the lending policies and day to day operational items she proposed have made significant differences.  Her credit union’s liquidity and loan losses have both improved, resulting in increased profitability and ongoing sustainability for the organization.  Something that the board secretary confided might have been in jeopardy otherwise.

An award given to Sege CU.
Today, I had a warm welcome at Sege Community Co-operative and Credit Union.  The manager, Mr S.E. Doku Tanihu, proudly showed me around his offices, pointing out the many awards they had won, and telling me about the recent renovations they had conducted.  Barb Dalzell and Dennis Matthies are the two CCA coaches who have been working with the board and manager.  Today is the day that the coaches present their report to the credit union.  And while they wouldn’t tell me what it contained, wanting the board to see it first, other coaches’ reports generally contain one or two relatively simple things that credit unions can do to decrease loan losses or increase efficiency.  Reports also often contain suggestions for other items that can be addressed in a more long-term or strategic fashion.

I asked Mr Tanihu what suggestions he would have for Canadian credit unions.  He gave me three:
  • Know your member.  Be able to lend on the character of the person, not just what is on paper.
  • Look at the members’ ability to pay back the loan.
  • Don’t lend more than 2-3 times a member’s security.
All very sound practices indeed!

After I left the credit union, I went to the local high school.  Sege CU has a Youth Savings Club  program (YSC) with the high school, where about 180 students learn the habit of savings, and begin to understand the value of having a small financial cushion for the future, for emergencies or to buy merchandise.  I spent some time with 80 or so of the students in one of their classrooms. 

I had wanted to pick their brains, focus group style, on what the YSC has meant to them.  The education system is very ‘rigid’ where the teacher teaches and the students learn, unlike our more free-form learning style where teachers and students interact much more informally.  My questions about YSC and savings turned into more of a Q&A session on Canada.  (Oh, how I wished I’d remembered more of my Canadian history courses!!!).

High school students.
The questions that they asked me were quite insightful.  They asked about currency, elections, the weather, our education system, the weather, our languages and culture and, of course, immigration.  Some of their questions surprised me – can we move freely about the country, what is important to us, our national symbols.  And then they asked me what our hardships were.  I had to pause.  The annoyances and “hardships” in our lives are in most cases trivial compared to what many of them and their families have experienced.  I was honest and told them that Canada was a wealthy country and we don’t often have weather or military challenges. They were surprised at our welfare mentality, and I am not quite sure they understood that the government takes almost half our income to provide our various safety nets and infrastructure.   VERY HUMBLING.

Lots of photos and laughing after the session.  Quite refreshing.  It was the best part of my trip so far!!!

Lots more to tell, but many more days to expand on things.

Be well.

Things I have learned

A little girl drinking local water, which comes in plastic bags.
  • Local water comes in plastic bags that look like a small pillow.  As one local girl told me, I need to drink “water water” which comes in bottles.  The local water causes … well you know …
  • Star beer (recommended to me by Jim B and many others) is good and usually comes in large bottles, maybe 750 mL.  I have found Savannah cider to be good as I’m not really a drinker.  The main pop here seems to be Fanta Orange, Coke, Coke Light (not Diet Coke) and Sprite. 
  • Everything is sold in small black bags here.  Most people just drop their bags and other trash on the street when they’re done with them. A bit disconcerting …
  • Traffic is insane. Think of the Gardiner at 8.00am. That is the way most major streets are from dusk til dawn.  Horrible, horrible traffic.
  • Everyone is so friendly. A smile and a hello, plus a handshake.  It is always good to inquire about one’s health and family.
Game day.
Traffic in the capital city.
Laundry day.

Short and sweet today.

Talk soon,

P.S. While CUA is aware of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives, few if any local credit unions know of the International Year.  One billion people world-wide are members of credit unions and co-ops, including those in Africa.  I am hoping to increase IYC awareness, one CU at a time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Things are beginning to happen

The Ghana coaches plot their course through Accra, Ghana.
After arriving on Saturday, the Ghana coaches spent Sunday walking through parts of the city of Accra.  Many shops and road side stands were closed, so road and pedestrian traffic was relatively light.  It was a good way for the Canadians to get used to things here. 

The crush of people on Monday was a completely different matter.  Traffic and activity that would be completely at home at Young and Bloor at 8:30 am or 4:30 pm.  

After our rest day, we began the week with a briefing by CUA, the Ghana Co-operative and Credit Union Association (similar in many ways to a provincial or national credit union central).  CUA’s role is to support and guide the local credit unions (CU’s), provide training, technical support, assist with bylaws and policies, and work with regulators to enact and guide co-op legislation.  This is often grassroots stuff (they even provide stationery and passbooks) – and very effective!! 

CCA has been a partner with CUA in Ghana since 1988, providing development and training funds, and channeling CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) funding into the region.  The coaching project, along with others such as the Women’s Mentorship Program, are the result of CCA’s partnerships with CUA.

There are 411 credit unions in Ghana, plus another 114 study groups that are not affiliated with CUA, and are usually in-development credit unions that have not yet met CUA standards.  Many credit unions are quite small, often a manager and a handful of staff members.  In many cases, the board of directors is quite involved in all aspects of the CU.

Credit unions in Ghana are the same as, but very different from, Canadian credit unions.  They are both financial co-operatives and follow the seven co-operative principles.  But while our CUs are heavily regulated and generally provide a wide range of products and services to its membership, most local CU’s are savings and loans, and financial coaches.  The CU legislation is decades old and out-dated; new changes have yet to be proclaimed which can be limiting to both CUA and the CUs. 

The Ghana coaches at CUA.
Ghana credit unions are intimately linked to their communities through a deeply ingrained community economic development mentality that is cultural and generations old.  If these CU’s didn’t exist, many, many people (generally low income, but not always) would not have access to financial services. Until recently, there hasn’t been a culture of savings in Ghana, so the local CUs and CUA are working to change that.  There are banks, but most CU members wouldn’t qualify to become bank customers.

And the credit union’s loans – these are micro-loans,… usually 2-3 times the amount of shares or savings a member has held in the credit union.  We are talking hundreds of cedis, not thousands or millions.  (1 USD = 1.67 Ghana cedis.)  This is grassroots CED; microfinancing at its most pure.

By the afternoon, the coaches were itching to get out of CUA and into their first postings.  Each team of coaches has been scheduled for two-day visits at three credit unions each.  The furthest teams would have to stay overnight mid-way, through their journey but a few coaches were able to reach their destinations on Monday.  The rest would be there early on Tuesday so they could get in their full two-days of mentoring and coaching.  Many of the teams have blogs, and they are linked at the right side of this screen.  From time to time, I will be linking or quoting from one of their entries.

AS AN ASIDE:  African time is different than North American time.  9am is usually understood to be 9am ISH.  With the ISH almost always being later rather than earlier.  The coaches all were prepared for this, but seeing it in action and experiencing it takes a bit of getting used to.  We all know that we should ‘think African’ and by the end of this mission, I’m sure we’ll all be fully indoctrinated in their way of thinking about time.  (I wonder how long it will take us in our jobs to return to “normal”?)

Til next time,

Monday, January 23, 2012

Arrival in Africa

Life is good, Mark.
We made it!  After 17+ hours of travel, our group of Ghana coaches arrived safely in Accra.  The coaches for Uganda and Malawi scattered during our stop over at Heathrow in the UK– and had many more hours of travel - but our team have settled in Ghana as a group for now.

Africa.  Deep, dark, exotic.  Yes!  But also a land of diversity and many contrasts.  We are stationed in Accra, the capital city of Ghana to get ourselves acclimatized and sorted out.  We are a group of 14: six pairs of two coaches, me, as communications liaison, and Anna Brown who is the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) Program Officer for Africa.  I personally am staying in Accra for a few more days while the Ghana coaches are moving about the country. 

Ghana is a wealthy country by African standards, and Accra is a wealthy city by those same standards.  Envision some of the side streets in downtown Winnipeg, MB, or London, ON and you have the general idea.  There are many cars – traffic is horrendous – and you would recognize many of the brand names – BMW, Mercedes, Hyundai, Toyota, Ford, Kia.  People sell things on the street, on the side of the road and congregate at stop lights and intersections.  These are legitimate businesses, generally selling good quality food and merchandise – don’t think of squeegee-kids or homeless people hawking garage sale cast-offs.  These are Micro-businesses – and it is often credit unions in their role as micro-finance providers that help fund and support them.

Of course there are the ‘sketchy’ areas, and areas of abject poverty in this city, and I don’t pretend to assume that the whole country is like its capital city.  Still, in my very limited experiences and hearing from the coaches stationed throughout Ghana, the picture that we have (often shaped by those ‘world-vision’-type TV commercials) is an incomplete view of this part of Africa.  As I move about the country, I’ll let you know how my vision is changing. But for now, in this vibrant city of Accra, life ain’t too bad.

Ghana coaches are placed in these parts of the country and are each visiting three credit unions – Western (Erin and Elaine); Upper East (Scott and Brian); Northern (Mike and Mary); Eastern (Karen and Craig); Tema (Dennis and Barb); and Brong Ahafo (Anthony and Fintan).  Over the next days, I’ll try to share some of their stories with you and link you to their blogs.

I’ll talk with you soon,

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mark Ventry welcomes you to the Africa 2012 Coaching Blog

Twenty-two credit union professionals from nine provinces are busily preparing for their Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA) coaching assignments in Ghana, Malawi and Uganda. After training and briefing in Ottawa January 17-20, they head off to Africa, arriving on January 21.

Actually, 23 people will be part of this mission. 22 coaches and me.  Unlike those two teams of eleven, who will provide hands-on coaching and mentorship to credit union members and staff, I will be providing communications support for the entire group (before during and after their time in Africa). I’ll be travelling throughout Ghana during our two-week stay (unfortunately I will not be visiting Malawi and Uganda), throwing light on those I'm travelling with, highlighting the coaches and credit unions I meet, and describing my experiences in this very exciting, very exotic country.

The On Co-op team cut a celebratory cake during the official Canadian launch of the International Year of Co-operatives on Thursday, January 12, 2012.  Ontario celebrations were held in Guelph, with events taking place at City Hall and The Co-operators head office. Left to right: Audrey Aczel, Mark Ventry, Barry Hannah (Board Chair), Kerr Smith, Julia Buchan, Peter Cameron, Jennifer Ross.
This mission is especially important to me as it takes place during the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives. The theme of the International Year is, “co-operative enterprises build a better world” and the team will be seeing that – and literally helping to make that happen – while in Africa. Over the next few weeks, you’ll learn more about the mission, the credit unions we’re visiting, the coaching teams and me. I expect that the themes of building a better world and strengthening communities will flow through many of my blog postings and those of our coaches throughout our stay.

I will be contributing regularly to this blog -- hopefully daily if my schedule and technology permit.  I think you find it entertaining, informative and thought-provoking.  Whenever possible, I will link to the coaches’ blogs or at least summarize some of their comments in this space so you can learn about their experiences, too. This will be my first time in Africa (and my first time accompanying a coaching mission) so you’ll be learning about the country, its people and the good work that local credit unions do at exactly the same time I will.

In ‘real life’ I am the Co-op Community Manager for the Ontario Co-operative Association, based in Guelph, Ontario. On Co-op is one of the country’s provincial co-operative organizations, and has a mission to lead, cultivate and connect Ontario’s 1300 co-ops.  We are a small and energetic team, and work hard to support Ontario’s existing co-ops and help create a landscape that is favourable to the creation and expansion of co-operative business enterprises. My role at On Co-op includes marketing and communication, so taking part in this coaching assignment is a good fit. 

We all are embarking on an incredible adventure that starts in just a few days.  I’m glad you’re coming along, and I look forward to spending time with you over the next few weeks!

Talk to you soon.