The Girl With the Salidaga

One of my friends came to visit from The States recently and during her visit there is one instance that sticks in my mind.  We were riding the bus from Bamako to Sevare when unsurprisingly our bus broke down in Segou.  I had to go to the bathroom and so I asked around.  One of the guys sitting there told me where the outhouse was so I headed out back.  As I was walking a small shadow came running up to me out of the darkness.  A cute little girl who couldn’t have been older than 3 years old had run over so she could bring me a salidaga (it’s like a tea kettle but people here use it to wipe their butts and wash their hands).  We exchanged pleasantries and then I went to the bathroom.  As I got out I saw her again sitting with her mom and siblings filling up other salidagas.  I gave her 100 CFA (about 20 cents) without thinking twice, she thanked me politely, and I was on my way back over to my friend.

I don’t know why but this experience really bothered me.  That girl should have been home with her mom playing with toys or sleeping but instead she was sitting in the dark at a bus stop helping strangers go to the bathroom.  It really makes me think about how lucky I am to have been born in America and sad at the same time thinking there are more children like her running around in the darkness.  It makes me wonder if anything can be done to help those who don’t even know they need help.  Who will fight for the children in the dark?

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How’s Mali?

It’s strange being a Peace Corps volunteer. It’s such a rich and crazy experience that there are very few people who can truly understand what it means to be a volunteer. The volunteers who were here in Mali when they started sending volunteers here 40 years have completely different experiences from those of us who are here now. The world is changing and so too is Mali. This might be one of the few countries left in the world where volunteers can come for the “real Peace Corps experience.” Even though I roughed it for a few months during my training I can’t say that I live like how I imagined. I don’t live in a hut in some village far away from paved roads. Instead I live in a town with a few paved roads, my house in concrete with an aluminum roof, I have electricity, and I have running water. It doesn’t compare to anything back in the States but here it’s pretty nice.

Over the course of two years people have asked me different questions. Before I left it was “are you ready?” I don’t think anyone’s ever ready for this experience. I remember the first time I was dropped off in my training village. It was a completely immersive experience that was sink or swim. So I dove in head first and luckily I had a great family who took care of me, I picked up the language pretty quickly, and things ended up fine. But it was still scary as hell. Then the question changed to “How’s Mali?” Mali is hot, dry, and there’s very little here. People are super friendly and once you get used to it it’s pretty much like life back home (although the breaking-in period can take a while). There are things that used to surprise me like the way women would just whip out their boobs and feed their babies, the children barely old enough to stand who have babies strapped to their backs, and the donkeys that are just wandering around but now it’s just a part of daily life. It don’t phase me no mo. I wonder if that’s a good thing……Now the question has moved on to “So what are you going to do now?” I’m coming to the end of my service. My time has had its ups and downs. I’ve seen and done some crazy stuff here I would never do back in the States. I look at the space my women’s cooperative occupies and see how it’s transformed into this really cool, productive area. When I talk to the president of my women’s cooperative, Sabou, I’m really encouraged to see how much she’s changed. She’s really asserted herself and is starting to lead and understand what so many “smarter” people fail to see, the easiest path to development is through rapid economic growth. By helping her and the women’s cooperative to take advantage of opportunities in Mali I’m trying to help them help themselves.

So what’s next? I don’t know. We’ll just see what God wills and I’ll go with the flow.

The Role of Information Technology in Development

The world we live in today revolves around the collection and use of information.  Whether it’s checking our e-mail, surfing the internet, or buying things online we live continually connected lives.  One of the most prominent and exciting companies out there is facebook which boasts over 500 million users around the world, or roughly 1 in every 13 people.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I came in to this whole thing thinking I would be living in a hut for two years without a cell phone and farming for my own food.  How surprising it is now that I am here with a cellphone (like most people in Mali), I have access to the internet through a satellite internet connection at our regional transit houses, and I routinely skype my parents back home.  Speaking to previous volunteers who traveled through Kita we talked about how much things have changed so although the progress is not as quick as we’d like, things are in fact changing.  As little as five years ago volunteers in Kita didn’t have cellphones and many of the roads in and to Kita weren’t paved.  Today I can get from Kita to Bamako in 3-4 hrs whereas before it could have taken an entire day.  Even in my work I find it important to use the Internet as a way to research new ideas and share about my experiences here in Mali as well.

Upon coming to Mali one of the things that was clear to me from the beginning was a lack of institutional memory.  From the beginning we volunteers try to find as much as we can about Mali and when we get here we are dying to find out about where we’ll be placed and so we want to learn as much as we can about our sites as well.  But when it comes down to it we all receive these little packets with bits and pieces of information and some times volunteers are placed in sites that are new so the information is even more scant.  Volunteers do many projects and when they’re finished with the projects they file some sort of report about how it went but many times these are not available to the volunteers themselves.  Volunteers may even find some really cool articles/manuals, etc. on the Internet but most of the sharing of information that happens is from one volunteer giving it to someone else.  To remedy the situation we looked at different ways to share information and eventually we settled on using Google Docs.  Google Docs is a way volunteers can easily upload, edit, and download files online so the idea is that we will be able to share relevant information with each other.  Additionally it’s a way for program staff to add their knowledge and documents to a searchable database.  By making more relevant and quality information available to volunteers it allows them to be better equipped to address the specific challenges and needs of their communities.

One of the ways in which information technology can aid development is by keeping track of projects that are running and by collecting and sharing results of projects.  Development is most definitely an art but we must have a way to scientifically record data and results.  Many organizations and individuals want to laud their efforts and on one wants to admit that a project was a failure but people need to be bold and try new things knowing full well there is a high chance of failure and when projects do fail they must understand why.  There are many NGOs that come up with brilliant ideas sitting at their desk in an air-conditioned office in DC but when they go and actually implement the project they realize the project may not be appropriate.  It’s important to identify the need and then try to create a solution, not the other way around.  Furthermore there are just so many NGOs in Mali.  There may be hundreds of NGOs but since many don’t communicate with each other regularly there’s a high likelihood of redundancy or worse off one NGO trying to implement a project in a community where it has already failed without understanding why.  It’s difficult for Malian ministers because how do they tell an NGO “I’m sorry, Saves the Children is already doing that so you can’t….?”  The Malian government will never turn down an NGO or project that wants to pump money into the economy but there needs to some way to regulate the activity that goes on in this country and the easiest way is if the NGOs could coordinate their efforts together.

The world is changing rapidly.  We live in a world where artificial intelligence is not science fiction but very much reality.  Revolutions with people crying out for freedom and democracy are lighting up the world.  Everyone is connected now through phones and the Internet.  Where does that leave Mali?

How to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (er, kindof)

In 1961 JFK created The Peace Corps with three goals in mind:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

So then what makes a successful volunteer?

During our training there was a massive push towards funded projects and APCDs (assistant program country directors) were constantly asking us what our next funded project was going to be. Most countries don’t even have access to funding but those of us in Mali are “fortunate” because we can access SPA (Small Project Assistance) and PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program). Out the gate we were roaring to get started on projects by asking the experts (second-year volunteers who have been in country exactly a year longer than us) what to do. But what is the point? Is that really why we came to Mali? I imagined sitting under a mango tree sitting around singing songs and dancing, etc.  Never did I imagine I would oversee the construction of not one, but two buildings. I never thought I would hold any sort of training for locals nor did I expect that Peace Corps would ask me to come in as a so-called expert to train the new batch of recruits because of my experience (little under two years but in my case I actually held a session during the training of OUR stage).  It’s almost a Catch-22 sometimes where some volunteers spend a lot of time out of site frolicking about the country and these are, many times, the same expert volunteer trainers called in, to…..spend time out of site.

When I think of a volunteer who can leave Mali considering his/her service a success I think about the three goals. Instead of focusing on short-term projects most volunteers SHOULD just get to know their communities and work with their friends on subjects like English, bookkeeping, or basic nutrition.  I remember coming in thinking of all these crazy ideas like “mobile banking, microfinance, sustainability, etc.” when this is a country where a majority of the population either don’t know about or don’t care about germs.  The thing is it’s EASY to do a project but it’s hard to teach someone something.  If I could do my service over again I would have found a group of youngish kids and spend my entire time teaching them all I know about finance and accounting from scratch.

But then again, maybe we should just spend our time simply hanging out with people? I never thought I would come here and have political discussions about Malian history or the remnants of colonialism in Mali and yet I have those kinds of thoughtful conversations with my language tutor and friends quite often over glasses of tea. We talk about girls and sports too but a lot of the burning questions they have are centered around much of the same things I would talk about in The States.  I came in thinking “oh everyone’s poor, no one knows anything” only to have one of my friends update me on how Obama’s not doing so great in the polls.  It’s astounding how little we know about how little we know.

But, in many communities we may be the only “white people” some Malians will ever meet. It’s important to let Malians know that Americans aren’t necessarily evil and that (on the whole) we’d like to help them. Then again you run into the issue of breeding dependency. Some small villages have absolutely zero means and many depend on rich uncles living in Bamako or in France to send them money every so often. When volunteers enter these villages all of a sudden “Daddy Morebucks” is living next door. And what? He wants to build a school? Sweet!  There’s a point where people stop looking at us as the carefree volunteer who came to learn tribal drum beats and eat mangoes and they start looking at us in terms of dollar signs and things we can buy them.  Most NGOs try to do good in these unreached communities but some end up doing more harm than good. It’s a delicate balance that requires a good relationship with the community and the dialogue to help them understand we’re in fact trying to help them help themselves. Some volunteers may leave not having done a thing at all but what they fail to see are the ideas they have planted in the minds of the youth. Ten years later that little kid who annoyed the crap out of you every single day screaming “Tubabu!”  may very well become a teacher or a doctor because a volunteer told them that anything is possible and that education is important. Who knows?

I’m coming towards the end of my service. Most of the things I have set out to do here will be done within a few months. I’ll most likely spend the rest of my time here enjoying time with my friends and traveling the country. I have probably burned a few bridges and done some things that at the time were questionable but I don’t look back and regret not spending more time with certain people or having failed to do certain things. I look back and see that I did the best with what I was given. It was important to me that I help certain people here and I feel I can leave knowing that I made a tangible difference. Not much longer til I’m back “home” and although I feel like ending on a cliche I’ll just say I’ll be glad when I leave but also glad that I came.

Si Nafa Women’s Cooperative

Si Nafa means “the benefits of Shea.” The women’s cooperative was started over twenty years ago and although headquartered in Kita consists of over 15 villages in and around Kita. When I first arrived their primary activity was to produce Shea butter and produce “Bogolan” fabric. Through my time here I have worked with them to come up with other revenue streams and hopefully become better organized. From the beginning it was clear that Sabou was the key to any success with the women. It is structured such that most of the women are worker bees while Sabou is the queen bee. All the women listen to everything she has to say. When I came here I saw there were a lot of women who really didn’t do much and just hung out at the center. Maybe they didn’t have anything to do, maybe they were just taking a break, or maybe they were looking for something to do. Either way Si Nafa’s primary activity of producing Shea butter was an activity that only took a few months out of the entire year. Meanwhile they had the space located in the center of market all the time. After coming up with several ideas and discussing them with Sabou we decided to build a restaurant. A restaurant would serve several purposes: 1) provide the women with a new revenue stream by taking advantage of their ideal location in market, 2) provide work for some women, 3) allow the women’s cooperative to use profits to fund other activities. It’s been about half a year since we started operations and so far it’s been very encouraging. We’ve settled on the people who work at the restaurant and they’ve been able to get into a rhythm and we have actual customers who aren’t Tubabs like myself but most of the people who go to the restaurant are locals so in that sense the activity is sustainable. Because of the restaurant they have electricity at the center now and they are even generating a small profit.

Another idea I had was to start a magasin de stockage which is essentially a granary. The concept is I would use funds to construct a place to store the grain and use funds to purchase the initial grain as well. In Mali price fluctuations are predictable so prices for grain are low at harvest (around January) when grain is abundant and the price increases in August during hungry season. It’s possible to buy grain at 200 CFA/kilo during harvest and if they only store the grain and wait until hungry season to start selling they can sell it for upwards of 400-500 CFA/kilo. In a country without investments or a commodities market this (along with cattle raising) is the next best thing. It helps the women’s cooperative earn a very good return with not that much work while providing a service to the community since demand far outstrips supply when it comes to grain during the hungry season. The hope is they would use the money they earn to buy more grain for next year while using profits to either help women directly or invest in other activities.

Other than that I won’t really have much more time to do much else. I will try and spend the rest of my time trying to get people better organized. Operations are based in Kita but the organizational structure is almost nonexistent. I will try and bring in a trainer (basically a consultant) to come in and tell them what steps they need to take moving forward. Everyone in Kita is very smart but a lot of it is street smarts and they lack the managerial skills needed for a large network such as Si Nafa. My hope is that she’ll be able to come in and highlight what’s important so we can start working toward a better managed organization that has the power to actually help its constituents from the ground up.

Maybe the West’s approach to development is far too simplistic. We tend to think of everything in dollars and only ask “more or less.” Money at the end of the day is just one tool that can be used to combat extreme poverty. It’s the easiest but we tend to discount the value of things like good education and access to good information, perhaps those things ironically cost too much time and money. If I had to do my service again maybe I would have just worked at a local school teaching a class to young kids about finance and accounting. Because when it comes down to it we have different tools at our disposal that aren’t inherently good or bad but it all depends on how we use them.

Why It’s so Hard Doing Business in Mali

In 2008 The Doing Business Report rated Mali 162 on a scale with 1 being the easiest to do business.  There are many reasons why it’s so difficult to do business in Mali.  One of the reasons it’s so difficult is there are no rules or regulations.  For example if I came up with an idea to sell chocolate covered bananas there’s absolutely nothing to stop anyone else from doing the same.  In the US I might be able to patent this idea and there would be enforceable legal recourse against anyone who would steal my idea but here in Mali there are no rules, regulations, or recourse.  People are free to do whatever they want.

The lack of barriers to entry makes it easy for people to enter the market but what happens when they go seeking capital?  Instead of going to a bank and taking out a loan most would-be small business owners would just fold because credit is so hard to find.  Most banks only offer checking accounts to the “rich” and most microfinance institutions provide tools that may help people save but for most are still out of the realm of possibility (one of the models I was assigned to help out, mobile banks, is a terrible idea).

But let’s say someone is able to get credit and start his or her business.  At this point most don’t have the experience or technical expertise to manage a business.  Many Malians attend primary school (~70%) but the level of schooling is not very good.  If a child makes it through primary school they graduate learning through rote education and subsequently lack creativity.  As for secondary school the rate drops to 35% and few if at all go on to pursue higher education (less than 10%).  As for higher education the only university in Mali is The University of Bamako and the quality of education there, again, is not so great.  Thanks to the French, Malians love protesting and for much of the school year it’s either the students striking or the teachers striking.  Unfortunately the school doesn’t adjust the school year due to days lost from strikes and therefore someone can attend The University of Bamako without REALLY attending The University of Bamako.

What happens to this graduate?  More often than not they spend time looking for a job that isn’t there and will try to use their family connections instead to find a job that really doesn’t require a university degree at all.  So then what was the point of going to university?  Most businesses prefer looking for employees through social connections anyway.  Therefore if I start my chocolate banana business and I’m looking for someone to manage daily operations I won’t start by putting up postings on a career website, instead I’ll ask my family members and friends if they know anyone good.  Of course they do because everyone and their brother is looking for a job so I end up with someone who’s under qualified but “eager to learn.”  I then have to spend time and capital I don’t have to train someone who has an outside shot of fulfilling the position.  Even if I were able to successfully train this person I still run the risk of losing him/her to an NGO who would be able to compete compensation-wise or with the prestige such a position brings since NGOs are the only true industry in Mali.

Let’s say I have my chocolate banana shop and I’ve found someone to run operations.  At this point I have to consider the market.  Typically Malians don’t sell products in unit packaging.  You don’t go to a corner store and ask for a bag of sugar, you ask for 200 CFA worth of sugar.  Malians sell nearly everything in terms of how much your money can buy instead of in retail packaging.  Therefore the margins are razor thin because the reality is THERE IS NO MARKET.  Most people spend about 4-5 USD on food to feed their family each day and there really is no extra money to spend on frivolous things.  The reality is I could spend millions of dollars on marketing and education and even then people wouldn’t buy my product.  As an investor there is a high degree of risk and very little chance of reward.  If people had extra money they would just buy more food, or tea, or cigarettes.  So it’s either too much product differentiation or not enough.  Most of the time the people running the corner stores are themselves poor, the only difference is they have product they can use/eat should things get really bad.

But let’s assume I got my chocolate banana stand off the ground and it’s doing fine.  I want to formalize operations and even though most businesses are informal I file papers to make my operation a formal business.  Formalizing operations requires filing ten separate documents and could take months or maybe even years.  On top of that I’ll have to pay taxes, which is something most businesses avoid (only 15% of GDP is captured through tax revenues).  The government does not receive money for taxes and there are no rules or regulations, therefore there is no incentive to make the business environment any better and so there is very little effort to improve infrastructure.

I’m not sure if it’s really that bad but can only speak on what I’ve personally observed.  What needs to be done?  What should be done?  As the world finally turns towards the once so-called Dark Continent these are questions Africa’s leaders face to hopefully make sure things can and will change for the better.

For Your Consideration….

The question isn’t whether or not it’s difficult to do business in Mali, most would agree that it is difficult with a resounding yes.  The question is WHY is it so difficult to do business.

If I ever figure out how to upload pics to WordPress I’ll try and go through the cast of characters at my women’s cooperative, explain the situation as best I can and provide thoughts on where I see it going in the future.