Anamjit Singh Sivia

Thoughts and experiences in design, technology, international development, politics, and life as an engineer and as an Indo-Canadian Sikh

Ghana: Three Months After

There are at least a hundred other things I should be doing right now in the middle of exams, but I cannot help but be astonished by how quickly the past three months or so since being back from Ghana have passed. Being back has been hard, but an adventure of its own. When I heard about people having a hard time adjusting back to life in Canada before I left myself, I never believed it. Boy, was I wrong…

In no particular order, here are some of my observations, irks, personal failures, rants and ambitions for the future:

Cynicism

If you had the misfortune of talking to me in the first few weeks after I was back, my apologies for my cynicism. It has been quite the journey from being angry at anything related to the Ice Bucket Challenge, to not caring about anything, to trying to rationalize everything. Not sure where it will be next, but it has taken a lot of time to put everything into perspective.

I still get furious when I see a classmate present a game-changing solution that will save Africa, or when someone asks me, “Tell me more about the cheetahs in Africa you saw this summer!” It is hard not to say, “How were the polar bears in North America this summer?”

Did you ask for wildlife in Africa? Here you go, knock yourself out.

Did you ask for wildlife in Africa? Here you go, knock yourself out. #savetheworld #omgafrica

Racism

Sharing experiences of racism can be a tricky subject- it is difficult to do so without inviting a plethora of uninvited pity and ‘I totally get what you mean, those people are racist pieces of shit’. Like many others, it is a complex issue that bores people and, fortunately or unfortunately, being a Punjabi Sikh, my sense of pride for my identity tends to inhibit me from inviting any sort of pity and, ultimately, largely avoiding this topic.

#FirstWorldProblems

I certainly used this phrase before, but I can’t help but feel uncomfortable by it. Living in Toronto, I whine when my internet speed goes down, and it makes my day when I get student discount at Rexall. But when we think of someone in the other part of the world, we imagine a person always living in crisis.

At the risk of sounding cliché, it is the little things that make us appreciate life and that was certainly true of my host family- the kids complained when their phone battery died and when the bicycle’s chain came off. They were happy when it rained too much and they got to miss school. As noble as our intentions might be, #FirstWorldProblems characterises people in a way that strips them of their human nature. Sure, it helps us be thankful for what we have, but comes at the expense of others.

“Home”

As a reference to the goats that roamed about our house, my roommates and I had a saying, Home is where the goats are. And it still is true- I miss the pace of life that allowed me to enjoy the little things. At the risk of generalizing, I really do think a middle-class Ghanaian is much happier in his life than a middle-class Canadian. At random moments, I miss buying Jollof rice from the chop bar close to my place, or buying cold water sachets in the middle of a hot day.

 

Enough. Time to get back to study.

The Unsung Heroes of the African Mobile Revolution

Hawkers in Accra selling credit during red lights and traffic jams. From: http://twoyearsinaccra.blogspot.de/

Hawkers in Accra selling credit during red lights and traffic jams

In 1999 Kenya-based mobile network company Safaricom projected that the mobile phone market in Kenya would reach three million subscribers by 2020. In 2010, Safaricom alone had over 14 million subscribers. Today, four out of every five Kenyans own a mobile phone. During my stay in Ghana (primarily urban areas), I have been pleasantly surprised to see how accessible Internet access and mobile phones are; virtually everyone from my favourite fruit vendor, to the cab driver owns a mobile phone.

As one might predict, most peg the incredible success on cheap infrastructure, innovative pricing options, a steady demand, and regulatory reforms. Undeniably, these are key drivers of success. However, the narrative usually misses a key link to mobile access: top-up credit sellers.

Growth in the Kenyan mobile market from 2002 to 2012.

Growth in the Kenyan mobile market from 2002 to 2012. Source: Blycroft Publishing

The Need for Top-Up Credit Sellers

There is a key difference between the North American and European, and the African mobile market. While most subscribers in the United States use postpaid plans, the majority of subscribers across Africa use prepaid plans. Prepaid plans have no-strings attached, and that is what makes them successful- there is no contract, no monthly bill and subscribers can top-up as much as they can need or afford and also use multiple networks at the same time.

For instance, I use MTN for phone calls and text messages, Glo Mobile for Internet usage at home, and Vodafone for Internet usage in town and in Wenchi. Every few days, I buy a top-up scratch card for a few cedis, depending on how much Internet and phone calls I anticipate requiring for the week.

This sheer volume of top-up credit sales through cash (credit cards are unheard of, at least in Ghana) is what makes the role of top-up credit sellers so essential. In Canada, for comparison, top-up credit for prepaid phones is typically a monthly transaction and bought online through credit cards or through big-box grocery stores like Wal-Mart.

How Credit Sellers Operate

As I became curious about top-up credit sellers, I started talking to some about their operations and livelihoods. The popularity of the credit-selling business arises mainly because of the low capital cost required to set-up. All that is typically required is a wooden panel to display and store the scratch cards, a chair, an umbrella to protect from the sun and enough funds to buy the initial inventory of scratch cards.

The sellers buy the scratch cards from wholesale dealers that directly receive the cards from the carriers. The profit margin for the sellers themselves ranges anywhere between 3% and 10%, depending on the carrier. They are everywhere and hard to miss- in the market, on the roadside, during traffic jams by your car window in Accra, as a side-business with a grocery store, or in a high-end mall.

Because of the low capital cost required, this is a business that allows many to undertake it as a part-time, or short-term business. I talked to a seller who was student at a local college and operated his credit-stand after classes to help pay for the fees. Another woman in my neighbourhood recently started selling credit along with fruits and vegetables to increase her income as her husband lost his job.

My friend Isabelle buying credit from a seller, who goes around the bus station.

My friend Isabelle buying credit from a hawker, who goes around the bus station to sell.

The Silver Lining

Like many systems in Ghana that I have come across, selling top-up credit is a completely unorganised and unregulated, but beautiful chaos of the market forces at work. There are no statistics of the number or income of credit-sellers, so I decided to do some crude estimates for the urban population.

As per the 2010 census, just over 12.5 million Ghanaians live in cities. As a very conservative estimate, I assumed that one credit-seller in an urban area serves 500 people. This means that there are definitely over 25,000 credit-sellers in just urban Ghana and demonstrates the sheer number of jobs that did not exist before the mobile revolution in Ghana, and across Africa.

Credit selling, however, cannot support livelihoods single-handedly just income. As the ease of operation becomes attractive and the number of sellers increases, the revenue per seller keeps diluting. Furthermore, because of the largely temporary nature of the operation, there has been no activity by the sellers to organise and collectively bargain with carriers and wholesalers for higher margins.

The impact that the mobile revolution has had is commendable, and here is a real example of how uniquely Africa has leapfrogged over traditional technologies and created livelihoods in the process. But as with other systems, innovations in the business model can have a tremendous impact on livelihoods across Africa.

Ghana: On Osama and Compassion

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When Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh professor at Columbia University was the victim of an Islamophobic hate crime, his response inspired the world. Even though he had a ‘fractured jaw and loose teeth’, his response to his attackers was one of gratefulness and compassion. He said:

Even more important to me than my attackers being caught is that they are taught. My tradition teaches me to value justice and accountability, and it also teaches me love, compassion and understanding. It’s a tough situation. I care about the people in my local community.

I learnt during my first few days in Ghana, however, how difficult it actually is to be compassionate in these situations. Being part of a highly visible minority, I am accustomed to brushing off racist remarks here and there. In Ghana, however, it has been a different story.

I had spent my first day at the Kona cashew factory getting to know the staff. As a foreign consultant, it was important for me to establish trust with the staff there to have them talk freely about problems and underlying issues. As the factory closed down for the day, it was raining, and my colleague and coach, Jon, and I decided to take the factory bus, instead of a cab. I was amused to see that the bus had been dropped straight from Germany- the signs were all inscribed in German. I was enjoying the pleasant ride with a cool breeze and a scenic countryside.

Just then, I saw a woman staring at me. She laughed, said something in Twi that I didn’t understand, other than ‘Osama Bin Laden’. I knew she was talking about me and my heart sinked. Half of the bus burst into laughter, and I was red with embarrassment and anger. I had worked hard all day long to build trust with these people. Just in one moment, I had lost all respect and trust. I was embarrassed in front of my colleagues that I was supposed to work with for the next four months. How dare she? Who does this woman think she really is? I was not compassionate. I was furious and I had nothing but hatred for her.

My fist was clenched. I looked angrily at the woman with my eyes red. All I wanted to do was walk over to her, punch her in the face, and gain back my respect. I felt satisfied thinking about her bleeding face, something similar to what I had seen happen to Walter White in an episode of Breaking Bad the week before. I don’t know what stopped me from doing so, maybe the fact that I would probably be in deep trouble on many different levels. And the fault would entirely be mine for letting just one remark get under my skin.

The countryside seemed menacing and ugly, and the hot, sweat-ridden air was blowing in my face, choking me. I just wanted to get out of the bus, run into my room and go to sleep. How could I ever work with these people again that had no respect for me? Back in my room, I was quite embarrassed by my reaction in the bus. Did I learn anything, at all, from Prabhjot Singh? I thought that I should have been understanding and talked to her. Maybe tell her a little bit about my identity.

But compassion is more difficult than it seems on the surface. I can only hope to learn to be compassionate in circumstances like these. I wrote most of this about four months when this incident took place; since then, I have lost count of the number of racist situations that I have been in. Even though the intention might not be to hurt me, being associated with a force so different from my views is deeply frustrating. Although I tend not to be religious, I found a great quote about compassion and forgiveness from Sri Guru Granth Sahib:

Where there is Wisdom, there is Righteousness.
Where there is falsehood, there is sin.
Where there is greed, there is Death.
Where there is Forgiveness, God Himself is there.

I cannot say I have mastered this skill, it has definitely been a continuous test for me. I fear sometimes that one day, there will just be one too many racist remarks and I might lose my patience, swing a punch at someone and embarrass myself. Even more importantly, I sometimes find myself escaping these situations by saying, “I am not a Muslim, don’t target me”, and thereby legitimising prejudice and racism against Muslims.

But over everything, I feel more determined and proud more than ever to proudly wear my turban in the morning, of the values of valour and equality that my identify represents, and proud to challenge the status quo, if only one person at a time. Chardi Kala. 

Ghana: Pictures of Tourists Taking Pictures of Elephants

One thing I realised in Mole National Park, just 150 km from Tamale (where I am based), is that elephants embody everything that I value in my life and aim to be: elegant, intelligent, hugable, charming, looking out for the pack and almost always in a good, playful mood. But even more amusing that elephants were us tourists at the park and the obsession with taking pictures with elephants.

All kinds of pictures: selfie with a photo-bombing elephant, funny face selfie, duck face selfie, scared of elephant selfie, high quality camera selfie, and the classic Instagram/National Geographic picture. So obsessed have we become with documenting our travels that we sometimes forget to actually enjoy the moment. For full disclosure, however, I also definitely indulge in this guilty pleasure of living for social media and missing out on the present.But for now, pictures of tourists taking pictures of elephants:

The first sighting of elephants was during our walking safari through the park with a guide. The elephants seem to have been trained enough to come by and pose on every side, raise the trunk and slowly make an exit.

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The second sighting was during one of our planned sessions when one of the elephants decided to pay a visit to the hotel and make life easier for everyone to be able to take pictures comfortably. DSC02820   DSC02819

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Finally, time for the guilty pleasure. Here are a couple fantastic shots from a friend, a group picture with the JFs, and as a bonus, us tourists taking pictures with crocodiles.

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Credits: Katja Arnold

Credits: Katja Arnold

Credits: Katja Arnold

Group picture

Crocodile

Which camera are we looking at now…? Also, what if the crocodile just gets angry?

What can you do with a $20 phone?

Before coming to Ghana, several people recommended that I get my iPhone 4 unlocked to be able to use it there. However, I refused to pay a single extra penny to Bell Canada for giving me access to my phone, which is already at the end of its life. Hence, I decided to challenge myself and brought with me a six-year old dual-sim Nokia feature phone that I used to have in India. When that gave away within a few weeks, I bought a similar Nokia phone for just under $20. I thought that living without a smartphone would be incredibly difficult; but I was in for a surprise when I realised how capable a simple feature phone could be.

Since the number of users buying smartphones in the developing world continues to be low (only 15% in Ghana), SMS presents a massive opportunity for businesses. Twitter and Facebook have been able to offer their services to users quite effectively via SMS.

Let’s see what is possible to do with a 1.45 inch screen and an 8 MB ROM.

Percentage of users with smartphones in the developing world (Source: Pew Research)

Social Media

Both Facebook and Twitter (also, Google+) have excellent support for updates through text messages. On Facebook, I am able to post status updates, comment, and reply. On Twitter, I am able to do everything I could on a laptop or a smartphone. Other than being able to see graphics, there is not much that cannot be done with a simple text message enabled feature phone. Similarly, RSS, Tumblr, Blogger and WordPress all allow users to post updates and view them via SMS.

Email

I have been able to send and receive messages from my Gmail and Outlook accounts through text messages as well. Most service providers have free SMS to email, and email to SMS services.

Calendar

One of the most important features has been using SMS to use my Google calendar through a very easy set up.

Battery Life

Nokia 105

Nokia 105

One of my biggest complaints with smartphones has been the terrible battery life. With the Nokia 105, however, the battery life is quite excellent. On a trip to Wenchi last week, I forgot my charger and was able to use the phone for 5 days without charging. This included long phone calls, text messages, using the flashlight and also a few hours of Snake and Sudoku on the ride back home. As per official numbers, the phone can go on for 35 days on standby. Tell me that doesn’t blow your mind.

Other features to explore:

Mobile Banking

Just in the last few years, mobile banking has exploded in parts of Africa. While it has not quite been so viral in Ghana, total mobile money transactions in Kenya and Tanzania are coming up to almost $20 billion. In at least 5 African countries, mobile money accounts outnumber traditional bank accounts. It is possible to make transfers to other businesses as well as to individuals using a straightforward SMS. While we in North America are still using cheques, East Africans simply use SMS.

I have also been able to set up Paypal on my phone account to transfer money.

Value of mobile money transactions in Kenya and Tanzania

Value of mobile money transactions in Kenya and Tanzania

Realising the power of SMS, I am tempted to try using the same phone with a basic voice and text plan in Canada because of the availability of WiFi on campus and the ludicrous prices for data plans. In the meantime, it is impressive to see how those in the developing world have been able to use minimal technology to have significant impact on communities.

Ghana: Colonial Legacy Today

 

One aspect that India and Ghana have in common is that they were both British colonies. Looking back to my childhood in India, the Fair and Lovely (a skin-whitening ointment) advertisements and the shaming of dark skin were both by-products of the colonial legacy where white skin and western clothing is, to a great extent, still considered to be the paramount of beauty.

Since I was under the impression that this was only an Indian phenomenon, I was surprised to see similar skin-whitening products and salons in Ghana as well. Since some locals will classify me as being from the west, it has been really uncomfortable sometimes when I was given special treatment- a woman giving up her seat on the bus to me, when there were several others before me standing, the taxi-driver kicking out people from his taxi to make room for me. These can all be attributed to a colonial legacy where the west is considered to be superior to the local culture.

In Ghana, however, aid workers and expats still solidify this notion. In few weeks in Tamale, I have seen most white people living quite extravagantly- eating in expensive restaurants where locals are rarely seen, extravagant air-conditioned offices for aid organizations, and driving 4×4 SUVs. This is in direct contrast to the way in which the locals live and solidifies the notion of the west being a saviour, and superior.

I have been discovering how I, myself, am also guilty of this problem. I have been spending some time at restaurants catered to expatriates to access Wi-Fi and eat some pasta when I get tired of the fried rice and fish. For the rest of my stay in Ghana, I hope to be more mindful of how my actions contribute to this problem and how I can balance my needs with dispelling notions of western superiority.

Ghana: Don’t be the Saviour

I spent my last week in Wenchi, a town of just under 40,000 people in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region. It was a pleasant change from Tamale, where I am based; Wenchi is a small town and the weather is much more tolerable.

Just outside of the town is the factory for Kona, a small cashew processing business that I m consulting for this summer, as part of the BDS team. In recognition of its financial potential and social impact, Kona has received significant investments from impact investors like the Lundin Foundation and Injaro Investments. Engineers Without Borders’ BDS team is working to provide technical assistance as it grows.

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Staff manually sorting out cashews according to the 12 different grades- whole, broken, halves, spotted…

 

I spent most of my time getting to know the staff and understanding the cashew processing and imminent problems. I will be assisting the BDS team on several fronts like process efficiency, impact metrics and maximising efficiency by scheduling processes. This week, I focused on getting started with the Kona staff to set up policies for workers’ health and safety and food safety.

Having a formal health and safety policy is one of the expectations that impact investors have from Kona. Since I myself am not an expert on safety, my job is to push this goal through management. After my very first meeting with management at Kona, I realised that even though they considered safety to be important, it was a lower-priority goal for them. They expected me to single-handedly come up with the policy for them and implement it.

There are some major safety issues in the factory, including staff working around large flames from boilers without any safety equipment. Beyond just the fact that I am not an expert in this area, my concern is that if the staff is not involved in designing policies, they will not be implemented after the BDS team leaves. It will barely be just another document pinned onto the board.

It was relieving to know that they consider these policies to be important. As such, during my work over the next few weeks with Kona, I will have to be careful to not be the ‘saviour’ to solve all problems. Rather, in order to make the changes sustainable, I will have to push these measures, but have the stakeholders own them.

Komagata Maru: Canada from 1914 to 2014

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As I sat through my citizenship ceremony one month ago in Mississauga, my feelings were a mix of pride, gratitude and puzzlement. I was proud of becoming a Canadian citizen; after all, it is a great privilege. I felt gratitude towards my parents for taking a brave step and sacrificing so much. At the same time, I was puzzled at how quickly things had changed in Canada.

Exactly 100 years ago today, on May 23rd 1914, the Komagata Maru, a ship full of some 350 Indian immigrants, mostly Sikhs, was docked at the Vancouver port, seeking asylum in Canada. Even though Indians were citizens of the British Empire and had the freedom to move across the Empire, immigration laws in Canada were especially designed to keep South Asian immigrants away from Canada. Specifically, immigrants were required to make an uninterrupted journey, something that immigrants from South Asia were unable to do.

Gurdit Singh of Hong Kong, however, chose to make a statement against these racist immigration laws. The ship left Hong Kong and headed for Vancouver, where it was not allowed to dock. As the ship was in the harbour  for several days, supplies were staggered even after the protest of the local Sikh community that rallied together to raise funds for resources and legal fees. Every possible step was taken to force the Hindoos, as they were referred to, to turn away because they did not fit the image of a White Canada. Later, when the ship reached India after a painstaking journey, 20 of those on board were killed by the British India Army during riots in Budge Budge, Calcutta.

And yet, here I was, looking very similar to Gurdit Singh, becoming a Canadian citizen just a hundred years later. This was the equality and fairness that Gurdit Singh had dreamed of and risked so much for his grand dream. To be a beneficiary of that struggle is an overwhelming feeling.

It is pioneers like Gurdit Singh, and Buckam Singh, the first Sikh to fight for Canada in World War I, whose selfless efforts have led to a Canada where the discontinuous journey provision and the Chinese head tax belong in the past.  Singh was not able to see an equitable Canada in his lifetime, but his vision led to the society we live in today where Sikhs can not just become citizens, but also fight for their country. For that, and this country’s appetite for change, I am thankful.

Ghana: First Frustrations

Yesterday marked the end of the honeymoon period for some of us here in Ghana.

Our in-country training in Kumasi was an exciting time- we explored new foods, new markets and went on trips in the city. We were also more or less supervised and the food was safe and trusted. Most importantly, we had a support group of EWB staff and other Junior Fellows.

Yesterday, however, was part of the real part of our placements. We headed to the Vodafone office first thing in the morning to buy our Internet sticks. It seemed to be a pretty simple task but took each one of us around 20 minutes each. On top of that, Tamale is a hot city and the long walk definitely did not help.

Next, we took another long walk in the scorching sun to the Ghana Immigration Office to get our Foreign Identity cards.  This is where the real fun was to be had. For starters, the person in charge didn’t have change; it seemed natural he would have had it. So I headed out, bought some water and got the change. Not so bad so far. It took us two more hours in the hot, sweaty room just for the gentleman to fill the information into the form and chat with his friends occasionally. While I was impressed by the electronic bookkeeping, the inefficiency of the bureaucracy was quite apparent.

Tired by everything, I headed home in a taxi. As I took out a one cedi bill out of my wallet and handed it to the taxi driver, I got a cold face from the driver and he started yelling in Dagbani, which I could not understand a word of. Eventually, I realized that he was offended as I had used my left hand. In Ghana, using the left hand is frowned upon since it is supposedly to be used for wiping one’s backside.

Finally when everyone was back home, we were looking forward to finally using our internet sticks. But, guess what? No network. I sat around for a few hours just waiting for my email to load. To top things off, one of my fellow JFs had a rather unwanted visit from diarrhea. Cipro came to the rescue.

To end the day, we sat around to talk and the electricity went out, turning off the fans. A collective groan went out in the house. I went to bed with a thick layer of filth and sweat on my body and tried to go to sleep. I could feel the frustration, homesickness and the helplessness in the house.

This was quite the realization that our real placements had now started. This is what an unguarded junior fellowship looks like in the real world and neither of us felt quite ready. Of one thing I am quite sure of- by the end of this placement, I will have a lot of patience and appreciation of the lives that we lead in the west.

Ghana: Who are you!?

Being part of a highly visible minority community, I am quite used to the stares from people in North America and dealing with those that are curious. In Ghana, it has been quite different. I imagine that it is quite rare for Ghanaians to see a turbaned man walking down the street. The looks on the faces reveal the absolute confusion and puzzlement that people fall into. Who is this man!? The following countries are now on the list of where people think I might be from, starting with the East:

  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Iran
  • Kenya
  • The Caribbean
  • United States (how..?)
  • Canada (I assume that was because of the Canadian flag on my backpack)

I will update the list as I belong to more countries

Most of the times, people will look and smile and wave their hand in a friendly manner. One way in which my experience has been completely different is the way people express their curiosity. Canadians are generally very apprehensive of asking questions; they generally start like this- “Hey, not to offend you or anything, but just out of curiosity, can I ask you a question?” Here is how one Ghanaian approached me on the street, signalling a fist pump- “Hey boss! That is a good-looking beard! Are you from India?” No hesitation whatsoever.

Most Ghanaians have been quite outspoken and voiced their curiosity without fearing that they would offend me. I have really enjoyed that because it helps build a trustworthy relationship very quickly as I open up to them. Animosity only builds up when there is ignorance because of a lack of exposure and Ghanaians cut this at its source.

Although I was initially apprehensive, I have not had any negative reactions so far. As one gentleman thought I was Muslim and said as-salamu alaykum to me, I had no clue what to respond with and my friend Zair came to my rescue. I have been enjoying walking on the streets, bargaining for prices, and talking to people. My experiences navigating a complex identity are sure to be interesting in Ghana for the rest of my stay here.