Challenging my Perceptions of Sustainability in Ghana

by Lucy Gent Foma, CRP'13 (4/18/12)

Lucy Gent Foma, CRP'13

Traveling to Ghana during the spring break to conduct research for the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion project challenged my long-held assumptions on sustainability.

Leaving the bottled air of our Boeing 747 to step onto the tarmac in 1pm equatorial heat enervates us with the weight of our expedition. New digital fingerprint scanners record each entrant with the Border Police. Passengers from the Boeing that left Atlanta half an hour before us have already claimed their luggage. Accra’s Kotoka International Airport gets more efficient each year in handling its patrons. As Gigi Goodhart of the Millennium Challenge Corporation  would tell us later that week, Kotoka boasts a new Perishable Cargo Structure where increasing amounts of food exports are checked and certified for quality standards. Food crops in Ghana have seen rapid growth. Ghana’s agricultural output has increased 5% annually since 1983, totaling an increase of over 400% and ranking in the top 5 worldwide. Production per person is up 80% and poverty is down 28.5%. Ghana is West Africa’s success story.

inventory controlJessica Saturley, MBA ‘13 and I spent spring break in Accra, Ghana conducting research for our SGE immersion team project on economic empowerment for women in rural areas of Ghana. Since January, our team of four (including Bret Collazzi and Sarah Sachse, both MBA ‘13) has been collecting case studies and conducting interviews about horticulture, economic development, and sustainable practices. We thought we were well situated in our understanding of the challenges and opportunities that face women in rural Africa. In fact, our trip to Ghana seemed complementary because of the abundance of information readily available to us via the internet, and from Cornell resources - libraries and faculty. However, about half way through our trip, we started to appreciate the perspective gained by being on the ground.   

I have traveled extensively in Africa; this was my ninth visit and by far the shortest. Last year I spent ten months in Senegal conducting a Fulbright Research Fellowship on Dance and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship on Environmental Studies. Prior to that, I’d spent time in Cameroon as a microfinance fellow and as a project manager educating school children about climate change. Although it would have been easy to assume that I understood life in an African metropolitan setting, I feared just that. I didn’t want to extrapolate my experience and generalities about West Africa to a country I didn’t know. There is perhaps more danger in assuming I know than in understanding my ignorance. Jessica has traveled more extensively than me, but mostly in Europe, South America and Australia. We made a good team because I could arrange travel logistics with my vague familiarity with Africa, while Jessica could contrast African norms with those she’d experienced elsewhere. 

Meeting that Monday morning with the Director of Economic Development at World Vision (a Christian relief, development and advocacy organization), we were grateful for the chance to soak up the wisdom of a seasoned professional working in a field closely related to our project. At the end of the meeting, Jessica asked for help in locating our next meeting on the map we purchased earlier that morning. After fifteen minutes, the three of us gave up on the task.  As we drove away in the taxi, Jessica noted that conducting business is near impossible in a place where nobody references a map and getting to an unknown location via taxi requires handing your cell phone over to the driver to speak with a person who knows where you’re going. As a graduate student in City and Regional Planning, I know that cartographic representations of space, oftentimes with reference only to streets and junctions, represent a cultural norm that we in the West take for granted. As a MBA student, Jessica saw how this can be an impediment to business.

World Vision Ghana

Accra, a highly developed city in West Africa, continues to struggle with its development: open sewers and electricity shortages abound. In talking with NGO’s, trade hubs, private businesses with social missions, and microfinance offices during our week in Ghana, we gained insight on the minute features that can help or hinder economic growth. Even their success in agriculture has pros and cons. As part of a free trade zone, Ghana produces corn to export to Burkina Faso and Benin, while they produce tomatoes and onions, respectively, for distribution in Ghana. As students of sustainability, we know that corn is a foreign crop in West Africa that strips nutrients, leading to problems with soil fertility. According to trade officials, nobody cares about that right now; they need food today.

Our team’s collective work experience encompasses six years of journalism, seven years of finance, six years working in Africa and eight years in food and agriculture. Yet, working on what we call a sustainable global enterprise project has truly brought us back to square one. As a long-time critic of World Bank development schemes, I now find myself desperately riffling through journals for anything that works to empower the global poor to lift themselves out of poverty.

These bags are rubbishAs with the rest of my classmates from Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion, I am asked time and again to re-evaluate my fundamental beliefs. As a non-business school student, I’m charged with bringing a different perspective to the project, something I can only hope to fulfill in a class of such intelligent individuals. Given our experience in Ghana, I think we’re finding that there’s always more to learn. Sustainability (however you define it) presents the challenge of our lifetime.  We may never know definitive answers, but the SGE immersion equips us with the right questions to continue on this iterative path.