The PC West Africa Cashew Conference

Everyone has their “baby” project. The one thing they hold onto dearly. The one project that sits on their VRF mantle as a gold star of accomplishment. Something you can truly write home about. Last week, I found my gold star.

Peace Corps Ghana hosted our very own West Africa Cashew Conference, with participants from Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal. The Conference was sponsored by the West Africa Food Security Partnership, SAP, Red River Foods, African Cashew Initiative, and of course Peace Corps. Ever since I arrived in country, there had been talk of hosting a regional conference. We first attempted to host the conference in June, but it didn’t even get past the thinking about it stage. Finally, after some wonderful pushes from SAP and Red River, the conference was put on the calendar.

We started planning the general outline of the conference in August or September of last year. I remember because we held a meeting to determine the In Service Training, SAP training, and conference dates before I left for my fabulous vacation in South Africa. The same day we sent the outline of our proposed program to the Director of Programming and Training (DPT) here in Ghana. In early November, I created an invitation for distribution throughout Africa (although we later found out only West Africa could financially swing coming). For all my advertising friends back in the States, I know, I know. I don’t have inDesign, so I had to make due with what I had. Remember, this is Peace Corps!

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While down for my Mid-Service Medical appointment, we had a conference call with SAP and Peace Corps to discuss the conference. So, immediately after that meeting we drafted the program. SAP requested a field trip so that we could see the technology being actively used, so I thought it would be great to combine that with a visit to the Monastery – basically a really cool giant cashew farm with these amazing rocks for climbing. We hashed out the rest of the schedule and distributed tasks according to our action plan.

I worked on the budget, materials list, welcome to Ghana info packet, the first draft of a logistics letter, and a whole slew of behind the scenes logistics. I was also the main contact person for our partners (Red River, SAP, etc.). Which meant a lot of phone calls that started like “no I swear this is still happening!”

There were times when the work was incredibly overwhelming and staff thought about scrapping the entire conference, but thank god we soldiered on. Some days I would have 30 new emails about the conference. It reminded me of client emails. Or emails from my good friend Mr. Nedry: “no, change the binder to say this…Oh wait, CEO doesn’t want that. Hold on. No, go back to the original. Did you order the brown or black again?” Something like that.

Even my fellow cashew PCVs had doubts that the program would still go on. I had faith in our ability to make this happen. What’s Peace Corps without a few really ridiculous hurdles? Finally, the days ticked closer and closer to the start of the conference. Participants had booked their flights, in country flights were secured, the hotel was confirmed, and all of our partners were still on board. All that was left was for me to pick out my clothes.

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And trust me, that was difficult.

I arrived at the hotel two days early, to double/triple check everything and hash out any last minute details. I arranged the type of meals we would eat every day and for the hotel bus. I also spoke with the chef about getting boxed lunches one day. The hotel kept telling me, “no, we already have that covered.” or “everything is already arranged.” I wouldn’t have believed them if I was in America, but this is Ghana. I’m taught not to trust those words. They were so confident in their preparation though, I had to trust them.

The next day, the DPT calls me and tells me Ghana ran out of jet fuel and instead of flying up to Sunyani, the whole crew would need to drive up. We regrouped and came up with an altered schedule for the next day. The next morning, I get another early morning call from the DPT – they found jet fuel! They were on their way to the airport. Everyone was still there, all countries had arrived, and everyone had their bags. Flabbergasted.

I rush over to the hotel to get settled in (read take a shower, put on my fancy clothes, and do my makeup) and double check that everything was ready to go for the afternoon, including lunch. The porter showed me to my room and I was shocked to find a Ghanaian celebrity standing right outside my door. It had to be an omen. I was just about to hop in the shower, when my fellow cashew PCVs called me over to divvy up our revised slides. I run over there, get my new slides, run back to the other part of the hotel, and dress. I get a call from the DPT – they arrived! I head over with the hotel bus to pick everyone up. I’m so excited. I have my Woodin outfit on, so I’m looking sharp. I get off the bus and everything turns into slow motion. It felt like one of those movies when the football team pulls into the parking lot after a big win and is greeted by cheering fans. Except this was just a bunch of Africans and PCVs who looked tired and eager to change. But to me, this was everything. Everyone was there. They were there on time. Once we were on the bus, I felt the energy change. You could feel it in the air. This was the first time I had met PCVs from another country.

I worked so hard on making this conference a reality, when everyone was in the hotel lobby getting checked in and settled – I realized something. This was no longer a dream. This was it. Now I’m in my element.

I shared a room with a PCV, Stephanie, from Guinea. I was incredibly interested in learning more about other PC countries. What was it like during Pre Service Training? How is the PCMO? What languages do you learn? What’s the money like? I felt like a kid asking all sorts of questions. Then we talked fashion and fabric. Enough said.

We went downstairs for lunch and they served my favorite – banku and tilapia with peppe. I ate that fish with my hands and I let everyone know – I am GHANA! Alright more like, look at how integrated I am! I wear cool fabrics and eat giant plates of fish and fermented corn dough! Finally, we enter the conference room and the conference officially starts. I must have been grinning from ear to ear, because I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

The first day we heard from SAP about their technology, so we could be prepared for the field trip the following day. We cut the day short, so everyone would have adequate nap/socializing time. Which meant we all rushed for the pool. As we floated around the pool with life preservers, we discussed music, food, sites, and general Peace Corps curiosity stuff. After dinner, I was hounded with questions about fabric. Which I was more than happy to answer. I called it a night early, to rest up for tomorrow’s field trip.

Tuesday, we left almost on time – just 10 minutes later – for Tanoboase. We met up with another PCV there and we saw his buying station facilitators use the SAP phone and application protoype to purchase cashew. The guys had the application down pat. They also showed us their records, the bags they already tagged, and took us through each step of the application. I think I almost cried. My two babies merging together at the same time – the conference and the SAP pilot. I even overheard one of the facilitators telling the staff member from Benin – “I don’t want my kids to be cashew farmers. I want to be a great farmer, make a good income, and provide for my kids school fees. I want them to do better than me. I want them to do something great.” I could have hugged these guys.

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They also spoke briefly about how the PCV helped them create their association, their plans for the future, and how they see themselves growing.

We moved to the shade for our snack and we discussed the SAP pilot, association building, and constraints farmers have with forming associations. As a Cashew Initiative, we discuss these things off the cuff. It is just a general conversation we have with each other, but here at this shady tree, we were discussing why. We were trying to dig down to the root of the problem, to truly discover how Peace Corps Volunteers could uncover these issues, handle them, and work with their communities to create something sustainable. We boarded the bus and the conversation continued, and it didn’t stop for the remainder of the field trip. We didn’t just talk about the issues, we had lively discussions on how individual people and Peace Corps programs can inspire change. It gave me goosebumps. We also discussed how government plays a role in promoting industries, but how individuals can inspire the government to focus their efforts. At one point, we were getting very intensely into a discussion about sustainable development. But instead of it being heated, it was lively and inspiring. People weren’t downtrodden, they were excited. It was refreshing.

After we toured a bit of the Monastery’s facilities, we took our lunches to a rock archway overlooking a good chunk of the Brong-Ahafo. We all sat together on the ground facing towards the grasses, cashew trees, coconut trees, and transitional savannah that stretched out before us. There was a nice breeze under the rocks and everyone was astounded at our hidden lunch alcove.

We returned to the hotel and had a break before we continued into the night talking about SAP. We got into another discussion about Peace Corps politics. One discussion I’ve had many times before. I let the staff handle that one.

The next day was the Cashew Initiative day. We had all been looking forward to this day for a long time. The presentation we gave was first drafted up by me back in July of last year. I just checked and I spent a total of 13 hours and 55 minutes editing the presentation. Four of the five of us met a few weeks before the conference to work out additional details and slides for the presentation. A couple days before the conference, our last member took a last swing at the presentation and made it look pretty. She had a lot more cashew photos then I did, so it helped to make the presentation literally look pretty.

We were joined that day by some veterans, which was really wonderful. Sam, Chad, and Wayne – some of our founding fathers were there to speak about the history of the Initiative, how it started, and why they wanted to create a Peace Corps Ghana Cashew Initiative. Then the members of the Executive Committee all contributed their input for their slides and we yammered on about our mission, vision, goals, objectives, projects, challenges, and future for 2 hours. I was given the difficult task of speaking about our challenges, there was a lot of staff from other countries, but also Ghana staff. I wanted to make sure everyone knew that this hasn’t all been easy, it has been an up-hill battle, but as sensitively and politically correctly as possible. PCVs often think they know what is best, Staff does too. You have to find a way to marry staff and PCV vision, so everyone is on the same page. This isn’t unique to Ghana. You could say the same for any organization – the CEO may have an idea for where the company is going, but low level managers disagree. And that’s where teamwork, compromise, and cohesion come in. Anyway, our presentation went amazingly well and we moved over to our booths.

We set up “booths,” tables where staff and PCVs could learn more about our specific activities and ask in depth questions about more technical things. The idea for the booths came from David, the Chairman at the time. The booths also went swimmingly. Everyone got an opportunity to really dig deeper into cashew related projects. Plus, they got to try jam, juice, and preserves. We started attracting attention from the guests of the hotel as well and we even had a cashew buyer come up to us and want to learn more. I had a great time talking to staff about my business literacy program. It was so comforting for me to be able to speak with business-minded people for a while about accounting and record-keeping. I’m in a super minority here, so it is great to be able to throw out the words balance sheet and not have confused faces. (Mom – why didn’t I become an accountant? Oh yeah that’s right, I hate double entry accounting.)

We had lunch afterwards and it started to rain. In America, that could be seen as a bad omen – but here in Ghana we love the rain. Nothing like a light shower to cool down the day. Following lunch, we had presentations from other countries about what cashew stuff is going on there. I learned that Benin has more cashews than you could imagine for that small of a country, but almost all of their processing plants are defunct. Everything gets shipped to India or Vietnam for processing. Ghana is slowly processing more and more of the kernels grown here at home, so income is being passed onto Ghanaians. I also learned that Gambia has a lot of small scale processors. Something interesting for me as well, in Gambia and Senegal they actually eat cashews. Cashews are not as expensive to buy regularly. Here, you can’t get a small bag of cashews without spending half your daily allowance.

It was truly fascinating to learn more from the other countries. We briefly talked about how the Ghana Cashew Initiative could be replicated in other PC countries. Something we always reiterate – why reinvent the wheel?

Thursday, the last day of the conference we heard from ACi, Red River, and ACA about their involvement throughout West Africa. And like that the conference was closed.

I had the privilege of being MC for the majority of the conference, which heaven knows I loved. I got to meet other PCVs and talk about the work I love to do. I got to spend a week at a nice hotel, eating good food, and enjoying A/C. We had the opportunity to share our experiences, successes, failures, and ideas for how grassroots development can impact cashew farmers. We had riveting discussions that almost brought me to tears, I was so happy and excited. I loved it. I loved (almost) every minute of planning this conference. I loved every minute of the actual conference. If the other countries left inspired, they have no idea how inspired they made me.

After a while, you see your fellow PCVs get jaded and unenthused. Day in and day out, we do the same thing. But this conference brought a new energy to our program. It was that spark that brings a smile back to your face, washes away the jaded attitude. This conference was everything I ever dreamed of. It inspired me with new ideas, gave me hope, gave me even more enthusiasm, and reminded me of why I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.

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We may just be Peace Corps Volunteers, but we can make a difference.

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