I recently interviewed Stian Håklev, activist for open education, and co-founder of the P2P University. It’s a thoughtful and innovative approach to making open education more effective:
What inspired you to start this project? What’s unique about your project?
There is a huge amount of Open Educational Resources “out there”, with MIT OCW and the other OCWs, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, Open University UK, WikiEducator, Wikiversity, Connexions etc. However, it is very difficult for a self-learner to just sit down and learn from these resources in a sustained fashion…
The (hopefully) interesting tale below occurred during my recent visit to Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, my phone, which was doubling as a camera, apparently was not partial to the weather. After one photo (see my previous post), the software departed for parts unknown and did not return till end of day. I looked through a boatload of other photos from the same trip. Chickens seem ever-present in these villages, so I figured I’d find a random chicken to make my point. But alas, the chickens are apparently camera shy, and so I was out of luck. With no images of my own to illustrate the story, I took a look at Wikimedia Commons, and voila. A kind soul I have never heard of before (Foodeel Seddichi) posted a picture to a Flickr account (clicking the picture will take you there), and in turn posted it to the Commons. The picture is from Niger, not Sierra Leone, but gives a pretty similar sense. I love that the copyright holder made it available under open license. We collaborated semi-anonymously (I know a name, but don’t really know the person) in creating this blog post.
The story that prompted this picture began December 29th in Mafirah, a small village near Lunsar, Sierra Leone. Jon Bart and I were taking a village survey as part of Village Hope. Our goal was to get a handle on the dietary situation of the members of this village. Remarkably, although domesticated chickens were scurrying about and seemed to be constantly underfoot, they were not part of the village diet. Neither the chickens nor the eggs. The chickens were raised for sale in the market. I’m guessing they aren’t bought by other villages (which have their own chickens), but by townspeople. In addition, these chickens were not bred for egg-laying, and roosters and chickens were not kept separate. In other words, eggs were not produced in high quantities, and they were all fertilized, and therefore represent the chickens of tomorrow. So, these chickens and eggs represent a small but relatively easy source of extra cash.
A couple of days later, while driving out to another village, I got to talking about this chicken topic with Village Hope’s one paid employee, a Sierra Leonan name Stephen Gibateh. Stephen told me that fertile eggs are very important to villagers. Each egg represents valuable future income. It is a part of the village culture, he said, to tell children stories of bad things that would happen if they ever ate an egg. The only time a chicken would be eaten in the village was if it became ill and could not be sold. Similarly, the only eggs that are eaten are those that have clearly been abandoned by a hen. I marveled at the elaborate customs built up around economic necessity. Fish is cheaper than chicken. They raise chickens for sale, and buy fish for protein. Remarkable. It made me appreciate the previous day’s meal: a killer fish-AND-chicken stew served over white rice.
Stephen and I continued on our drive out to the villages as part of my investigation of groundnut farming (again, previous post). At the first village, Kolifah, spent a couple of hours learning a lot of detail about groundnut farming. I truly am fascinated by this stuff. At the end of our interviews, the village demonstrated their hospitality with a fish-stew-over-rice meal. Yum! We drove on, passing through several villages, including Robanka, where they encouraged us to stop by on our return. We made no promises, but continued on to Robump, and did another round of interviews. (In all, I did these interviews in 5 villages, learning something new and relevant in each interview.) The folks in Robump, upon learning that we had eaten, rewarded Stephen and I with two live chickens, bananas and papayas to take with us in lieu of the meal. Stunning! Each chicken alone represents a day’s wages!
As we drove home, twilight was settling in. We didn’t have much daylight remaining to navigate the rough dirt roads with a series of somewhat makeshift and dodgy bridges over small streams. Clearly we could not linger in Robanka. As we passed through Robanka, we paused to explain. In a heartbeat, someone trotted out, reached through the open window, and handed us four hard-boiled eggs. They’d been prepared assuming we would pay a longer visit. Obviously, some villages don’t have such harsh taboos on eating eggs! Stephen and I had a good laugh over that. Even Stephen, the local expert-on-the-ground, didn’t have a full picture. And so there’s yet another lesson. Along with subtly different ways in which each village farms its groundnuts, they also have different ways of handling chickens and eggs.
And that highlights once again the need for solutions that can be adapted to the local situation. I propose (surprise!) semi-anonymous collaboration as a useful technique to develop these solutions. Here at Appropedia, we’re working on getting the infrastructure up and going. There’s a lot here, but of course always more to do. Now we just need a more ubiquitous culture of semi-anonymous shared problem solving. Some may say that’s a bit of a chicken and egg challenge. All I can say is that bad things may happen if we can’t figure out how to work together.
I have just had the good fortune to make a short visit to West Africa for 10 days. I spent a week in Sierra Leone, visiting 7 small primitive farming villages near the town of Lunsar. Lunsar itself is a town of 50,000 or so, about 2 hours from the capital, Freetown. Lunsar has no central electricity (but remarkably good cell phone coverage). I was working with Village Hope while in Sierra Leone, with the self-assigned task of looking into increasing peanut (groundnut) production. (The photo above shows groundnut plants pulled form two different farms in Kholifah, a village near Lunsar, with a couple of coconuts that just happened to be placed there.)
From Sierra Leone, I made hop to Ghana, and a skip to Togo where I visited another very similar village about 15 miles north of the capital, Lome. In Togo, I was visiting on behalf of LeapingStone, working on plans to build a permanent school in the village, as well as looking into Income Generating Programs to boost the wealth of the village.
Before my travels, I was cautioned more than once to respect the idea that these villagers are actually very sophisticated farmers, and know very well what they are doing with their crops. What I found from my face-to-face meetings discussing groundnut and other farming was that the truth is more complex. Yes, they are extremely sophisticated in some ways. They grow at least a dozen crops: two varieties of rice, two of groundnuts, cassava (manioc), several kinds of beans, sorghum (cous-cous), tomatoes, pumpkins, ginger, peppers, bananas, coconuts, palm oil, mangos, papayas, and who knows what else. In addition, they raise chickens, goats and sheep in most villages (but cows are rare and oxen and horses even more so). In cases where they have been farming a particular crop for decades, they know a great deal about how to farm these crops fairly efficiently using manual methods.
On the other hand, they are not in a position to measure output precisely, so they cannot tell you whether one groundnut variety might have a 10% higher yield. They’ve been farming groundnuts in the “uplands” for decades during the rainy season, and know the right time to plant and to harvest. Within the past 15 years they have begun planting groundnuts in swamps during the dry season, with some success; in the past 5 years or so most have also begun to add a second planting of groundnuts in the uplands during the dry season. In each of these new cases, they are still using the same variety of groundnut. Is that the most efficient? It turns out that the dry upland (second) planting of groundnuts has a smaller yield than the wet season (first) planting of groundnuts. But also the groundnuts from the 2nd planting make far better seeds because the weather at harvest time allows for much better drying. Despite this, they only use these 2nd planting seeds for the first planting. They do not have enough for the 2nd planting itself. Would there be any benefit? This experiment has not yet been tried.
Another surprise is that, in this time when weather patterns are changing significantly, the villages still rely on traditional methods to estimate the timing of the spring rains and other weather. This despite the fact that they get good radio reception in the villages, and UN weather forecasts are broadcast daily. Ah, but it turns out that the broadcasts are in English, and most of the villagers speak their local language, plus Krio (Sierra Leone’s creole).
Also, all the villages we spoke with have more land available than they can farm. They are very interested in scaling up through use of basic mechanical assistance. But these are new techniques, and although they are very interested, they are not in a position to take big risks (like incurring debts) to experiment with basic industrialization. All this is part of a rather weak financial management situation that often has the villagers “buying high (buying seed during the 1st planting time) and selling low (during harvest, when price is half of what it is during the planting time).
Similarly, in Togo, we learned about a financial technique called “tontine” which many villages and individuals, both in Togo and globally, use to great effect. But this scheme is not universally known in Togo, and some villages do not employ it. The village we visited was very interested in raising rabbits, since they heard about another villages success in that area. It turns out, however, that there is a very limited market. Only the larger hotels in the capital city buy the rabbits; locals don’t eat them and probably won’t start. If you invest a chunk into rabbit farming, but have no buyer in place, you may have wasted your money. On the other hand, snail-raising is also of interest, and here the locals are developing their own taste for the critters, so that investment may make sense.
My point? Working as a part of the NGO’s above, I’m convinced that often the solutions to our questions exist, or could be easily adapted from a similar solution. It would be excellent to have a vast selection of articles on all these topics and much more. Wikipedia has some, but you have to know what you’re looking for, and most Wikipedia articles are simply overviews with no practical “how-to” details. At the moment, the main beneficiaries of such articles would be NGOs and some farmers with occasional internet access. But access to the internet in the developing world is exploding. Just as each village seems to have at least one person with a cell phone, I’ll bet a nickel that within five years most villages will have a resident with good access (by smart-phone or otherwise) to the internet. See AMD’s “50×15” goal. It’s not that far off. (For some additional thoughts on this trip, including phone-based email in Ghana, see my personal blog post on my hop back from Togo to Ghana.)
So, what content will those in the developing world want to read? Britney’s latest stay in detox? Or how to efficiently boost their production of protein?