MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Gillian Perera recently completed a B.Sc. in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Western Ontario, and holds an undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Toronto. She has facilitated the development of a community-based nutrition program for families with obese preschoolers and has also supported pre-diabetes patients in an education and lifestyle improvement intervention program. Her interests in community health and development took root during a trip to her hometown of Belize City where she donated her time to a local outreach centre as a caregiver to children affected or afflicted with HIV/AIDS. She also supervised a nutrition and physical activity workshop for school-aged children at Belize City Council’s Public Health Expo. Once back in Canada, Gillian continued her passion to serve the community and volunteered as a counselor for a confidential youth helpline, supporting youth during sensitive and difficult times. She is an enthusiastic supporter of cultural awareness and has organized campus events and projects as a multicultural club executive. She believes in having a genuine understanding of cultural and socioeconomic influences within a community and that equity is essential to the achievement of a healthy population. Gillian has a strong commitment to health and social justice and is excited to contribute to MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project.

The Finale! – Nutrition Education and Food Demonstrations

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The last week of my internship was possibly the most exciting time in my five months with the GROW project in Ghana. I saw all of my ideas and plans for GROW’s Nutrition Strategy come to life.In case you’re not sure of what my role and responsibilities with GROW are, let me give you a brief summary. As the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I analyze needs for nutrition training and identify opportunities to stimulate healthy dietary choices within families participating in the project. The ‘analyzed needs for nutrition training’ part means I conducted a needs assessment of GROW’s beneficiaries. I researched their health and nutritional status, community assets, local diet, attitudes and values, use of community resources and services, and perceived barriers to improved nutrition. All of this information gathering entailed desk research of GROW project data and other West African food security projects, focus group discussions with GROW women, as well as key informant interviews with local nutrition stakeholders. The second half of my responsibilities was the ‘identifying opportunities’ part, which is formerly called the GROW Nutrition Strategy. This included nutrition-related program goals, objectives, and recommendations to address identified barriers. Also, I included an assessment of internal and external trends and issues that can pose challenges to the nutrition program as well as an appropriate implementation strategy for my recommendations.I found the needs assessment and strategy development processes very rewarding. Not only did it build my professional skills, I also gained insight into the culture of the communities we work with. Although, my work focuses on food and nutrition, it is astonishing how intimately food is related to families’ lifestyle and beliefs system. I gained an appreciation for the ‘why’ many things are the way they are for GROW women today. But most importantly, never straying far from my health background, I saw the big picture of how hunger, poverty and diseases are all interlinked. And all of these revelations played a part in my recommendations for the nutrition program. Developing and designing the nutrition training and food demonstrations for the program involved working with Women in Agricultural Development (WIAD), a technical directorate of Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and Ghana Health Services (GHS), a public service body formed from the reorganization of the Ministry of Health. Drawing on the technical expertise of each of these agencies, I drafted the agreement for MEDA to enter into a collaborative partnership with WIAD, implementing basic nutrition training and food demonstrations using soybeans, and with GHS, implementing community-based Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) training in GROW communities. The messages and materials used in these training sessions are key as attempting to change food habits is a very complex and lengthy process. Motivating these families to adopt long-term nutritional practices requires increasing their knowledge, skills and environmental supports for the behaviour change. The channels of communication, size of training groups, and even the timing of sessions (we decided on four sessions for each group) play a significant role in how well a new behaviour will be accepted and practiced. Outlining the messages, materials and implementation schedule with WIAD and GHS, led up to the planning of pilot sessions to be conducted during my last week with GROW. I was so excited to see everything I planned actually come together.  Of course, it was very chaotic times as I had to organize my work to be handed over to the future GROW Nutrition Coordinator to be hired in 2014 and some tasks remained to be completed. Nevertheless, I organized two pilot sessions to be hosted in two different communities of Wa West district hosted by two of GROW’s Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs). Community Aid for Rural Development (CARD) hosted the first pilot session in the Wechiau community with WIAD implementing nutrition training and a practical activity. Even though visual materials weren’t available for this pilot session, positive feedback was received from attendees (fourteen women lead farmers) and CARD staff (KFPs hosting these sessions build their capacity in food and nutrition training as well!).  Topics of discussion included:

Food groups and local food varietyBalanced mealsImportance of clean waterBenefits of soybeansWhat and how soybeans can be blended into local dishes

The practical activity taught women how to properly select, wash, dry and cook soybeans to make soy flour or soy paste. This practical activity is introductory as the following session teaches attendees to incorporate soy flour into local dishes like banku, Tom Brown, tubaani and many others.Centre for the Alleviation of Poverty, the Environment and Child Support (CAPECS) hosted the second pilot session in the Poyentanga community with GHS implementing nutrition training. This pilot session went really well and the women were very engaged, sharing their personal experiences and challenges with the group. Topics of discussion included:

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Networking, networking, networking

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Meeting others working in the same field is an encouraging and fun way to share ideas and collaborate efforts. It’s especially interesting when you are based in rural Ghana and the technical areas of the project you work on include agriculture, business, financial services, nutrition and gender. I was lucky enough to represent the GROW project at two different ‘sector events’ in October and November. The first event I attended was the 3rd Annual Northern Ghana Pre-Harvest Agribusiness Forum. The theme was to connect farmers to competitive markets. In attendance were buyers (aggregators, processors, etc.) and sellers (farmers) who intermingled, visited vendor booths and even negotiated deals. A commodity exchange session was scheduled for farmers and buyers to come together and discuss issues of price, quality and supply (I learned that certain crops don’t have maximum value immediately after harvest). For this reason, MEDA invited select famers of the GROW project to attend this one-day event. Four lead farmers were chosen from various GROW communities to get a sneak peek into the industry, its players and meet new buyers. This activity is important in achieving one outcome of the GROW project, which is market linkages and improved bargaining skills for generating income. Many of these women have never sold their crops wholesale. Many believe that selling crops by the bowl in the local market (a bowl of soybeans sells for 2 GHS, equivalent to 1 USD) will generate more income over time than wholesale. However, encouraging the woman to join with others in the community to sell larger amounts at wholesale prices (100 kg bag can sell for 86 GHS) means they receive a larger sum of money with less labour and time invested in the selling process. Also, going home with 86 GHS compared to 6 GHS means that women are more likely to allocate money to priority expenses/savings and less likely to spend it on petty items during their day at the market.On MEDA’s attendance list for the Pre-Harvest Forum were MEDA staff, GROW coordinators from our five Key Facilitating Partners (KFPs = local NGOs), and four lead farmers. There were keynote speakers throughout the day discussing the global market price of grains (i.e. rice, soybean and maize) and how it influences Ghana (i.e. buyer and seller requirements). All organizations attending had a vendor booth to showcase their products, services and interact with others. An agricultural technology transfer project even hosted demonstrations of equipment for post harvest handling such as a thresher machine for soybeans. So you’re probably wondering what was going on at the GROW booth aren’t you? Soymilk of course! Well, not only soymilk… Daniel, the GROW Communication Specialist, worked really hard upon arrival to Ghana (literally his first day of on the job!) to begin preparations for this event. He developed the GROW logo, banners, brochures and a large pictorial map showing MEDA’s approach to provide ‘business solutions to poverty’, specifically related to GROW and food security. Daniel and I also collaborated to create give-away posters highlighting the benefits of soybeans.Weeks leading up the event, Rachel came for one of her usual project visits and brought along a soymilk/tofu maker. It looks like an electric kettle and can make more than 1L of soymilk from less than one cup of raw soybeans soaked in water. It seemed like a fun (and convenient) way to familiarize the local attendees with soymilk. Traditionally, milk and dairy products are not a part of the local diet (although, imported and packaged soymilk has been gaining popularity among those that can afford it). Naturally, I was excited to test out the soymilk machine so I made a trip to the market to buy soybeans, vanilla extract and cane sugar. I followed the manuals instructions to operate the machine and eagerly watched as it vibrated and warmed up. After five minutes, nothing! The machine just turned off and never turned back on again. My disappointment was obvious, but I was determined not to disappoint GROW staff by not serving homemade soymilk as planned. Equipped with a few online recipes, a make shift sieve and a sterilized handkerchief as cheesecloth, I recipe tested in our office kitchen every afternoon for a week (using GROW staff as sensory evaluators a.k.a. taste testers). I used their feedback to adjust accordingly until I had it just right to serve those attending the forum. The evening before the event, Felicia, the GROW office cook in Tamale, assisted me whip up 10 L of soymilk from 8 cups of soybeans in the office kitchen. At the Pre-Harvest Forum, we served over 300 people samples of soymilk! For many people, it was their first time having soymilk but the awesome thing was that others were aware of some its benefits. They eagerly asked questions about the nutritional value of soybeans and gave great feedback on the taste of it. Daniel and I had also developed recipe cards for handouts to those interested. The funniest part was that people started thinking the GROW project were soymilk producers! Serving soymilk at these events successfully introduced soybeans to the local audience, created dialogue about its nutritional value and utilization, and most importantly, educated others about what GROW is doing to help women farmers… all starting with soybeans.

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“What if Soy Milk is just Regular Milk… introducing itself in Spanish?”

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Stole that line from one of my favourite memes haha. But in all serious, soy and soy products are vey popular in today’s traditional and trendy diet crazes. Yet, most people continue to debate whether soy is healthful or harmful. As a science geek, I always say ‘show me the research’. If it can’t be scientifically debunked, hypotheses remain to be proven. Ironically, I have done papers and presentations on the benefits and controversies of soy before hearing of the GROW project let alone becoming an intern here.Simply put, I am a huge advocate for soy in pretty much any form. I enjoy edamame, tofu, miso, and soy sauce of course. But most of all, I am a self-proclaimed soymilk junkie. It all started last year. I can admit to having mild allergies to just about everything, which is the cheery on top to my sensitive skin woes. I pondered one day to myself, if as milk is known as one of the most common food allergies (I was drinking about 3 glasses/day), maybe I should wean myself off it and see if it is contributing in anyway to my allergies and sensitivities. So that is exactly what I did. But not without replacing it with something equally as nutritious, packed full of calcium, iron protein, and lactose-free… SOYMILK!!! Needless to say, I haven’t turned back since. From the beginning, I was all about organic and unsweetened types and not so much the sweetly flavoured stuff. It really was a seamless transition. I use it in cereal, oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, French toast, just to name a few of my go-to breakfast meals. And just about any and every recipe that calls for milk, I substitute with soymilk. When I found out the GROW team would be visiting a small-scale soymilk plant, I was beyond excited. Even though I loved soymilk so much, I had never given much though to how a legume (bean) can be processed into such a smooth, creamy, awesome-tasting beverage. I was ready and eager to further explore the wonderful world of soy.Before heading to Valley View University in Techiman, I did a little research on the soymilk equipment and operation we were going to see. The systems are called VitaGoat and SoyCow. Originally developed by a Canadian company ProSoya, it is now manufactured in India and supplied by Malnutrition Matters, an organization with the mandate to provide sustainable low cost food technology solutions for malnutrition, primarily by using soya, but also cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables. They have been used for projects in developing countries including Myanmar, North Korea, Thailand, India, Belize, Guatemala, Malawi, Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mozambique, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Ghana. SoyCow and VitaGoat are both well suited for developing countries. They can provide employment for 3-6 unskilled workers while providing nutritious foods for hundreds. There is also the option to have a pedal-powered motor, when electricity is not available.The one we were going to visit is in operation at Valley View University in the Brong-Ahafo region. Adventist Development and Relief Agency Ghana (ADRA) and World Soy Foundation sponsor the project, which launched in 2009. Currently, Valley View University pumps out 200 liters of soymilk/day (the system makes 15L of soymilk in 20 minutes from 2 kg of soya beans). Everyday, just over half of this is delivered to four local primary schools to provide 450 children a daily serving of soymilk free of charge. The remainder of production is bottled and/or prepared as kebabs (tofu) to be sold on campus to students. This is a prime example of how a mixed enterprise can work; some output is donated for social feeding and some is sold to sustain the operation. In addition, the University will be using this project to assess the nutritional impact soymilk has had on school children since the implementation of it’s pilot school feeding program. I personally can’t wait to hear of the results of this research study.We should have metric tons of soya beans coming from GROW women farmers this first harvest. A small-scale soy processing business is of great interest to the project and why it’s being explored further. We visited Valley View with FTF-USAID Agricultural Technology Transfer (ATT). This is a USAID-funded project that specifically focuses on improving public institutions’ and private sector businesses’ capacities to introduce new technologies to Ghana’s agricultural sector. If ATT is willing to cover the costs of equipment and training as a technology demonstration, then MEDA could help identify investors to operate the equipment as a business. But most importantly, the operation will be supplied with soya beans by GROW women. In collaboration like this, both parties, MEDA and ATT, are aligned with their respective project objectives, ultimately, for the benefit of rural farmers in Northern Ghana. It’s like a match made in soy heaven.

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Beads of Hope, Ghana

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It was a late Sunday afternoon when Jess called one of her trusty taxi drivers, Michael, to pick us up at our ‘junction’ (i.e. the intersection by our house). We were invited to a fellow Canadian’s going-away party, although we had never met her before. But as the saying goes: better late than never. As we crossed over the main road into an unknown neighbourhood, Jess began scrolling her phone for the directions to Erin’s compound. Of course she had to scream them out to Michael over the blaring radio. In a few minutes we found ourselves on a street that seemed to have all the described landmarks except for a compound. Jess quickly called Erin to make sure we were in the right place before Michael drove off. Coincidentally, Erin was right behind us walking towards our taxi. We introduced ourselves in the street and began walking with her. While holding an infant on one hip, she followed a line of children carrying plastic chairs above their heads. Erin introduced us to the little girl named Nadia, and mentioned she had to make the difficult decision of bringing back either Nadia or a chair to the compound. As we walked towards her place, Erin spoke of the family she shares the compound with and that Nadia is referred to as Princess Nadia; she’s adored by everyone and can be quite the diva. The kids ahead of us were arranging the chairs they had just brought in. There were benches and tables in the compound’s courtyard in preparation for the anticipated crowd and food. Erin led us into her home. As soon as we walked in we were greeted with a table full of beads and a welcoming smile! Literally, a table full of jewelry made from shiny and glistening beads. Jess and I immediately sat down, letting out gasps of excitement. As I finally tore my eyes away from the bracelets, I met Nafisa sitting across from us. As Jess and I began searching through the piles of bracelets, rings, and necklaces, Nafisa, affectionately called Nafi, began telling us the story behind the beads. She’s from Paga, a village in the Upper East region, and began making jewelry from local beads as a means to get through University. Nafi was so successful and quickly saw the potential that jewelry making had for others in her community. She started a project called Beads of Hope, with the mission to provide local women and girls the opportunity to make a sustainable income. Beads of Hope has gained much popularity through word of mouth and now employ young boys in addition to women and girls from Paga and neighboring towns Navrongo and Bolgatanga. This local business is dedicated to fighting poverty by providing sustainable livelihoods for families in the Upper East Region. Having a warmhearted and friendly organizer like Nafi as it’s driving force has undoubtedly helped Beads of Hope success. Anyone that meets her will agree that, if it isn’t for the beautiful beads and designs, purchasing jewelry solely because of the passion and dedication Nafi exudes is not unusual. Congrats to Nafi and the continuing success of Beads of Hope! Check out Beads of Hope … like their Facebook page or shop their Etsy store.

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For Generations to Come…

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Field TripOn our way to the Verimpere community of the Wa West district, many things were racing through my mind. I was highly anticipating my first trip to the field, in a community where the GROW (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women) project is active. Days leading up to our journey, MEDA’s Gender Specialists facilitated gender sensitization and analysis training for our staff and partner organizations. Now more than fifteen of us were heading to the field, some to participate and others to observe the gender sensitization pilot activity for women and their husbands. Many things in that hour-long visit were unforgettable; the women gathered under a large tree awaiting our arrival, their singing and dancing to celebrate our presence in the community, and the attentiveness and involvement exhibited by women and men alike. But the enthusiasm and pleasantness of the children were what really captivated me. Family MattersOnce adults of the community broke off into groups, each settling under a tree, children gradually started congregating nearby. Starting with a few, it soon became over a dozen little ones circling our group. Of course, we were a sight to see for them, dressed differently and speaking a foreign language. Yet, they were sincerely engaged in their parent’s discussion, keeping a keen eye on everyone involved and quietly giggling when something unexpected was said. During the activity, gender roles and responsibilities were being discussed or rather, negotiated. I imagine this was the first time these children heard this subject talked about so openly. I was moved by the children’s curiosity and interest, eagerly soaking up every word.Plant a Seed and Watch it GROWAnd then, “Eureka!” (I really had one of those eureka moments). I was already very familiar with MEDA’s values to ensure sustainability in their projects. Most projects truly provide business opportunities, incredible, sustainable solutions to poverty. But I was now seeing with my own eyes the impact these projects have on the next generation! Because many of these children do not attend school, their attitudes and behaviours are modeled after the only leaders they see, i.e. parents and caregivers. GROW is helping to increase food security for women farmers and their families. Importantly, it’s not only the women involved now, but also generations to come, that will benefit from improved health and development, resources and skills to generate and manage income, and the countless education and business opportunities that result from those. I am so proud to be a part of the GROW project and a representative of MEDA, contributing to and witnessing history in the making.

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6 Dishes from the ‘Gold Coast’ of Africa

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Greetings from Wa, Ghana…This is my first blog post! And not just for MEDA, but in the history of my Generation Y lifetime. I must admit that I brainstormed about this first topic for a while. I’ve been in Ghana for just over 2 weeks and ‘culture shock’ is an understatement to explain my feelings. I do mean that in the most positive way! The people, culture, and landscape have been nothing short of beautiful, intriguing, and unique for me. There are so many things I can talk about in my first post but seeing as I am the Nutrition/Food Security Intern, I think it is most fitting I introduce you to Ghanaian Cuisine.By no means am I a ‘foodie’. I don’t post pictures of my meals on Instagram, nor do I regularly ‘check in’ to restaurants on Yelp (although I do read the reviews ☺). However, I would say I am a food lover. I appreciate dishes from all over the world and always willing to try everything at least once! It is normal for me to eat Indian, Japanese, Korean, Trinidadian and Lebanese dishes all in a week of being home in Toronto. With that being said, I was open and eager to try the traditional foods of Ghana. Below are dishes I’ve already eaten and are very common in Northern Ghana, specifically Tamale and Wa. Depending where you are from or have travelled, some of these ingredients may be familiar:1. ‘Banku’ and Okra Soup – Banku is really a large, doughy ball of fermented maize (aka corn) that is served in a bowl of soup. Traditionally, it’s eaten with your hands; pieces of banku are pinched off and dipped in the soup. Okra is a green pod-like vegetable with many seeds and quite slimy inside. It’s commonly grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates.2. TZ (pronounced tee-zed which stands for ‘Tuo Zaafi’) and Groundnut Soup – TZ looks similar to banku and eaten in the same way. However, it's made from corn flour and has a much milder taste. It can also be made from cassava flour or a mixture of the two. I had it served in groundnut soup. Groundnuts are essentially the same as peanuts, just a bit smaller. TZ can also be served with ‘green green’, a stew of moringa or cassava leaves, mixed into a soup with pieces of goat and/or fish.3. Red Fish with ‘Palaba’ Sauce and Boiled Yam – Most often, all meals are served with fish or chicken (even if only tiny pieces in soups and stews). ‘Red fish’, as Ghanaian’s call it, is the common saltwater red snapper fish. It is fried and served with slices of boiled yam and palaba sauce made from stewed ‘green leaves’.4. ‘Wachey’ with Grilled Tilapia – Wachey is white rice cooked with beans, specifically ‘cowpea’ bean (aka black-eyed pea). It is much like the Caribbean-style of ‘rice and peas’ or ‘rice and beans’. It was served with grilled tilapia and salad but can be paired with any meat. Tilapia is farmed throughout the country and regularly served.5. Jollof Rice with Fried Chicken – Jollof is a popular West African dish. It’s cooked with tomato paste, peppers, seasonings, and pieces of meat among other ingredients. It is spicy and full of flavour! It’s really a go-to dish, especially in fast food restaurants. And fried chicken is pretty much universal of course. 6. Red Red and Fried Plantain – Red Red is a bean stew made with cowpeas. It’s characteristic red colour comes from the palm oil it’s cooked in. Served alongside, are pieces of ripe plantain, fried until golden. Not sure how to traditionally eat this, but I dipped the plantain in the stew and it was great.Side note: Although I didn’t mention many vegetables here, they’re usually cooked and incorporated into soups and stews. Salads and raw vegetables are not always served but if they are it usually consists of shredded lettuce, cabbage, carrots, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion topped with mayonnaise or salad cream. Second side note: Ghanaians use plenty of seasonings and love their food spicy!Thanks for reading my first blog post EVER! Until next time readers…

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