Friday, August 15, 2014

Frugal Foodie on a Ghana Cedi: Candle-Lit Dinner

Let’s talk about electricity. You probably don’t think about it a whole lot (at least, I didn’t); something that’s easy to take for granted. A quick flip of a switch and voila, a luminescence appears without the slightest effort. But let’s suppose that is not the case. Perhaps 10:00am rolls around and BAM, the socket is dead, your computer has maybe an hour or two of life left, there is that important Skype call at noon, and the power could be out for an hour or ten. At least it’s a nice day, so take a break and go for a walk.

But let’s say it’s 6:30pm, you’ve just begun to put dinner on the stove, and suddenly you are left with little more than the glow of the gas burner. Now that’s a different story, but one that has become all too common here in Ghana. In the States, electric companies are responsible for ensuring adequate power to cover both base loads and peak usage. I can just imagine the outrage, the demands for compensation, the hours upon hours of customer service calls, if regular power outages occurred.

Here, the absence of electricity during certain days or times of day seems almostmandatory, and is very much expected. As many people cook with charcoal, or gas if they have the money, they don’t run into the same problems of non-functional microwaves, electric ovens, or burner coils (though refrigeration can be a problem in some circumstances).

Life without light – without the blaring TV, the ever-present computer – just goes on. It’s kind of nice though; you can sit, writing, listening to the sounds of all life around – the strange chirps and buzzes that only come with the night. Reading, talking, playing games, or actually getting that much-needed sleep rather than spending an extra hour or two on Facebook. There are also downsides to the unpredictability: work can come to a grinding halt (like my literature review progress, yesterday); food that was refrigerated or frozen could spoil; and the streets of the city become a little more hazardous for pedestrians.

Yet, power out or not, we still have access to it regularly; many communities are left without it entirely. In fact, in Ghana 28% of the population (about 7 million people) still has no electricity, and in the whole of Africa 550 million people (that's just under 50%) are without reliable electricity. While I fully believe that in the US model, we rely too heavily on a constant supply of electricity for devices and other stimuli, there are also serious barriers to development that coincide with its complete absence. Think about hospitals. Think about schools. Think about air control towers.

All that said, I quite enjoyed my torch-lit (yes, electric powered by rechargeable batteries…) dinner. It is by far my favourite combination of Ghanaian foods, and really the only dishes I can competently make myself.

Red-Red and Stew of Contumere ne Naadewa (serves 2-3)
6 small spicy peppers
5 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
3 onions, sliced thin
1 cm3 ginger, minced very finely

2.5 cups black-eyed peas, cooked
6-8 small tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 tbs tomato paste

2 small eggplants, seeded and finely diced
3 cups/6-8 leaves cocoyam leaves or collard greens, shredded

2 tbs vegetable oil + 3-4 tbs red palm oil
Salt to taste
Water as needed

1. Place peppers, onions, and garlic in a bowl of water. Prepare the eggplant, and do the same but salted. Ever 10 minutes, drain the eggplant and refill with water
2. With a mortar and pestle, begin to grind the peppers until the seeds are no longer identifiable. Add half the onions and all the garlic, and continue to grind to a uniform pulp.
3. We’re making two dishes simultaneously, so in two saucepans, heat 1 tbs of vegetable oil and 1 tbs red palm oil over a medium flame. Add half of the pulp to each pan, stir, and then cover. Allow to cook only for 2-3 minutes, and then add half each of the rest of the onions (and maybe a splash of water, if it’s sticking). Now cook for about 5 minutes. 
4. To one pot, add the tomatoes and ginger. Cover and let stew for about 10 minutes to break down the tomatoes. Drain the eggplant one final time, and pour it into the other pot. Stir, add water if needed, and cover, allowing to stew for 10-15 minutes.
5. Thin tomato paste in ¼ cup of water. Add, along with beans, to the tomato pot. Reduce to a simmer and let the flavours meld for a nice 20 minutes. In the other pot, add the greens. You may have to do this in stages, as it will cook down considerably. Also reduce heat and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the eggplant is basically falling apart and the greens are very soft. Salt both stews to taste.
6. Fry up some plantain (1 per person is probably fine) and enjoy! Remember, in true form, only eat with your right hand. :)
Don't worry Mom and Day, I'm alive and well!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Munchable Soapbox: Certifying Gender Equality

Preparing gari - a product of cassava
My research took an unexpected turn this summer – while starting out with the intention to extreme weather events influence farmer’s management decisions, it soon became pretty clear that almost all the weather is just some shade of extreme here. And when farmers say that moderation is best for cocoa, they will provide a month where this happens, not any particular year. Keeping my on the climate change adaptation ball, I shifted gears a bit to try getting at how impacts from climate change could affect the household, and specifically how women can and do respond to stresses. Though not a part of the research (yet very much an interest), I thought that certification’s consideration for gender would be an appropriate topic to discuss here.

“Gender” issues are pretty en vogue, at the moment. ISEAL alliance, a network for certification and standard bodies, madethe case for why more gendered attention is needed in certification. But I’m always a bit skeptical about these fashionable issues; I wonder what “considering gender” is actually achieving. The goals of certification range from guaranteeing a “fair price” and combating child labour (which is a whole other issue entirely) to encouraging environmentally sound and long-term sustainable practices.

Coffee has proven a popular case study for those interested in certification. It has everything – organic, fair trade, shade-grown – but the question of whether there is equality in impacts for men and women remains largely unanswered. In Uganda, for example, coffee is the primary export, employing 3.5 million families. Women make up close to 80% of agricultural production and over 50% of commodity crops. Women in the study noted how the gendered division of labour within the system are limiting equal benefits – for example, women are often relegated to working on the farm, but don’t actually make it up further in the supply chain. It also comes down to who deals in the finances –

This all sounds very reminiscent of my conversations with women farmers here in Ghana. For the most part, they work their husband’s cocoa land, and primarily tend to the food crops (maize, cassava, and plantain) that form the first stage of the cocoa cultivation cycle. While what she gains from selling these can go to household expenses, the woman don’t control the bulk of the household income, which seem to go to larger expenses like construction, fertilizer, sprays, and to some extent children’s school fees.

So when we think about the benefits that a certification might provide – price premiums, extension services, market access – those are not necessarily elements that women can readily access. But this is also an opportunity for certification: expressly aim to recognize women’s labour in the value chain, cultivate women leaders, and provide a platform for bring forward women’s issues. I also think that there is scope for considering certification for the crops that women do cultivate themselves, and have more control over the management and the revenue. It’s hard when the big money makers tend to be controlled by the men, but I have met several strong women who know their stuff and are very much standing on their own two feet.

Read More:

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Munchable Soapbox: A Balancing Act

You know when you were a kid, trying to walk a line with a book placed on the top of your head? Your mother or teacher always told you that it helps to develop good posture and cultivates a straight spine. In this land of carrying any and every thing on your head, people do stand up very straight and tall. Young ladies, old ladies, tall men, short men, boys, girls; they all transport items casually resting on their crowns. While I have to say that it is quite a bit easier for the shoulders or back to use the head, it is hard not to be impressed by some of the items in transit (not to mention the people carrying them). A bowl full of cassava is very heavy. Logs are long and unwieldy. Palm wine runs the risking of tipping and showering sticky sweet beverage all over the unhappy porter.

This balancing act that almost the entire population of Ghana seems to be performing, also is a pretty apt metaphor for the lives these same people lead. I’m primarily chatting with cocoa farmers day in and day out, but their daily decisions reach far beyond the commodity. When farming, it is like you are confronting a scale, weighing the costs and benefits of each practice, each expenditure. Though most people don’t really go through an economic (monetarily, but also opportunity costs) analysis every time they decide to do something, there is some element of a balance sheet when choosing whether adding fertilizer is worth the high price if cocoa yield is uncertain. Or, spraying pesticide when last year there was no serious infestation. Put time in and labour into weeding, or spend some money and apply chemicals.

The field is just the start. I think particularly because of the nature of cocoa farming – where there is one major harvest, and then another one or two smaller ones – the prevalence of also balancing multiple modes of employment seems high. A guy might farm, but perhaps Wednesday he acts as a driver. A woman may own or help on a cocoa farm, but the cassava, maize, plantain, and cocoyam she grows feeds the family, or the gari she sells helps pay for school fees. Perhaps it’s my naiveté, but farming seems to necessitate flexibility to change, according to the environment and weather yes, but also to shifting politics and economic circumstances.

A balancing act it is, but that makes up only a small piece. Juggling (with cocoa pods?) may be the more appropriate comparison!

As a bonus to my rant, it’s been a while since you’ve gleaned any recipes from my musings. So today you get some eggplant stew. These minute garden eggs (or nyaaduwa in Twi) are sold everywhere and make a really nice base for a stew.
No-Name Stew
1-2 tbs oil
½ onion, minced
1 cup tomatoes, chopped and seeded
2 cups eggplant, diced and salted
1 cup hardy green (like collards or spring), shredded
1 tbs tomato paste + 3 tbs water
¼ cup light coconut milk (I had to grind up fresh coconut!!)
1 tsp cayenne pepper, ground (or more to taste)
1 tsp curry spice of choice (or more to taste)
Salt to taste

1.     Heat oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Sautee onions until starting to brown. Add tomatoes and cover the pot. Allow to stew on medium heat for about 7-10 minutes, until tomatoes are really starting to break down.
2.     Add the eggplant, after draining and rinsing. Stir and cover again, cooking for another 10 minutes or so. Mix in the coconut milk, tomato paste water, and curry spice, and then cover the pot for another 5 minutes.
3.     Maybe pour in some more water if it’s not stew-y enough, and then place the greens in the pot. Cover and let simmer another 5-10 minutes. Stir so that greens get incorporated and distributed, then lower heat and let stew another 5-10 minutes.
4.     When you think it’s about ready, serve over rice (or something of that sort). Lentils would also be a nice addition, but could not get my hands on any here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My Munchable Soapbox: Unfair Trade

It’s interesting how one can write on a topic for a good number of years – relying on reports and media – and have based so many actions and critiques on second or third hand information. And yet, when actually confronted with the reality of something, it is evident how simplified and dumbed-down it may become. Fair trade seems to fit this bill – attempting to distill very complex socio-economic (and to some extent ecological) commodity systems down to a mere label

As many of you know, I am in Ghana this summer chatting with cocoa farmers. As the third (almost second) largest producer of cocoa, Ghana provides an interesting study in where this ideal system of “fairness” breaks down. There are a number of companies, as you would imagine, operating in the country, including Akuapa Cooperative – the exclusive supplier of cocoa to the Fair Trade chocolate manufacturer, Divine. While it does provide community development project support for things like schools, it is hard to track down direct benefits to the thousands of cooperative “members”. In fact, few of the farmers with whom we spoke even seemed to realize that it is a cooperative, nor had any clue about types of certifications. I am sure if I had a conversation with someone at Kuapa Co., a more satisfactory answered could be supplied, but from this point, it smells a bit fishy that there is such little awareness of what the cooperative claims to do.

The other issue that makes something like Fair Trade in the country perhaps a bit misleading is the fact that Ghana’s Cocoa Board places a fixed price on cocoa. This can be very useful in relieving uncertainty and avoiding massive fluctuations in price that cocoa farmers in other parts of the world experience. On the other hand, it is hard to financially reward farmers for good management or producing high quality beans. One of the purchasing clerks (the individual who weigh the beans and send to the company’s depot) was showing us the difference in beans that are properly dried and those that not. Despite the higher price it likely fetches at some point along the value chain, the farmer sees none of that, no positive reinforcement for proper management and processing. What frustrates me is that someone gets rich; and that is someone other than the farmer.

It is sad, because so little thought goes into this dilemma on the consumer end. You can easily hand over a dollar for a large Hershey’s bar, or a Cadbury bar in the UK, without a care about those that ultimately lose out, those who actually produce the raw material and yet never see the finished product. I’m not quite sure what the answer is, though I think after this summer, it will be hard to stomach any more big brand cheap chocolate. Trusting a single label is an error, but it is possible to track down companies who practice more direct trade and try conducting some or all processing at the origin. The costs are higher, but when you think about what goes into a single bar of chocolate, anything else seems like highway robbery!

Read more about Fair Trade and Kuapo Kokoo.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Birthday Musing

I gave pounding fufu a shot...needs practice
Dearest reader, my deepest apologies for the long radio silence; the internet and long days have not been in my favour. But since today is my birthday, the least I could do is provide some reflections. A birthday is often an ideal opportunity to consider how each experience, and their sum total, has made us who we are. While it is a little terrifying to think about how quickly those 28 years have passed, I am grateful to be at this point. It has been ten years since completing high school, incredibly five since leaving California, and nearly a year since abandoning the United States. In the decade since leaving my parents’ house as 18 year-old, I have met and befriended amazing individuals from around the world. In my humble opinion, it is those exchanges, the new perspectives and cultures, that make all the difference in defining an individual. Considering a birthday seven years ago, also in an African country – Madagascar – I remember a nervous and very cautious university student. This summer in Ghana has already been far different; by the very nature of the research, it is more important to be open and flexible, getting to know people, rather than surveying the relatively straightforward forest flora. And in all honesty, not to sound trite, but that builds far more character!
One big challenge, and what you probably really care about, is actually the food. Vegans (and vegetarians, for that matter) beware: Ghana is a country of meat-eaters. The base of every stew, every soup is meat or fish. That said, there are ways to eat delicious vegetarian fare with roots in the traditional dishes. The basis of many meals is fufu, banku, or boiled plantain, yam, or cassava. So while the soups and stews that are served with these starchy staples by default contains meat, a nice okra or eggplant stew can substitute. Watkye is one example – a rice and bean dish. Other commonly eaten foods are fried plantain (with beans is RedRed), contumere (cocoyam leaf) stewed, and peppery stew. Food is a focal point, a topic that usually surfaces in conversation, a show of respect or gratitude. We’ve been fed by people who have welcomed us into their homes. We’ve brought bread to those who have shown us particular good will. Coconuts and oranges seem to materialize out of nowhere. Not to mention that everyday we are talking to farmers!
Since time is short (and now you all know that I am alive and well), I will leave you there. Looking forward to another year of learning, exploring, and muddling through life!