Samantha Tarvin : Ghana

Reflection #1: 

Today I woke up to realize I arrived in Ghana exactly three weeks ago. Those three weeks have been packed with so many great moments—from unpacking a shipping container from China, to getting hit by a car, eating fresh coconuts on the street, the countless ‘Blood of God Hairdresser’ –type shop signs, or just getting to know my Ghanaian coworkers—every day is an adventure. So as I sit here this morning listening to my favorite hiplife artists and gazing at my cassava filled backyard, it feels like the perfect time to reflect on my time here so far.

Unlike the usual IDIP placement, the organization I work for is not a non-profit, but a for-profit social enterprise. Burro, the brainchild of Cranium’s creator Whit Alexander, was founded in 2008 with the purpose to provide high-quality products to rural families that will enable them to save more, so they can earn more and do more. The original business focused on replacing unreliable disposal batteries with rechargeable ones, allowing families to save hundreds of cedis (Ghanaian currency) per year on battery consumption. With this extra income families could send their children to school, expand their farms, or start local businesses. Now the Burro product catalogue has expanded to include foot-powered irrigation pumps for dry season farming, the first bicycle made specifically for the big loads and bad roads of Africa, the most fuel-efficient charcoal cookstove in the world, and a multitude of solar products. Currently the company is not financially sustainable, but the goal for 2014 is to earn enough profit to fund the company without the help of outside donors. The pilot branch is located in Koforidua, Ghana, the capital of the Eastern region and my current home, but there are plans to create other branches around Ghana, and hopefully throughout Africa, once profitability is achieved and the business model can be replicated.

My scope of work at Burro is to spearhead the launch of a trial run for solar-powered, ‘pay-to-own’ lights. What makes the Divi Light different from other solar lanterns currently being sold is the pay-to own aspect of the product that allows people who cannot afford to purchase the full-price of a lantern upfront to rather pay small installations until the lamp is fully paid off. This technology will allow rural, off-grid families to gain access to light—extending the amount of time kids can spend studying or the length of a workday—strengthening income-generating capacity. Currently Caleb (the business development manager) and I have been travelling around Koforidua talking to potential schools and trying to gain interest in the program, which comprises of a lot of time spent in the car singing along with the radio, practicing our British accents, and teaching Caleb the meaning of ‘sassiness.’ My other primary responsibility is to re-configure the social media strategy towards a Ghanaian audience by making quarterly social media goals and trying to formulate a long-term strategy to improve brand awareness and our marketing ability.

Do more is a recurring theme here at Burro. The company consists of 13 employees, only two of which are not Ghanaian. These are some of the hardest working people I have ever met. Often when I leave work with my roommate/ boss at 7 p.m. people are still hard at work and I’ve sat in on enough marketing meetings to understand the creativity and innovation that drives these wonderful individuals. It would be impossible to accurately describe how great my coworkers are. A large part of what makes this internship so amazing is the interactions I have on a daily basis with them. Last week my office mate Louis told me the story of how he met his finance Christie and this past Saturday Godwill’s wife gave birth to their first child, a baby girl named Ama, meaning Saturday-born. I spend a lot of my day on the computer, but an equally large part is spent laughing with new friends. In fact, my boss told me that the greatest contribution I’ve made so far has been my ability to transform the workplace with my laughter and warm energy (which hopefully doesn’t mean my work is unsatisfactory….).

Reflection #2: 

Two weeks. That’s the amount of time I have left in Ghana. That’s the amount of time remaining until I return to Seattle. It feels like I just arrived, while at the same feeling like I’ve been here forever. I have learned so much while being here. I have successful launched a trial run of a new product line, the Divi light, a solar lantern aimed at school children, and reconfigured the overall social media marketing strategy. Both of these projects are extremely different, but interesting nonetheless.  

The Divi light program has involved raising awareness of the product by going to different schools and presenting what makes it so special and then training people to use the Bluetooth technology needed to work the payment system. While, in theory, this product has the ability to enact major changes in the lives of school children, there are so many factors that make it difficult to implement on the ground. Through this project I seen first-hand the NGO versus on-the-ground disconnect, where something can sounds life-changing and fantastic in America, but when it lands in country there are so many other factors that affect its success and efficiency. It’s forced me to reflect of different models of development and truly assess what I think is effective and what is becoming outdated. On top of that, working at a social enterprise pushes me to question the future role and sustainability of Western influence in development. The goal of Burro is to reach financial sustainability and have Ghanaian staff run and manage the company, essentially writing me out of a job. This is the ironic dilemma of development: I love being here and learning, but at the end of the day, I want a Ghanaian to do my job. 

My experience in social media marketing is extremely applicable to the real world and I have learned a lot about marketing and its influence on company sales. Never in my life have I been so excited to gain a Facebook follower or get a retweet on Twitter. We’re currently running a Facebook competition in the office, where the employee with the most friends following Burro receiving a free lunch at the local high-end restaurant. It’s exciting to see the company tangibly grow in this area. 

 Last time I talked about how what has really made this experience special is my coworkers, and it still rings true. Even when I took a long weekend, multiple of them called me to check-in on how I was doing. I spend so much of my day laughing with them, asking questions about their lives, and learning so much from each of them. I can’t thank them enough for all they have given me and all the love I feel every day.