Diving into the World of Value Chain Again!

I learned about value chain analysis and the whole business of “making markets work for the poor” in my first job in Bangladesh. I think I also developed an understanding about how hard it is to make market work for the poor.  Probably I shouldn’t have started in such a pessimistic tone. But I feel it is better to be aware of the limitation of a tool before starting to use it. And again, I don’t want to say this approach cannot be used as a means of poverty reduction. But we need to balance between market and other approaches whenever necessary.

Nevertheless, value chain analysis is certainly an instructive tool to pinpoint the key problems in different parts of the supply chain that prevent poor people to benefit. It eventually helps to design targeted actions to fix those specific issues. My assignment here in Mongu is to participate in a research on the Barotse Floodplain fish value chain.

When we arrived in Mongu, the first round of data collection was already complete. The questionnaire designed to collect different value chain information including fisher/trader profile, fish species, products, prices, costs, trade channels and the enabling environment was very long. Besides, the informal nature of the business and varied measures and methods of transactions that are in place presented several challenges to collecting the correct information, particularly in the area of price and quantity.

Fishers and traders use different measures of volumes to sell their products. They do not use weight. So there is an element of inaccuracy built-in as fish size, shape and dryness will determine exactly how much fish goes in one container. Again, the standard bowls used for selling fish can be just full or cramped and heaped. Different types of containers are used to measure different types of fish. How do we get consistent measure? To further complicate the problem, there are several species of fish. The price of fish varies by the species and by size of the fish within the same species. Price also depends on the channel that is used for selling. How many options can we include without frustrating the data collectors and the respondents? All these complicated issues rendered some of the first round data not so useful.

However, in the analysis workshop in which all the data collectors participated, we had a long discussion on how to standardize the measure and how to deal with the species-size-measure complexity to get the closest estimate. Based on the discussion, we designed the questionnaire for the second round, which we are hoping to pretest in next week. I am praying that the questionnaire will pass! We also need to find out the best way to input the enormous data set.  Excel is not suitable for inputting such a large amount of data in the same row. I am planning to use Formhub for easier input. But I found some issues with data output from Formhub. I am thinking about consulting with Modi Research group for some advice.

My learning from first few weeks is that designing a questionnaire may seem a straightforward task, but actually it is not easy, particularly if we need to gather compex market information. A great deal of effort and time needs to be invested to devise a questionnaire that works!       

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Barotse Floodplain of the Great Zambezi

The specialty of Mongu is sand. When we entered Mongu, the capital of the Western Province of Zambia, we did not find anything special about this place. It is exactly like a typical district town of an ex-colonial developing country; broken roads and single-storied tin-roofed houses. But when we took the smaller roads from the main roads, we found it is all sand. Even the yards of the houses are full of sand. Our office is literally a block away from where we live. But we have to walk there in ankle-deep sand. I stopped using my shoes and sneakers. I would always wear my sandals and every time I would enter the house or the office, I will shake me feet vigorously to jerk the sand away.

I guess Mongu is full of sand as it is at the edge of the Barotse floodplain. A five-minute drive took us to the harbor from where we could see nothing but water and the sky. We took a boat to meet the communities we are going to work with.  As we moved along, children and adults alike, in boats and islands, smiled at us and waved their hands. Perhaps it was the only exciting part in their event-less day. The rainy season has just passed and the water is still deep and crystal clear. On both sides, the islands are green with some kind of grass and are full of different species of birds. In most islands, there are a few flimsy fishermen’s huts. In some of the islands, there were herds of cattle. Every now and then, we passed a canoe curved out of a whole tree trunk.

village

Everything was so pristine and picturesque, yet the grueling life of these island dwellers was apparent. Lack of infrastructure, schools, hospitals and livelihoods options must make their life very hard. I was also thinking about the challenges of working with such marginal communities in such a difficult environment. It reminded me of the marginal fishermen in Northeastern Bangladesh living in a similar, perhaps more difficult, environment. We wanted to do something for that vulnerable community there. But we failed to develop any meaningful project that would not need substantial financial support and change in government policies and politics. Eventually we gave up. I was hoping that this will not be the case here.

barotse birds

The first fishing camp that we landed at had a church, a few mud and grass houses, men, women and a number of children, mostly girls. Later on we learned that the fishermen support the education of their boy children as long as they can. And most of the boys live far away from the communities for their education. That is why the islands are so full of girls! It was a Sunday morning, so many people were still in the church. We met the leader of the fishermen’s camp, who was already drunk by this time. Fishermen would spend a good chunk of their income on alcohol. In the island we also met two women fish traders who trade only dry fish. They do not trade fresh fish as it needs more capital and often paddling the channels for hours to find a buyer. On average they make a profit of 4 to 6 dollars per day.

boat

 After a brief visit of the island we got on board again and kept moving towards the Zambezi.  I was mesmerized by the beauty of nature, thousands of birds basking in the wetlands, small wooden canoes carrying fish, passengers and all necessary goods, and clarity of the water and the blue sky. We also came across a hippo! It was peeping from under the water. We learned that hippos create a lot of trouble for the fishermen here by tearing the fishing nets. After all, we are in Africa! Finally we reached the Great Zambezi, a vast sheet of water with islands on both sides.

barotse little boy   Now it was time to go back. The sunset was magnificent and the dusk hovered around the horizon for a very long time. The soft mystic light accompanied us until the first stars were out. I came back home, tired but composed. I hope I can make some contribution, no matter how small, in the lives of the people living in this beautiful region.

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