Author Archives: Portia Crowe

About Portia Crowe

Portia Crowe has just completed her Bachelors of Arts in International Development studies at McGill University. She has been involved with Journalists for Human Rights throughout her time at McGill, first as a member and later as an executive, organizing chapter activities and writing and editing for Speak! magazine. She has also helped coordinate a number of national jhr events, including DocFest and Train the Trainer conferences. Portia had the opportunity to combine her love of journalism with her passion for development and human rights promotion when interning with Montreal's Upstream Journal in 2010 and, in 2011, with the Inter Press Service News Agency, based at the United Nations. She has conducted first-hand interviews with former Chilean President and current UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, Greenpeace Executive Director Naidoo Kumi, co-founder and director of Avaaz Ricken Patel, and Chinese AIDS activists Yao Gaojie and Wan Yanhai. Her articles for the Inter Press Service have been republished by news outlets around the world, from the Thompson Reuters Foundation to AllAfrica.com and Ghana Nation.

Riding Towards Sustainable Development


In a country burgeoning with traffic congestion, increasing economic growth, and a stark urban-rural divide, Ghana’s Bamboo Bikes Initiative could promote sustainable development, boost trade, and address a number of U.N. Millennium Development Goals in the process.

Established in 2009, the Bamboo Bikes Initiative was created by a group of young people, including science, engineering, and marketing students, to empower other youth, by training them to build and market bamboo-framed bicycles.

“We know that most of the youth on the streets are without work,” said Bernice Dapaah, the initiative’s Executive Director.  “We spoke with them, and they’re saying there are no jobs… So we have to make sure that, day in and day out, we come up with skill-development activities that will be more sustainable for them,” she explained.

In partnership with Africa Items Co Ltd, the initiative pays apprentices $30 USD for their labour, and sells the bicycle frames abroad for $350 USD each. Their primary market is in Europe, where BambooRide, an Austrian company, imports the frames and assembles the bicycles for sale.

“Roughly one year ago, we went down to Ghana and we got to know [the team],” said Matthias Schmidt, BambooRide’s Sales Manager.  “We were developing the frame together… because the frames were good, but they had to fit a certain European standard. So it was like a partnership, a knowledge transfer in both directions,” he said.

The Austrian importers also provided the initiative with new equipment to improve precision and boost their product’s international marketability. Schmidt said he looks forward to the initiative’s continued expansion.

“[Their] capacity is limited… and in the case that we need more than 10 frames a month – that’s the maximum capacity – we’ll need other sources. So we’re supporting [Dapaah’s] efforts to improve the equipment and technology,” he said.

Eradicating Poverty and Unemployment

The Bamboo Bikes Initiative offers apprenticeships and permanent placements at the Africa Items Co Ltd workshop in Accra, where Ibrahim Djan Nyampong, the initative’s technical advisor and Master Trainer, teaches young people how to assemble, fix, and market the bicycles.

“So far I’ve trained about ten boys,” he said. “They can build the bikes, but it’s not up to the quality control level, so we are still training them,” he explained.

[pullquote]”Each artisan, after their training, will also be equipped to employ at least five or six people.”[/pullquote]

The UNDP’s Global Environment Facility sponsors the initiative through its Small Grants Program. George Orstin, the National Programme Coordinator, explained that graduated trainees will establish their own workshops, and begin to train more young people.

“Each artisan, after their training, will also be equipped to employ at least five or six people, and to set up their own small-scale production base [in] any part of the country,” he said.

By training and employing young people, the initiative is designed to reduce unemployment and, consequently, rural poverty. It is also intended to abate the rural-to-urban migration trend prominent in Ghana.

“It will reduce the youths rushing to come to the cities to engage in income generating activities,” said Dapaah. “A workshop at the rural communities, that will really help them, rather than them coming to the cities,” she explained.

The Bamboo Bikes Initiative also curbs rural-to-urban migration by supporting bamboo farmers. Dapaah said that, so far, the organization has trained ten farmers to harvest new crops for bicycle production. They employ young people in the town of Suhum, and pay them based on a contract signed with the local chief.

Ensuring Environmental Sustainability

By harvesting new bamboo crops, said Dapaah, the initiative is also making a commitment to ecological sustainability.

“If we cut one bamboo, we make sure to plant at least three or five more,” she explained.

Orstin said that bamboo conservation is a key element of the UNDP’s partnership with the initiative.

“By promoting the conservation of bamboo, you are introducing a carbon sink, and at the same time… promoting alternative uses of bamboo for other purposes,” he said.

The initiative also works to protect the environment by producing organic and recyclable products, rather than metal or carbon fibre frames, which require high levels of energy at every stage of production – from extraction to manufacturing.

[pullquote] “If we cut one bamboo, we make sure to plant at least three or five more.” [/pullquote]

Instead, bamboo bicycles are made from 80% local material, which, according to Nyampong, not only enables producers to avoid expensive import costs, but also eliminates the carbon emissions that would arise from the transport of imported materials into the country.

Dapaah said that, while not all Ghanaians may be conscious of the environmental benefits of the bicycles, most are aware of the surging motor vehicle traffic in the cities, and are eager to circumvent it.

“The traffic situation in the country in general is increasing, and when traffic increases it has its associated environmental issues,” explained Isaac Osei, the Ashanti Regional Director for Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency.

There are 30 motor vehicles for every 1000 people in Ghana, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority registers hundreds more each day. Data suggests that vehicle ownership will continue to rise, as the country hits record levels of GDP growth per capita.

Osei noted some of the harmful impacts of increased vehicle use, including carbon dioxide emissions and pollution from dust particles on dirt roads.

“To actually educate people to use bicycles [rather] than vehicles, I think it is good for the country and the world as a whole,” he said.

Dapaah said the prospect of avoiding traffic jams, as well as the low price of bamboo bikes relative to cars, should fuel the bicycles’ domestic market.

Improving Education, Health, and Gender Equality

But the bicycles are not only designed for Ghana’s city dwellers; some models are intended specifically for rural residents.

“We’ve done… studies, especially in rural communities where transportation is very bad, and we want to use this as an alternative source of transportation for students, because some students walk miles from home before they get to their schools,” Dapaah explained.

Nyampong also builds “bamboo cargo bikes,” to help farmers transport their products to markets, and is working with engineers from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands to design a “bamboo ambulance bike,” intended to assist expectant mothers in need of urgent medical attention.

“We’ve learned that there is a high rate of maternal mortality in Ghana,” explained Dapaah. “We have some remote areas [where] transportation is very bad… so we’re trying to come out with the bamboo ambulance,” she added.

She said the initiative is also intended to empower rural women by providing special training for them in the production, manufacturing, and riding of the bicycles.

Enhancing Global Partnerships

At present the organization is focusing on expanding production: creating new, diversified bamboo products, and developing new partnerships.

In 2009, the project won the Clinton Global Initiative Award, and in 2010, the UNEP Seed Initiative award. It also garnered international attention in June when it received a World Business and Development Award at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

“Ever since [then], a lot of donors are trying to engage in our project, to see how best they can collaborate or partner with us,” Dapaah said.

As for their trade relations, BambooRide’s Schmidt said the Austrian importers are happy with the partnership, and see it as their own brand of “fair trade.”

“Fair trade comes by itself, because we are in partnership with the Ghana bamboo company and we are on… the same level,” he said, adding, “Do business the proper way, and it’s fair trade anyway.”

 

5

Breaking News, Breaking Hearts: How Ghanaian Media Handles Tragedy

My colleagues at Ultimate Radio watch the television as news breaks of President Mills' death Tuesday afternoon

Journalists make the news. They find the issues, gather the reports, and tell the stories. But how they do this can have a lasting impact on audiences – sometimes as resonant as the stories themselves.  At jhr, we care a lot about how the news is told, so I was naturally interested in the media’s reaction yesterday when Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, passed away unexpectedly – just months before the December 2012 national election.

“This is the first time it’s happened to us. We had heard about other presidents in other African countries who had died on the job, but it was quite distant from us. So when this happened, it was a blow to me as a Ghanaian,” explained Kofi Owusu, the head of Ultimate Radio.

“I actually shed a tear when I heard the news,” he added. “I was shocked into a state of helplessness, of not really knowing what to do.”

But Owusu is not only a Ghanaian – he is also an award-winning journalist and a prominent member of the media – and he knew he had a responsibility to carry the story as quickly and professionally as possible. He promptly called some contacts in Accra to confirm the news.

“When as I was confirming with friends there, I was typing my [radio script] intro already,” he said, “because news has to go on.”

Ghanaians have been long been speculating about the state of President Mills’ health. Last month, he travelled to the United States for what his party deemed a “routine check-up,” and upon returning to Ghana was seen jogging on the tarmac in front of the press. But many remained skeptical, as he noticeably stopped speaking on the campaign trail, opting only to wave to the public instead.

[pullquote]”Don’t overdo it. Don’t get carried away by the sensationalism.”[/pullquote]

The media have been on the frontline of the mania, analyzing Mills’ every action and attributing each one to his deteriorating health. There have been several reports of his death in recent months, but each time he resurfaced to dispel the rumours. In a country where horror always sells, this kind of sensationalism thrives.

Despite speculations, however, the confirmation of Mills’ death still came as a shock to the majority of Ghanaians.

“I was speechless. You hear people talking, he’s sick, he’s not sick … but we were all thinking that we could see him run for the NDC in December,” said Ultimate Radio journalist Nana Oye.

Production staff rush to plan the station's coverage of Mills' death. Within minutes of receiving confirmation, we were able to broadcast the news.

I was with her when the news first broke. She was immediately overcome with emotion, but within minutes, was able to join a handful of others in the studio to calmly and composedly discuss the event on air. I was impressed by their tact in doing so.

“It’s not enough to just break the story,” noted Owusu. “It’s what you do from then on – because once you break the story, people would like to know more about what’s going to happen,” he explained.

He said the station aimed to take a levelheaded approach to the story. As for dramatics, he said, “Don’t overdo it. Don’t get carried away by the sensationalism.”

Unfortunately not all editors in Ghana think this way, and it is difficult to avoid sensationalism after such an event; other stations played the frantic cries or incomprehensible babble of callers throughout the day.

But none of the Ghanaians I spoke to expect to see an extreme national reaction to the President’s death. They hardly expect it to impact the December elections, let alone instigate riots or instability.

“Traditionally, and by customs, Ghanaians respect the dead a lot,” explained Owusu. “And Ghanaians being who they are, they’re going to observe that [mourning period] out of respect. If there’s going to be a state burial, you’ll see Ghanaians from all sides coming up to file past the body or to pay homage to the President,” he said.

[pullquote]“It’s not enough to just break the story; it’s what you do from then on.”[/pullquote]

The death does appear to have quelled the inter-party aggression characteristic of Ghanaian politics. Nana Akufo-Addo, the leader of the opposition New Patriotic Party, has suspended his campaign to mourn with Ghanaians.  Owusu expects that, if anything, the Presidential death will have a pacifying effect on the upcoming elections.

“[Previously,] there was so much divisiveness and the debate was just vicious,” he said. “Now the man who was at the receiving end is gone. Your enemy is down – you don’t keep flogging him. So it’s believed that it will tone down the hot exchanges. The acerbic tone will be considerably reduced, towards elections, which will have a common effect on the political landscape for all of us,” he predicted.

“There are even calls from leaders that Ghanaians should use this occasion to unite,” he added.

That could be a blessing in disguise in a country where most news sources are visibly split along partisan lines, and fail to push beyond the bickering of party rhetoric to the real political issues.

But if Ghanaians are to use the death as an opportunity to unite, and to look beyond political divisions to their common goals and challenges, the media must play a role as well.

“I think that, as the media, we have to stay focused,” said Owusu. “Because, as I’ve said, matters of state must go on, things must be done. We’ve sworn in the new President; [now] there should be some kind of assurance from the presidency that everything is under control, because that is what we expect of our leaders,” he said.

Will the ruling party, the National Democratic Congress, hold a congress to elect a new candidate, or will John Dramani Mahama, the newly acclaimed President, remain as the party flag bearer?

Owusu said the news stations should not dwell on the shock factor, but rather begin to ask the important questions at hand.

“After the death has been announced, what’s going to happen in parliament? What’s going to happen with the next person? We went to the Constitution, which clearly had steps to be taken to swear in the Vice-President, so we knew that was the procedure, and decided to stay with it and make sure that our listeners were informed,” he explained.

“There are questions to be asked in the days ahead – and they should be asked,” he added.

Ghanaians could use the untimely event as a source of unification. They could take the opportunity to step back from the frenzy of political campaigning and remember what they are really fighting for. They might just be able to do so – provided the media upholds its responsibility, and begins to ask the right questions.

Kofi Owusu and his fellow journalists crowd into the studio to break the news to the nation. Owusu (second from right) said the media has a public duty to address the story as tactfully as possible.

A woman collects dumping fees at Bantama. Her child stays with her at the site.

Day Cares and Dump Sites: Sanitation Problems in Kumasi

This week, my colleagues and I decided to examine urban sanitation and the associated health issues for Ultimate Radio’s Morning Show. We knew of several waste sites around town that were particularly concerning, so we went out to find them – recorders and cameras in hand.

First, we visited a garbage dump in the residential neighbourhood of Bantama, where no one has come to collect the rubbish for over a month. The woman who takes dumping fees at the site told us that nobody knew who exactly was responsible for removing the rubbish, or why they had stopped.  We also spoke to local residents and food vendors, who expressed concern over the smell, sight, and the possibility of food contamination there.

Next we went to the “Wewe” stream, which feeds the city’s main waterworks. The stream has been turned into one of Kumasi’s major drains, and its banks are covered in garbage. We noticed some Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (KMA) workers cleaning the roads nearby. They were employed to sweep away dust on the side of the road while, meters away, no action was being taken to clean up the stream.

We followed the water up to the neighbourhood of Ahinsan, where we found a refuse site, measuring 50 by 40 meters and about 10 meters high. It is used by nearby market workers and local inhabitants, as well as fishmongers who smoke their fish there. It is enormous, and sits right on the banks of one of the city’s major drains.

Perhaps most worrisome, however, was the daycare centre we found just meters away from this dump. Comfort and Alexon Kidd-Darko opened the Comkid Daycare Centre years before the site became a refuse dump, but now they must spend a great deal of their time–and money–on fighting the authorities over it.

“Because of the children, I’m not happy with this. When we came, there was nothing like this. If the place had been like this, I wouldn’t have put money here,” said Mrs. Kidd-Darko.

She also noted the damage that the site has been inflicting on their business.

“Now the children are not coming because of this, and my work is down. So now we are helpless,” she told me.

She said, however, that the centre takes every precaution to keep the children safe and healthy. They have fenced the place in and installed netting around the building to keep flies and mosquitoes away. They also never let the children play outside of the compound.

This is important because, according to Doctor Franklin Asiedu-Dekoe, children are especially at risk of illness resulting from sites like these.

“Children like to play on these refuse dumps,” he said. And they are more likely to fall ill, he explained, “because children are less likely to wash their hands with soap and water before anything enters their mouths.”

He also noted that malaria could spread in the area, if garbage prevents the stream from flowing properly and creates a build-up of still water.

We spoke to an official of the Ahinsan Market Committee – the ones in charge of managing the dump, according to the Kidd-Darkos. But he blamed the KMA members for the site’s mismanagement.

“We would be grateful if the Assembly officials could get this dumping site well managed or even get it relocated for us,” he said.

But he later admitted that his committee is in fact responsible for managing the site, and that all proceeds made from the dump go to them–not the KMA.

According to Doctor Asiedu-Dekoe, everyone is responsible for the maintenance of such urban waste sites – even the individuals who choose to dispose of their waste there.

Mrs. Kidd-Darko expressed a hope that the relevant authorities would soon be held accountable for the dumping site. She said its removal would not only be in the best interests of her daycare, but also of all the residents and market vendors in the area.

“It’s not healthy for even the residents here, and the market itself, let alone the children,” she said.

When Household Chores become Human Rights Abuses

A young girl carries a load on her head in Kejetia Market

At eleven years old, Thema, a native of Kumasi, hopes to be a nurse when she grows up. Currently, however, she is employed wandering between taxis and tro-tros at rush hour, carrying packs of ice water on her head and selling them for 10 pesewas apiece. Though in the mornings she attends school, her afternoons are spent maneuvering through traffic with practiced ease; she has been doing this for four years.

Child labour is on the rise in Ghana, and particularly in urban areas.  According to UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children Report, 34% of Ghanaian children aged 5–14 years are engaged in child labour. That figure is up from 23% in 2003, as recorded in a Ghana Statistical Survey. In Kumasi, 8% of children engage in regular work, though its harmful impacts are widely acknowledged.

“It infringes on the rights of children, it affects their health, and it may result in injury,” explained Emilia Allan, a Child Protection Officer at UNICEF Ghana. “It prevents and interferes with their education, and it leads to other protection concerns such as sexual exploitation, violence, [and] child trafficking,” she said in an interview with me for Ultimate Radio.

But many families in Ghana must depend on their young ones for financial support, and the government does not take a zero-tolerance stance on it. Instead, the recently launched National Plan of Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, based on the ILO Convention No. 182, recognizes that immediately eliminating the phenomenon is not feasible, and aims to protect those children who do work from physical, moral, and mental harm. And though the minimum age of employment is 15 years, the 1998 Ghana Children’s Act in fact states that children aged 13 and older may engage in some forms of light work.

[pullquote]“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour.”[/pullquote]

The legislation is therefore realistic and rational, but does it go far enough to protect working children from harm? Should it apply to those engaged in household work – cooking, cleaning, running errands, or caring for younger siblings? What about children like Thema, who work part-time and attend school on a shift system? Are they considered child labourers, and protected under the law?

“In Ghana, children help their families. Where that help is hazardous to the child’s health, or is harmful to the education of the child, then it is termed child labour,” Allan explained.

“The Ghanaian Children’s Act ensures that every child has the right to be protected from engaging in work that constitutes a threat to his health, education, or development,” she said. “So if a child is . . . going to sell and then going on the shift system, the child goes to school tired and sleepy. That is affecting the child’s education, because it is not performing,” she explained, adding, “They don’t have time to do their homework.”

She also noted that, when a child is given a load to carry on her head, though considered light labour, it can affect her physical growth and pose a threat to her development.

Legally, then, children are protected from doing any kind of work – whether “light” or “hazardous” – that might cause harm.  And as part-time and light labour can inhibit a child’s development, these should be regulated as well.  So why is child labour still rampant?

According to Mr. Jacob Achulu, the Ashanti Regional Director for the Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, the root of the problem is poverty.

“The legal framework is there,” he said.  “The problem is the enforcement, and I think it’s because poverty is widespread in most parts of our country. So the ILO interventions and NGO interventions are welcome, but there is the need to have sustainable activities that will make sure the families are able to keep their children in school.”

He pointed to some district-level programs in the Ashanti region, designed to work with the parents of child labourers and help them earn additional income, rather than sending their children to work.

So while the government acknowledges that, for many families, children are important breadwinners, and continues to pursue a pragmatic approach to reducing child labour, it might be prudent to develop new ways of addressing household poverty and stymying the problem at its source.

Finding Accountability for Vehicle Safety

 

Passengers board tro-tro vans at Amakom traffic lights

Last weekend, on a mission to buy a pineapple, some friends and I walked to the “Amakom traffic lights” – a major intersection in my Kumasi neighbourhood, where street vendors line the sidewalks, children beg with vigor, and traffic moves at a dangerously quick pace. We bought the fruit from some young girls on the corner and watched the smaller ones play on the sidewalk while the eldest girl sliced it for us. We then crossed the street to a gas station, where I glanced out the window just in time to see a “tro-tro” minibus turn a corner at full speed and drive up onto the sidewalk through a crowd of people – right where we had been standing at the fruit stall. It fell back onto the road, still speeding, and stopped only when it hit a taxicab head-on.

Clearly, the vehicle’s brakes had failed. Less obvious was whether anyone had been injured – or killed.

According to Ghana’s National Road Safety Commission, or NRSC, the Ashanti Region experiences approximately 2000 traffic accidents every year, leading to nearly 500 deaths and thousands of injuries.  Many of these can be attributed to unsafe driving and human error. But many others, like the one I witnessed, are caused by unsafe vehicle conditions.

The United Nations has declared 2011–2020 the decade for Road Safety. Ghana was one of the resolution’s sponsors, but the country’s international commitment has not visibly translated into domestic practice. The government is developing a “National Road Safety Strategy,” expected to be finalized within the decade, but when I began looking into vehicle safety laws for an Ultimate Radio piece, the NRSC could not tell me of any solid action plan to improve vehicle safety on the ground.

[pullquote]”We have middlemen . . . if you go and approach them then they will do everything for you.”[/pullquote]

I learned that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, or DVLA, is responsible for inspecting vehicles and providing Road Worthiness certificates to safe ones. Commercial vehicle owners are expected to report to the DVLA with their cars every six months, where a license officer examines everything from headlights and electrical wiring to brake systems and tires. But according to Noah Martey, the DVLA Regional Assistant Officer for the Ashanti Region, problems can arise during the period between check-ups.

“Between the period of one month and six months,” he explained, “if the vehicle should have the sticker [certificate] on its windshield, and the car has gone rickety, or the vehicle has gone bad, we will not be able to get them until the road worthiness certificate expires and they are in again to have it renewed.”

Technically, the Motor Traffic and Transport Unit of the police is responsible for monitoring the road between check-ups and identifying unworthy vehicles, whether liscensed or not. But according to May Yeboah, the NRSC’s Director of Planning and Programs, there are not enough police officers on the roads to effectively complete this task.

Mr. Martey also noted the possibility that some vehicles retain illegitimate certificates. I spoke to some drivers in Kejetia market, and one of them, who also owned his tro-tro, shed some light on this issue:

“Sometimes, if the car’s condition is not good, I am not taking it to the DVLA, I will go there by foot,” he explained. “They ask me where is the car, but if you pay extra money there, they won’t ask for the car. We have middlemen over there . . . if you go and approach them then they will do everything for you,” he added.

Mr. Martey said that ultimately, the duty of maintaining road safe vehicles lies with the car owners, and encourages them to do the right thing when their cars break down.  Mrs. Yeboah, for her part, said “the DVLA, the police, all of us, we all have actions to take. . . but as we go through the decade, I’m sure we are all trying to address those challenges.”

I wonder what those next actions will be – and who will step up and take them. I think of the young girls playing on the corner last weekend and hope for their sake that Mrs. Yeboah’s words are true, that somebody will begin to address these challenges and take real responsibility for vehicle safety in Kumasi.