Leaving Mexico

ImageI left Mexico for the first time over 60 years ago.  I was 4 or 5 at the time; my parents had wanted to be missionaries in the state of Chihuahua but were unable to secure long term visas.  So we left.

The second time I left Mexico was in 1978 after we had lived in Guadalajara for 2 years.  It was a rich two years, and we knew we would be back.  In fact, we have gone back dozens of times, and now own a condominium in Zihuatanejo (on the western coast).

We’ve just left again – we had spent three weeks in Zihua and came home yesterday – moving from hot to cold.  What was different about this stay was my dedication to “blipping” – the daily collection and posting of a single photograph taken that day.

You can see them all at www.blipfoto.com/raspberryjefe but if you want a bit of guidance, here are some of my favorites from the last the weeks.  Lots of links but don’t despair … just look at the ones which interest you.  (Oh, and inside the introductions to the photos, are further links to Flickr collections.  You will really have to be curious to go to those).

Nov 18:  The Mexican – a great looking Mexican hombre in the Houston airport.  This photo made it to the Blipfoto Spotlight.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3668945

Nov 20:  Purple on the bus – although it was after she got off the bus that I took the portrait.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3674872

Nov 23:  A Fish called Wanda – a playful fish seller in the municipal market.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3682793

Nov 25:  Selling poinsettias – a young woman giving her young son a bit of personal nourishment while relaxing in a hammock.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3689618

Nov 26:  Mexican stereotypes – exploring some of the iconic dimensions of Mexicans.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3691800

Nov 28:  Una cerveza for favor – a portrait of Mauricio, a fellow I learned to know while hanging around downtown.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3698205

Dec 01:  Olivia Velez – a strikingly attractive young chef.  This photo also made it to the blip spotlight.  http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3706856

Dec 03:  Pregnant Promise – what piñatas and pregnancy in the Christmas season have in common.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3712472

Dec 04:  Sombreros – more common than I realized in Mexico (I wear one too).   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3715476

Dec 08:  Jesus in the bus window – for a country as religious as Mexico, this should not be surprising.   http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3727974

So that’s just a little sample of daily life in Mexico.  What a great country.  We’re going back again in mid-January.

Al Doerksen

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The Streets of Winnipeg

It was great to re-visit Winnipeg this October 2013.  Starbucks, Grove Bar, Keg, Cholestrol Café, iDE office, Stella’s on Sherbrook, Tall Grass Prairie, FORKS, Donwood Manor, McNally’s – I managed them all, and some more than once. 

 I/we have so many friends and relatives (who are also friends) in Winnipeg.  Many were more than happy to acquire a copy of “Going to Market”, and it was fun to vicariously share the excitement of rural / food markets in some of the Asian, African and Central American countries many of us have frequented.  That felt affirming.

 Since I have morphed into a street photographer, I spent time every day on the streets looking for those special subjects who would consent to be photographed for my daily photoblog – www.blipfoto.com/raspberryjefe ).  So now, back in Colorado, I have these photographic memories of fascinating street occurrences.  For those of you curious about these “street people”, here’s a partial list:

First Nations:


So that’s a lot of links.    It might be easier to go into the blog site just once and then tab right or left to see the others.  There are more photos buried in Flickr links inside these blipfoto’s so if you have time, explore further.  I had short conversations with eight of the nine persons / groups listed above.  Winnipeg is a very diverse and very human and very interesting place.  It felt like community with depth and intrigue. 

 Oh, and I was honored to have three “street photos” included in McNally’s new photo book, “Winnipeg by Winnipeg”. 

 Until next time.

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Inspired by old(er) men

So here I am almost 65; my doctor tells me the time has come for colonoscopies, prostrate exams and other essential routines for the aging.    I ended my CEO role at iDE this year, and it was said that I was retiring, along with the implicit expectation that useful life is drawing to a close.  Not sure that I am prepared to accept that; and to bolster the argument,  I find plenty of inspiration from men somewhat older than I am!cohen

I will start with 78 year old Leonard Cohen.  We paid a fair amount of money to sit in the second row at a recent concert.  It was worth every cent to hear and see him perform – a concert which lasted over three hours!  I doubt there was a song which I had not heard often before; he moved around the stage with ease, bowing to the audience, dropping to his knees at times and generally giving the audience the impression that we were the most special and important audience he had ever performed for.

We were both a lot younger when I first began to listen to Cohen; his assertion that “there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in” has always been comforting when not every endeavor went according to plan.  (Not sure what it means to “first we take Manhattan, and then Berlin” but it was fun to live in Germany and to contemplate the latter).  I find his recent exploration of impending mortality in his album “Old Ideas” to be both cathartic and inspiring.

I also listened to 79 year old Willie Nelson this year.  Loved his album “Heroes”.  In “Come On Up to the House” he invites us to “come down off the cross – we can use the wood…”  No room for self-pity in his paradigm – only the dedication to producing beautiful poetry and music as he approaches 80.  There is a longing for salvation as sings “Come back Jesus and pick up John Wayne on the way.”

And then there was the Neil Young concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.  Neil is only 68 but still plays his guitar as though he was 20, and still is committed to “Waging Heavy Peace”.  I might be a little biased because of Neil’s Winnipeg roots (at least for a while), but mostly I am impressed that his commitment to inspiration just doesn’t stop.

It isn’t just aging rock stars who have inspired me.  The iDE board has a number of near octogenarians, including Jack Keller, Lester Woodward, Paul Polak, Norm Fiske and Bill Fast.  Jack Keller is the most senior, but his mind is sharp and his professional engagement is awesome.  Lester Woodward has an amazing combination of good humor and solid wisdom.  Paul Polak reckons to still establish four multinationals each with 100 million poor customers and $10 bn in sales.  Norm Fiske has the ability to comprehend even the messiest financial statements in but a few minutes.  Bill Fast has an indefatigable curiosity that keeps him involved in venture after venture.    I don’t think that any of these five own rocking chairs; if they did, they wouldn’t know what to do with them.  Each of them inspire me.

So no retirement for me – just the space to do interesting things.  A little more exploration of markets.  A partnership with my camera lens.  The company of other old(er) men.

Al Doerksen

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Sweat Equity and Market Access in Nepal

It was a warm day in October in the hills/mountains near Pokhara, Nepal.  I was sweating.  I wasn’t even doing much except standing there with my camera enjoying the scenery.  Then a woman came up the hill from the steep grade below.  She was sweating too, and no wonder – she was carrying a basket of tomatoes on her back supported only by a strap which ran across her forehead.  She was heading to one of the more than 100 collection centres iDE Nepal has organized over the past few years.Image

She put the basket of tomatoes on the ground.  I tried to lift it to see just how heavy it was.  I wasn’t so successful but with the help of a friend, we got the basket onto the scale in the centre; it was 35 kilos (77 lbs!).  She had been walking and climbing for about an hour – no wonder she was sweating.

She was a Nepalese farmer.  She and the other farmers (mostly women) at the collection centres had worked hard to grow the tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, white radishes, brinjal and other produce which they had the opportunity to bring to these collection centres once or twice a week.

The good news is that their agricultural efforts are yielding a lot more food than their own families can consume.  The bad news is that they are some distance (lots of miles) away from the regional markets where these can be sold.  The good news is the community organized, run and led collection centres offer fair market access for those rural, remote farmers.  Most collection centres have chalk or white boards which post the market prices in Pokhara (or other markets ) the day before, and on the current day.  [All made possible by the ubiquitous mobile phones].  Collection centres allow the local farmers to engage with local traders (with access to transport) to sell off 100% of their produce for prices better than 90% of the regional markets.  It’s a good deal.  For the local traders it’s a good deal too – rather than having to go around to buy produce from a range of remote farmers, they can show up in one place to quickly buy fresh produce for immediate transport and sale in regional markets.

If every farmer was responsible to take their own production all the way to local markets, it would be too time consuming and too expensive (in terms of transportation costs) to make it worthwhile.  Further, as a sole producer in the local market place, they would have no assurance that they could sell all of the produce on a timely basis for a fair price.Image

Collection centres are producer marketing cooperatives.  The market access they provide ensure a profitable return on agricultural activities in the hills.  They are efficient, but they also represent the opportunity for the women and men who use them to gain access to the income which is key to realizing other dreams and hopes.  For iDE, the collection centres are just one more example that sustainable gains in household income and livelihoods are possible through a market based approach to development.

Al Doerksen – October 2012

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My Cow Wears a Necklace

So I’m travelling in India, and thinking that this would be a good time to buy a gold necklace.  After all, there is probably no country in which there is as much investment in gold jewelry as in India.  But then I remembered that the price of gold is rather high right now, so I decided not to invest.

I was not expecting, however, to encounter cows wearing necklaces (and blankets) in Bihar.  Not just one or two, but rather a lot of cows with brightly colored strands of beads.  Not gold but necklaces nevertheless!

The obvious hypothesis is that cows, being considered somewhat akin to holy, should thus be adorned as gestures of divine reverence.  I don’t think that is the explanation, however.

The real answer begins in the field of the smallholder farmer and owner of this cow.  My picture here shows a treadle pump in a field of vegetables being grown in the post-monsoon season.  Cauliflower, carrots, beets, potatoes, etc – all fetch a good price in this season.  The simple treadle pump combined with some sensible agronomic practice has resulted in a significant increase in productivity, that is, a lot more food grown and a lot more income produced.  Not just one or two farmers.  Lots.

These Bihari farmers often invest next in a cow or water buffalo.  A bunch of reasons to do this:  milk production, animal traction, farm saving and dung production.  So the smallplot farmer with his/her treadle pump can capitalize his/her farm operation through the investment in a cow.    Adult cows in Bihar are worth as much as $400 or more if healthy.

It is winter in Bihar at present (January) and the nights get a bit chilly.  I don’t know if this is truly necessary but I saw a lot of cows wearing “coats” for warmth, in addition to their necklaces.  From the farmers’ perspectives, these animals are so important that one should make the effort in treating them with respect and consideration.

Now, I don’t actually own a cow, and if I did, I doubt that it would actually wear a necklace.  Nevertheless, if I walk a little in the footsteps of the smallholder farmers using treadle pumps to increase their incomes and household asset base, I can begin to appreciate just how valuable the opportunity get ahead a little is.  And if putting a necklace on a valuable farm animal which it was thus possible to acquire with the earnings, then I am fully on side!

Al Doerksen

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Give me a place to squat … World Toilet Day 2011

In one of my former lives, I (and my family) spent three years in India.  Our work took us all over the country, both urban and rural areas.  I still remember driving the country roads in the dusk of early evenings, and seeing sari-clad women walking along the road with brass containers in their hands.  They were headed out to the fields to the privacy afforded by the darkness so they could finally, at the end of the day, perform their daily ablutions, as they were called.  Somehow they had waited the entire day before they could finally seek relief.

Talk about defecation, taking a crap, or taking a shit is not polite dinner-time conversation.  It may not even be polite for a blog seeking readers who appreciate a measure of respectability.  But that is part of the problem.  Even though most of us hope for the regularity which allows for a daily movement of our bowels, it is not usual to discuss it.  And the fact that we don’t talk about or even acknowledge that we did or didn’t crap today has contributed to not addressing the problem of one billion people who still defecate in the open every day!  We are going to have to start talking about this so we can get on to addressing the issue. 

iDE has been involved in sanitation marketing in Vietnam and Cambodia for several years, and successfully so, but I wasn’t always been convinced that iDE with its income creation mission should be involved in water & sanitation programs.  I have changed my mind.  I’ll tell you why.

It’s a health issue.  Open defecation and unsanitary latrines are a huge source of fecal matter in food which then leads to diarrheal disease.  Never mind the inconvenience this causes adults, diarrheal disease kills more than 1.5 million children a year!  It’s incredibly sad to lose a little person in this way!  The grandfather in me can easily identify with this pain.

It’s a women’s issue.  Women should not have to suffer the indignity, the inconvenience and the personal safety risks associated with open (field) defecation.  They should also not have to wait until nightfall to deal with their daily physical routines.

It’s a children’s issue.  Chronic diarrhea can hinder child development by impeding the uptake of essential nutrients that are critical to the development of children’s minds, bodies, and immune systems.   Reduced incidence of diarrhea has the effect of increasing school attendance, especially for girls.

It’s an economic issue.  In a recent policy statement, the Gates Foundation estimated that the economic benefits of improved sanitation can reach $9 for every dollar invested by increasing people’s productivity, reducing healthcare costs, and preventing illness, disability, and early death. For an organization like iDE with a focus on creating income opportunities, this is huge.

It’s a market opportunity.  Several years ago, iDE Vietnam engaged in a project to help local suppliers construct and supply low cost latrines through the local market place.  A post-project evaluation conducted 3 years after the close of the project showed that high latrine sales rates continued even though the project was long over.  More recently, iDE Cambodia working with an IDEO product designer developed a simple, award winning “easy latrine.”  In the first year after this was introduced to local producers and marketers, more than 10,000 units were sold and installed (and are now in daily use).  These units sell because they align with the value structure of our customers.

iDE is gratified to report that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,  the Stone Family Foundation, and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program have recognized iDE’s leadership and proficiency in sanitation marketing with $6 million in grant funding to  expand our work in Southeast Asia.  We are poised to also move into Nepal, Bangladesh, and several African markets.

One of iDE’s historical heroes is Archimedes.  He said “give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.”  We think a good variation of this might be “give me a place to squat (in dignified privacy, safety, and convenience), and I will move my bowels to change the world.”

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The poor pay more for their food, and they work harder too…

Hunger in Africa has been on my mind recently.  FAO has been reporting that food prices have spiked to record levels.  Worse, reports of famine in Somalia have been circulating – real true famine with people not just hungry, but starving.  Starving means that the body starts to feed on itself just to survive.

I am a big believer in Amartya Sen’s analysis (in his essay “Poverty and Famines”) that by far the largest cause of hunger and starvation in a famine event is not because of inadequate food supply – people become hungry and starve when they cannot access the food which is available.   Sen analyzed food supplies in some of most famous famines including the Irish potato famine in 1845/51, or the Bengal famine in India in 1942, or the
Bangladesh in 1973.  Each of these famines had different underlying causes, but most importantly, in all cases, there was enough food to supply everyone.  No one had to starve.

What then are the factors which deny access to food to hungry people?  Well, in the first case, there are nasty civil conflicts as is the case in Somalia – starvation of people is being used as a weapon.  Hoarding by merchants or by wealthier households is a factor too.

By far and away, however, the biggest reason people cannot access the food they need is because they are too poor.  In plain English, they do not have enough money to buy the food they need.

This last week I was in Burkina Faso.  I had the chance to “get lost” in a village community with my camera, and when this happens, I look for examples of market activity, ie, local buying and selling.   Simple stands where someone is selling few vegetables, or salt, or litre bottles of cooking oil are common.  Oil is daily necessity – I was quoted 1000 Cfa (just over $2 USD) for a one litre bottle.

This is probably a fair price for palm oil, but if you are a $1 – 2/day household, you simply may not have the free cash (working capital) to buy an entire litre at a time.   Local traders’ response to this situation to repackage oil (and many other commodities) into smaller, affordable quantities.  You can buy a small packet for just today.  This is useful.

But here’s the rub. If you buy oil in smaller packets (out of necessity), you end up paying
20% more for your cooking oil as compared to the 1 litre bottle.  So not only are you poor, but now your food bill for oil is 20% more expensive. Ouch.  This is the pain of food

[On the other hand, middle class North American consumers without real cash constraints, can secure 10% case discounts at Costco or Whole Foods.]

What I also saw in Burkina Faso last week, was a woman with an infant strapped to her back drawing water with a rope and bucket from an open well to fill sprinkler cans with water, then walk two cans at a time to irrigate her
vegetables.  This is hard work.

I saw another woman tilling her garden with a pick axe – try cultivating even a quarter acre in this way. I also saw a lot of women bent over weeding their gardens.  These are women working incredibly hard to grow a little food and earn a little income.  What they really need are opportunities to be more productive – to farm larger areas with less effort and with better yields.

Drip systems, suction pumps, diesel pumps, two wheeled tractors, animal traction, better seeds, affordable fertilizers, better agronomic practice – all of these can help subsistence farmers become more productive.  iDE is committed to making all of these available.  iDE believes that the way the subsistence households can escape this penalty of higher food prices is to put more income into the pockets of these consumers through opportunities for improved productivity – so they don’t need to pay 20% more for their cooking oil than
you and I.

Al Doerksen – October 2011

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