I spent 2 weeks in Lawra in mid-January – my 6th visit to Lawra. My focus was to lead the training of the ATE staff, 23 consultants and 55 of the small businesses (SBO’s) that ATE has granted, mentors and trains. The objective was to make them profitable enough to keep them / take them out of poverty and make a significant contribution to growing the economy of Lawra. I have this role as I am an enthusiastic ATE volunteer and have a “business background” including training dozens of leading consumer goods companies (Unilever, Coca Cola and so on) in selling, negotiating and similar competencies. Fortunately, the essentials of training electricians, weavers and pot makers in Lawra are similar to training the likes of Unilever account management teams. Unfortunately, both groups struggle with my sense of humour, at least until I remind myself to obviously laugh at my own jokes.

3 ATE SBO’s at their training workshop

We have been able to up the investment in training this year due to a fantastic grant (and advice)  from the Commercial Education Trust over a 3 year period. Previously we have had a 2-day conference once or twice a year. Now, we can train our staff in mentoring, coaching and how to train (heading towards our local staff being able to run the training themselves), our consultants on their role at the workshops with the SBO’s and split the SBO’s into 3 separate workshops by business type – people that make things (e.g. pot makers and weavers), people that sell things (e.g. tomato sellers and snack sellers) and people that mend things (e.g. electricians and carpenters). The 3 groups also tend to be at different levels of education. Most of the SBO’s (mainly those from remote areas around Lawra) have very limited or no formal education at all, whilst others made it to the rough Ghana equivalent of GCSE’s. All the SBO’s attending volubly express sincere thanks to ATE as most of them did not have the means to start their business before ATE came along.

The SBO training is based on the ATE Competency Matrix that we have developed over the last 3 years – the competencies required to successfully run a small business in the Lawra area. The competencies break into 2 areas – “Core Competencies” such as honesty, hard work, action focus etc. and “Technical Competencies” such as selling, planning, cash management and buying. The training focuses on the technical competencies. I am very proud, on behalf of the team, of the ATE Competency Matrix as it combines reasonably sophisticated consultancy with the practicalities of trying to survive in sub Saharan Africa in a way that the SBO’s can understand. It has legs!

Surprise, surprise! The training plan was more effective than previously – Loads more. Sarah ran an Evaluation Workshop on my last day in Lawra. This time the evaluation was more focus group than quantitative which is probably more valuable as the SBO’s possibly tend to answer quantitative surveys with answers they think we want to hear. This workshop gave us some real insight and means we can continue to build on what we have achieved.

Me with the ATE Team in Lawra

Some time was left over for visiting SBO’s. Always interesting. My visits were done with several hats; Chair of Trustees (I like a title) showing his face, interested person wanting to understand the SBO’s visited to try to give useful advice, and as a mentor to the ATE staff members modelling behaviour for them to copy on their Monthly Support Visits to year 1 SBO’s. All of these purposes were fulfilled some of the time. Three SBO’s visited stand out as worthy of particular mention. The first is John the aluminium pot maker. His process is remarkable, his enthusiasm is very remarkable. John buys or finds scrap aluminium (I was slightly concerned to be shown a BMW hub cap – not a 3 series though) and through a melting process pours it into ingeniously handmade moulds to make aluminium cooking pots. Unusually for the SBO’s his business is constrained by how much he can make, rather than how much he can sell. He is making the early noises about a second grant to buy a machine to up production – I really hope he makes it through the process. Beware if you visit his business – saying no to a demonstration is not possible. The second is a new weaving business in Dowine (12 miles outside Lawra). The family that run it are blown away by how well the new business is going, to the extent that they insisted on donating to ATE during my visit, I was shocked when they gave about 10% of the average SBO monthly income. Finally, a dry season farming project (that is sponsored by Haine and Smith). An hour’s motor bike ride from Lawra much of it off road (at least as I define road) delivered me to a very remote spot. A few hundred yards away there is a group of 20 or so people. Ken (the ATE Staff Member responsible for mentoring the dry season gardening groups) tells me this is our blind dry season gardening group. What I then find is quite remarkable – Amidst a dry, barren bush, an immaculate area approximately 30 metres by 20 broken up into segments, with a variety of 3 or 4 inch seedlings looking very healthy. ATE / Haine and Smith have supported this family group through buying fences (to keep the goats off), water pumps and fertiliser. Effectively this gives these people second growing season which makes a massive difference. Again, they want support to extend, and again, I hope they make it through the process. In truth they are not all blind – just two thirds of them, including the leadership group due to a congenital disorder.

The Baazing Dry Season farming Group and their incredible crops

So, the work side of it was all good.

Did I have time for fun? Of course, Club Beer is still the best value beer in the world. Hot weather is still great in January. The company is good. Petty triumphs are still available to balance the put downs. My occasional muttering that 38 degrees is a bit hot, received the predictable incredulous replies along the lines of “you’ve seen nothing yet, mate”. Sweet revenge in the post dawn bliss of 20 degrees “Lovely morning don’t you think” said heartily to people huddled up in hoodies and their warmest clothes. Normal mild sensory pleasures are heightened – Nescafe and evaporated milk, cold shower at 5.00 p.m. (if the water is running), Arsenal being on the TV, air conditioning on the night bus back down to Lawra – all extreme pleasures. Above all it makes me feel humble. Any self-righteous feelings along the lines of “I deserve what I have because I have worked hard or been clever” are blown right out of the water – it’s all an accident of birth, mate.

Thanks are due to a lot of people. Sarah, Habib and the ATE staff (Ken, Ernest, Prosper and Edith) for their hospitality, help and hard work. Jonathan Hall for his good company despite a knackered back. All the delegates for their hard work and enthusiasm, Hank Williams for his contribution to the content of the courses and most of all our donors – CET (http://www.lccicet.com)-  for making all this possible.

By Charles Gardner

PS Number of PowerPoint charts used in 7 workshop days of training? Zero!

PPS I am currently recruiting for an volunteer assistant for my next trip to Lawra January 2018 – If you are interested, get in touch!

You can read the full report to CET on this work at the this link: BizATE Training Report – Jan 2017