Plain and simple, Phoebe Ash is the sort of woman you want on your life raft. I’ve known Phoebe since I was 12 years old; I used to sit cross-legged on the floor in class with my arm out “minding” a spot next to me – if anyone asked to sit there, “No, it’s for Phoebe.” She’s a go-getter. She’s fun, smart as hell, one of the nicest girls I know and down to the core, she’s a good person. So, it’s absolutely no surprise to me that she’s spent the last year in Ghana working as a business development advisor after securing a position with an international non-government organization (NGO).
I spoke with Phoebe about her decision to move to Africa, some challenges she has faced and some of her travel gems. I have no doubt you will find her story as inspiring as I do…
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MOVE OVERSEAS?
My parents often told me you regret the things you don’t do rather than those you do. I love exploring new places, cultures, environments and understanding what lies beyond the borders of a relatively uncultured, beautiful beach life in Australia. I think relocating to a new country brings new challenges and achievements that you cannot quite appreciate from travel at home.
AND WHY GHANA?
I never anticipated I would move to Ghana but I kept coming back to the desire to work in developing countries.
Having worked for nearly six years in business advisory and corporate recovery, I decided it was time to share my fortunate education and experience with others who may not have had the opportunity to receive such training.
The role came through a programme offered by the Australian Government called Australian Volunteers for International Development – they seek highly skilled volunteers to fill a skill gap identified in an organisation in a developing country. The NGO I started working for had established a social enterprise called Northern Ghana Shea. The social enterprise was established to assist marginalised women in rural Ghana achieve income and food security through the production and trade of Shea butter.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY IN THE LIFE OF PHOEBE LOOK LIKE?
The interesting thing about Ghana is there is no such thing as a typical day. You never really know what is going to happen.
I travel to work via public transport called a trotro. This is a very old van that fits between 12-28 people. You are all squeezed in and the ‘mate’ hangs out the window yelling the end destination – once you figure out your route it’s easy. I usually take about 2-3 trotros to work taking about 1-1.30 hours depending on traffic. It is not uncommon to have a preacher join your trotro, buy your breakfast easily from the street vendors moving between traffic, have animated discussions with various passengers, secure a marriage proposal or to have your trotro break down mid journey.
Approaching work, you know it is going to be a good day when you cannot hear the hum of the generator. No power means no aircon, no lights, no coffee and sometimes even no internet. For businesses, this is crippling.
In the office, I focus on finance of the project, marketing, continuing to develop our business plan, seek cosmetic companies to partner with or donors to provide funding to set up a new processing facility or a new set of training or initiative to introduce to our communities. During my time in the North, we spend a lot of time procuring Shea nuts, producing Shea butter, working out the bottlenecks of production, training communities and spending time improving our reporting or traceability of Shea nuts or butter.
DO YOU RUN INTO ANY ROAD-BLOCKS WITH YOUR WORK THERE?
Changes are slow. That is easily the hardest part. You can identify a problem but it takes so much time for changes to occur, mainly because you are trying to change a mindset, a way of life or a normal way of doing something.
Shortfalls within the development industry is well known. What works in one country or region doesn’t necessarily translate, although people are always looking for a quick fix… everyone is. The trouble is, if there was a ‘quick fix’ we would be there!
THE MOST REWARDING THING ABOUT THE WORK YOU ARE DOING?
Our project has been set up as a sustainable social enterprise; we are a small enterprise but slowly we are making progress. We expect our production to be 300% higher this year than last year, individual production costs are approximately 60% lower and women are beginning to trust our organization.
The women in the community are committed because they are earning income. Their school fees are easier to pay, food is less scarce, their health is better and occasionally they can treat themselves to new fabric. I certainly have moments when I visit our processing centre and there are queues of women, and more arriving, with trays of crushed nuts waiting for milling, full bags of nuts waiting to have them crushed. They are laughing, they are happy and they are working hard. It’s great to see.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE LOOKING TO WORK IN UNDER-DEVELOPED COUNTRIES?
Working in developing countries is not for everyone. I have no running water in my house, we have power outages every second or third day sometimes up to 24 hours, it is noisy and there is a limited amount of activities to fill your weekends – but if its for you, you will love it. I do.
There is a vibrancy, a culture that you don’t find everywhere. There is a randomness to everyday that keeps you on your toes. If you think you would love it, do it. If you think you might love it, try it. I would also say, if you don’t love it, leave. There is no point trying to do something in a developing country and being jaded and racist whilst trying. I see it often. One of things I love the most about here is there is so much you can learn. While people may not have been fortunate enough to receive a text book education they are amazingly resourceful, resilient, entrepreneurial and have a strong love and care for their family and their community. Something which I see slip through the cracks too often at home.