Friday, November 16, 2012

Boom Boom

Whit presenting the vision for Burro's future
Many of you may be asking, “Why are you back in Ghana after being home so long?”  For me, the answer has many sides.  The business in Ghana is growing rapidly with many new products (see, lots of customers, and increasing sales.  We have also started selling our products in the US, on Amazon. My contribution over the last couple of years has been limited to launching the US business on Amazon.

Burro team members
One of our first employees, Rose Aba Dodd, who eventually became branch manager of the pilot branch, left Burro in August to pursue an MBA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Although the balance of the team (Branch Manager, two category marketing managers, two account managers, two delivery drivers, two battery and inventory clerks) is also very strong, I offered Whit, around the time Rose was leaving, to help out with anything he might need during the transition.  He took me up on the offer and we scheduled this 7 week period while he is also here. 
Burro now provides vision!
As it turns out, there is plenty to do, particularly as we get our books ready to send to potential investors.  The processes I put in place after the monster audit / clean-up and QuickBooks implementation in 2010 provided a good structure, but there have been a few instances where the accountant “went her own way” and a bit of clean-up is required.  Even that effort was put on hold, however, the first week I was here when I learned the VAT (Value Added Tax) examiner had been here a month earlier to audit our sales tax submissions for 2010 and 2011.  Our current accountant had been putting him off mostly because he wasn’t sure how to answer all the open questions.  So, I spent about a week and a half pulling together all sorts of reports and evidence that we had, in fact, paid the taxes we were supposed to pay.
Crowding around a new product -
Sorry, if I showed you I'd have to kill you.

Another thing I’m working on is converting our inventory to Standard Costing.  There are now too many items to manually manage Average Costing in Excel and the QuickBooks inventory functionality is insufficient for our needs, so we’re just going to go to Standard Costing and incorporate it into our operations management database, called Fodder – named in Whit’s oddball-humoresque way of making a joke out of his seat-of-the-pants Access Database tools.  At Cranium we had two such tools, the first was called Kludge (kl-oo-dj) and it was replaced by Augur.  If you look any of those words up, I think you’ll see the tongue-in-cheek humor.
Award for the best new Reseller
Today was our annual Reseller Meeting.  We have hundreds of resellers now, in a radius of 100km from Koforidua and even a few beyond that who are running stand-alone enterprises.   Not all of them can attend the annual meeting, but there were presentations, awards, new product introductions and lunch.  There was really good discussion and participation and the new products were well received by the resellers, so I think it was a success.  We met at a Methodist church since churches are now about the only places large enough to fit us all!  Yay, Burro – Do More!


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Growing Up

The older kids have really grown.  Here is Blessed.  When I left, he was 13 and now he is 15.  When he first came to greet me (on the steps, of course), I said good evening first and wasn’t prepared for a baritone response!
But aging has it upsides, too.  The older kids are now able to understand card games so we’ve had some nice evenings playing cards.


Friday, November 9, 2012

One Giant Leap

When I left the last time, Precious was 7 and in KG-2 (there are two levels of kindergarten here).  Anyone following the blog at that time knows I had given her family a hard time for about a year before she was finally enrolled in nursery school at age 6.  After a few months in nursery school she moved into Kindergarten.  She progressed rapidly through KG-1, getting the highest marks in her class in Spoken English (I wonder why?).  She was in KG-1 for ½ a year and was promoted into KG-2 in the fall after she turned 7. 

That was two years ago, so I expected that when I returned, she would be at least in Class 2 and perhaps even Class 3.  Imagine my surprise to learn, upon my return, that at age 9 she is currently in Class 1 (First Grade) and is not yet reading.  However, in looking at her exercise books, I see she is getting 10/10 and 9/10 on every homework exercise.  I spoke to her mother who said her teacher in Class 1 (the first year) forgot to schedule her for the exam (an exam to move from first grade to second grade, really?) so she is still in Class 1.  Precious’ mother said the teacher had been sacked. 

So, I’m very happy I brought a LeapPad with me – although I loaded it with content for Grades 2-4, so it is a bit advanced in some areas.  I’m going to download some Grade 1 stuff to get her caught up.  Here are some super cute shots of Precious and Mamakos ‘reading’ the LeapPad version of “Brave” which lets them click on every word and repeat after the voice on the LeapPad says it.

P.S. The power was out at the time of the video, but the LeapFrog and Burro lamp were going strong on Burro rechargeable batteries!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dancin' at the Savoy

The kids were so excited when I first arrived they just couldn’t sit still.  When I brought out my camera the second night, they went crazy and everyone wanted to be in every shot.  It was hard to capture any one kid.  I’ll have to do that on another day.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

If not solar, then WHAT?

Last month I posted a link to Max's excellent summary of "Why not solar?"

But, if not solar, then how can the needs for rural lighting be met? The battery operated lamps and flashlights in the market in Ghana are cheap and very poor quality - there is no warranty, money back, or returns system so everything is "buyer beware".

In comes Burro. Whit has amazingly worked with a solar lamp designer to modify a solar light to work with our batteries. And he did it even better! The lamp has four settings, so the user can decide how much light they need and therefore, how long their batteries will last and how much it will cost them. It's amazing.

Check out the newest Burro product on the Burro website!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why not solar?

Yes, I'm home. Many of you know this, but for others who have wondered what happended to the blog, that is it, as we say in Ghana. In local lingo, that's right, I'm home. But, I just read Max's (Whit's brother) post on his blog about the progress of his book (It should come out this fall!) - and just loved this perfect summary of "Why not solar?" which is a question we get A LOT!

First the NY Times article he references:

Then his blog post response to the article:

Happy reading! Oh, and it's snowing (?!) in Medford today.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Doing More

Early in our pilot we realized that there were many people in the villages who would like to take advantage of the Burro battery offering, if only they had the battery operated devices necessary to do so. Many people did not even have a simple flashlight (AKA torch) – despite the fact that these devices are plentiful in every market throughout the country. Some people even resorted to building their own flashlights and lamps using a bit of wire, an LED bulb, and some local materials like bamboo.

We thought at first this situation was because these people just rarely left the villages and since the devices were not for sale in the village, they just didn’t have access. So, we set about sourcing some decent table top lights and small combo light/radio devices to take to our clients. In Accra, the light/radio could be had for about GH¢1.80 (at that time, this was about $1.30) and we sold it for GH¢3.00 including the reseller’s commission. A table top LED lamp with about 20 small LED bulbs we purchased for around GH¢3.00, selling for GH¢5.00. Unfortunately, we ended up refunding almost everyone’s money after about a month. The cheap LED bulbs in the lamp began burning out after about a week and after just a few weeks were about ½ gone. The radio lasted a bit longer, but in most cases the retractable antenna and the carry handle broke off after a few weeks.

Both Whit and I know from our Cranium experiences that it is possible to produce very high-quality products in China, because we did it. We also know that it requires careful management, monitoring, and testing to ensure the design and component quality specifications are being followed. Lacking these controls and fearing no consumer protection or warranty penalties, manufacturers will rarely make quality products based on principle alone. In fact, one China manufacturer, upon receiving our feedback about some of the quality issues with a product replied, “This item price is very cheap. Most customers are using this for promotion. I think it's suitable for African market.” They do have their facts correct – suitable for the African market means people will buy it and take what they get. In Ghana, nothing comes with a warranty, including the 4WD pick-up truck Whit bought brand new when we first began, and certainly not small consumer electronics like radios or lamps. People know that once they buy it the risk is all on them. So, many learn not to buy at all when they know it will essentially be money down the drain.

These lessons told us that to really help empower people to do more, we would have to not only provide the batteries, but also high-quality battery-operated devices optimized to work with our batteries and rugged enough to last in village conditions. Our first such device has arrived and is selling fast. It is a battery operated phone charger – to re-charge the battery inside a cell phone. Most of our clients who have no electricity have to travel to a town with electricity (paying for a taxi or Trotro, unless it is close enough to walk) then pay someone (typically at a shop) to charge their phone. Our charger lets them charge their phones at home, several times, using one set of 4 Burro batteries. People love the convenience.

Whit designed the charger, taking a generic battery holder with generic black and red wires that could be attached to most anything, and had it manufactured with a female pigtail end to which any one of many, many phone attachment pins. For instance I can use one pin to charge my cheap Nokia phone that I use here in Ghana, a USB pin to charge my US phone, and another pin to charge my iPod, all with the same charger.

It would be ideal for villagers if someone were actually making a phone suited to their needs – for instance running on two AA batteries – but in the meantime, they are thrilled with the Burro charger solution!

Next to arrive, in November, will be a versatile lamp with 4 brightness settings to put the customer in charge of how much energy they use and therefore, how much they spend on lighting. The lowest setting, about like a nightlight, will run for 250 hours on 3 Burro batteries. The brightest, which will light a whole room, for a meeting or party, runs only 5 hours. We think the sweet spot is the second setting which gives as much light as the dirty, smelly, yellow-light kerosene lamp currently being used in most village households. Our lamp will run 80 hours on that setting, saving about 60-80% and reducing respiratory illness.

Since the World Bank estimates that breathing kerosene fumes is the equivalent of smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day, this is huge!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Don't Mind Your Wife

No body is free - might as well drink!

This is a fairly typical "drinking spot" in Ghana. "Spot" is the word used for bar/tavern/pub. Some names you might see are:

All Is Well Spot,

Be Bold Drinking Spot,

Strawberry Spot,

and my personal favorite, Don't Mind Your Wife Drinking Spot, where "mind" is used in the British sense - meaning Don't Pay Any Heed to Your Wife.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I was sitting on the top step drinking my coffee, minding my own business and watching the neighbors head off to their daily pursuits. Below near the breezeway between our building and the bank next door I saw Precious’ mother, Mary, speaking animatedly and gesturing wildly. The woman to whom she spoke immediately began to speak loudly with an upset tone to her voice and I thought they were having a neighborhood squabble. When they finished, Mary saw me, waved and started my way.

She marched up the stairs like a woman with a mission and, again wrongly, I thought she was going to share with me the cause of the spat so that I could, of course, take her side and lament about “people these days”. Instead, she told me there were three dead girls in the church down the street. She was speaking rapidly and couldn’t get the news out fast enough so it was all I could do to gather that three girls from the same family had died and were laid in state nearby.

As always, my immediate questions were “How?” and “Why?” – to which, after two years I should learn, the answer was “No one knows.” Finally, frustrated that I kept asking questions she couldn’t answer, she said, “Let’s go.” I said, “Go where?” and she said, “Go see.” I protested that I wasn’t, in my standard Capri and sleeveless top uniform, dressed for a funeral. She reassured me that it was fine and that she had gone over in what she had on – a plaid skirt with a side zipper, unfastened at the top from a missing button, and a hangin’-around-the-house blouse.

So, feeling like Grandma Mazur in a Stephanie Plum mystery (I ♥ Janet Evanovich!), I went inside to change, at the very least, from my house flip flops to my going out sandals and away we went. Here is the “news” article describing the situation. I could link to it, but it’s short and I’ll attribute it to the Ghana Chronicle and put it in quotes and all that – so they shouldn’t mind.

“The Eastern regional capital, Koforidua, became a scene of great grief yesterday when the bodies of three sisters from Aburi, who died mysteriously three weeks after returning from a youth camp, were transported to the town for burial. The Apostolic Church of Ghana, where the three young ladies worshipped, was literally shaken to its foundation as the entire leadership of the church, which was overawed by the event, trooped to the Eastern regional assembly in Koforidua for the burial service.

The bodies of the three sisters, aged between 17 and 20, were brought to Koforidua for burial following a 40-day ban on drumming, noise-making and funeral at Aburi that normally precedes the Odwira festival in the town. The festival is expected to take place in the middle of next month.

The circumstances leading to the mysterious death of the sisters, including a set of twins, spread like a wildfire in the Koforidua municipality, drawing a huge crowd from all corners of the town to the premises of the church where they had all been laid in state for the burial service. Two of the sisters died on the same day while the other died five days earlier. Sympathisers including some pastors could not hold back their tears when they saw the three sisters lying in state. When the caskets containing their mortal remains were being carried to the cemetery, the roof of the church nearly came down, with spontaneous wailing from the church members.

The only living sister of the three deceased, who is about 14 years old, had to be heavily protected and comforted. It was however visible that she was very terrified and traumatized during the entire burial service of her sisters. Both parents of the deceased, who are in their late forties, are natives of Aburi, where they live with their children. The 17-year-old twins, Juliana Opoku Nsiah and Juliet Opoku Nsiah, attended SDA Senior High School at Ashanti Agona while their 20-year-old elder sister, Josephine Opoku Nsiah, was about to enter the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi after completing Adonten Senior High School at Aburi. The father, Oliver Kwame Nsiah, is a driver at the Accra office of KNUST while the mother sells second-hand clothing at Aburi.

The mysterious deaths sparked a series of speculations trying to explain the deaths which occurred in less than a week. Some alleged that it could be a spell on the family while others said the children were bewitched. Juliet Opoku Nsiah, the younger of the twins, was said to have complained about pains all over the body after 'something' allegedly struck her neck like somebody had hit her with a stick.

The sickness got serious and she was taken to the Tetteh Quarshie Memorial Hospital at Mampong-Akuapem, from where she was later referred to the regional hospital at Koforidua. She died on September 4, a few days after admission. Five days after Juliet's death, the elder sister, Josephine complained of a similar ailment and died on the same day when she was taken to Tetteh Quarshie Hospital. About two hours after the death of Josephine, Juliana was said to have collapsed but was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital on the same day.”

As with Patrick, my small boy who died in late August, there was no follow-up about the causes of death. No autopsy results. No reassurances to parents who may worry about a contagious epidemic. Nothing to refute the wild speculations of witchcraft. And finally, no closure for the family – no explanation of an unfathomable parental nightmare.

The church was like a parade with a steady stream of people, including small children, walking up the center aisle to where the three bodies lay side by side on three identical platforms, in three identical white dresses. All were instructed to circle round the bodies to the right and then proceed back up the center aisle and out the doors in the back of the church. A three piece ensemble played music as family members and friends sat in the church pews (actually rows of chairs) throughout the day.

We saw many of the neighbors there, all out of curiosity alone. No one in our neighborhood, nor in most of Koforidua, knew this family, but everyone turned up to gaze at the bodies. Those who didn't go inside were crowded 5 deep around every window in the church building. It was perhaps the single greatest moment of cultural divide I have experienced in these two years. And the front page full color newspaper photo of the girls laid out at the church was the second.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Akos and Kwabena

Two of the children in the neighborhood are brother and sister. The girl, Akos, is 12 and the boy, Kwabena, is 10. He is a little slow and probably a lot ADD. He doesn’t go to school because I am sure there is no path for him there. I’m told he did go at one time, but they “sent him home”. The children always call Kwabena a “dirty boy” because they hardly ever bathe him and he wears the same clothes for days in a row until the dirt is so ground in that it doesn’t come out. In a country where people bathe twice a day, even the 4-year olds begin to look with disdain on anyone who has not bathed. Further, because of his wild nature and the general opinion about his cleanliness, he had become the whipping boy of the neighborhood. Anytime something happened all the other children needed to do was point at Kwabena and he would be slapped, beaten, or caned, no questions asked.

Akos is very active and bright, but skinny and always dressed in what I would call rags. Despite being bright, when I first arrived two years ago she was 10 and in Grade 2. She was then held back to Grade 2 for another year because she could not read. I assumed her family was just very poor and barely getting by and I began giving these two a few more things than the others. On this last return I brought them both clothes which I gave them a little at a time.

Recently, on the top step over my morning coffee, the children were teasing Kwabena about not having a bath that morning. I asked why he hadn’t bathed and one of the children translated for me. He said they had no water. In the compound, when the cistern in the courtyard is dry people have to go across the street and buy water by the bucket. I assumed they couldn’t afford it. So, I put out my hand and Kwabena came inside with me. I put him in the shower and gave him a soapy bath sponge. He was amazed that I could make the water warm just by turning a knob. He scrubbed himself all over with vigor and excitement, beaming like a halogen light. Afterward, I put him in a new set of clothes and put the filthy ones in a bag. When he came back outside, the other children cheered as he continued to beam.

Imagine my surprise when a man came to the door, speaking perfect English, introduced himself as these children’s father and asked for a job. His story was that he had had a job in Accra but now he needed another one and needed to be home to care for his family. I asked what job he had in Accra and he said he worked for Metro Mass. Metro Mass is the large city-to-city bus company – and I think no one working there would leave voluntarily in a country with such high unemployment. I did ask why he left and he said it was because he didn’t have a place to stay in Accra. Are you kidding me? Anybody can find a place to stay. If you really want to take care of your family, you don’t quit a good job. And if he had a good steady job, why were his children dressed in rags – and why were they so poorly educated and his daughter barely reading, when his English was nearly perfect. I assume that if he actually did work for Metro Mass, he lost that job and was telling me a tale. I told him we didn’t have any openings, which was true.

Then a few days ago, I realized I hadn’t seen Akos for a few days, so I asked about her. Her mother had come to visit and Akos had essentially run away with her. It was Sunday and she was wearing the new dress I got her – brown with white polka dots, and a ribbon that tied in the back. When she returned from church, she sneaked in the house to get a bag of her rag clothes that she had quietly packed away. But her evil stepmother had discovered her plot and locked the bag of clothes in another room. Akos and her mother begged the stepmother to give her the bag and finally Akos said, “I’ll just go with what I have on,” and they left.

It was the other girls, Akos’s friends, who were telling me this story. They said the stepmother only wanted her to stay because she makes her do all the work. They said, “Auntie Jan, almost everything you give Akos, her stepmother takes and sends to her grandchildren.” It was a very sad story, but I had to quietly cheer for Akos. I hope she finds the love and care she deserves. And, Kwabena, when he’s not poking, pinching, or prodding, likes to just sit quietly and lean against me.