Project Reports & Other Writing Samples
The following is a brief project proposal completed for an online course "Design for Global Grand Challenges" at Duke University. The assignment was to choose a grand challenge and come up with an innovative solution. I chose to focus on food security and proposed a solution called "Compost Bank."
Design Project Proposal:
The World Bank estimates that a significant fraction of the world’s up to 500 million smallholder households, around 2 billion people, live off of subsistence farming earning less than two dollars a day. For these small scale farms, typically less than 5 acres per household, increasing crop yield can mean the difference between a child going to school, paying a medical bill, or eating three solid meals a day. Compost Bank presents a unique and sustainable way to not only help these low-income farmers increase their crop yield and income, but also to encourage better cultivation practices that will benefit farmers and the environment in the long run.
In this community wide model, compostable waste is collected from participating households and combined with other locally available materials for processing into compost in a central location. The amount of compost each household contributes is recorded monthly in buckets by the collector, and at the end of the cycle the household is allowed to cash in their credit for a monetary incentive or ‘buy-back’ a corresponding amount of compost. The result is a system that turns organic waste into cash either directly or indirectly for small-scale farming households.
The Compost Bank model requires community-wide behavior change in order to effectively bring about improvement. Initially, participating community members would complete a workshop to be introduced to the structure of the program. Other community members would to be trained on collecting, measuring and processing raw materials into healthy compost. The initial infrastructure, though modest would have to be a community investment. In order to make the system financially sustainable, participating households would pay a small monthly fee starting at about $0.25 to maintain the salaries of the compost processing workers and for maintenance fees. Finally, the community would need buy-in from local agriculture businesses or larger farms interested in purchasing the excess compost and/or contributing raw organic materials.
Benefits of the Model
The effects of adding compost to soil are numerous. Small scale farmers that add compost to their soil could see a significant increase in crop growth and plants that use less water and stand up better to drought. Additionally, the long-term benefits of compost on the soil will help produce better crops for years to come. Not only will this augment the income of farmers, it also has the potential to benefit the environment. Additionally, Compost Bank gives families the option of a cash incentive for participating in the program, providing alternative income sources for families stuck in poverty.
Determining whether or not this model is viable and self-sustaining would require a ‘test’ community to agree to try Compost Bank for a year-long period and provide feedback on the model’s successes and failures. Relevant objectives include: full understanding of the benefits of composting on behalf of the participants, wide scale behavior change in composting, accurate recording on the part of the collector, and a product (the actual compost) that shows increases in crop yield when added to the soil. Finally, if a significant amount of participants choose the cash incentive rather than the compost buy-back, the model will have to prove that it can still sustain itself financially through selling the compost to other buyers. The initial model will likely take up to a year or more for the participants to start seeing returns after the first batch of compost is produced and returned to farmers or sold to larger production units. Subsequently, a full growing season will have to pass before farmers start to see the benefits in their crop yield.
Lessons from Similar Models
Though Compost Bank is unique in its objectives, the model itself is based on the startup Recyclebank, developed by Ron Gonan. This model was a huge success largely because it combined behavior change with social pressure and incentives. Compost Bank aims to tap into that philosophy by creating a system that provides incentive for participants to maintain it themselves. Compost Bank takes lessons from Recyclebank’s success into account while also considering and building around the shortcomings of other projects like it. One such example of an ineffective yet similar project is the Play Pump initiative. Like Compost Bank, the Play Pump model involves community-wide dependence on a central system. Unlike Recyclebank however, the Play Pump was largely considered a failure because it wasn’t designed with any community involvement, didn’t target incentives well, and had an unsustainable economic model.
Compost Bank, in contrast, seeks to make the implementation process a community-wide and sit specific effort. The model targets the needs of farmers directly by trading modest behavior change for huge potential gains. Finally, asking participants to pay a small fee provides incentive for them to maintain the system and work towards its continued success. This theory has proved true not only in mosquito net distribution campaigns, but also in community well-building projects where community members are more likely to be invested in the success or use of the product if they have financially sacrificed for it.
Potential Drawbacks and Challenges
Though Compost Bank is based off of an already successful model, there are numerous considerations and obstacles to be wary of. Not all compositions of compost are created equal, and not all rural farming communities may produce enough raw material to make the model work well. Extensive site-specific research is a pre-requisite before implementation. There also may be complications with getting buy-in from outside agricultural companies to purchase the compost, and the compost may not increase crop yield enough to make it worth the trouble for farmers. In addition, the educational workshop needs to be translated into local languages and be made culturally sensitive. An excellent way to combat these problems and increase feasibility is by enlisting the help of well-educated community counterparts or leaders. These facilitators can help implementers gain access to important, site-specific information and mitigate problems before or as they arise.
 "A Year in the Lives of Smallholder Farmers." World Bank. The World Bank Group, 25 Feb. 2016. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.
 Van Haute, Jolien. Evaluation of the Effects of Compost on Soil Properties, Performance and Yield of Maize and Beans in Kenya. Diss. Universiteit Gent, 2013-2014. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
 "Compost and Its Benefits." Composting Council. The United States Composting Council, 2008. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.
 "Compost Fundamentals: Benefits & Uses." Compost Fundamentals. Washington State University, Whatcom County Extension, n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.
Below is a visual report on an activity concerning women's health that I did with the young women I work with as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Burkina Faso. Most of these girls have education levels of sixth grade or lower.
Following is a project report for a grant I wrote and managed to start a community garden at the Center for young women at which I work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso.
Garden For The Marie Moreau Young Women’s Alternative Education Center
The nuns that preside over the Centre de Formation Feminine have long wanted to grow a garden within the Center’s walls. The Center, a vocational learning school for young women who have left school, is a ripe environment for teaching new skills. The nuns believed that implementing a vegetable garden could not only help the girls support themselves in the future but also improve their health and diet while they are at the Center. In an effort to facilitate starting the garden, the nuns asked me to write a small grant for the basic resources we needed such as a fence, gardening tools and seeds. We also had a number of key resources already on hand: A water pump near by, half a hectare of available land and plenty of labor (there are over 20 girls working in the garden).
Together the nuns and I devised two principal goals to focus the gardening project, one pedagogical and the other pertaining to food security and nutrition. With those in mind I was able to consolidate our key objectives into specific skill sets and measurable outcomes. From October 2015 through March 2016, the girls were to be instructed on how to start and maintain a healthy garden with proper techniques including composting, preparing the earth for planting, determining what to plant in certain seasons or areas, and harvesting the produce. Throughout the process, the girls demonstrated mastery in specific skills. In order to facilitate the learning process, I partnered with the local Departments to Agriculture and their facilitator, M. Bertrand Ouedraogo, who began weekly trainings at the Center with the girls from sowing the seeds through the harvest. Each week the girls spent three to six hours maintaining the garden and in trainings with M. Ouedraogo. In March 2016, we were able to harvest a significant yield of onions, cabbage, and lettuce.
Goal 1: To introduce proper gardening and composting techniques to the students at the Marie Moreau Young Women’s Alternative Learning Center.
Objective: By mid November 2015, 45 of the students at the Center will have initiated training on how to begin a garden and compost pit.
Objective: By the end of November 2015, 45 of the students at the Center will have established the garden and composting pit and will be working to maintain them.
Objective: From October through January 2015, 45 of the students at the Center will be working to maintain the garden while being instructed in good gardening and composting techniques
Indicator: The number of individuals to whom significant knowledge or skills have been imparted through interactions that are intentional, structured, and purposed for imparting knowledge or skills should be counted.
Indicator: Number of farmers and others who have applied new technologies or management practices as a result of United States government assistance (Peace Corps grant)
Goal 2: To ameliorate community health and food security through the production of a variety of fruits and vegetables via the establishment of the garden.
Objective: By December 2015, 45 of the students at the Center will have been instructed in the importance of adding a variety of fruits and vegetables to their diet
Objective: By the January 2016 harvest, 45 of the students at the Center will diversify their food sources by introducing the products they have grown into their everyday diet
Indicator: Number of individuals who have received United States government assistance (Peace Corps grant) supported short-term agricultural sector productivity or food security training
All goals, objective and indicators cited in this project are taken from the “Feed the Future” small grants indicator handbook for fiscal year 2015 written to guide Peace Corps Volunteers in the process of writing a grant.
Post Implementation Report
Although we got off to a late start due to a failed Coup d’Etat in Burkina Faso, the girls were able to learn and build on their skills very quickly throughout the implementation process. By the end of November 2015, the girls had been taught how to start a nursery and had started growing lettuce, cabbage and onions. As the nursery grew, our partners helped us to measure out the necessary land we would need to replant the young plants. Also with the help these partners, the girls learned quickly and efficiently how to create beds and how to transfer the immature plants to their new home several weeks later. As part of our effort to make the garden sustainable, the girls and I also created a large compost pile using raw materials that were available around the Center.
As the weeks went by and the plants began to grow, the girls became more confident in their skills. Several months after starting the garden, I observed them create a nursery and prepare garden beds for replanting without instruction. They also demonstrated an understanding of when and how to water plants at different stages in their development. Watching this made me confident that the project was sustainable: Most of these girls come back to the Center every year for up to three years and when they return they bring back their knowledge and skills to share with new members of the Center. In addition, with the compost pile, new equipment and new fence that the grant helped make possible, we have positioned ourselves to sustain a garden at the Center for years to come.
By starting small, we hope to grow. With the primary goal of 2015’s garden being pedagogical, we limited ourselves to a small number of crops, but we hope to augment both what we grow and how much of it we grow as the girls grow more confident in their skills. During the summer of 2016, I planted over 60 moringa and baobab trees around the Center which the girls have taken the responsibility of maintaining. The agricultural partners and I are also collaborating to create a booklet with all of the skills that the girls have learned in an effort to reinforce their understanding. I am excited to see the girls reap what they have worked so hard for and proud to see gardening finally become part of the repertoire of skills taught at the Centre de Formation Feminine.
Analysis of Goals and Objectives
I am proud to say that I believe we are well on our way of achieving our goals. Though we had to adjust the initial timeline to accommodate certain setbacks, the girls that have participated in the project are each now well versed in proper gardening and composting techniques as evidenced by their continued work in the garden.
We are also on track to accomplish our second goal, to ameliorate community health and food security through the production and a variety of fruits and vegetables via the establishment of the garden. The first session that the girls had was ‘Introduction to Gardening,’ and was facilitated by our partners from the local Department of Agriculture. Included in this session was an introduction to nutrition and why it is good to diversify one’s diet with a range of fruits and vegetables. In further forwarding this goal, it would be beneficial to weave nutritional lessons throughout the gardening process. To this end, I will be drawing on the experience of other volunteers in creating a full nutrition curriculum that will be taught over several days.
Capacity and Skills Built
Every single girl at the Center who participated in the activity gleaned a significant amount of technical skills. When we first started this project, the girls had minimal knowledge of how to start and maintain a garden. After several months, they completed all the required activities for maintaining the garden largely independently. This includes creating garden beds, watering, adding soil enrichment, caring for our compost pile, removing weeds from the garden beds and harvesting. In one instance for example, our partners from the Department of Agriculture couldn’t make it to our gardening session, so the girls prepared and planted an entire nursery of carrots on their own without any help. This was a key moment in showing their growth in knowledge and skill in caring for a garden from start to finish.
One of the most rewarding aspects of this project is its potential for sustainability. Not only have we been able to conserve a large amount of our materials and seeds for future use, but the garden itself has the potential to grow with our knowhow and expertise. Now that we have laid the foundation and created a number of garden beds and a fence, we can re-use them to continue to produce year round. In addition, the knowledge that the girls have will not only help them when they leave the Center, but it will also help the Center sustain the garden in the future when the girls return the following year.
Finally, in the rainy season of 2016, I planted a number of trees, some fast growing such as moringa and some slow such as baobab. These trees will contribute to making the Center a green, environmentally friendly space for many years to come. Because of their nutritional value, their leaves and fruit can be harvested to further support the nutrition of the community.
Unexpected Events and Recommendations
During the implementation of this project we faced a number of unexpected challenges, the greatest of which was the timing of each step in the process of gardening. Because of the failed Coup d’Etat in the fall of 2015 and challenges in installing the fence, we weren’t able to start planting the garden until November. This process ideally would have started in September, but the late start forced us to rush ourselves resulting in yields that were not what we had hoped. The original plan created with local Department of Agriculture for how, when and what to plant, needed to be modified. Additionally, our first set of tools were faulty, causing a delay in our gardening work.
Some of these events were predictable, others were not. Many of these problems had to do with the garden being a new project at the Center. Next year, we will be starting with a functional fence, already plotted garden beds, a bank of knowledge that came from trainings and having learned from our mistakes, and new, functional tools. All of these things will help us to avoid some of the pitfalls we encountered the first year. In addition, we will have an understanding of exactly how much work it takes to start and maintain each part of the garden. We will plan the activities into the girls’ schedule and for backup sources of labor for when the girls are not at the Center. In subsequent years, each girl will have her own number of beds to care for and there will be far more accountability and investment on their part. Lastly, we will be able to start much earlier since we have already laid the foundation for the garden, and this will allow us to produce more and plan more effectively.
Lessons Learned and Promising Practices
One of the most valuable lessons I learned from starting a garden is planning for the unplanned. From chickens hopping the fence and eating all your seeds to a bee infestation at the pump or an attempted coup d’état, there were many unanticipated events that have the potential to delay plans. It is important to consider all those factors and be ready for them, but also to be able to move on when something unexpected thwarts the original trajectory.
Yet another important take away that is certainly not unique to a project like this is the level of commitment required at every step of the process. Few projects are self-sustaining after implementation without constant vigilance and flexibility when problems arise. Starting a garden is no exception. I am not sure the girls were fully prepared for how much work it would be to maintain this garden, but as the year goes on they are taking more and more responsibility for caring for the beds. In subsequent years, we will start off by dividing labor more effectively among the girls so there is more accountability from the start. Additionally, though we have a pump close to where our garden beds are, watering every day, twice a day, has proved to be the most challenging activity for many of the girls. In the future, we are hoping to install drip systems to make the process more efficient and which we hope will increase our yield.