Ghana’s new agriculture policy is leaving behind its smallholders

In a recent meeting at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, we were presented with the designated Minister, Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto’s plans for what the new government is going to offer its farmers: Planting for Food and Jobs, a Campaign for Rapid Growth.

The plan makes grand claims to promote growth in food production and create 750,000 new jobs through a focus on five areas: seed, fertilizer, extension services, marketing and e-fertilizer. The growth will come from five main food crops maize, rice, soybean, sorghum and vegetables and in the north of the country where I work, the focus will be entirely on the first three: maize, rice and soy. Notably, yam, millet, livestock and other animals are not included, as well as other natural resources like shea.

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Women’s shea production and processing group, Ghana

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African yam mounds

The campaigns focus on getting every Ghanaian to grow food for the country is reminiscent of the 1970s Operation Feed Yourself policy that focused on Green Revolution development approaches only without the focus on mechanization and a renewed emphasis on seed and fertilizer. A novel feature is that local district assemblies will have a main coordination role alongside the local Ministry of Food and Agriculture units. We will wait to see what support to strengthening local government systems will be provided beyond hiring new extension staff proposed. The National Buffer Stock (NAFCO) will be reinvested in, operating as the market, storage and processing option. We also wait to see if support for operations is budgeted for and not just infrastructure maintenance.

Most worryingly is that the government is only registering ‘lead farmers’ those who have 10 acres or more of one of the targeted crops. In a place where virtually all farmers are smallholders who grow many crops to meet a diverse diet and reduce risk, government extension have expressed concerns about who the government is targeting and how their services will shift. As one extension staff said in the meeting, “I bet we won’t even get up to 100 farmers registered for the entire district”. Since farmers are registered for where they are farming and not where they live, it is likely that most of the farmers registered will not be those in the rural communities, but business men from the city or government staff who have the capital to rent and prepare land, hire labour and access inputs on a medium scale. Moreover, it is likely that women (especially those who do not inherit land) and the ‘teeming youth’ will not have the ten acres needed, leaving them behind.

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The extension staff I work with perceive their jobs to be about developing smallholder livelihoods and rural communities and in the meeting, they began strategizing about how they could register them so they are included. One suggestion was through the registration of groups of smallholders (farming based organizations), like cooperatives where they could aggregate land. But, no, individuals are only allowed. Others suggested registering smallholders with plots next to each other, but under one name. I can’t help but think about the deep mistrust between smallholders and government and the potential community conflict that could arise because smallholders’ land, rented tractors and hired labour are already being monopolized by these business men who can afford to pay more at the necessary time. Now the government is supporting them, not the smallholders.

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This campaign for rapid growth is worrying because where there is rapid growth, there tends to be rapid inequality and rapid environmental degradation. There seems to be a mismatch between what the government, NGOs and the private sector sees as the future of agriculture in Ghana and what smallholders themselves want. Chemical fertilizer for example is being widely adopted by smallholders, and government (with pressure from farmer lobbyists) have subsidized the cost from around 100 GH cedis to 85 GH cedis per 45 kg bag to reduce costs. However, smallholders have issued concerns to me about the impact this fertilizer usage has on soil health and the quality of food produced. Those both near and far away from town are reluctantly adopting fertilizer because of desperation and they perceive themselves as being addicted to these expensive chemicals. The improved, shorter varieties of seed provided produce more in times of erratic rainfall, but the quality of produce and ability to withstand drought is also a problem perceived by smallholders. We will also wait to see what kinds of seeds are encouraged in the future and perhaps the renewal of hybrids and other non-open pollinated varieties smallholders are not willing to adopt will make its way back in the name of growth. Moreover, the focus on e-extension and e-fertilizer was tried and failed last year because of the technical and literacy problems across the country. We await to see what new innovations are provided to combat this.

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After all, it is the medium scale farmer who is willing to invest and depend on these inputs year after year to generate surplus, moving on when the soil is dead, but not the smallholder who needs to think about sustaining her subsistence and existence first – food quality, diversification and environmental sustainability.

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Smallholder farmers in Ghana

Making women out to be the saviours – a hard look at women’s empowerment initiatives

I just came across this paper by my Masters degree convener Andrea Cornwall and Althea-Maria Rivas that I think has profound insights for the way women’s empowerment initiatives are being deployed to fix the deeply rooted, context specific and complex gender inequalities that exist. In my line of work, women’s empowerment in agriculture strategies commonly entails ‘closing the gap’ in improving access to agriculture inputs, extension, finance and investing in labor-saving, female-friendly technologies to progress women’s efficiency in food production. Mainstream policy and planning tend to frame women as in a vulnerable position, undervalued, constrained and left out by a range of institutions related to food production and who are also disproportionately responsible for the provision of food at the household level. Renewed calls to place women centrally within development policy and planning (even for their empowerment) I think have been woefully inadequate.

These initiatives often look like encouraging women to produce female oriented food crops in gardens or care for small ruminants close to home by providing them with the tools and skills needed, even for free. This is to encourage her to be more productive so she can make more money and have more authority over her own life. It often looks like providing ‘new’ technology, like the old story of cheaper, energy efficient cook stoves, that are supposed to reduce her burden of work by making it easier on her. The women’s empowerment initiatives stipulated in policy and planning problematically tackles issues of power imbalance through an instrumentalist rationale. This “making women work for development, rather than making development work for their equality and empowerment” (p. 398).

Bad theory sucks

The problem with these initiatives is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the individual woman to solve the problems facing her family, like that of hunger. It actually places the solution and change on individuals, often in a way that reinforces traditional gender norms, further women’s work burdens and limits adaptive capacity, by providing those things that are female friendly. The danger is that this focus in policy may not reflect the lived realities of people’s experience, while possibly reinforcing the gendered status quo. Ultimately, the present empowering women strategies do not address the socio-economic inequalities that have led to her marginalization, such as the political economic dynamics and cultural geography. It also does not acknowledge the positions of power and agency she also has, afforded by privilege.

While there is recognition in policy and planning of the important contributions men and boys make and a detailing of human rights based approaches, women’s empowerment initiatives are pursued without deconstructing the underlying, unfounded assumptions about women and men. The narrative about women’s empowerment in development planning includes a number of myths, portraying women as hardworking, more caring and responsible than men and a better investment.

Kids get it

Although improving women’s opportunities is important, whether this will lead to transforming the unequal rules that are engendered is unclear.
– Even a small plot of land can reduce the risk of poverty, by acting as a bargaining point for attracting further resources from the State and from within the household, yet this link is by no means clear.
Technology to relieve domestic duties like cook stoves do not shift work loads, i.e. women still need to cook on top of the other income generating activities that you have given her, like that goat.
– New technology can also end up being labor-displacing. It could encourage women to take up work in collecting water or processing grain for wealthier farmers in return for wages reinforcing inequitable class dynamics.
Microcredit offered to poor women are typically under conditions that few affluent individuals would find acceptable and which few developed countries would allow. Moreover they remain small, recent evidence pointing to these loans as not having much of the intended transformational effects.
Training some women is also likely to have limited impact as having to attend training courses may benefit only those better off and who can sacrifice the time to attend the training
– Focusing on women can reinforce the gendered status quo and result in alienating men from contributing anything to the household.
– Targeting women also often include backlash from men, who feel left out from interventions, widening inequalities in different ways.

Moreover, the problems with targeting women who are labeled as victims of discrimination are that it may alter incentives and encourage them to adapt to this label so they receive development assistance. According to Ann Whitehead this framing of women without agency largely explains why the market-based strategies of the last 15 years in SSA (1987-2002) have not resulted in significant improvements for food security or agricultural development.

What can be done that is transformational?
Mainstream gender policy and planning maintains a post-feminist logic of empowering women through improving their productive capacity. The implications for this post-feminist logic that focuses on the individual woman are that it can reinforce traditional gender norms, increase work burdens, further intra-household conflict and, limit people and community’s adaptive capacity. In the least, policy needs to take a longer view and offer a broader range of opportunities people can choose to opt in or out of. Most of all, feminists should reclaim policy and planning spaces to politicize addressing the gender bias across various institutions for improving well being.

Why arent there more women?

Other more specific actions include,

1. Be informed by broader sets of interconnected inequalities, which involves a range of actors and activities embedded across various institutions. This includes recognition of discrimination of other oppression and differences, such as ethnicity and age, and other experiences of stigma and violence.

2. Intangible resources need to be considered, which are beyond asset provision, money and commodities include informal networks and associations-collective consciousness and building group solidarity. Moreover, human assets that focus broadly on the labor power, health and skills of individuals are critical.

3. Gender mainstreaming in reforms requires gender consciousness that goes beyond the staff of the programs to also include traditional authorities, men, and women to redress social inequality. This is not just about simply involving or engaging men, but also about holding them accountable to address any inequitable privileged positions of power.

4. Create conditions where people are not only able to express concerns, but also ensure they are listened to for increasing participation in decision making.

5. Most of all we need to examine the extent to which we harbor assumptions, myths, stereotypes, and limiting beliefs that prevent us from treating everyone with dignity and respect.

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The slant of women’s empowerment initiatives in current policy discourse logic restricts women and men’s ability to contribute to their own development in multiple ways and ignores the need to transform institutional arrangements that control access, which is what actual empowerment looks like. Providing a group of woman with micro-loans for their shea butter production for example does not address the underlying socio-economic inequalities they face as peasant farmers engaging in a political economy that is actually shutting them out. This can be done by at least having a longer term perspective with the hope of providing a greater range of opportunities for people to decide what is best for themselves and their communities to adapt to changing circumstances.
im the boss

Empowerment only comes from within – thoughts on grassroots development from a development critic

I received a message this morning from someone who is consulting for a BIG agriculture development project in Northern Ghana. The consultant met with me recently because part of their project is in agriculture extension service capacity building, which is my line of work. They met with me to gain insights about the local context, especially since they will be working with the same staff in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture district office I was based in for a year and since very few others have actually spent time with farmers.

The good news is that the project’s initial assessment speaks to the importance of the work we did and the importance of grassroots development that so many NGOs and development projects no longer do (or did they ever?). When I say grassroots development I really simply mean spending time with farmers on their fields and developing strategies with them as opposed to for them.

The project consultant mentioned that even after 2.5 years the local staff in the office are still using the capacity building programs we developed and in new and improved/different ways.

I am always hesitant to work with BIG projects and consultants, especially for capacity building because the project activities are always too short term and the -fly in and out of a place strategy, in which many consultants work, can disrupt longer term localized goals and strategies for development, and waste money on very expensive flights, hotels and other travel related expenses. I understand this because I worked at a local office in Ghana, which saw a lot of this fly in and out of a place strategy.

This development work is funded because of the underlying (false) assumptions of what development should be: technical infusions of cookie cutter ‘expertise’ that seeks to work in different contexts – geography, culture, policy environment – this is the implicit bias in most scale strategies.

I understand this because for the past year I was working as a consultant and managed to convince the company quite easily to keep me in country as opposed to flying me back and forth several times. It makes economic sense -give me a reasonable salary instead of wasting it on air flights etc. It makes sustainable sense – let me get to know the context better so we can co-develop strategies with local partners and monitor more closely. And it makes personal sense as travelling is hard on the body and soul.

So when the project consultant came to me I was happy to relay this information: long term, sustainable development needs to be demand driven and developed with local farmers and partner staff. And the only way to understand these demands and co-develop new strategies to overcome context specific barriers is to be in the context, with local people, testing and trying new things and then communicating that back up in the system.

This is what grassroots development looks like.
This is what my PhD research hopes to focus on, in addition to supporting local social movements that represent smallholder farmers who have no voice in Ghana. The PhD is the only space that has yet allowed me to focus and encourage this work. Differently than many PhD students, it is ideal that I am working closely with African development critics to do this research.

Development ‘experts’ from abroad should merely facilitate problem solving and provide ideas/possibilities to local people, especially farmers. And we should not just work with any farmer, but with those farmers who are most vulnerable – the ones who fall between the cracks of formal, private sector development because they are not profitable enough to work with or who are physically inaccessible.

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Agriculture development work that focuses at the top of systems change without accounting for a gendered, racial or class based theoretical understanding of oppression and vulnerability will, and always has, left the most vulnerable people behind.

Political, economic and social systems need to regulate growth and depression for justice – to reduce inequality by working for and with those who are often left behind. The ideal way to do this is to provide spaces for their expression of specific needs and interests, and then feeding those voices back into the systems that oppress them for change. It is not development that should change those oppressive systems, but those who are oppressed. It will not be profitable and it will not be technical, but this is what welfare, wellbeing & justice looks like. It looks like listening, networking and communicating – a lot like a social movements working in a democracy.

Providing a simple functional literacy training program, or extension ‘innovation’, such as ICT, GIS, improved varieties of seed, cook stoves or goats – is never enough. Once you provide to one community and not the other, you are shifting the balance of power, perhaps widening inequality. This is precisely the feminization of labour story we have seen in the past 30 years. Even if farmers agree, it is never enough to assume that your understanding as a foreigner of what is best to solve a problem that you have never experienced yourself because complex power dynamics that are historically, socially embedded are at play.

To provide credit, technological innovation or even capacity building programs that have not been co-developed with those living in a local context, quite simply is an imposition of your own concepts of what development looks like. Development thinks we have the answer – but not only have we been failing for more than 50 years, but what we are doing now (land grabbing, resource extraction, de-regulation for export happy policies) looks an awfully lot like processes of colonialism and structural adjustment.

I gave a lecture yesterday about gender and development in sub-Saharan Africa for an undergraduate course at the university I work at. One of the questions asked was about what works: top down or bottom up development. My answer was of course that the story is complex – that development should never just be one or the other, but should be a blend of the two.

Top down and/ bottom up level development will never progress well-being/welfare if it fails to create empowering spaces for vulnerable populations to express their own ideas of progress, met with resources and facilitation to make those ideas a reality. This is a fundamental ideological shift that we acknowledge as important, but is rarely put into practice.

There is no such thing as a development expert. To assume you have expertise – the answer- the skills, the innovation, the money to empower someone else is not only arrogant but impossible. Empowerment only comes from within.

Pong Tamale – Accra – Toronto – Going Home At Last

As I sit in a booth at a fast food joint eating fried chicken and spicy potato wedges located in Osu, Accra I realize how quickly this year working in Ghana has come full circle. Last July I was packing my bags full of pharmaceuticals and now I am packing them with custom made Ghanaian clothing to be sent home and shown off.

Chatting with both foreign and local friends from across the country it finally hits me that tomorrow I will be home, thus concluding my years work in agricultural development in Ghana with EWB.

As I pour more ketchup onto the chips, friends and I discuss the changing government system in Ghana from the National level down to the districts and the deep rooted problems lying underneath such an important step towards development – decentralization. What role donors could or should play and how to reinvent or scrap failing projects – and we further question their existence all together. We acknowledge how difficult it is to successfully give money to institutions because of complex power dynamics and difficulty in proving indicators of success.

The Director at the Office I worked in – Ministry of Food and Agriculture district level

We inspire with interesting realizations around how constituent demands for more transparent aid might actually contradict best practice of providing assistance directly to governments because it is difficult to attribute direct indicators of development success. Think of it like this: it is much easier to take photos of irrigation pipes you bought and provided to farmers than it is to the data process meant to manage pipe distribution and repair for the whole country. So you end up funding pipes and provide them directly to a few villages with no system in place for their management. You do this because the people holding you accountable pressure you to demonstrate the direct benefits – even if those benefits are only immediate and not necessarily contributing to development.

My favourite extension agent at the office. I learnt so much from him!

We discuss what necessary investment in government institutions are required and conclude that it is more than just resources and capacity, but also empowerment. Chanting in my head “Workshops in Tamale, all day, everyday” and I nearly weep at the thought of one more workshop the Director at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture district office I worked at is forced to attend.

But all of us at the table holding our raisin croissants and cappuccinos throw up our hands in bewilderment as we attempt to come up with ideas of how to build trust. Or how to convince donors to take a risk.

Staff member and I after my final presentation to the office

These are the types of detailed, deep and challenging discussions about development I have had over the past year. Not just about the public sector or agricultural development, but also the private sector, water and sanitation, education, health and how gender fits around it all in a very messy complex way. Like the secret sauce on a McDonald’s Big Mac Burger, you know it is what holds everything together – the secret ingredient – but you cannot for the life of you figure out how to put the right components together to seal the deal on what makes the hamburger so damn tasty.

My favourite little girl and I

The Captains of the Football Team, making sure I am not crying during my Goodbye Party – thanks guys!

I look out the window and see the classic UNDP white land cruiser, topped with the longest radio signaler, skyrocketing over any car that is near it. I realize that the constant flow and representation of development – UN trucks, informal lunches with World Bank officials, policy directors, grassroots organizations and living everyday with’Dorthy’- will no longer be immediate in my life. The random man I eat breakfast probably will not be the Director at the UN for child rights in Ghana or a new company CEO looking to provide affordable water pumps to as many villages possible.

It has been a privilege to work in Ghana. I am nothing but grateful for the professional and personal growth that has accompanied it. It has not been easy-o but it has been beyond worthwhile.

I am grateful for the long conversations I have had with worthy friends, where I play coach and assist them in making tough decisions for the future. I am more than excited for them and cannot wait to maintain our relationship. I am grateful for the tough work days at the office that forced me to get out to the field, challenge myself to learn and ask. I am grateful for the lights out that pushed me to talk to people as opposed to hiding in my room with my computer. I am grateful for every single person who asked how I am feeling and brought me juice when I was not physically well. For every person who lent me their phone, pushed my motorcycle for me, stayed up late to make sure I arrived safely somewhere or have been waiting on the end of a phone call in Canada counting the days until I am back. I am even grateful of those people who have really hurt me in the past few months – I have learnt to persevere and you made my skin a bit thicker, a bit harder.

I wonder whether I have sufficiently taken advantage of the experience. Whether I could have done more – gone to more meetings, had more conversations – but I guess you can always do more. That coulda, woulda, shoulda attitude hits me hard like a weight on my chest. I wonder whether I built sufficient relationships beyond shallow conversations and turned them into something more meaningful that will outlast communication difficulties to the African continent.

What is next?

The next two months I will spend at home in Toronto with my family and friends. Also running several errands, such as getting through more doctors appointments than I usually attend in a year. I also intend to come up with a few organizational solutions at EWB National Office in Toronto, but that is a whole other can of worms that I do not know whether I have the enthusiasm to do.

Speech at the goodbye party I hosted

I will then venture off to England to do a full time one year Masters degree at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University. There I will be pushed to solidify my opinions about development, reunited with a few friends, a new culture and environment and the most important man in my life. Who knows, hopefully I will come out with the dream job or a meaningful direction and next step in my life. It won’t come easy though and I anticipate some tough decisions every step a long the way.

I might also pursue a consultancy position for a different type of agricultural project, hopefully bringing me back to the African continent in a different capacity.

Now, I am in Accra, next stop Toronto!

Video of my Final Goodbye Party in the Village. I am learning how to dance

Connecting to ‘Dorothy’: Insights into EWB Culture in Ghana

This post is meant to highlight, remind and role model certain behaviour, attitudes and reflection I would encourage my fellow colleagues to continue to act upon to shape the culture of our work in Ghana. It is also meant to foster a better understanding to the new volunteers who will be arriving and working with us in less than one month. I would also like to personally remind that the issue of comfort speaks to both mental satisfaction and physical health and safety.

This weekend my colleagues and I at Engineers Without Borders convened for the West Africa Retreat, otherwise known as the WAR. The WAR is considered a time to reconnect with colleagues and use them to help push ourselves out of our comfort zone and develop intentional skills and attitudes. Activities are not at all related to war like events, but instead include formal sessions related to our work or personal growth, feedback, reflection and even poetry slamming.

One of the most interesting sessions hosted was around the EWB culture of connecting to ‘Dorothy’. I have mentioned the term Dorothy at other times in this blog and as a reminder as to who Dorothy is:
she is our most important stakeholder, our informant, our evaluator and we are accountable to her when we do our work. We regularly consult her to make strategic decisions and we share her stories with others. She simplifies the complexity of our work and reminds us that development is about people. Dorothy is not a specific individual, but a representation of a complex category of people. Dorothy is a lot of different people and means something different to everyone working within EWB. Despite this subjectivity, Dorothy is meant to represent a person working each day and struggling against the odds to get out of poverty.

Farmer Group I am working alongside

EWB has a reputation for understanding Dorothy and using that knowledge to shape our actions, decisions and influence strategy for higher quality development work. Traditionally, EWB understands Dorothy because we spend time with her – maybe we live with a Dorothy, or visit her every week and ask her opinion about matters when decisions need to be made. Differently than many other development organizations, we are excited, interested and involved in her life and do not see her as simply someone who lives in poverty and deserves simple charitable donations to lift her out of poverty. EWB is an organization that I am proud of because of this innovative lens to developing a broken system. We are not saddened by Dorothy, but empowered by her to provide higher quality results.

The majority, if not all of the African Programs Staff at EWB have lived in the village alongside a community of ‘Dorothys’ and worked with partner organizations who are striving to directly improve the lives or system that affects her. For instance, since December I have been living in a village where my neighbours and community would be classified as a type of Dorothy. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture office where I work directly engages with the community to provide important services to Dorothy.

Friends from where I live

Before I moved to the village, I had the opportunity to travel and conduct research around Dorothy’s opinion and perspective on the problems she faces and solutions she thinks would be appropriate. I then took that knowledge to my Team and we are now using the research to shape our future strategy and influence other decision makers.

Many of the African Program Staff currently working in Ghana acknowledge that there has been a shift in the way we do work in Ghana. Just two years ago the majority of staffs were out in remote rural areas working and living with local families, but today 80% of the staffs are in big cities and or regional capitols living independently. Even those staffs, including myself, who live in a village are still close to a regional capitol and not in a more remote area. There are several factors as to why this has become the case – the type of work and influence we are doing, the experiences already had by staff etc.– and the way it is shaping the culture in the organizations is evident.

The session held at the WAR successfully flushed out thoughts and feelings about specific cultural changes and the benefits and consequences resulting from them. This is useful knowledge needed to decide how we want to shape the future culture of our work overseas in Ghana for when new volunteers arrive in the next month. Our actions, attitudes, words, living context, working situation etc., will impact the way the new volunteers continue to connect to Dorothy and remain living healthy and productive lives overseas.

A major question asked during the session was: How can we balance our own comfort with our experiential learning about poverty? The objective to answering this question was to begin brainstorming a reflection and sharing to each other of what we are proud of and want to push forward and how this relates to what we are uncomfortable about intended for ideas spurring normative change. Common themes or answers include:

Despite intentions and values of having a bottom line being Dorothy, African Programs staffs feel guilty and consider it a strong driver in lifestyle decisions. We need to push people to feel outside of that emotion, accept decisions people make and push them to make decisions that are correct for them. One way to do this would be to begin explicitly discussing what works and iterate on them.

That it is important to highlight important and positive experiences throughout someone’s placement overseas and the intention of why certain decisions are made. For instance, why someone may choose to live in a village versus the city. One important way to share that information in an interesting and meaningful way is through story telling.

Sacrificial Alter – learning about traditional religions in Ghana

Although we work for a charitable organization it is still important that we invest in ourselves. Because we spend a lot of time with Dorothy and work for her, feelings of guilt and service often come up. We are trying to push people to personally develop their own skills and ambitions and truly acknowledge that doing this will ultimately help better serve Dorothy, as opposed to debilitating and de-motivating feelings of judgement etc.

Since we live and work in a complex sector sometimes understanding Dorothy does not seem relevant for our job, however what needs to be acknowledged is that we all have different definitions of Dorothy.

Getting out of my comfort zone – climbed into a cave at the top of a cliff

Lastly, things are not polarised – Comfort versus struggle. There is a time where living in the village becomes very comfortable. Living in the village is not necessarily less comfortable and more of a struggle then living in a city. Remembering that and remembering why doing both is very important (sometimes one is more important than the other) depending on your current learning and working situation. What needs to happen and not be forgotten is to continue to get outside of your comfort zone for learning. That could imply visiting old family, friends, doing something completely alone. Finding new experiences to help you continue to learn is critical.