FROM FOUNDATIONS TO FUTURES
WHAT BUILDING AN ORPHANAGE IN GHANA TAUGHT ME ABOUT STAKEHOLDER RELATIONSHIPS
James Deacon, senior account manager, Gong Communications
There’s a lake in Ghana called Lake Volta, it’s the largest man-made lake in the world. It lies along the Greenwich meridian just six degrees above the equator. Completed in 1965, it displaced 75,000 people and flooded some of Ghana’s largest forests. Nowadays, its hydroelectricity powers most of Ghana, Togo and Benin, whilst its shores play host to makeshift huts and markets servicing the largest fishing trade in the country. It’s a beautiful scene to witness surrounded by breath-taking natural beauty, but sadly also reflects a life of limited opportunity for the most vulnerable of children.
Fishing can prove difficult when you have an underwater forest, and the perceived best way to solve this is to send young boys, usually less than 10 years of age down to untangle the nets. There are currently over 10,000 child slaves trapped in forced labour on the lake (International Justice Mission), suffering from malnutrition, physical abuse and with no access to education. They’re often sold for as little as 75 Cedis (£12 GBP) by desperate families looking for a way out. Unfortunately, this doesn’t gain much media attention, so after spending a month in Ghana in 2013, already in love with local hospitality and the discovery of how fresh mangoes actually taste, I started the ball rolling on a project to help children who end up in this situation.
Now a registered charity in England and Wales, Holy’s Home for Children sits in a village called Kwahu Nteso in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Standing inside the completed dormitory last Easter, it was hard to believe that just two years ago this was a piece of land, some vague foundations, and a slightly mad idea to build a home for orphans in the region.
Two years ago was also my first day at Gong. The timing was serendipitous as the company had just introduced a new democratic selection process for its CSR projects. This comprised of a Dragon’s Den style pitching session to my brand-new colleagues, a slightly daunting but encouraging opportunity. However, there was no need to persuade my colleagues of the development needs of sub-Saharan Africa; the company has been active in West Africa for years, has an office in East Africa and has since been shortlisted for two specialist agency awards for communicating sustainable development in emerging markets. Winning the pitch resulted in a monthly donation and counsel from Gong enabling the charity to plan more effectively its construction schedule. Over the past 18 months, more than 25 labourers and six local suppliers from across the immediate villages have been employed and have worked incredibly hard to finalise the two-storey structure that now stands proudly upon the hill (with the best view possible!). We’ve built what will be a financially self-sustainable enterprise by the purification and selling of clean drinking water – locally known as ‘pure water’, then giving children the chance to reach their full potential, attend school daily and live away from danger in a safe and loving environment. Once all donation targets are met, we’ll be looking after up to 30 children by Spring 2019.
In retrospect, none of this would have been possible without stakeholder relationships. It’s a term we hear most days if you’re in agency world, whether in new business proposals, campaign plans or perhaps a rationale to a client for why something didn’t quite go the way it was supposed to. Whether it was sourcing timber from local suppliers or drafting in legal advice during the charity commission registration process, every person we’ve encountered and persuaded, whether paid or voluntary, has been crucial to making this small charity functional.
Building solid networks and relationships with people on the ground in Ghana has been crucial in enabling the development of the charity. In the UK, Holy’s Home has been lucky enough to have the support of a network of passionate volunteers called Challenge12, who have so far among them sent a rocket in to space, climbed Everest, attempted to swim the English Channel, walked the Camino de Santiago, kayaked Lake Windermere (twice), stood on the wings of a plane (mid-flight), and escaped an underwater helicopter crash simulator that apparently is character building. I’ll leave that there.
Each of these volunteers is a stakeholder, aligned firmly to the same purpose. What I’ve learned from managing stakeholder relations both at work and through Holy’s is that when there’s limited attention given to purpose or grey areas in the overarching vision, plans can begin to crumble but uniting together behind a common and clear goal is when the best results are achieved.
After all, as the (slightly generic) African proverb goes: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.