What farmers in Togo have in common with informaticists in the US

A Togolese farmer shucks corn by hand after harvesting.
A Togolese farmer shucks corn by hand after harvesting

“All of [the] ways in which the poor cope with risk tend to be very costly. This has been well documented for argiculture: In India, poor farmers use farm inputs in a more conservative but less efficient way when they live in areas where rainfall is more erratic.”Banerjee 143.

It’s interesting how often you find an inverse relationship between efficiency and fault tolerance. Information theory has long had formulas for determining how resistant a particular communication protocol is to incomplete transmission, and how efficiency is necessarily reduced when you increase fault tolerance.

TCP is a good example—for those of you who don’t regularly read about the inner workings of the interweb (i.e. those of you who have lives), TCP is one of the core protocols for the Internet. It’s the set of rules and regulations that govern how one computer ought to exchange information with another. If you’re curious to know what it stands for (which I know you’re not—either you already know what it stands for or you don’t care, but I’m going to tell you anyway), it’s Transfer Control Protocol.

The Internet is a network created out of whatever computers happen to be connected to it; thus, it’s a network whose connections are constantly changing. As new computers, servers, and routers are turned on and off, the virtual path between your computer and the server from which it received this very blog post may not be the same now as when you first viewed this page.

As your computer begins to receive the data that makes up this page (sent in discreet units called “packets”), it’s conceivable that the pathway from your computer and my server will disappear, and your computer will only receive some of the packets, or even partial packets.

Thankfully, TCP is designed to handle contingencies like this. Each packet has a sequence number, to identify where it lies in the sequence of packets. It also includes a mathematical check, known as a checksum, which allows the receiving computer to check if the packet contains all the data it was originally sent with. If packets aren’t properly received on your computer, it will request that those specific packets be resent until a complete copy of the message is received.

While all this ensures that you, at this moment, have a reasonable guarantee that you got all of my blog post, it incurs a cost. The first, and for all practical purposes the least noticeable, is the data overhead. What you’re getting isn’t just the data that’s in my blog post. It’s also the sequence numbers, the checksums, the signals to retransmit lost packets or that packets were received correctly. That is, the messaging protocol, by being more robust, more tolerant of bad things happening, becomes by necessity less efficient. You have to transmit lots of other stuff in addition to the actual message. So, to transmit 30 kib of data, you might in effect have to actually transmit 35 kib once all is said and done.

The second is latency. TCP was designed to transmit data reliably and (relatively) error-free, even over mucky, ever-changing networks like the Internet. But the cost is that it may not do so in real-time. Every time a packet is lost, TCP requires that your computer re-request the packet and wait for it before continuing on with new ones. While this is fine for documents, it’s not so good for transmitting voice or video. If I’m talking to you over Skype, and some packets get lost, I’d prefer that our computers prioritize keeping our conversation in sync, rather than me hearing every split-second of audio. That is, it’s ok if a few milliseconds of audio get “dropped” if it means that we both hear what each other is saying within a few moments of saying it.

Thus, for time-sensitive applications like voice or video, there are other protocols (like UDP) which aren’t as reliable in terms of perfect data transmission, but can transmit data faster. That is, they’re less fault tolerant, but more efficient.

So, coming back to farmers and the poor. Poor farmers, because they can’t afford any loss—any one loss is a much higher relative loss when you don’t have much to begin with—can’t take risks that may offer them a way out of being poor:

“For example, they may know that a new and more productive variety of their main crop is available but choose not to adopt it. One advantage of sticking to the traditional technology is that farmers don’t need to buy new seeds—they just save enough seed from last season’s crop to replant—whereas the new seeds often cost a significant amount of money. Even if the new seeds repay the investment many times over when things go well, there is always a small chance that the crop will fail (say, because the rains don’t arrive) and the farmer will lose the extra investment he has made in new seed.”Banerjee 142

If you’re poor, you can’t afford to risk what you have. Nor can you afford to reduce your risk (by, say, investing in irrigation to reduce the reliance on rainfall). It forces you into a situation where, in order to maximize your chances for survival, you have to spread your “investments” and activities out in inefficient but more fault tolerant manners.

For farmers, this might mean having several small plots scattered across town; if blight strikes one area, another plot might remain unaffected. Another, for workers in general, is to have lots of different jobs. Even if you’re primarily a farmer, it’s very unlikely that’s all you do. This was a very common sight to see in Togo—people who did carpentry, sold various goods in a boutique, and also had a farm.

By not relying on any one craft or market to have some income, it buffers you from economic and climate shocks. But it also means you can’t ever become efficient at any one thing—you can’t get really good at something because you can’t put in the time and investment required to do so. If all you did was farm and you could invest in what you did—capital investments like irrigation and new seeds, as well as knowledge investments like learning better land-use practices—you could increase your wealth year by year.

But the cost of being poor is that the safest bet for you and your family is to do things in an inefficient manner. I.e. not risking your time and money on things that may give you a higher return. And thus being poor keeps your poor, because you can never take the risks necessary to increase wealth.

I wasn’t really sure where I was going with this blog post when I started, but I’ve now reached the end and realized it’s kind of a downer. I’ve described a poverty trap… and so you’re probably asking yourself, How does one get out of this situation? or, better yet, How do I help? And, honestly, I have no idea. I guess that’s the challenge of development.

  1. Banerjee, Abhijit and Esther Duflo. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. 2011. Perseus Books Group, 2012. Print.
Written Saturday, December 24, 2011 10:07 PM
47.7687, -122.329
Permalink: whereslucian.com/post/5

An interesting night…

I’m sitting in the Peace Corps bureau, waiting for a new ID.

Yesterday, I went into Lomé to stop at the bank. On the way, a directrice for an orphanage-building project in my town called—my mom had found out about the organization through an acquaintance in Seattle (small world…) and gave this woman my number. I will be meeting her on Sunday.

I caught another taxi to go home. Sitting in the front seat with another man, with the now familiar sensation of my legs falling asleep beginning to wash over me. I was just glad to be heading home. Then my seat-mate got out to go pee. While he was outside, I scooted over next to the driver to make it easier for the other passanger to get in. But he insisted on sitting to my left. I wasn’t sure why.

After 15 or so minutes, the seat broke: it kept sliding backwards, the weight of two grown men crushing the woman behind us. We kept trying to slide the seat forward and hold it there, but it was no use. The driver offered to take us back to the main road. There’s been construction lately, so cars are obliged to peel off onto side roads to get around the construction—detours, in essence, just more haphazard. By getting us to the main road, it would be easier to find a new taxi rather than trying to wander among side roads, hoping to find one of the detours that organically grew out of the collective decisions of hundreds of drivers.

The driver let me out and sped away. No one else had left.

My wallet was gone.

In all the commotion of the seat sliding around, I hadn’t paid much heed to the odd sensation in my left pocket. Now I knew why my seat-mate had so insisted on being on my left.

No worries though—I only had 3,000 fCFA in my wallet, along with my Peace Corps ID. The bulk of my money—35,000 fFCA—was in my bag, an Ortlieb bike pannier made of waterproof canvas.

I called my security officer and told him what had happened. He just said to get home quickly as it was getting dark. I found a new taxi and got in.

While driving, I searched through my bag for my envelope of money. It was gone.

I checked again, holding my cellphone in my mouth (it has a flashlight at the top) and frantically digging through my bag.

Before long, I told the driver that I had lost my wallet, that I was sorry, and I got out. He didn’t mind as we had only gone a few blocks. I was still 35 km from home, and a few kilometers outside of Lomé in a bit of a no-man’s land.

I walked to the side of the road and carefully pulled everything out of my bag. A friendly fellow came over and helped hold my flashlight/cellphone, telling me doucement—to go softly and be calm. I was calm, but I was not about to slow down. And then I noticed the slice in the side of my bag. I had simply assumed that there was no way to cut through that thick of a material without me noticing. But there it was.

They left my map, checkbook, and other assorted papers, only taking the unmarked envelope of cash, and, curiously, the only physical photo I had brought with me to Togo.

I explained my situation to my new friend, then called my security officer again. He told me to find a taxi, let him talk to the driver, and he’d have my counterpart—my Togolese contact in Agbodrafo—wait for me to pay the driver in Agbo. My new friend offered to take me to a taxi station. I followed.

My security officer called again. He was concerned that I still had not found a car, as it was quite dark. I told him it would be easier to go back to Lomé. He said he’d call me back.

I could see no taxi station. I asked this friend, Bibli he said his name was, where the station was. He replied, “là bas,” over there. But not the “it’s just around the corner” over there, the “I don’t really want to tell you so I’m being purposefully vague” over there. I asked again. He said “là bas.”

He turned down a dark, empty street, then asked to use my phone. Apparently he wanted to tell his friends where he was. At that point, I really didn’t want him to use my phone—I didn’t think I’d get it back. So I told him I didn’t have any phone credit. He insisted, but just then my security officer called back, confirming that I should go to Lomé and that they’d put me up for the night.

Bibli grabbed the phone out of my hand, saying he needed to talk to my security officer too. He started talking in Mina or Éwé, holding the phone to his left ear. I was on his right. I moved to his left.

When I heard éyizandé—goodbye—I grabbed the phone back. “J’ai besoin de discuter avec mon ami.” I need to talk to my friend. Bibli didn’t seem to protest, and my security officer told me to just find a car and get to Lomé. I switched to English and asked him what he and Bibli had said, but all he could say was that apparently Bibli had said he just wanted to help, out of the goodness of his heart. And to find a taxi home.

As I was hanging up, Bibli snatched the phone again.

“Je doix parler encore!”—I need to talk to him again!

“Mais, j’ai déjà raccroché…” I had already hung up. He shrugged and continued walking. “Vous avez mon portable”—You have my phone. He kept walking. “Hey! J’ai besoin de mon portable. Vous avez encore mon portable!”—I need my phone. You still have my phone!

At that point he started yelling at me, telling me that he had been helping me this whole time, and now all of a sudden I’m trying to start a fight with him. I was starting to freak out a bit, and thought for a moment—what was the danger of getting in an altercation with Bibli vs. the danger of being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, an hour’s walk from the capital, in the middle of the night with no money and no way for anyone to reach me? I decided the former was more agreeable.

When he took my phone from me the first time, I decided that, though taller than me, I probably outweighed him and he didn’t look to be carrying any weapons—his thin stature and worn clothing didn’t provide much concealment for any large knives, and guns were an uncommon threat in Togo.

So I started yelling back. “Quelqu’un m’a volé tout mon argent, et vous allez prendre mon portable?!”—Someone stole all my money, and you’re going to take my phone?! “Donnez-moi mon portable!”—Give me my phone! He went on about how I had no money, and he had helped me, and without any money to pay him, the phone would do fine as his service fee. “J’ai besoin de mon portable. Je n’ai rien. Je doix avoir mon portable.”—I need my phone. I have nothing. I must have my phone.

“Quel portable?”—What phone?

At that point, I had been arguing with Bibli for perhaps a minute, and I didn’t want to spend any more time in a dangerous situation than I needed to. This fellow obviously didn’t want to give me back my phone, but our little scene was bound to attract attention sooner or later, and the longer I was out in the middle of nowhere, the longer I would be at risk. I needed to get my phone back, get away from him, and make sure he didn’t try and follow me.

Plan A: Grab the phone. Apparently I’m not terribly fast. He snatched is hand away before I could get the phone.

Plan B: Dominate. I grabbed the back of his neck with my right hand, and the crook of his elbow with my left. He started yelling in broken English: “I’m a good fighter! I’m good fighter!” And maybe he was right—my (shitty) throw failed. I was too far away, and my attempt to sweep his leg only resulted in all of my weight transferring to my left foot, with him pushing me from the right. End result: me losing my balance. But I still had his neck and his arm. And was a hell of a lot stronger.

As I started to fall backwards, I pulled him around and underneath me. End result: him on his back, myself teed up on his chest, and my knee pinning the arm with which he had my phone. First order of business—prying the phone out of his hand. Second—he started struggling. I placed my forearm across his neck and began applying pressure. He stopped struggling.

I let him up, and he started yelling at me again—something about trying to help me and this is how I repay him, or something—but he was keeping his distance. No one really likes to have their larynx in danger of being crushed.

I told him that he had tried to steal from me, that all I had left was a 100 franc coin in my pocket. I walked up to him and gave him the coin. “Voila! Ça c’est tout!”—Here! That’s everything! I left. He didn’t follow.

I found a driver and explained my situation. I called my security officer so he could talk to the driver. My phone died.

After everything I went through for that damned phone, it died just as I handed it to the driver so he could talk with my security officer.

I had no money and a dead phone. I begged the driver to take me to Lomé. If he could take me to the Peace Corps bureau, I could have someone pay him. He looked a little skeptical, but the only other passenger in his car, a middle-aged woman, put in a good word for me. He agreed.

On the way, I saw an Ecobank atm (one of 3 or 4 in all of Lomé), so we stopped and I pulled out some cash.

He dropped me off a few blocks from the bureau. I asked how much, but he just shrugged and asked me what I wanted to pay. It was probably a 1,300 fCFA taxi ride. I gave him the 5,000 fCFA—afterall, the man took a leap faith and saved me from what could have been a very bad situation.

As I walked to the bureau, I saw an expensive-looking hotel, Hotel Belle Vue, and figured they’d have a phone I could use.

In fact, not only did they have a phone, the manager actually knew the Peace Corps Admin. Director. So they put me up for the night and fed me dinner, free of charge (they didn’t even charge Peace Corps, saving your hard-earned tax dollars). If you ever need a place to stay in Lomé, I highly recommend Hotel Belle Vue. Rooms come with a decent view, hot showers, air-conditioning, and a comfortable bed. The hotel restaurant is also very tasty.

I had my first hot shower in 5 months. Breakfast included the best croissant I’ve ever had in my life along with a toasted baguette with apricot jam and butter (real butter, an expensive luxury in Togo), an omellette, juice, and chocolat chaud. Hot chocolate is to chocolat chaud what Baskin Robbins is to Italian gelatto: warm cream mixed with powdered dark chocolate, with a few sugar cubes on the side so you can sweeten to taste.

So, I dunno...bringing peace to Togo one day at a time, I guess…