Northern Ghana Pre-Season Forum

The end of March marks the ‘hot season’ in Ghana. This is when the harmattan winds cease and humidity caused by sporadic rains makes the air even heavier and harder to deal with. Compared to 2016, this year is already proving to be different – for one, the first rain Macondo saw was only a few days ago. In 2016, we got rains here and there in February. Not to mention, the wells nearest to homes had long dried up. Today, they’re nowhere close to scraping the bottom because of all the rain from last year.

20170330_092510At the end of March, Tamale held a planning and networking gathering for extension workers, farmers, agri-businesses and all other stakeholders along the supply chain for particularly rice, maize and soybeans. This is the 7th annual forum held and this year the theme was “Northern Ghana: Open for Agribusiness Investment.”  The morning was spent on short presentations by various sponsors and the afternoon on networking and shopping for inputs and resources. Some of the topics emphasized were certified seeds, ripping, banking/loans and smallholder farmers. This last topic being pervasive and affected by the others.

There were various local certified seed companies in attendance, including the National Seed Trade Association of Ghana (NASTAG), which is an umbrella organization made up of seed value chain associations and corporate bodies. There is a lot of discussion on getting farmers to buy and use certified seed because of the annual dependency created and while I agree that this is an issue, it is also important to get farmers to use proper seeds rather than just grain. Poor yields, year after year, does nobody any good. Ideally, farmers would learn how to grow good and strong seed for themselves. But, one step at a time. Ghana is still finding its feet in creating its own quality certified seeds. Smallholder farmers can start out small. Maybe splitting costs with another farmer to buy enough inputs for just an acre. If all goes well, there should be significantly higher yields and therefore higher profits, allowing the farmers to save enough for a whole acre of their own. This also reduces the risk a farmer is making, allowing them to do a test of their own, seeing if they like the results and deciding to expand for the next year.

A representative from AFGRI, an international agricultural services and food processing company and the largest John Deere dealer in Africa, encouraged the switch from regular disc tilling to ripping. With great visuals he focused on how ripping allows for greater depth through top soil, allows for better water retention and creates evenly spaced rows, ready for planting.  I wish more on this was talked about but a one day forum can only allow for so much. The problem with this kind of mechanized land preparation and particularly in Northern Ghana is availability. Most tractor services do not have rippers and equipment is expensive. Not only do service providers need to buy into the idea of rippers but the farmers themselves as well, to then request for that kind of land preparation. A representative for John Deere said they “sell solutions for not just large commercial farms but ‘smaller emerging farms.'” Further highlighting the brand’s openness to participating in lines of credit. My questions are – is the brand helping that farmer find that line of credit? What if a smallholder farmer wants to buy a tractor to plow his own fields and provide it as a service – what are the chances of this smallholder farmer being approved for a loan from a bank? And if not, does this mean that a tractor (or any other large piece of mechanical equipment) is not seen as a ‘solution’ for a small farm?

Lastly, there were various banks present but Ecobank was the main banking/loans sponsor to present. They highlighted their support of agriculture as a way forward for Ghana. While having this sort of representation is important, I do wonder how a large, international bank like Ecobank can really support small holder farmers. Accounts which a smallholder farmer could qualify was not mentioned. I was surprised other banks or loan providers who work with low income individuals were not present. For example Opportunity International Savings and Loans or GN Bank. The latter is a local bank that is present in every district of Ghana. One can open a personal bank account with them for as low as 5 GHC ($1.25). They have excellent interest rates too. The thing is, most rural Ghanaians, especially in the northern regions) are still learning how and why to save through community level Village and Savings Loans Associations (VSLAs). A bank is intimidating for many farmers, most of which are illiterate.

This leads me to another issue that was acknowledged by the MC: language. The northern regions have eleven major languages and the farmers present were from all three regions. Which language to choose? English was somehow the ‘best’ option. I wondered how much was understood on the presentations given by non-Ghanaians. It is not that the material was beyond their capacity – it was the accents, pronunciations, clarity of speech. The presenters who mentioned women’s empowerment, ripping and pests were all non-Ghanaians. These women are farming for africas futuretopics were only mentioned once – was it understood how important these factors are in planning for the agricultural season? But how can the problem of language be addressed? Is it really feasible to have break out sessions done in maybe three of the major languages from each of the northern regions? Is there a venue that can support this in Tamale? Would budget allow for this?

The abovementioned topics (women’s empowerment, climate change and pests) deserved their own time slot to be discussed. And perhaps booths at the market place for farmers with questions or curiosity. How ideal it would have been for these topics to be discussed in local languages and discussed how they factor into planning and one’s business. In this day and age, it is known among academics and development workers that gender equality and climate change need to be considered in one’s business plan. To not is to miss out on profit. Climate change was inadvertently talked about (just not expressly) in the AFGRI presentation encouraging ripping. But how come nobody was talking about all these topics as the challenges agri-businesses face?

Stats-Agriculture-03
Yet, how many women were at this event? Perhaps one to every twenty men.

Overall, this event is necessary and beneficial to many. It was held at an appropriate time of the year as well as well organized. Perhaps it was not the most appropriate forum for smallholder farmers because really, what tangible things did they take away? Yet, they did gain knowledge. Meaning, they can suggest desires to service providers (i.e. rippers) who are in better positions to apply for loans, band together to save enough within their communities to buy improved seeds and fertilizers and generally be aware of where agriculture in Ghana is headed. The event was labeled as a planning and networking forum. While the latter was definitely the case, I fail to understand when any planning took place. I think it would have been more accurate to call it a trade event considering the focus on mechanization and agri-business. The only argument I can think of for considering this a ‘planning’ event was that inviting farmers to an event like this, they are being made to start preparing and planning on their own if they are, for example, able to afford a new piece of equipment or certified seed. And that encouragement is necessary. With regular annual events like this, farmers can anticipate and assess what they need ahead of it, figure out how much they need to save on their own or in their Farmer Based Organization. Slowly but surely, farmers are changing the way they farm.

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