Register Tuesday | November 30 | 2021

African Gothic

After decades of international aid and global trade, many African farmers are still only one step ahead of starvation.

THE MOTORCYCLE HALTED brashly before me in a cloud of dust. Its driver flashed a harried but friendly smile from under a blue helmet covered with deep gashes and slashes, his eyes yellowed from anti-malaria meds. This was Richard Aniah, the fifty-something farmer who was to be one of my guides to agriculture in Ghana. “Come on, get on!” he hollered.

Aniah weaved confidently, if not cautiously, around the dawdling traffic and sped us out of Bolgatanga in northernmost Ghana. Gasoline fumes from the bike competed with Aniah’s alcoholic sweat. Soon he was laughing and waving at the figures blurring past us in fields or outside weather-bent shanties.

Twelve miles north, we made a pit-stop at a roadside hooch shack in Bongo, where a woman ladled tawny-coloured pito—a local beer made from fermented millet or sorghum—into the drinking bowls of men sitting along a bench. The men gestured and guffawed in the local dialect when we approached; everyone knew Aniah and delighted in his clowning presence. Nearby, a trio of dusty geezers lazed beneath a baobab tree after a day’s work.

Soon, sufficiently fortified, we abandoned the main dirt road.

Our final destination was the sub-village of Konkwa, Aniah’s home, but over the next several hours, he showed me around the area’s many small development projects, often wending at high speeds on slender, tributary paths through head-high thickets of maize.

Twenty years have passed since the first such initiative, an agroforestry venture aimed at resuscitating the topsoil. That project proved to be something of a success: clusters of planted trees and shrubs now complement the stand-alone baobabs, which cast bulbous shadows in the slanting afternoon light.

Taken up enthusiastically by the locals, agroforestry has since fostered other anti-erosion initiatives, such as terraced planting. Aniah introduced me to an elderly man whose nursery of acacia, kapok, neem and cocoa trees was now augmenting his farming income.

Humble in scale, these projects were perfectly integrated into the communities and managed not by outsiders but the locals themselves. Two children seesawed happily on a water pump, while nearby, a cluster of young men inspected a collapsed water containment pond, with an eye to rebuilding it. Villagers were learning to make compost from organic matter, instead of paying exorbitant prices for chemical fertilizers. Hybrid seeds filled a small test acreage, and relatively new soybean crops were being grown for commercial sale.

After a full afternoon of touring the surrounding farmland, we arrived at Aniah’s home, a traditional packed-mud compound smoothed by time. The patriarch handed me off to one of his sons, a strikingly handsome thirty-three-year old named Ababre Bernard. Aniah, with an erratic high-pitched squeal, tried distracting his two wives as they swept the compound floor. One of them playfully fought him off as he tried to steal a kiss. Her T-shirt, probably a cast-off from somewhere in middle America, yelled, “Don’t Bug Me!”

Bernard and I walked over to a group of barefoot schoolgirls, singing as they sowed groundnuts into the dirt. They do this every day, Bernard explained, for a couple of hours after school.

“What are they singing about?” I asked.

Bernard laughed. “They are singing that men are lazy, drink too often and not good for much!”

SO APPARENTLY LUSH were its fields, especially in the golden light of late afternoon, and so good-natured were its inhabitants that I wondered if Bongo and surrounding sub-villages like Konkwa had eluded the food crisis that was afflicting so much of Africa.

And indeed, leaders from other regions have visited Bongo to learn from its example. But Bongo’s successes are modest, and only confirm the fragility of life here. The local diet remains nutritionally inadequate, while drastic climatic variance—flood one year, drought the next—and scarcities are always close at hand. The farmers of Bongo are merely clawing back against the losses in productivity they have suffered over the past ten years. All the projects, according to Bernard, only offset successive years of poor harvest. “Ten years ago, the land was more fertile than it is now. Five years ago, we used to harvest ten bags of millet. Two years ago, it was four or five bags. After last year’s floods, it was even less. On average, we’ve lost more than fifty percent in all that time.”

Konkwa itself used to support twenty cattle—crucial as work animals and suppliers of dung fertilizer—but the grasses can now support only two. Then there is the problem of farmhands. Low-input agriculture of the sort practiced here is labour-intensive, but the young are continually leaving for the cities of the south in search of work. In Bongo, as elsewhere, there remains a pressing need to address larger social, climatic and macroeconomic issues.

“A lot of young people go to Tamale, Kumasi or Accra,” said Bernard. “When they get a job, they say they’re not coming back. Here there is hunger, especially if you don’t have a lot of land. If you can’t feed your family then the children have no option [but] to move south. They can get better food to eat and whatever they need to clothe themselves.”

The winter “lean season” stretches from January to April, a time defined by dry Harmattan winds and cold dewy nights. During this season, many families in Konkwa live on one meal a day, usually sorghum or millet gruel, and a glass of flour-water for breakfast. One of Bernard’s brothers had left for Kumasi and was now selling kebabs on the street. Not a very good job, Bernard explained, but at least it assured him of a few meals every day.

“So what we have left are the aged,” he continued. “But the strength is not always there for them to farm. Agriculture is losing much of its most important resource—the young guys. Here, we have lots of land for rice cultivation, but not enough people to do it.”

What about the higher prices for food, I asked. “Don’t you make more money in the end?”

“We don’t benefit from the higher prices at all. First, we don’t produce enough to even get into the market. What we grow barely sustains us. Then if rice prices rise to a certain level we simply can’t afford that extra amount we need to buy. And it increases the price of seed we need to buy next planting season.”

As we walked toward Konkwa’s central meeting area, I noticed a lizard climbing the wall of the village library, its bright red head standing out against the pale brown structure. Bernard saw it, too.

“Ah, biology!” he said. “He is red to attract the females.”

We watched the lizard scramble and preen for a minute. “There must be a lady nearby,” he said, then turned back to me.

“You know you are killing us, too. You bring your rice here and sell it cheap. The local rice, and the local chicken, people don’t buy it. Now we think we even like the taste of your rice more.”

I HEADED SOUTH TO TAMALE, one of the brimming urban magnets for impoverished rural youth, to speak with Gordon Ekekpi, regional director of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). Ekekpi used to be an extension agent for MoFA, working directly with farming communities. Over thirty years, he had watched food security in northern Ghana go from stable to poor.

Climate change is one culprit, he said. Growing seasons have become unpredictable, and the incidence of both drought and flooding is on the rise.

“The weather patterns change so much from year to year,” he said. “It’s difficult for the farmer to know when to begin planting. So he gambles. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses.” A recent Brookings Institute study bears out the disproportionate impact of climate change on the agrarian poor. Its author, Yale University’s Robert Mendelsohn, estimated that African farmers dependent on rains and without access to irrigation will lose $28 per hectare per year for each one degree Celsius rise in global temperatures. Worse, poor regions at risk are constrained by meagre financial resources and are often unable to invest in sophisticated adaptation strategies, such as flood control programs.

But Ekekpi also pointed to Ghana’s trade and agriculture policies as a structural cause. When he started out as an extension agent for MoFA, the Ministry was responsible for distributing seed and inputs (chemical fertilizers and such) to farmers directly, and managed several marketing boards to provide producers with a reliable buyer. But by the early 1990s, pressure from European and North American governments convinced the Ghanaian government to begin liberalizing trade. The agriculture sector was overhauled.

“Suddenly, we’re told no, the ministry should concentrate on extension delivery and technical advice. The sale and distribution of inputs will be done by the private sector.”

According to Ekekpi, this made life more difficult for local farmers. “The inputs became difficult to get and they were not evenly distributed. The businessman doesn’t want to go directly to the farmer. Take the fertilizer distributor. He’s only based in Tamale. But Tamale is a commercial city. Who will send fertilizer to the hinterland to be sold? The businessman doesn’t care. The farmer has to come to him. That alone discourages the farmer and further increases his costs. If MoFA was still in control, or had some leeway to influence the system, it could ensure fertilizer was available at all the important production centres.”

Freed from ministry controls, input prices increased, as did the amount of food imported from the United States and Europe—which could be sold cheaply because of subsidized production and better economies of scale. Ghanaian farmers were ill-equipped to deal with the changes, having for years suffered from their own government’s long-standing policy of keeping food prices artificially low in order to feed rapidly growing, and politically volatile, urban centres. With liberalization, those price controls were eliminated, but so too were the few supports, such as subsidies and marketing boards, that did exist. Poor farmers were deprived of the market buffers their competitors in developed countries enjoyed: credit, real estate collateral, direct subsidies, social welfare, access to new technologies and the futures market.

As foreign food imports flooded the market Ghanaian farmers were never able to achieve a truly level playing field. Ekekpi had seen Ghana go from a net exporter to a net importer of food.

“What would you expect from this situation but a gradual fall in food production?”

Ekekpi’s observations are supported by a recent report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). A few African countries have benefited, post-trade liberalization, from the current boom in commodity prices, but most have not. In the majority of countries, export-driven growth has been marginal at best, even though most of the policy barriers that liberalizers see as the main impediments to export growth have been removed.

The expected lift in production, whether in agriculture or manufacturing, never arrived. Agricultural output was also supposed to diversify, yet the exports of African countries continue to be dominated by traditional primary commodities like sugar, coffee, cotton and, in Ghana’s case, cocoa. Over the past decade, much of the continent has gone from food self-sufficiency to food dependence. The report further argued that what positive developments could be noted had more to do with government interventions than trade liberalization.

“Yes, it’s nice you can go to market and buy some cheap food,” said Ekekpi, “although it’s not that cheap anymore. But liberalization doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any controls. Looking at our situation, it’s good to respond to the global market. Let’s liberalize our economy—but gradually—and we should also put in controls if we see our farmers are disadvantaged. Try giving [a farmer] a guaranteed price for his produce. As soon as he harvests, he has a market to sell it to. He has to do enough gambling already.”

GHANA IS BETTER OFF than much of Africa where food security is concerned. The country has yet to witness the food riots or mass protests over rising costs that have rocked its neighbours Côte D’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. But when global food prices rose steeply in early 2008—on the back of growing demand, high petroleum prices, diversion of crops toward bio-fuel and droughts in critical growing regions like Australia—the increase was especially hard on poor rural families. The trends that have emerged in Ghana are typical for the continent, as the primary factors of changing climate, poor infrastructure and global trade rules have fomented a set of sub-problems, from urban migration and declining yields to land degradation and inadequate nutrition.

Agriculture remains the most persistent sore point in negotiations among developed, developing and poor nations. Since 2001, the Doha Development Round negotiations within the World Trade Organization have aimed to lower trade barriers in an effort to increase global trade, but in July 2008, talks were again scuppered—this time over governments like China, India and Brazil insisting on the right to restrict food imports and temporarily erect tariff barriers in times of crisis.

Influential policy makers and researchers have recognized, however, that agricultural initiatives need to be the centrepiece of any global poverty-alleviation strategy, especially when one considers that 75 percent of the world’s poor reside in rural areas. World Bank president Robert Zoellick has acknowledged the historic lack of attention his institution has paid to agriculture, promising to reform its policies and prioritize farming on the world development agenda. There is even talk of a second Green Revolution in Africa, a multi-pronged effort financed by major donors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Studies indicate investments in agriculture promise a good rate of return: according to the World Development Report, aid investments in agriculture have two to four times the poverty-reducing effect of monies spent in other sectors.

Convincing foreign donors to invest in small-scale African agriculture, however, is a challenge. The projects at Bongo were supported by the community’s membership in the Association of Church Development Projects (ACDEP), a coalition of forty regional organizations that receives funding through the Canadian Hunger Foundation and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Malex Alebikiya, ACDEP’s executive director, believes that many of its overseas partners and the Ghanaian government are still too focused on putting their monies behind exportable cash crops, rather than improving conditions for small farmers as a whole.

“The investments we get are unbalanced,” Alebikiya said. “Anything that doesn’t earn Ghana foreign exchange doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. When you look at the calculations of how much we spend importing, you have to wonder what would happen if we invested x amount in local production. But when the government talks about agricultural investment, they’re talking about boosting exports: cocoa, pineapples, mangoes and the like. As a result, our food crop production has gone from bad to worse.”

To underline his point, he pointed out that a single bag of a staple like maize costs one hundred cedis—a quarter of the average monthly income in Accra. “Are mangoes for Europe and America the farmer’s priority?” he asked.

But external investment money is usually tied to specific crops. “You’re in the government and you see maybe this money is coming,” said Alebikiya. “But there are strings attached. If you say you don’t want the money for this purpose then often the other money it is packaged with you can’t get. Maybe it’s a choice, like, we will invest in mango production for export as suggested because the donor is also paying for a road that will go through strategic communities, and those people vote. The politician is forced to say, ‘Maybe I don’t like the mango idea, but on the whole it’s not such a bad deal.’ ”

Alebikiya said he couldn’t blame politicians for such compromises. “It’s the reality of the context you have to work with.” Like all recipients of funding, ACDEP must constantly react to the shifting political priorities of its donors. Foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) review their spending regularly and may from year-to-year decide to lessen investments in agriculture in order to emphasize programs devoted to HIV/AIDS, good governance or environmental sustainability.

“You work with what they bring to you,” he said. “Maybe they’re not interested in food security at the moment, they want to invest in good governance. But you negotiate. You use the opportunity as an entry. You can’t just say no and close the door. These are the dynamics we face.”

THE MEDICINE CABINET of development ideas is crammed with well-meaning prescriptions, but not everyone is taking their medication. Down an ill-kept dirt road in Kumasi, off the busiest highway, a once-abandoned college campus has been brought back to life to house the government-funded Crop Research Institute. I was here to meet Dr. Stella Ennin, CRI’s acting director, and eight agronomists who work with farmers in all plant sectors across the country to increase production and develop new hybrid varieties of seed.

It didn’t take long for our conversation to arrive at the subject of NERICA, the New Rices of Africa. Developed by Sierra Leonean plant breeder Monty Jones, NERICA is designed to cross the higher yielding properties of Asian rice with hardier African varieties that are more pest-resistant and better able to withstand drought. Farmers are now scaling up production of the new rice, and supporters enthuse that it will dramatically boost local food security. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, architect of the Millennium Development Goals, wrote in Time that NERICA would “play a pivotal role” in ending poverty and famine in Africa.

Although the agronomists in Kumasi agree the rice has “good plant architecture,” they are only cautiously optimistic. They point out that NERICA requires significant amounts of fertilizer to yield well, and with rising gas prices pushing up fertilizer costs, NERICA may not benefit all farmers equally. Ghanaian farmers are already reluctant to use fertilizer unless they receive it for free or as an input credit.

There is also the issue of the grain’s taste and texture. The average Ghanaian rice consumer now prefers the long slender grains, fluffy when cooked, typically imported from countries like Thailand, while NERICA is shorter and stickier. Local milling processes must also improve; a often-unacknowledged reason that local rice is frowned upon is that poor milling means more broken grains and more foreign matter like stones and straw in every batch.

The agronomists I spoke to were pleased that planting of NERICA in Ghana had doubled, but remained generally circumspect about the prospect of biotechnology in African agriculture. African governments face increasing pressure from agribusiness and chemical corporations to adopt genetically modified crops (GMOs). Some countries, like Zambia, are refusing GMOs outright, while South Africa and Nigeria have used their weight to push the African Union into considering more lenient bio-safety laws to stimulate research. Aside from environmental and health concerns, critics like South African environmental analyst David Fig, worry that genetic-modification technology “forces Africa into high-input, chemical dependent agriculture, which impacts biodiversity and creates debt burdens for small farmers.” There are even complaints that some developed countries are tying food aid to acceptance of GMOs and support for biotech research.

“The [Ghanaian] government has not taken a position on GMOs yet,” said Ennin, “but we already know that a lot of the foods coming in are probably GMOs. We’re going for them unknowingly because they’re not labelled. We don’t even have the capacity here to test to determine if they’re GMO or not.”

The Ghanian agronomists, most of whom were trained at universities in Canada thanks to the support of CIDA, were a pragmatic bunch—a characteristic befitting the nature of their occupation, which is largely based on trial and error fieldwork. They believed that some aspects of the agricultural sector could benefit from more privatization, such as the country’s seed growers, while the government needed to intervene in other areas, like resuscitating marketing boards. They steered clear of mega-project fantasies and evinced a practical regard for the complex realities on the ground, understanding how many factors were at play—climatic, cultural, economic, political—and how impossible it would be to control them all. Generally, they favoured fairly old-school solutions, although they never disavowed new technologies or approaches—only wanting first to experiment for themselves before committing resources to their full implementation or adoption.

CRI’s work, however, is hampered by the same trends in development funding that ACDEP’s Alebikiya outlined. “[Funding] ends up dictating your focus for a while,” explained Ennin. “[The funded project] may be within your mandate, but perhaps it’s a medium or long-term goal. But there are funds to do it so you take it.”

One of her colleagues yawned; he had just pulled an all-nighter finalizing yet another funding application; much of his time was spent on the internet looking for potential sources of money and requests for proposals. Almost everyone in the meeting confessed to be looking for a better job, complaining that their government-paid salaries were too low, and that money for important home-grown projects was too hard to come by.

“Research is one of the first things to suffer when the nation doesn’t have much,” said Ennin. “Politicians who are in power for four years would rather put money where they can point to quick results.”

Lack of research funds may be the biggest opportunity cost on the continent. As has been noted by some biologists, the continent’s diverse crop species could benefit the world. For example, the Cavendish banana, the dominant commercial variety in the world today, is proving to be almost as vulnerable to the Panama disease that wiped out its predecessor, the Gros Michel, in the 1950s. Meanwhile, Ghana boasts five common species of bananas, the development of which could ensure more variety and stability in global supply.

IF THERE’S SUCH A THING as “donor fatigue”—the frustration and wariness of the giver, whether government or citizen—then there is also “recipient fatigue.” During my travels in Ghana and other developing countries, I have heard it expressed often: priorities being determined elsewhere, focuses and strategies tacking to a new course every few years, a lack of follow-through, well-intentioned projects coming and going too fast to engender the local capacity necessary to sustain them and take over.

As I was leaving Konkwa for the south, an elderly woman said to me: “Every few years they leave or change their project, which affects us. There was one NGO, they came here and took some videos. They supported us to raise money to buy books. But after two years they just vanished. They never kept in touch. It happens sometimes. But not all leave like that. Many stay and provide us with cereals or livestock. So if an NGO comes, we welcome them. We always have faith that they will help us.”

In the fading evening light, Aniah had gathered most of his village’s inhabitants to see me off. He had been a gracious host, shilling admirably for Konkwa, careful to name the donor country that had supported each project we visited, and repeated how grateful the people were.

As a send-off, the men and the women were, in Aniah’s words, “hell-bent to sing.” It’s customary, I’m told, for men to go first in Ghana, so they did. But their song and dance, out of step and out of tune, quickly came unhinged. They collapsed into laughter and playful recrimination after hardly a verse. The women then sang and danced splendidly, mugging cheerfully and pitching their voices high.

I asked Bernard what they were singing about.

“Ah, the usual. Men are lazy, drink too often and are not good for very much.”

[Note: This piece was produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency.]