Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Archive for April, 2010

I’d like to open a savings account, please.

Crack – crack – crack

Cracking groundnuts

My fingers are tingling and my thumbs are covered in small punctures. I pick up another groundnut (peanut) from my lap, crack open the shell and drop the nuts into a bucket beside me. I drop the shells on the ground, then scoop another handful of groundnuts from the huge bowl in front of me and start again. Around me, under the shade of a huge mango tree, the men and women talk and laugh while they do this work. They have been at this all day, shelling bowl after bowl of groundnuts. In fact, they have been at it all week, processing the groundnuts and selling them at the market.

But why do this work now? These groundnuts were harvested last October and stored in big sacks for the last 6 months. Why weren’t they cracked and sold after harvest, instead of waiting until now? I posed this question to Salifo, my host in the village of Zuo. He responded that he needed the money from the groundnuts to buy inputs for his farm this year, such as seeds, fertilizer and rent for a tractor to plough the land. He said that he knew if he sold them last year, he would have spent the money by this time and he wouldn’t have any money to buy those inputs. So instead, he saved the groundnuts.

This is an important form of savings for Ghanaian farmers. Since Salifo doesn’t have his own savings account at a bank – most people don’t – he has no way to protect his money when he earns some. And in Ghana, when you have any amount of cash, friends and relatives start dropping by to borrow it until, little by little, it’s all gone. Storing crops, or any other liquid asset, is a better way to save that money until you want to spend it.

Salifo and his savings

The other added bonus to selling groundnuts now is the increase in price. After harvest, when the market is flooded with fresh goods, the prices are at their lowest. At that time, a bowl of groundnuts will earn you 1.5 GhC (about $1.20 CAD). But now, at the beginning of the farming season, the market has cooled down and the price has risen to 2.5 GhC ($2.00 CAD). This is another reason to store your crops and sell at a later date. But while this seems like a good strategy, often the more urgent need for cash is what will determine whether a farmer saves or sells his crops.

Of course, not everyone has the option of saving. Often families reach the end of the farming season with nothing left in their stores to eat (and sometimes they run out even earlier). The market is not flooded with crops after harvest because people are stupid and they don’t want to earn the higher price by selling later. It floods because people are desperate for money to buy food and feed their families. This is what it is like to live hand-to-mouth in a country like Ghana. Only those who start with something – a good business plan, proper farming inputs, or a bit of luck – can afford the luxury of waiting to sell their goods after harvest.

My work here is about increasing the number of people who wait to sell their groundnuts. It’s about changing the decision from one of necessity to one of strategic business planning. Overall, it’s about reducing the number of people who don’t even have a choice.


Providing feedback: small small culture change in MoFA

Here is a blog post I wrote last week for our team’s blog, Innovations With Farmers. Check it out regularly to see what we’re up to as a team!

“The Block Farming Program has very good objectives of ensuring food security and employment for youth. However, last year the project was beset by a number of challenges, including the late arrival of inputs such as seed, fertilizer and the like. The late application of these inputs by farmers resulted in substandard yields and low recovery rates of farm produce. This year, it is recommended that all inputs are made available before the commencement of the Block Farming Program with farmers.”

Northern Region DDAs hard at work

This clear, concise feedback to MoFA National project designers was presented by one of the District Directors from the Northern Region at the most recent session of EWB’s DDA Fellowship. The program, which has now had 2 full-day sessions, brings together 8 of the best MoFA District Directors (DDAs) to learn new management tools, develop leadership skills and share both challenges and successes in their districts. In this session, DDAs were asked to put together feedback on the Block Farming program following a particular framework:
1) Empathize
2) State observations
3) State implications of these observations
4) Give recommendations

Districts have a unique on-the-ground experience that is vital to national project design. However, these experiences are rarely solicited, or only solicited as a token gesture without incorporating them into planning processes. In addition, there is no culture of upward feedback that would allow DDAs to voice their experiences even when they aren’t solicited. The culture in MoFA, like many Ghanaian institutions, sees instructions given from the top and implemented at the bottom, missing the critical feedback loop from bottom to top that is essential for success. This results in a significant disconnect between what is going on in the minds of the national project planners and what is really happening in the field. In addition, many of the large agricultural projects (such as the Block Farming Program) are highly political in nature, making it difficult for MoFA staff to speak out against them. One benefit to the DDA Fellowship, identified by the participants, is that they are able to provide feedback as a group rather than as individuals, thereby minimizing their personal risk.

The Block Farming Program is an excellent example of a project that could be greatly improved by incorporating district-level feedback. The project, which seeks to commercialize farming of staple crops while engaging youth in agricultural practices, was rolled out across Ghana in 2009. As mentioned by the DDA above, the project was beset by a number of challenges, including late provision of inputs, lack of mechanized farming equipment (these are commercial-size farms), inadequate funding for monitoring activities and poor storage facilities for harvested produce, among others. In addition, the program resulted in a loss of trust between MoFA and farmers due to the inadequate provision of these resources, which were promised to farmers at the beginning of the program. However, there is no mechanism for districts to share these challenges with the project coordinators at a national level. As a result, the Block Farming Program was lauded as a success for food security and will be scaled up in 2010. As another DDA put it, “the real problem with the expansion of the Block Farming Program is that we have not yet learned from last year’s mistakes!”

The feedback activity above was one of the highlights from the last DDA session. Participants put together clear and concise recommendations for changing the Block Farming Program that were relevant and well-presented. However, what happens when the participants leave the safety of the workshop? We have yet to hear of an example of a DDA providing upward feedback about the Block Farming Program or anything else. We feel that giving this type of feedback is a critical skill for DDAs – but will they use it? What else needs to change for DDAs to start giving this type of feedback to their superiors?

Upper East Region DDAs working on their recommendations

Perhaps the culture change is not yet complete. Simply giving upward feedback is not enough. For this strategy to be effective, two things need to still happen: 1) someone at the top needs to be listening, and 2) the feedback needs to be subsequently incorporated into planning processes so that improvements are made. In this way, the feedback loop will be completed and agricultural projects will be able to benefit from the experience of those on the ground.

Interestingly, this feedback loop could also be seen with DDAs at the top, as it is structured within the District MoFA Offices. In this case the DDA is in charge, followed by the District Agricultural Officers (DAOs), and finally by the Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), who are the ones actually working with farmers on a day-to-day basis. By the same token, DDAs should be soliciting feedback from their AEAs to contribute to District projects and office functioning. However, the hierarchical culture persists in many District offices. Perhaps the true test of EWB’s feedback workshop from the DDA Fellowship will be how many of the DDAs return to their districts and begin to solicit feedback from those working beneath them.

The challenges are significant, but the culture in MoFA is shifting, starting with these high-performing DDAs who are motivated to make change. We will be following up in the next few months to see how they have given feedback and whether they perceive any changes in the way this feedback is handled by MoFA. We will also continue to work on empowering these leaders to create their own successes in their districts. While a few have already demonstrated this ability, they are all growing in their roles as change agents every day. In addition, this program is not operating in isolation – EWB is tackling the issue from all sides. For example, we recently worked with MoFA National to help them integrate a mechanism for receiving feedback into their Electronic Reporting Template, which is filled out by districts every quarter and submitted to the national office. Hopefully this small change in reporting will give DDAs an avenue to provide feedback, and MoFA National will see the value of integrating this feedback into planning for the future.


Why aren’t you staying in Tamale?

“But why aren’t you staying in town??” This is almost always the second question, following my answer to the first question, “Where are you staying?”.

New electricity lines in Zuo

I have decided to live in a village called Zuo, about 10 minutes moto-ride outside of the city limits of Tamale. It’s a small village of about 400 people located on the Yendi road heading east out of Tamale. There are Primary and Junior Secondary schools, a mosque, a health clinic, a nutrition centre and about 30 household compounds. Most of the houses are simple mud-brick affairs with thatched roofs, though some of the more affluent families have cement buildings with tin roofs as part of their compounds. The village just got electricity a few months ago and lightbulb sellers in the area must have made a killing! Each room is now furnished with a bulb, plus one for each compound courtyard where the women do the cooking and families gather in the evening. The electricity also powers a grinding mill which seems to run at all hours of the day – it’s a very popular place!

Borehole pump

Back on the water theme, the village is equipped with a borehole, but most people still fetch their water from a pond a 10-minute walk away. Apparently they don’t like the taste of the borehole water and the soap “doesn’t lather properly” when washing with this water. They use the borehole water occasionally for cooking and cleaning, but use the pond water for drinking and bathing. This baffles me, since the borehole water is clear and clean-looking, whereas the pond water is cloudy and full of algae. Seems like a no-brainer!

My bedroom

My room is located in the health clinic. This large building was built very recently and has 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and a kitchen to house the community health nurses who are supposed to be living here. It also has a storage room, a treatment room and a waiting area. There are supposed to be three health workers living here, but one stays in Tamale because she doesn’t like the water and the other two, who are part of Ghana’s Youth Employment Program, haven’t been paid in 6 months so they come and go as they please. I spent my first couple days with one of these girls, named Nimatu, and we became good friends. I enjoy her company when she’s here, which is about half the time. The clinic is designed to be a drop-in centre for the surrounding communities for first aid treatment, malaria testing and access to drugs. However, when there’s no one here, people are just out of luck! It’s a shame that this nice new building is not serving its intended purpose as an easily-accessible clinic for people in the area. However, as I discussed in my previous post, the issues are much larger than just this one clinic.

Fuseini family compound

Though I stay in a room in the health clinic, I am hosted in the village by a man named Fuseini Salifo who stays in a compound with his family just across the road. Salifo’s household also contains his two brothers, Zachariah and Adam, each of their wives, Azara, Fatima and Mariama, and a host of children, including Salifo’s own Wikaya and baby Hussain. It’s a lively household, with children and goats running all over the place. I come in the morning to take tea and a maize porridge called “koko” for breakfast, then head to work. At the end of the day, I return and greet everyone in the compound and take my supper with them. People are always coming in and out to say hello and catch up, so I’ve met most of the village this way.

My host, Salifo

Salifo, like most of the people in this village, is a farmer. Right now it’s the dry season, so he is resting and taking part in the many construction activities that happen at this time of year. When the rains come, he will go to his fields and begin to farm. With his brothers, he farms maize, yams, rice, soya beans and many other small crops. They also raise livestock, including sheep, fowl and even a herd of cattle. They are assisted by their local MoFA Agricultural Extension Agent, a man named Tahiru who I work closely with. He brings them new technical information, helps them access loans and farming equipment and answers their questions.

When I describe my home to my colleagues, I always get the question above: why am I not living in Tamale? To most educated Ghanaians, it’s completely backwards to reject the modern city lifestyle and choose to live in a village. But by living in this village, I come one step closer to understanding the lives of those I’m trying to reach through my work. I can see firsthand the challenges and opportunities for rural Ghanaian farmers and connect with them on a personal level. Unfortunately, this perspective is easily lost when working in the development industry, with its focus on budgets and timelines and impact. By coming home to this reality every night, I will make sure my experiences will directly inform my work with MoFA and with EWB and keep me focused on what’s really important: getting people out of poverty.

Hussain

Wikaya