Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Farming is Hard

“Ehhh, a kpeng a mung!” (“You have done well!”) Salifo beams at me. I stand and survey the yam mound I’ve just created. It’s a bit smaller than its neighbours, but the shape is good – mound-like – and the dirt is well-packed. Indeed, I’ve done well! I move on to the adjacent patch of earth and start digging again. In the time it took me to make that one, Salifo has completed 3 big yam mounds, far superior to my own. But hey, I’m just learning!

Salifo and I building yam mounds

I manage to make 6 yam mounds before I collapse under a nearby tree. It’s hard work! My hamstrings are quivering from bending over and pulling dirt toward me – think dead lift, over and over – and my hands are developing blisters from the rough-hewn wooden hoe I’m using. And I’m sweating like a pig! Unfortunately, this is the biggest aerobic workout I’ve had in a while. (Something about running in 30 degree weather just doesn’t appeal to me…)

We arrived here at the farm by riding our motos down a narrow, winding, sandy path along a rain wash-way and then out into the fields. We parked our motos under a tree, then continued on foot to this yam field, which belongs to Salifo and his brothers. The field is about a quarter of an acre in size, though they want to increase it to half an acre. They had already prepared the land, turning it under and removing all the brush that had grown in the last few months.

Now it was time to build the yam mounds, which are cone-shaped and about 3-4 feet across. The yams grow better in this loosely-packed earth, where the tuber has room to grow big without resistance from the hard-packed land underfoot. The mounds are made first, then a seed yam is planted in the top of each one. The seed yams are grown at the end of the harvest, from the same plant after the full-grown yams have been harvested. After the seed is planted, leaves are placed on top of the mound and covered with a chunk of dirt to hold them in place. This is supposed to keep the mounds from drying out and becoming too hot. A finished yam field is truly a bizarre sight to behold!

A neighbour's completed yam field

Salifo finished 2 rows of yam mounds, then came to join me in resting under the tree. We ate some boiled yams as a snack, part of last year’s harvest. As we sat, I asked him to compare his different types of work.

Salifo is one of a few people in Zuo who can speak English, which means he is often recruited for community “volunteer” work by Ghana Health Services. For example, he has spent many days in the last 2 weeks helping with a campaign to distribute mosquito nets to children under 5. This involved training in Tamale, traveling to various communities to register the children, picking up the nets, returning to the communities to distribute and hang the nets, and filing in the information booklet for each net he distributed. It’s a lot of work! And he does it all without knowing how much he will be paid at the end – usually just a token for his time.

I asked Salifo to compare this to farming. Which does he prefer? He answered emphatically, “I choose to farm!” When I asked him why, he responded that with the farm, he is his own “in charge” (boss). He decides which work to do when, how much to invest in each field, and which crops he will plant. The manual labour is hard, but he knows he will get something out at the end – a harvest he can eat, or sell to earn money for his family. He also knows that, barring any natural disasters, the reward will be directly proportional to the efforts he puts in. Finally, there’s none of that tricky business of trying to persuade a mother to make her child sleep under a mosquito net.

Salifo finishing a row of yam mounds

We are often told that people in rural Africa are farmers because they have no other choice. While that is true in many cases, there are also those who choose this profession, like Salifo. Really, it’s not a bad gig, if you don’t mind manual labour. Each farmer can be seen as a small business-owner, making decisions about his investments to maximize his profits. And like many small business-owners in Canada, farmers work long hours to achieve success, which they can then attribute to their own hard work.

As I look across at my 6 yam mounds and compare them to the ~30 that Salifo made, I have a newfound respect for farmers. I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen in Canada, showcasing farmers’ pride: “Farmers Feed Cities!” I’ve seen similar stickers in Ghana, reminding people that farming is a noble and necessary profession for the well-being of the entire country. So, props to Ghanaian farmers!!


9 responses

  1. Sylvie

    Come on Erin… you won’t run in 30 degree weather? In Singapore it’s at least 30 + humidity all the time… and I still run in the mornings. You can do it!

    Also, great post, it was simple and yet so so true. Props to farmers everywhere 🙂

    May 11, 2010 at 1:51 am

  2. Gajan

    So I just spent an hour gardening in about 15C whether, which I promptly followed by crashing on my couch and watching 3 hours of TV….this stuff’s tough yo
    Honestly though, good post, def props to farmers. As more and more young people from villages move to cities, do you think farmers like Salifo (who actually enjoy it) will take on more land and try to do more?Do they have the capacity to do it? Or is it still very family oriented, with selling excess product coming as sort of secondary goal, farming to feed your family being primary.

    May 11, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    • Hmm, interesting question. I don’t really see them having the capacity to do more unless they use more technology – ploughs, fertilizer, etc. It’s still pretty family-run, like Salifo farms together with his two brothers to feed his family. But they’re definitely always looking for ways to do and make more, so if the opportunity was there I’m sure they’d take it!

      May 12, 2010 at 4:04 pm

  3. Scott

    What a great post! It strikes me as a lesson in staying connected to the work we do. No one would mind putting in long hours and lots of effort if it is proportional to what they see to be the rewards of that work. If those rewards are merely financial, it changes the nature of the exchange. Although your post is directly related to what we consume, it strikes me as telling about a cultural value system in disarray.

    I’ve talked about you and Ben in some of my classes often and many of the students ask, “Why would they do that work, rather than make more money here?” or questions in the same vain. Why trade off easier work for better compensation? Telling questions and ones that I see to be increasingly valuable. This post identifies that hard work is worth it when you can identify the outcome.
    “Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose” as internal motivators to do good work. What a novel concept!
    Thanks for posting. I’m going to share this one with my classes!


    May 11, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    • Awesome thoughts Scott, thanks so much for commenting. So cool that you’re talking about us in your class too! It’s actually interesting that your classes are more interested in money than (what I deem to be) fulfilling work – most trends about our generation show just the opposite. People seem to be seeking much more out of their jobs than just money these days – some sense of “doing good” or “working for a greater purpose” are often stated by new grads looking for work. And this work definitely fulfills those criteria! And hey, I’m not LOSING money 😛
      Yes, autonomy, mastery and purpose – so important. And yes, our incentive systems are changing a lot! It’s especially interesting in Ghana, where incentives are totally skewed toward development projects, handouts and easy credit. So interesting how it’s changed the culture! But maybe that’s another post…
      Anyway, thanks again. Glad you’re reading 🙂

      May 12, 2010 at 4:07 pm

  4. Alex Joyce

    Your yam mound definitely looks smaller than Salifo’s! How much risk is associated with a farm business like Salifo’s? Do you think that Salifo would still choose to be a farmer if his income was predetermined and guaranteed from his other work (ie risk removed?)?

    Great to hear about what you’re doing. I can’t wait to hear moooooore!

    May 11, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    • Hey!
      Good questions. I asked Salifo if he could get 20 cedis doing farming or doing malaria-net-handouts, which would he choose? and he said farming. There’s just something about seeing the rewards of your work I guess! But yeah, it is definitely hard work. And there’s TONS of risk – mostly environmental. We don’t see how much farmers here are suffering from climate change, but it’s insane! There have been crop failures like the last 5 years. Definitely something to do more research on though!
      Hope the office is awesome so far 🙂
      Love Erin

      May 12, 2010 at 4:09 pm

  5. Laura

    Very interesting Air! I never knew how yams grew.
    Keep blogging!

    May 11, 2010 at 11:42 pm

  6. Jon


    I loved this post! I was actually a little jealous … rural farming was one of the few things I didn’t get to experience in my (short) time in Ghana last summer. I could really hear the sense of empowerment and pride Salifo felt when he talked about farming. I’ve always been in awe of Ghanian and the amount of knowledge they have to keep in their heads (like when to plant, where to plant, how to plant, when to fertilize, when to harvest) and you definitely reconnected me with their guts and determination!

    Hope you’re doing well!


    May 12, 2010 at 5:24 pm

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