Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Archive for October, 2011

Development Digest – 28/10/11

Hi everyone,

Another belated issue, containing only what I had time to read… sorry! But there have been some really great EWB blog posts in the past couple weeks – I hope you take time to read some of them. Enjoy!


If there’s anything you’d like to see added or removed from the Development Digest, please let me know!

If you only have time to read a few articles, read the ones with the *star*!

Africa news:

Africa set for steady growth, with threat of faster inflation –
Democracy in SSA: it’s progress, even if it’s patchy –
Africa: A sophisticated plan to boost growth –
*Women and the Arab awakening: now is the time –

Agriculture news:

Farmers facing loss of subsidy may get new one –
Trees ‘boost African crop yields and food security’ –
High costs make it harder to grow young farmers –
Spore: the magazine for agricultural and rural development in ACP countries –
*China’s farming history misapplied in Africa –
Kenya: a glimpse of climate-smart agriculture –
How can contract farming work for poor farmers? –

Development thinking:

Who is going to pay for open aid data experts? –
Some days… –
Cash transfers: What have we learned so far? What are the implications for policy? What more do we need to know? –
*Development impact calls for knowledgeable development practitioners –
Important communication to all aid bloggers related to the urgent need for better coordination in the sector –
Joint learning and partnership building events on scaling up the fight against rural poverty (good links) –
The rise of the ‘new’ donors (India, China, etc.) –
Global resilience requires novelty: a speech by Buzz Holling at SFU –
USAID’s complexity journey –

Special Feature: Aid blogger ‘J’ held a Blog Forum on Admitting Failure (and I missed it! damn…)
Here are some of the highlights (in my opinion):
*Fad surfing in the Development Boardroom (hard-hitting post on Admitting Failure) –
10 levels of failure: a framework to fail in everything you do –
With fails like these, who needs success? –
Beneficiaries, Idealism and Admitting Failure –
Admitting Failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation? –
Admitting failure is trendy but, at least for NGOs, not prudent –
On admitting failure, otherwise known as learning –
The paradox of aid failures –

EWB blog posts:

*Joyce: First moto lesson –
Dominique: What am I doing in Ghana, part 2? –
Lyndsey: Mass chaos on the Metro Mass –
Erin: Outdooring: A joyous occasion –
Siera: Two months of immersion in Ghana –
Mike Klassen: Gearing Down… –…/
Lauren: Dorothy, Complexity and Change –
Eric: Larium bugs –
Eric: Mpika Urban Hospital –
Janine: Me –
Don: Perseverence –
Joyce: Seeing Ghana through Ghanaian eyes –
Kristina: More of the usual –
Geneviève: After the rain –
Max: Donnez moi un M, un A, un L, un A…. Rassemblé toutes ces lettres et vous y trouverez… –
Franck: Retour à Québec –
Dominique: The Tale of the Missing Visa –
Lyndsey: On Being Present –
Dom: Making shea butter Part 1 –
Kristina: Leap –
Duncan: Designing for Glee –
Mark W: Thanksgiving in Zambia –
Mark W: Pool Hall –
Mark W: Jacaranda trees in flower –
Duncan: Lake of Stars –
Mark W: Misplaced message? –
Janine: Gangksgiving –
Lauren: I love my job… and a Slam poem –
Jordan: A better view, is right in front of you –
Eric: Halfway! –
Max: Tout est relatif –
Janine: Missing home(s) –
Mark W: What’s in a name? –
Jordan: Can’t take it anymore… gotta get back to Canada –
Dan: Happy Thanksgiving! –
Mark W: Hockey night in Zambia –
Mark W: More Harvey Tile wisdom –
Eric: Halfway! – Addendum –
Tessa: Backspace versus delete –
Kristina: Answering a common question –
Janine: On Vision –
Eric: Where’s Eric? –
Janine: Saa –
Mark W: Brain fruit –
Dom: The DDA Fellowship part 2 (or maybe 3): I Have a Dream –
Max: Origine, appartenance et modernité?! –
Mark W: Chitenge slackline –
Mike: Thank You Too –
Mina: Asking Different Questions –
Erin: A Tale of Two Projects –
Geneviève: Liwonde here I come –
Janine: The Science Master –
Mark W: Roadside rock quarry –
*Jordan: I guess I’m not that hardcore –
*Lyndsey: 7 days in a rural village and other October highlights –
Lisa: Finding the trail again –
Janine: Risotto, french toast and other Ghanaian culinary concoctions –
Eric: Anecdotal Normalcy –
Mark W: Independence Day –
Kristina: Fathers – Things that make me happy –
Geneviève: Four corners –
Mark W: FAO Vouchers –
Anthony: Beliefs should be the foundation of structure –
Max: Les privilèges d’un Sulminja –’un-sulminja/
Mark W: Burnin’ rubber sandals –
Dom: Thanksgiving in Ghana –
Dom: How is one supposed to feel? –
Franck: Looking west –

Special Feature: Blog Action Day on the topic of Food
Siera: Smart interventions for food security in Africa –
Duncan: Nothing is that simple –
Don: The ‘Last Mile’ in agricultural development –
Erin: Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century –
Robin: Food: The good, the bad and the nasty –
Janine: My friend Gani, malnutrition and the merit of soya beans –

Amusing and interesting things:

*New York Times Infographic: The Great Regression –
*Personal Best: Coaching a Surgeon: What makes top performers better? –
Here is a Way Development & Aid Workers can Overcome Isolation at Work –
The world’s top 100 economies: 53 country, 34 cities and 13 corporations –
16 Tips to Simplify your Life and Increase your Productivity –
Wonderful video made by the Summer 2011 EWB Junior Fellows!! –


A Tale of Two Projects

This is the story of two projects, one MoFA office and a case of bad coordination.

In early 2010, a prominent project came to my office, the Tamale Metropolitan office of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. One of the project’s aims was to provide training and inputs to farmers in a bid to increase production (this is a VERY common project design in northern Ghana). They wanted to enlist the help of our Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) to carry out the implementation, in exchange for a small sum (also very common). The first step was to form groups of 50 farmers, each with one acre of land to contribute toward the project.

But it was not enough to just identify the farmers and their land. Like every project, this one was required to communicate their progress back to their funders in the West. As part of their monitoring, they had to send back a GPS map showing the location of every piece of land that was part of the project. That is 50 one-acre farms per farmer group, with anywhere from 1-3 groups per AEA, for 20 AEAs. That’s about 2000 individual one-acre farms, all shown on a GPS map.

And who do you think had to do that mapping, to go out into the field and walk around the perimeter of each farm with a GPS unit in hand? That’s right, the MoFA AEAs.

With only two GPS units in the office, this mapping procedure dragged on for months. Some AEAs only took half the data, while some managed to avoid doing it altogether. But eventually, the project kicked some butt and all the AEAs finished the mapping. Hours and hours of fieldwork, all to send a progress report to a donor in the West who probably won’t even look at the map.

Tahiru, an AEA in Tamale

Later in 2010, another project came to visit my MoFA office. This project was focused more on market linkages than training farmers. They were aiming to develop a database containing  information for marketers – farmers’ names, contact info, location, main commodities, volumes, etc. They were looking for some sample data to populate their database and they had selected the 50-person farmer groups set up by the first project to use as the sample data.

One of the pieces of data required for the database was the GPS coordinates of the farms. The project brought one GPS unit and asked the AEAs to go around to each farm and mark it on the GPS. Of course they would provide a small sum for this work to be done.

No one protested. They took the money and did the EXACT SAME WORK ALL OVER AGAIN.

A farmer's field outside Tamale

During the time taken to collect GPS data, whether for donors or marketers, the AEAs were not fulfilling their core role as extension agents. Their time was taken up by projects, away from solving farmers’ problems, away from responding to farmers’ needs and away from delivering agricultural information. The AEAs were used as information-gathering tools, rather than a means to actually reach out to farmers. And this was not just one day – this was weeks and weeks of work. You can imagine my frustration at finding out that this was done not once, but twice in the same year.

Mustapha, an AEA in Tamale

The development industry is a funny thing. Here in Tamale, several NGOs exist solely for the purpose of bidding on and implementing donor projects. They don’t have one specific mission, they don’t do their own project design, and they aren’t particularly discerning in the types of projects they bid on. They’re in it for the money.

So what’s the kicker in this story? These two projects were implemented by the EXACT SAME NGO. The project staff sat next to each other in the same office, but never talked enough to know that they were collecting the same GPS data.

Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century

This is a post for Blog Action Day (#bad11), a movement that aims to start a global discussion through thousands of blogs posted in one day on the same topic. This year, the topic is one dear to my heart: Food.I have been thinking about food a lot for the past 1.5 years through my work in agriculture with EWB. We are working closely with the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture to reach out to farmers, but what are we working toward? This question has nagged me more and more as time goes on, to the point that I ran a learning session at our last EWB retreat with the same name as the title of this post – Sustainable Food Security: Agricultural Models for the 21st Century.I’ve been reading a lot on this topic in the past 8 months. I’m not sure if there’s a trend toward addressing this issue lately, or if I’m just noticing the articles because I’m finally looking for them, but there is a LOT of writing out there! I’ve summarized a few of my favourite articles in the “Further Reading” section at the end of this post.
The Issues

First, let’s get to the heart of the issue: it’s a matter of food production vs. environmental sustainability. Traditional industrial agriculture has achieved record production through intensive farming practices, mechanized farming and petro-chemical inputs applied with machine-like precision. This has come at the expense of the environment, with corporate farms using up precious fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems in the quest for more food. However, viewing these as two opposing goals is a false dichotomy; if we want to achieve food security far into the future, we must find a way to fulfill both of these goals AT THE SAME TIME! My research into this topic has tried to answer this question: what model of agriculture will allow us to achieve sustainable global food security?

Development workers have a unique perspective on the problem of global food security because we must take into account an additional question, “what is good for poor farmers?” In this case, it’s not just about achieving adequate food production, or nutrition levels, or even environmental sustainability. We must also take into account the lifestyle of the poor Ghanaian farmer, who is being asked to adopt this model to continue providing food for his fellow citizens. What model of agriculture will spur human development in Ghana while also fulfilling the above two goals?

Though I mentioned that there are a lot of people writing on this topic right now, there is a relatively low level of consensus as to what the future model of global agriculture should be. There is a never-ending number of models being promoted (organic, agroecology, industrial, urban, etc.), each with its own convincing arguments and promoters. This is quite startling, and makes it very difficult to choose one agricultural model to promote in our work. So how can we plan for the future?

My Opinion

Let’s be very clear here: the following are my personal opinions, not those of EWB, Ghanaian farmers, or anyone else you might confuse me with. There is no right answer, only a series of thoughts and questions that remain to be determined.

Traditional agriculture in Ghana is somewhat organic, in the sense that there are no chemicals applied to the crops. Most farmers practicing these traditional methods also don’t use improved seeds, proper land preparation techniques or any other Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs). As a result, they get low yields compared to their neighbours who use “modern” techniques – mechanized land preparation, chemical fertilizers/herbicides/pesticides, and better GAPs. This is leading Ghanaian farmers to see chemical agriculture as the way forward, when in fact many of these GAPs applied to their traditional organic fields would also increase yields significantly.

Right now, MoFA is steering Ghana toward a future of intensive industrial agriculture through credit-in-kind schemes and input subsidies. And why shouldn’t they? This is the path every other industrialized nation has taken to get out of poverty and push forward their economies. But I think it’s too late to take this path. The time has come when oil-based agriculture is getting too expensive (and oil prices are too volatile) to rely on. The price of oil will only increase in the next 20 years, so why are we promoting a model of dependence on these inputs in Ghana?

If things go ahead as MoFA wants them to, soon the majority of Ghanaian farmers will be using industrial agriculture methods. Food security in the country will be improved, but for how long? Soon fuel prices will be too high for Ghanaians to afford the food produced in this manner, and we will be thrown back into food insecurity. Ghana is at the brink of “maturity” in agriculture, about to choose a method to promote and follow for decades to come. Let’s help them make an appropriate and sustainable choice.

My colleague Mina works with an organic fertilizer company near Tamale and often cites a study that showed yields to be virtually the same when appropriate amounts of chemical and organic fertilizer were applied to test fields. In fact, the plot with the highest yields used a combination of both types of fertilizer. So why are these methods most often presented as mutually exclusive?

There are many sustainable practices being used in Ghana on a small scale – sustainable land management, soil fertility techniques, inter-cropping to naturally get rid of pests, organic fertilizers and weedicides and many other GAPs. What are the best ways for EWB to promote these techniques without being paternalistic and dictating the way forward for Ghana’s agricultural development? Tricky…

I think one of the key lessons here is that we need to be adaptive, changing our approach depending on the conditions (economic, social and environmental) in which we find ourselves. Of course, these conditions are changing all the time, so we need to be constantly testing our assumptions, checking if the information we gathered 1 year, 6 months or even 2 weeks ago is still relevant today. And we need to help the Government of Ghana to have the same resilient approach, adapting to new information and conditions as the world lumbers toward a new model for sustainable food security.
More Details

Different levels of thinking about this:

  • Global food systems
  • Consumers in Canada
  • African agriculture
  • Farmers
  • EWB’s stance
  • Our strategies

More questions to ponder…

  • How do we bridge economic development & environmental sustainability in Africa?
  • What are the pros and cons of each agricultural model?
  • How do these changes in policy translate to realities on the ground?
  • What stance should EWB and other NGOs take on these issues? How will this effect our work?

Other tricky issues (you can Google these for more info):

  • African land grabs
  • GM crops
  • Foreign investment
  • Subsidies
  • Food price volatility
  • Climate change
  • Famine
  • Biodiversity
  • Farmers’ rights
  • Biofuels

Further Reading

Special report on the future of food – population, development, environment, politics, nutrition, food waste:

Politics, global markets, demand for food:

Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and the concept of agroecology:

Agroecology and development:

Organic farming:

Food waste:

Concentrated industrial vs. wide-spread “nature-friendly” agriculture, which is better for the environment:

Smallholder farmers and environmental sustainability:

Findings of DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century:

Moving from old to new models of agriculture:

Outdooring: a joyous occasion

Yesterday was the outdooring for my friend Farouk’s new baby. This is a ceremony that is held 7 days after the birth of a baby here in Ghana, and it is the occasion when the baby’s name is announced to the world. So I present to you: Mohammed Taiwab!

Mohammed Taiwab, his mother and I at the outdooring

This little guy is so small and super-cute! He slept the whole time I was there, despite the crowds of squawking women and the fact that he was passed from person to person every 2 minutes. I guess that’s what you do when you’re 7 days old? Maybe?

The outdooring starts in the wee hours of the morning, when the women start preparing food. People come and gather, men in one place and women in another, to celebrate with the parents. People get dressed up, food is served and everyone generally has a ball. Each guest will give something small to help with the new baby, like soap, baby clothes or some small money.

The first-time mother is surrounded by her mother and sisters, all of whom have come to help her with her new task of taking care of a baby. In many cases, she will actually go and live with her mother or female relatives for the first few months of the baby’s life, to learn how to take care of it/him/her properly. This is great for the father, who doesn’t have to deal with the crying baby in the middle of the night, but he also loses out on some bonding/loving time!

Farouk and I at the outdooring

Farouk is a great example of a modern new father from Tamale. He is an electrician (he does all our electrical work and won’t let us pay him!) and he used to live right next door to Ben and I. He runs an electrical shop on the main road and you can find him there from 8am to 10pm – he works a lot! We’ve become good friends over the past year. Many times we’ve discussed his approach to marriage, fatherhood, life, etc. and how it differs from traditional beliefs in this area.

For example, even though he is Muslim, Farouk doesn’t want to have multiple wives. He himself is the son of a man with 3 wives, and he saw how difficult it was for the family, especially those 3 women. His own mother left his father when Farouk was young and took him to live somewhere else. (There’s not really any such thing as divorce in northern Ghana, at least it’s not common… but as far as I can tell, Farouk’s mom was outta there!) He says having multiple wives causes too much conflict, so he’ll stick with one, thank you very much.

Farouk has also told us that he will never beat his kids. Unfortunately, this is a VERY unusual stance in this area. It is quite normal to punish children with smacks, sticks and other forms of corporal punishment. I think this is very much a classic case of those who’ve been beaten taking it out on those who are “below” them on the food chain. When you grow up in a culture of physical abuse, it’s very difficult to change your mindset and the abused often becomes the abuser. But somehow Farouk has decided that it isn’t right, and it’s not the way he’ll discipline his kids. Good on you, Farouk!

The happy family

I’ve enjoyed spending time with Farouk, who always, always has a smile on his face. He and his wife have been so excited for the new baby to arrive, and now he’s finally here. I know they will take good care of him and shower this kid with love, and I can’t wait to watch him grow. Welcome to the world, Mohammed Taiwab!