Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

Posts tagged “advocacy

Challenging Perspectives – Extending a Hand Up

Challenging Perspectives is EWB Canada’s annual holiday campaign to combine fundraising and outreach. You can also read my Perspective below here and make a donation. Click here to browse some of the other perspectives.

When I first came to Ghana in March 2010, I lived with a host family in a village called Zuo. The head of the family is a farmer named Salifo. He is more educated than most of his neighbours. He can read and write in English and do simple math. He is a teacher at the local kindergarten, a community health volunteer, and helps run the local shea butter soap production group.

My friend Salifo

But when it comes to farming, Salifo doesn’t do well. One day last summer, I sat down with him to analyze his farm from the previous year. He’d grown 3 main crops: maize, rice and groundnuts. I asked him how much money he’d spent on growing these crops. From his memory, he listed out precise figures of his investments in seed, fertilizer, tractor services and labour. I wrote each number down under the corresponding crop. Next, I asked him how many bags he’d harvested from each crop, and the price he’d sold them for. Again, he listed the numbers from memory, and I wrote them all down. Finally, we arrived at the crucial step, the one he’d been avoiding: calculating his profit.

Maize: -293GhC

Rice: -204GhC

Groundnuts: -4GhC

In total, Salifo had lost 501GhC (about $375) on his farm that season. And that doesn’t include his own time and labour.

Why did Salifo lose so much money? There are three contributing problems:

  1. His farming skills and knowledge are poor. Salifo may be an educated man, but he doesn’t know how to get the most out of his farm. He needs to learn about the basic techniques that will improve his productivity: use improved seed, plant in rows, apply the right fertilizer at the right time, and respond quickly and appropriately to pests and disease.
  2. He doesn’t have a business mindset. Salifo is so many things, as I mentioned: a teacher, a community health worker, a volunteer, and a farmer. But he is not a business man, at least when it comes to his farm. He needs to learn some basic business skills: record-keeping, marketing, profit calculations and decision-making.
  3. He can’t control nature. Alright, this one isn’t his fault. He lives in an area with poor soil fertility and unreliable rains. But this means his risk management skills need to be even better – he cannot rely on his rain-fed farm to sustain his family.

This is a tragedy. Thousands, if not millions of farmers in Ghana are suffering from these same skill deficiencies. But there is a solution: effective agricultural extension services.

Tahiru, an Agricultural Extension Agent, giving advice to farmers in Wamale

In order to profit from their farms, farmers need at least 2 things: 1) information on how to farm, and 2) business skills. Agricultural extension provides both of these things. (They also need input and output markets; see EWB’s Agricultural Markets team’s work for more!)

Traditionally, the government has hired Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs) who go out to the villages to teach farmers about new technologies and practices. However, with new Information Communication Technologies (ICT) such as video and mobile phones, there is room for innovative new solutions to increase the reach and impact of extension services to farmers.

Ultimately, effective extension services come down to farmer behaviour change. This is an area where EWB has both experience and expertise. Drawing on our history of success with the Agriculture As a Business tool, we are developing new tools and approaches to improve technology adoption and behaviour change in farmers using innovative new technologies. Check out some examples here and here.

I know many of you have supported my work in the past. I sincerely thank you for that – your donation has made a difference! I have personally stepped up my commitment to the cause this year by becoming the Manager of EWB’s Public Sector Agriculture team in Ghana. I am asking you to also step up your commitment by contributing this year to my fundraising campaign!

Your donation to EWB will allow us to keep exploring and developing these tools to help farmers like Salifo to make a profitable living from their farms. I personally believe that we are making an impact through our work, from the farm right up to the policy-makers. But we need your donation to keep it up! Whether $5, $50 or $500, your donation will make a difference.

To make a donation, please visit my Perspectives page here.

Thank you all for your support – past, present and future!


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:

ACT to increase Canada’s aid effectiveness!

Hey readers, Happy Friday!

This post has a bit of a different focus: Canada’s aid effectiveness. Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that there are thousands (whoa!) of EWBers working hard in Canada to tackle the “other end” of the development problem: foreign aid. This is hugely important and has a MASSIVE effect on the work we’re able to do here in Ghana. I’m seeing more and more every day about how CIDA affects the development environment in Ghana, especially for MoFA – they’re one of the major funders and could be doing a lot of things better (oh hey CIDA!).

That’s where you come in. As part of the new ACT campaign (which you can check out here), EWB has a goal of sending 1000 letters to our local MPs across the country, calling on our elected officials to ACT in making Canada’s aid more effective. ACT stands for Accountable, Creative and Transparent – three qualities that can dramatically improve the effectiveness of our foreign aid. From the website:

“We are asking Canada to ACT on aid effectiveness – making our aid more accountable, creative and transparent. In short, it’s not what we fund, but how we fund it. Good aid and development are stifled by skewed incentives and weak systems. The ACT agenda tackles several of the core issues that undermine successful aid programs, focusing on increasing the impact of aid dollars through a series of evidence-based, thoughtful reforms. It outlines three specific areas of action that we believe all parties can agree on, and that Canadians can get behind, in the leadup to the G8 meeting in Canada.


  1. Role model our good track record of meeting international promises by creating a standard for tracking and reporting on major international aid commitments, committing to use it, and inviting other G8 countries to follow our lead. Such a standard should monitor progress through the life-cycle of all promises, publicizing this information along with interim progress reports to enable citizen groups and media to hold governments accountable to their promises.
  2. Establish an expert, independent, arms-length development evaluation agency to assess the results from Canadian aid. These results should be shared with a) Canada’s Parliament; b) the Canadian public; c) our partner country’s government; and d) local civil society in the country’s where we provide aid.


  1. Set up a $150million venture-focused Implementation Innovation Fund to fund the expansion of promising initiatives. This would complement the research-focused Development Innovation Fund and provide later stage financing to take ideas to scale. The evaluation criteria of Implementation Innovation Fund should be the adoption/seeding of their innovations into regular poverty reduction projects (or the expansion of for-profit pro-poor ventures) worth 1 billion dollars a year within 5 years.


  1. Join many of the world’s leading donor organizations by signing on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a new initiative that aims to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand.
  2. Publish comprehensive, openly available data about all CIDA projects and programs – including the results of all evaluations – on its website. This information should allow the user to track any project from the initial proposal through all stages to project implementation.”

EWB members across the country are working hard to realize this goal. In addition to encouraging you to sign the petition, which can be found on the website, I’d like to challenge everyone to get involved! Here’s the challenge: convince 5 of your closest friends/family to write a letter about the ACT campaign to their local MP. And of course, write one yourself!

Here are some of the essential elements to include in your letter:

  • Your name and address, so the MP knows you’re writing from his/her constituency
  • Why you’re writing (to call on the MP to support EWB’s campaign to make Canada’s aid more effective)
  • A short summary of what ACT is all about (again, website here)
  • Pick one action item from the website that you really like and describe it in more detail
  • Ask for them to follow up if they have any questions or response to your letter
  • Tell them that they’ll be joining the majority of their peers, who EWB has already met with, in supporting this initiative!

And a template to help you out:

A few key things to remember about letters to MPs:

  • Handwritten letters are most effective – if you can, write out a personal letter and mail it in!
  • Emailing your letter is still fine, but not as good as a handwritten letter!
  • Write from your perspective – make a personal connection to the issue and, where possible, to the person you are writing to as well
  • Try to keep your letter to one page, two at maximum
  • You can find your MP’s address and email at:
  • Be sure to include all of your contact information so the person you are writing can reply.

Finally, if you take the leap and write a letter, or get anyone else to write a letter, please let me know! We’re trying to track the number of letters that get sent to MPs.

Alright, that’s it for this sunny Friday in Tamale! I hope you all have a wonderful relaxing weekend, with a bit of political advocacy thrown in, just for kicks. After all, it’s your government – you have the right to tell them what to do with your money, and to hold them accountable!