Ghana: The Beginning of a New Way to Farm
Autumn Tait's essay for Youth World Food Prize covers sustainable agriculture practices in Ghana.
June 21, 2017 - Author: Autumn Tait
On the West Coast of Africa, there lies a country about the size of Oregon with 92,486 square miles, housing 3.4 million farms. Like many African countries the climate is tropical (Mukungu). Cocoa is its leading cash crop, and 59% of the country's work force involves agriculture in some way. This country is Ghana, Africa. The average Ghanaian family has about five members with the life expectancy of 56 years old. In these households, 22% have orphans or are children that are under the age of 18 and aren’t living with a biological parent. An everyday diet includes fresh fruits, vegetables, rice, millet, soups with starchy staples, and a main dish called fufu which includes cassava and plantain flour. Ghana is famous for its spices, so foods are far from bland ("Ghana Demographic and Health Survey 2008").
In Ghana, six out of ten men are literate, and four out of ten women can read and write. 89% of Ghanaians have had some sort of education from the ages of 3-21. If a family member becomes ill, they may have to travel fifteen kilometers (about 9 miles) to reach a doctor who cares for up to 10,000 other patients. On average only 17% of families have access to some type of health care. For the families that do, the health care covers very little, so medical care is usually used with home remedies. Many herbalists live in villages that take care of any ailing family members and friends. Home remedies include anything from bark tea to a poultice from plants ("Ghana Demographic and Health Survey 2008").
With 59% of the country's workforce involved in agriculture, agriculture is important to the economy of Ghana. Many of these farms are family-owned operations with .5 of an acre to 10 acres. Cash crops include cocoa, plantains, palm oil, kola nuts; while more garden items to eat include maize, yams, millet, cassavas, papayas, oranges, pineapples, guavas, beans, squash, tomatoes, and melons (Kalibata). Some families may also raise livestock that includes cattle, poultry, swine, sheep, and goats for milk, meat, and eggs.
Almost all Ghanaians eat what they grow and raise for that year with excess sold to provide for trade of other essential needs. Occasionally, some farms have some small livestock for meat and eggs. A few percentage of the farms only grow cash crops. It is harder to access newer hybrids and treated seeds for these third world countries, so many of the seeds planted were saved from last year's crop. For easy planting, most Ghanaians use the traditional slash and burn method; where all visible residue is burned so seeds can be easily planted into the soft, barren soil. This method may seem efficient, and it very well could be used on untouched fertile soil, but after a few years of this practice nutrients are depleted and useless, barren soil is left with no purpose.
Major barriers that face a typical family farm include the lack of education to realize other efficient methods that can be used for farming, lack of technology to aid growth in quality and quantity in improving agricultural productivity. Earning a living wage is especially difficult when the use of slash and burn degrades the soil and causes yields to drop. With a smaller amount of a crop, each year more of that has to be kept for the family's consumption and less can be sold. The access to food markets and adequate nutrition is also a difficult part of their lives since most Ghanaian farmers grow only certain crops which don't contain everything needed for a well-balanced meal. Many cheap meals can be affordable, but don’t provide the families with the energy they need for the day. Infrastructure is also very poor, so the route to a market to sell or trade extra products is extremely challenging. If roads are even available, many are not paved and not up kept.
The factor I selected is sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is the beginning as well as the roots of agricultural productivity, food availability, and income. One may ask, “What is Sustainable Agriculture?” The simple answer to this is the methods or practices to prevent or reduce soil erosion, soil depletion, herbicide and pesticide use. Most farmer’s goals are to grow a large amount of food without impacting the environment. To keep up with the growing demand for food and food security, soil conditions have to stay as nutritious and be frequently replenished. In Ghana, families are having trouble reaching enough income to raise their families as farmland quality keeps depleting. We can solve this problem by incorporating no-till practices instead of Africa’s common slash and burn farming practice.
When fertile ground is burned erosion increases, nutrients are depleted, and yields continually drop. In no-till, no soil is turned over, and the residue is left from the previous crop or cover crop with the upcoming year's crop seeds being planted right through the residue. No-till has three main benefits for African farmers; increases water availability for dry farming, permits a second edible crop from the cover crop, and the mulch helps keep beneficial activity in the soil. Every year eight million tons of nutrients are depleted from slash and burn. A total of over 250 million tons have been depleted in Africa over the 12,000 year period the slash and burn method has been used (Stief). Since nutrients are completely gone, farmers keep moving to new land that hasn't experienced slash and burn. A piece of land takes at least ten years to rejuvenate the soil replenishing the nutrients present before the slash and burn. Soon these farmers are going to be planting in fields far away from home, or they are going to run out of untouched ground that is rich with nutrients. Africa very well could be a barren desert will soils that are far from being able to be recovered. With today’s technology, yields should be improving not becoming worse from the soil’s composition. The slash and burn method has caused soil depletion, yields to significantly drop, animal habitats to be destroyed, and pollution to be released into the air (“Restoring Soil Health in Africa”).
Ghana farmers are beginning the process of moving away from traditional slash and burn methods to no-till from the proper education and information that has been spread from the No-Till Centre. We can still do more to inform others of this method that is going to be the future of agriculture in years to come. Yields dropping dramatically isn’t the only disadvantage from slash and burn; the environment is also getting polluted, humans and animals are losing habitats from uncontrolled fires, and soil erosion is increasing. Rural farmers are also challenged when they have an abundance of food to sell for money and unfortunately, when they do, infrastructure or proper transportation is not available (Nelson). As world-wide food demands are growing, more food needs to be grown and distributed. When Ghana has its rainy season, the crop yields are unbelievable, but this abundance isn't stored for later use. Any type of preserving methods: canning, freezing, and drying can be taught to these rural African family farms. The extra food preserved during the rainy season can be saved when the dry season comes around or the year is a hard growing season. Families can have proper nutrition and enough food year around.
Even though 40% of Ghana’s farm holders are women, they are still disadvantaged and not treated equally. Many have to farm, clean, cook, attend to their children, and make some kind of income to send their children for education. Since land is usually owned and rented by only men, getting land to grow crops is also a challenge for women. With the duty of being a farmer and a mother, this usually puts many women farmers through a poverty filled life and causes a negative impact on nutrition and health on the whole family (Maconachie, and Fortin).
If Ghanaians resolve to use no-till methods instead of the slash and burn method their soil can replenish itself causing the crops to have higher yields with more abundance of crops to sell and create a better quality product. This is a great advantage, to increase yields, without using new genetics, pesticides, and herbicides. The practice with no-till won't destroy habitats and will not cause sudden uncontrollable fires. With the ground protected with residue, more water and nutrients won't run off. Also, cover crops suppress weeds and some varieties can reduce certain insects. Since Ghana has only a small portion of rain in the year, cover crops can hold in moisture to retain through long periods of droughts. According to a recent Farm Futures magazine article under Africa's No-Till Revolution stated that Abena Nyarka, a 91-year-old African farmer explained, "This is the first year I've made a profit from the farm … Slash-and-burn farming was all I knew so when I found out about No-Till, it was really surprising - and I didn't really believe I could do it, But they encouraged me and made me believe”.
No-till farming can help increase yields with the higher water capacity. Since Ghana has a small rain-fed season we need to preserve and store it for a later purpose. With moisture all season long, the crop will thrive and produce better yields and a healthier crop (Nelson).
If more places like Dr. Kofi Boa’s Ghana’s Centre for No-Till Agriculture are established, more education and information can change lives in Ghana and many other places. If more sessions are held with people actually coming to farms and showing how no-till works and the effects and benefits of this practice, Africans will eventually see how their crops are healthier, have better water capacity, and how yields are increasing. More industry professionals and researchers with their knowledge and background with no-till can inform more farmers and show the differences of slash and burn vs. no-till. Our goal is to show that this is the answer for future generations of farming to keep the soil as healthy and productive as it can be.
With 59% of Ghanaians within the workforce involved in some facet of agriculture and families generally having many members, agriculture is very important to provide money through the economy and food for everyone. Every two out of five children are stunted from malnourishment which increases the need for food security ("About us"). This food security can come from sustainable agricultural practices such as no-till. We can create foundations to show, practice, perform, and inform the methods of no-till to countries like Ghana. The No-Till Centre in Ghana is just the beginning of utilizing this farming method. No-till can be our answer for developing countries looking for a more efficient, profitable, and worthwhile method of farming. Who wouldn’t want a method that feeds everyone, and takes care of the soil during the entire process too?
- "About us." UNICEF Ghana - About us - Situation of children in Ghana. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.
- "Ghana Demographic and Health Survey 2008." Http://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/FR221/FR221[13Aug2012].pdf. Ghana Statistical Service and Health Service, 1 Sept. 09. Web. 11 Mar. 16.
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- Maconachie, Roy, and Elizabeth Fortin. "On Ghana's Cocoa Farms, Fairtrade Is Not Yet Working for Women." Http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/11/ghana-cocoa-farms-fairtrade-not-yet-working-for-women. Guardian News and Media Limited, 11 Mar. 16. Web. 7 Apr. 16.
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- Nelson, Mike. "Africa's No-Till Revolution." Farm Futures 1 Mar. 16: 54-66. Print.
- "Restoring Soil Health in Africa." Http://fsg.afre.msu.edu/zambia/tour/AGRA_Soil_Health_Programme_Africa.pdf. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, 1 Jan. 09. Web. 24 Mar. 16.
- Stief, Colin. "Slash and Burn Agriculture." Http://geography.about.com/od/urbaneconomicgeography/a/slashburn.htm. About.com, 29 Jan. 15. Web. 4 Apr. 16.