Ghana’s investment in organic farming could
transform the country’s agriculture sector and improve
the country’s economy dramatically
By Laura Bain
It’s a common scene among many small-scale farmers in Ghana: men and women working feverishly under the hot sun, mixing cow dung and chemical pesticides into barren soil, harvesting salvageable produce to sell and praying for incipient crops to grow. It’s not like these farmers aren’t trying. It’s not like they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a twofold problem. They are working in a relentless climate defined by very high temperatures, inconsistent rainfall, and soils prone to erosion and degradation. Additionally, the agro-education they have inherited is unsustainable – a blend of traditional practices such as bush-burning and modern habits of using pesticides and herbicides are harmful to the environment and not ideal for food production.
Agriculture dominates Ghana’s economy, contributing to 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. But the sector is plagued by erratic weather patterns, low crop yield, low soil fertility, unsustainable agricultural practices, poor quality produce and limited access to market. Ghana’s agriculture sector is in need of an overhaul. An investment in organic farming could revamp the sector by introducing superior produce that is more resilient, encourages the sustainable use of land, is more nutritious and has a higher market value. Organic agriculture could provide Ghana’s economy with a much-needed boost.
One small organic project farm in Agona Town, west of Cape Coast, could be that boost. The farm, called the Abusua Sustainable Organic Farm (ASOF) project is attempting to tap into the organic industry and convince the country of the benefits in organic farming. Organic farming in Ghana is largely unexplored. Currently, very few people in Ghana are making money from organic farming although organic food and beverages generate almost $51 billion in global sales.
Arriving at the Abusua Foundation’s 15-acre plot of farmland I understood why our guide, executive director and founder Simon Tsike-Sossah, chose to wear long pants and sneakers that day. We stepped into a mass of wild, overgrown plants and pushed our way past prickly bushes, tangled vines and aggressive, biting ants. Entering into the mass we felt enclosed in a fortress of foliage — large glossy leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and rich red soil. This is this site for ASOF. Here Tsike-Sossah hopes to establish an organic youth-run farm where sustainable farming methods become a profitable business. The founder furthered his childhood knowledge of organic farming techniques with a formal education at the University of Cape Coast.
“We want to show you that you can do farming in a better way,” he says.
Organics are more resilient and have a longer shelf life than chemically-grown food. Since many farmers have a limited knowledge of post-harvest care they lose between 20 and 50 per cent of their yields. Organic plants are nourished
naturally, and therefore more robust than conventionally grown plants. Organically grown food is also less susceptible to rapid mould, rotting, diseases and pests.
Ghana is typically a hot and dry country. Dry, dusty winds blow through the country and, especially in the north, recurrent drought severely affects agricultural activities. Organically grown plants are more drought tolerant – a
benefit as 69 per cent of the country’s land surface is prone to severe erosion. Because chemical fertilizer is soluble, plants are forced to absorb it every time they are exposed to water. When water supplies are limited, chemically fed plants are unable to absorb enough water to reach toxic concentrations and stop growing – a major issue in a country with less than one per cent of its arable land irrigated.
It’s also cheaper – important in a country where 45 per cent of people live in poverty (less than $1 CND per day) and the majority of the country’s farmers are small scale “peasant” farmers, unable to afford expensive pesticides.
Ghana’s produce is not largely sought after on the international market as many farmers’ goods do not meet necessary quality standards in terms of weight, grade and sanitary requirements. Western consumers however, recognize the greater value of organic produce and are willing to pay high prices for it. In 2009, organics generated $25 billion in North American sales alone.
“If you get your organics certification, it’s a whole goldmine out there,” says Tsike-Sossah, referring to the European and West African market.
The Abusua team plans to get surrounding community members involved and benefitting from the ASOF project. It plans on building a surrounding network of farms, helping other farmers improve their agricultural approaches
and techniques. Annie Leff, an Abusua Programs Manager, spent several months researching and speaking with the community famers and found an interest in organics.
“Everyone has at least heard of organic farming and knows it is good for the body,” says Leff.
Currently, maize, cassava, yam and rice are the most commonly-produced crops in Ghana. They’re high yielding and relatively easy to grow, but they’re not very nutritious, a problem in a country where eight per cent of the country’s total population is undernourished.
“People eat too many carbohydrates,” says Charles Adams, the Regional Minister of Agriculture in the Upper West Region. “We need to integrate more nutritious crops into the agriculture sector, especially vegetables.” Organically grown food is higher in mineral content than non-organics. It’s also free of contamination to health-harming fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Healthy plants, mean healthy people.
The Government of Ghana made the environment’s health an agriculture sector priority. However, Ghana’s environmental management rules and regulations are weak. Traditional practices such as using chemical pesticides, bush burning – the process of setting bush and forest ablaze to clear land quickly, and monocropping – growing the same crop year after year on the same land, without rotating crops to replenish the soil with essential nutrients, causing soil to dry and erode. Leif says this is because of a simple lack of understanding.
“People are only thinking of agriculture in the very short term. By slashing and burning and using chemical pesticides they see fast, short-term results.”
Organic farming isn’t catching on because for years farmers have been taught that pesticides are a must for good harvests. “You are not taught that you can actually make do by not applying pesticides. It’s a feeling of the very old-age
practice that what the white man does should be right,” says Tsike-Sossah. “To tell them the opposite, they think it’s not possible.” Farmers using organic techniques produce food at a slower rate and in smaller amounts, but end up with superior, healthier and more valuable products.
The Abusua team hopes to have their entire 15-acres cleared in the next two or three years, so they can start growing peppers, tomatoes, cabbages and carrots. In the absence of government support or funding, they’re relying on the help of community members and volunteers doing all their work by hand. “One of the things we are doing is not only telling people you can do farming in a sustainable way, but showing that you can also make very good money out of it,” says Tsike-Sossah. “You can still wear a suit and do farming if you
Tsike-Sossah and his team are focused on practicing what they preach. They have started a one-acre experimental garden where a few dedicated people including Stephen, an ASOF farm hand and its first official employee, spend their days tilling the land and planting seeds into well-designed furrows equipped with irrigation trenches. They even dug a 10-foot well that struck water after only four days. However, the Abusua team is strapped for resources. They still need a pumping machine, sprinklers, farming tools. They would like to dig another well to really get the project off the ground. But, they believe in the project and the numerous ways organic farming could improve Ghana’s agricultural woes – so they continue dedicating their days to the cause. “As long as we are on the ground cropping with the organic technologies we are espousing, then I’m sure we will be able to influence many
people,” says Tsike-Sossah.