Monday, October 29, 2007

So What Does MoFA Do?

Before I jump into this question I want to take this time to display a somewhat incriminating photo of a fellow friend and EWB volunteer - Luke Brown. He is just completing 2 years in Ghana and was privileged to become a "cheif of friends" in Tamale. I observed the very elaborate and formal "cheifing" ceremony with some other EWB volunteers. So what does an EWB volunteer do after 2 years in Ghana...

Luke before he becomes a chief. The actual chief is sitting behind him. Note the small girl in the top-right corner, she's fanning Luke!

Me recording this momentous occasion on Luke's sound recorder.

So what does MoFA do? To answer this question, I went overseas… My first step to understanding what MoFA does brought me overseas with “Prince” an employee of MoFA. So I’m guilty of cheesy Ghanaian humour. “Overseas” is an area of the Northern Region that is accessible either via boat in 2 hours or via road which takes a 5 hour detour. Since we were in a truck we had to do the 5 hour detour.

The intention of Prince’s visit was to assess a farmer who had been nominated for the prestigious national award for “Best Farmer”. Every year, MoFA organises a one-day event called “National Farmers Day” that is intended to raise the profile of farming within Ghana. Even though National Farmers Day is over one month away, it is foremost in the minds of all MoFA staff. When I first heard of the event, I figured it was just a big PR thing and wasn’t really sure why MoFA was so excited about it.

I asked Prince what the big deal was and he explained to me that the day is also an opportunity for MoFA to explicitly thank the farmers that they work for – the people that MoFA are essentially accountable to, after all without farmers in Ghana the role of MoFA would be quite different. To me, the event was also a great opportunity to profile farmers who model best practices – whether those best practices be entrepreneurial in managing the farm as a business or perhaps responsible use of natural resources – these best practices are the messages that MoFA strives to share with farmers and highlighting farmers through National Farmers Day is just one approach to encouraging farmers to adopt best practices.

The farmer we met, Alhaji Imoro, had been farming for the past 30 years. This year he planted rice (100 acres) and maize (50 acres). Unfortunately, all of the maize was destroyed by the floods that affected a huge amount of people in Northern Ghana this year and received international attention ( However, Alhaji with his keen knowledge of animal husbandry, and a critical understanding of market opportunities, will not suffer this year. Alhaji is smart to grow rice – a crop that actually thrived this year during the drought – the market opportunities for local rice are growing due to a combination of a government school feeding program and a growing popularity of rice as a starchy food by children!

Prince and Alhaji chat it up

Alhaji also rears cattle – an extremely profitable venture in Ghana, but an opportunity that is rarely exploited due to farmer’s attitude towards cattle. From what I learned from the farmers I lived with in Chayili village (recall groundnut picking adventure), cattle is viewed as a form of savings and is killed for a funeral or sold in desperate times to buy food. Alhaji was rearing over 500 cattle and was definitely looking at his cattle as a profitable venture, not a mooing, grass-chewing, form of saving.

Encouraging farmers to adopt the best practices that Alhaji exemplifies is a crucial component of MoFA’s work and arguably the most effective grassroots approach to making poverty history in Ghana. Encouraging farmers to adopt best practices is more than providing technical education on proper farming techniques – like the correct spacing for maize, or the proper amounts and timing of fertilizer application – it is encouraging a behaviour change that shifts farmers from viewing their cattle and crops as part of a business venture. That’s tricky stuff!

Alhaji is successful because he has solid technical knowledge of cattle rearing and rice and maize production but he also has the attitude of a businessman. When I asked how Alhaji learned cattle rearing and why he’s been successful with his farm, Alhaji answered that he learned from his father. At the end of our visit with Alhaji he asked Prince about growing mango trees, the market for mango fruit has been getting a lot of attention both internationally and locally and Alhaji wants to expand his business to mango production.

Prince was more than happy to share information. I watched as he reached above him to a tree that I noticed for the first time was a mango tree. Prince grabbed a branch and proceeded to demonstrate grafting – a technique that involves preparing and planting a branch from a live mango tree so that it will develop into another tree.

Grafting part 1 - remove a small branch and strip the leaves

Grafting part 2 - wrap the branch with a small piece of plastic and plant.

With farmers who aren’t as lucky as Alhaji who inherited not only a profitable farm but an approach and the practices that led to continuing prosperity, MoFA staff work towards changing farmer’s behaviour. Changing farmer’s behaviour is certainly not as easy as grafting a new mango tree from an existing one and so National Farmers Day is but one approach in the basket.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

I pledge allegiance to rice

Work has begun! But don’t expect to get a full detailed briefing on “what exactly I’m doing in Ghana”. Right now I’m in a learning phase – I’ve been given the freedom to travel around the Northern Region of Ghana and basically “job shadow”. I started at the regional level of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) and have started a 7 week tour of MoFA's district offices (one level below regional). I’ve uploaded a map that shows where I’ll be going in the next 2 months – and that’s as much as I’ll share about the nitty gritty details. Below is a story from a trip I took with a regional staff…

Follow along on my Northern Region "District Learning Tour"!

Posing with a Regional MoFA staff - dressed "fine" in a Ghanaian dress

Today I make a pledge – I pledge to only eat Ghanaian rice. This commitment is motivated by meeting with the Kalegu rice group – a group of women who together are leading the way in rice processing – a growing market in Ghana. I met the Kalegu rice group with Luke, a regional staff at MoFA who is to go-to-guy on all “farmer based organizations” in the Northern Region. We made the 4 hour trip to meet with the women and learn from them – how are they successful in the rice processing business and more importantly how are they able to work together?

Kalegu women selling Ghanaian rice

But asking these questions was not so simple! To even begin the field visit, Luke had to push hard to get the money we needed to travel. I give Luke tremendous credit for working so hard to realize a trip that was planned over a year ago! Since he wasn’t certain as to whether he would get the money and be able to go, he didn’t inform anyone about our visit. But money we received and the journey we did take.

When we arrived about 4 hours later, dusty and myself exhausted from the bumpy ride along a pot-hole infested road, I was astounded to see Luke literally jump into work-mode as soon as the vehicle stopped. We were fortunate to come across a community meeting that had in attendance some of the key people Luke was hoping to speak with and so he was able to schedule meetings with the farmer groups for the following day.

Luke’s persistence paid off, and we began the following day by meeting with three groups that grow rice. These groups are composed almost entirely of men (since men in Ghana do most of the food production while women do most of the food processing).

Luke checking out some unprocessed rice grains.

The conversation was enlightening for me, I suppose I had this rather romantic view of “farmer based organizations” – people coming together to support each other with a sort of community spirit – in actuality these groups were mostly formed to get money. Small-loan schemes for farmers are one of most prominent development interventions in Ghana – it seems every project and every organization gives out “micro-credit”. I have mixed feelings about micro-credit but in my humble opinion don’t see it as a “silver bullet solution” that the development community seems to tote them as (you may have heard of the Grameen Bank organisation in Bangladesh that gave micro-credit loans to rural women). With MoFA for example, the recovery rate on the loans they give to farmers is incredibly low, and as a result MoFA staff are asking critical questions about micro-credit.

In short, these men formed a group because that’s the only way they could get a loan. Once Luke finished talking with the men’s rice groups and I had adjusted to yet another bubble full of romantic ideas of development being popped to reveal the reality, we traveled to the local market. Today was market day, so as Luke and I made our way through the lively commerce and past hoards of groundnuts, yams and other produce we came to the women’s group. They were busy selling rice but paused long enough to chat with Luke and post for a photo.

Luke in action, interviewing the women's group.

All of the women - the pride in their faces is incredible!

After we left the women’s group, Luke pointed at a pile of very white and polished looking rice that was also being sold in the market. Luke explained that this rice is imported and that most people prefer the imported rice because it looks nicer (is whiter, less impurities like small stones and cracked rice grains), however, the local rice is actually more nutritious. To add to the ridiculousness, the price for the local and imported rice was the same! Thus was born my pledge – to only eat Ghanaian rice. So far I have been successful in supporting my farmer friends who derive their living from growing and processing rice (although I have been surprised by the number of vendors who sell imported rice!). I shared my pledge with Luke and he quickly jumped on board! More than making a simple pledge to change my consumer habits, the persistence and dedication Luke demonstrated on our field visit reinforced my pledge to work with MoFA over the next year.

PS – Ridiculous market situations seem to be prevalent when it comes to food – check out my friend’s Alanna’s blog on mango processing and exporting in Burkina Faso -

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Working for Peanuts

I’ve emerged from 17 days stay in Chayili village – a village where only on person speaks English and everyone’s livelihood is centered around farming. Since I took a ton of pictures and couldn't possible capture everything in words, I've included numerous photos dispersed through-out this post. Enjoy!

The 17 days I spent in Chayili seemed timeless – partly because time has a different meaning in a place where calendars and watches are irrelevant. But I emerge with stronger hands from working on the farm, darker skin from being out in the sun and a bigger heart to work with people in Northern Ghana – my heart goes out to many of the family members I stayed with – a household that was created from a former chief and thus was quite large with the chiefs wives, children and their wives and children. I got to know and love everyone in the house.

Photo above: Too many to name! Some are wives and children of the head of the household, others are wives of the head of household’s children.

I set out to this village to basically immerse myself in rural life in Northern Ghana – my objectives were to learn the local language, and to forge a strong understanding of rural life and farming as a livelihood. It was an incredible experience, now that I’m back in Tamale with electricity, paved roads and vibrant commerce I can truly appreciate the experience – having an understanding of rural life is incredibly important since that is the context which my partner organisation (the Ministry of Food and Agriculture) works.

Photo above: First impressions of Chayili

Life in a village was just as romantic as I pictured – the strong sense of community that exists, the thatch roof huts, cooking with metal pots over a fire and enjoying food fresh from the farm. But this romantic view was quickly dashed when I started to partake in the work. Carrying water, cooking, cleaning, farming all require muscle strength and stamina that after 17 days I was only just starting to develop (my back and neck still ache!). I have tremendous respect for my friends in Chayili who work hard everyday and still made time and effort to teach me and let me contribute to their work – however incompetent I may be at it!

Working hard (and enjoying it!) pounding maize (corn) into flour with a friend.

My visit was well-timed to learn firsthand about farming in northern Ghana. It is the end of the rainy season which marks the beginning of the harvest. Peanuts or groundnuts as they’re known in Ghana, were the crop of choice for Chayili – they were just ready to be harvested, and I was able to participate in this amazing experience. I was able to spend a couple of days harvesting groundnuts with the men in my family. In the picture below, you can see we had quite a crew! I understand the motivation to have many children! We were working on an elder’s field who is the senior most women elder in the community and seems to get help from everyone in the community since she no longer has a husband. With a strong crew we were able to harvest 2 acres of groundnuts in just hours!

Peanuts or Groundnuts. This variety is called ablain in the local language. It's best for oil.

Harvesting groundnuts...yeah I know I was fascinated when I finally saw how peanuts or groundnuts grow!

Harvesting groundnuts with the men in my household.

Groundnuts drying in the sun Zarea and Owaho (elder women in my household) in the background.

Most of my days were spent with the women in the village. One very prominent thing I experienced was the gender separation in Ghana – the line between jobs that are done by women and jobs that are done by men is pretty black and white – in short women take care of household chores such as cleaning and cooking, and the children while men generally do the farming. However, for groundnut harvest-time women play an equally important role on the farm. I was able to see and experience the role women play. I’ve typed out an entry from my journal below written after my second day on the farm with the women.

Fetching water with Maymuna (one of the girls in my household). Fetching water is definitely a women's job. (This was my first attempt to carry the bucket on my head thus the splashes of water down my butt and legs...)

“This morning I woke up at 6:20 am. Just as the rain stopped. Every night since I’ve come to Chayili it’s rained. I’ve been told that visitors bring good luck, so I’m the reason it’s rained. Even though the sun is rising, the rain has just stopped and I’m crawling out of bed, Senatu (head women in the house) has prepared breakfast and heated water for my bath. Today, I helped harvest groundnuts. It’s the season for harvesting so I’ve seen plenty – drying in the sun – roasting to eat – grinding into groundnut paste, or peanut butter as we know it in Canada! – bagging to sell and of course in the farm fields.

I spent the entire day with the women doing what they’ve been doing for the past week – harvesting ground nuts. We left at about 6:30 am for the farm. Food and buckets were carried on the children’s heads, babies on mother’s backs. The trek was about one hour to the farm. When we arrived, there were already plenty of women and children chatting and sitting amongst heaps of freshly uprooted ground nuts. We spend the whole day removing groundnuts from the plant.

Trek to the farm (Maymuna is just in front of me)

The day was very social as women rotated to uncompleted mounds of groundnuts and chatted with each other. Since I understood little of the language I just worked as fast as I could taking pride as my pile of groundnuts grew substantially throughout the day. I kept recalling the time I spent as a child picking strawberries with my mom and sisters – those trips were always fun but usually ended after about 2 hours with a stomach ache from too many strawberries. I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into today – no clue how big this field was or how long we’d be staying. Since I only had minimal knowledge of the local language and none of the women spoke English, I had no way of asking we’d be going home.

Communal labour

Harvesting with Magajia (most senior women in the village) - it was an honour to join her!

As the sun started to hint at setting (meaning around 5 pm) suddenly everyone started packing up, we’d finished our work for the day! I checked out my days work – I had collected 4 buckets worth and was proud of it, despite the fact that one of my companions had outdone me while she tending to her 5 month old baby all day. I gathered my things and followed everyone as we set off. But instead of heading on the path home we veered left and came to a crowd of women and two men sitting on a heaping mound of groundnuts. The men were the land owners and were collecting their harvest. For our hard days work, we were paid 1/5 – 1/3 of the grounds we were able to collect. It was only fair since it was this man’s land and labour that had grown the ground nuts.

Payment for the labour: this women didn't get too many groundnuts so she gets to keep 1/3 of them. The pile in the background is the landowner's.

So after a solid 11 hours of steady work, I walked away with ¼ of a sack of groundnuts, worth about $7…well I now literally understand the phrase worth peanuts!”

I bet you were waiting for a nutty joke J But seriously, the experience I had in Chayili will help me frame my work over the next year. As I post this, I have just finished my second day of work at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA). And as I learn about how MoFA endeavours to help rural farmers, I ask questions for my friends in Chayili: What do MoFA’s messages about farming mean to them? Will MoFA’s approach to farmer education enable lasting positive change in the lives of my friends in Chayili?

Left to right: Pakaw, unknown women, Senatu (with groundnuts on her head) next to Magajia (women elder in village) and Magajia's groundnuts from her farm.