Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Independence Day

What is a nation? Is it just a national government, a flag, a uniting song, a beverage of choice? A way to measure economic progress for a set of people?

On March 6th Ghana celebrated it’s 51st year of independence. To honor the inaugural day there was a big festival in the town park. Children from schools all over the district marched around the park as part of an annual tradition. They marched past traditional and government authorities, signifying the independent nature of both authorities in Ghana.

These kids are holding the colours of Ghana - red, yellow, green and black.

On March 6th, 2008 I saw that Ghanaians are very proud of their country. My Ghanaian sister, Faiza marched proudly past my camera. Every day for the past month she had been practicing her march. I later became disillusioned when I learned that each school’s marching was judged – she was marching more to win than as an act of patriotism.

Faiza is second from the right in the back row.

I’ve been reading a book called ‘The State of Africa’, it’s a fascinating look at the history of Africa from just before independence to date. The book talks of the excitement shared on March 6th, 1957 as people had received the prize of a free country. Ghanaians were ecstatic to be rid of foreign rulers. Nationalism had spread through the country like wild-fire inspired by charismatic party leaders like Kwame Nkruma – convicted of treason and freed of charges days before he would become Ghana’s first president.

However, as I read on through history I read about foreigners continuing to meddle in Africa with our own agenda. Countries are supported to prevent them from going to the ‘dark side’ of communism. Aid is given to countries with severe contingencies – workers must come from the aiding country, specific roads must be built which will give foreign investors better access to Ghana’s gold. Is development just neo-colonialism? Am I a part of this system where helping others is tied up with your own agenda?

Rice is a classic example. Countries like the US subsidize their rice farmers – in 2003 rice was exported at a price 26% below cost of production. This results in a surplus of rice which is either given as food aid to developing countries in times of need or dumped on these countries in times of surplus production. Imported rice in Ghana has become preferred – it’s whiter, cleaner from stones, well packaged and marketed to children. The price is the same as the high-quality Ghanaian rice. Although it’s not as nutritious consumer tastes have unknowingly shifted towards a dependence on it over the years.

A market display of rice - some local and some imported (the packaged stuff is imported).

As the US aims to help Ghana through laudable aid programs, these programs are suspiciously void of assistance for rice farmers.

The Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) is working towards food independence for Ghana and for Ghanaian households.

The program I am working on with the MoFA aims to influence consumers towards a preference for local rice. Ghanaian rice has more protein. Perhaps I will play to Ghanaians people’s sense of patriotism. But I know I will be more successful at convincing people to eat Ghana rice through pitching the nutritional benefits. Physical strength is a strong value in Ghana and mothers want their children to grow up strong and healthy.

I'm excited about promoting Ghana rice because it could get more money into farmer's pockets.

In this global world, sometimes things that are foreign are perceived as more modern and more desirable. People prefer to roof their homes with zinc roofing sheets instead of thatch from local grasses – zinc is costly, thatch is free, zinc doesn’t leak and is a one-time installation, thatch better regulates the inside temperature but a new roof needs to be made every year. The decisions people make often come down to what their more prestigious neighbour is doing. This rice campaign aims to get the prestigious neighbours buying and cooking Ghana rice. Hopefully this will nudge Ghana towards MoFA’s aspiring national goal of food independence.

Posing in front of the newly constructed football stadium in Tamale.

Aid - No longer a moral obligation but an investment

For the past five days I have been working in a remote area called Lingbinsi. I chose this area partly due to the remoteness, I felt a moral obligation to help those who most commonly miss out on development projects and are last to receive government services. To get to Lingbinsi here during the dry season is not too difficult. A 2 hour road trip followed by a 10 minute boat trip to cross the White Volta River and another 15 minute road trip. During the rainy season the trip can become lengthy to impossible as the river swells and inevitably overflows. Muddy paths and water-covered roads cut off Lingbinsi people from essential services such as health care and schools as well as businesses.

For farmers, this is a big deal. Although the land is fertile in Lingbinsi and the river offers income from fish, it’s bitter-sweet as farming produce is often sold for rock-bottom prices. Businesses are basically non-existent in the area forcing farmers to make the trek themselves when they need fertilizer or want to sell their surplus grains. I don’t know how a typical break-down of expenses goes for Canadian farmers, but just to transport one bag of maize eats up 17% of the income (excluding passenger fare).

Lingbinsi people are isolated but things are improving. Just today a cell phone company commissioned their communication tower. Now people can use cell phones. I know this will be a beneficial tool for farmers. Instead of guessing when to go to the market to sell, they can monitor prices and confirm that the buyer will be able to pay them before making the trip.

Pig farmers are abundant in Lingbinsi but selling pigs outside of Lingbinsi is a problem.

But how will they charge their phones? The place still doesn’t have electricity. Like most villages where mobile reception comes before electricity, people will have to depend on the generosity of friends who live in places with electricity. These sort of social connections are so important in Ghana – Ghanaians both believe and act as though no one person is an island. Reciprocity is still confusing to my Western mind that thinks of every transaction as a calculated sum of cost-benefits.

For the past five days I have been traveling around Lingbinsi on the back of a motorbike. I’m working with a MoFA field staff – Iddi Braimah and currently taking more than giving. Iddi is a soft-spoken, hard-working, and intelligent man. When I first arrived I asked him how we could help farmers make more money. He responded: ‘let’s not give any loans, instead let’s invest in these farmers’. His response surprised me. Providing loans are the bulk of what MoFA does and so I expected him to put his hand out for more. But investing in farmers! I like the paradigm shift, it’s less patronizing than providing a morally obligated hand-out and recognizes the nature of our work – calculated yet with uncertain results.

Iddi demonstrates proper land preparation for maximum water retention of vegetables.

We’ve started investing in some cashew farmers. Cashew is a cash crop and is riddled with challenges preventing farmers from early more income. Last year nuts were not purchased from these cashew farmers. Reasons listed include low levels of production and low quality of nuts. Because of this farmers have a poor attitude to a commodity that could be a significant ladder out of poverty. Farmer’s didn’t weed around the trees and so the bush fires that plague the lands during the dry season killed numerous trees – down goes production this year. Farmer’s are unwilling to make investments in their crop – pesticides are not purchased, nuts are not collected from the trees but let to dry as they fall – down goes quality.

Cashew - isn't it a crazy looking fruit and nut?!?

Farmer’s are currently unwilling to invest in cashew and prefer to invest in crops like maize which they can both eat and easily sell. Farmers want assurance of links to the market for their cashew crop. Iddi and I have decided to help these farmers to invest in cashew. We’re doing a small study of the cashew industry to both provide market information to farmers and try to encourage buyers of the profit potential in Lingbinsi. I myself am not sure how profitable our investment will be, given farmer’s poor attitude towards the crop and the uneconomic location of Lingbinsi. However, I know Northern Ghana has a comparative advantage of cashew nuts over the rest of West Africa, and I know farmers in the North would love to have what southern farmers have – a commodity like ‘cocoa’ to provide them cash.

Soloman, a cashew farmer shows us his harvest.

I think it’s healthy to recognize that the nature of this work as investments carry a level of uncertainty. I am fortunate that both Iddi and my job descriptions allow for this flexibility in work and ambiguity in results. We’re investing in these farmers – not because it’s our job but because we have faith in the results of our investment and of reciprocity.

The landscape in Ghana is littered with half-started investments - houses are the most visible but many development projects follow this path of big dreams and insufficient investment during implementation.