Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Two Myths of Africa

I was initially inspired to write this year’s theme for ‘Blog Action Day’ is poverty. I’m a day late in posting (Blog Action Day was October 15th). The purpose of the blog action day is to create a discussion. I thought it would be interesting to discuss the two big myths of Africa. Read on…

Check out the picture below, what words come to mind?

A journalist friend of mine from Ghana recently asked me why the media in Canada only talks of the bad things in Africa? My response: “Bad news sells.” But it’s unfortunate that it also paints an inaccurate picture. I hope this post puts a splash of colour over the black streak that “Africa” has been smothered with.

To start with, the photo above is of Suli. Myth #1: Africans are poor. This myth could easily be propagated by the photo of Suli – a starving child in Africa that for only $1/day can be saved. But Suli’s just a boy who lives near my house and comes to visit his grandmother. He doesn’t like to wear pants and has those large imploring eyes that melt your heart. Suli certainly has enough to eat, bathes twice a day and is surrounded by mothers, sisters and a grandmother who loves him dearly. He will attend school when he’s old enough as his elder siblings have.

Contrary to the first myth, I look around me in Ghana and see wealth. It’s a wealth that is not commonly talked about in Canada. It’s the wealth of entrepreneurial spirit exemplified when Suli drags around a toy truck he’s made from used tin cans. It’s the richness of social support that exists between my family and in communities.

Years of the media marketing Africans as poor has created this perception in our mind (and inevitably in many Africans minds as well!)

Tofik - he lives at my house and is too young to think that 'Africans are poor'. He's just interested in wearing some cool shades.

Aside from living in a very cozy house, I’ve been working in Ghana with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture on a program called “Agriculture as Business”. The name is often interpreted to mean that we’re getting farmers to take agriculture as a business. But what does this really mean? Farmers, by default are operating a business. There’s no way you can farm and use some of your harvest to buy things like soap, cloth or school fees. Farmers are interested in turning a profit just like any other business-man. I asked my host father what he wants to do with his profits, he said he first wants to afford to feed his family, then send his kids to school and ideally put some money into home renovations and maybe get a motorcycle to help him get to his farm. He may not keep business records the way a Western business-man would but he’s certainly adapt at managing his business in this highly uncertain environment.

So that leads us to Myth #2: Poor people aren’t rational. This myth isn’t spread as explicitly as the first. It’s spread by development organizations though as they communicate their work to donors and the public at large. The message spread, especially with agriculture is that a certain technology or idea is needed to be imparted to people so that they can improve their lives. I didn’t understand why farmers didn’t plant their rice in rows, MoFA had been telling me that row planting is ‘the right thing to do’. They said they have problems getting farmers to ‘do the right thing’. In June I spent a day doing planting rice in rows with a farmer that MoFA had asked to arrange to demonstrate this technology to other farmers. I got a speckle bit of appreciation for the ‘right thing to do’ when at the end of the day we had 1 acre of rice planted in rows with precisely 20 cm by 20 cm spacing. It had taken us over 6 hours and roughly 20 people.

'Dibbling' or making holes in which to put the rice seeds.

The Crew

So was it worth it? Honestly, I can’t find the numbers to tell you. But farmers certainly experiment with these types of activities on their own and given the information they have at hand, their ability to take risk, social pressure and countless other factors they settle on what makes the most sense based on this complex reality.

So, just because farmers don’t adopt the technologies that are promoted by organisations doesn’t mean that they aren’t rational. Poverty certainly affects people’s priorities, their decisions and ultimately is reflected in their behaviours.

"Traditionally, farmers have either been too poor or too afraid to take a chance on these new varieties, even though they can triple their yields," – Expert in agronomics in East Africa

I think that this statement, are still too general to really understand the determinants of decision making and so the myth is propagated.

Check out the table below that analyzes the returns from fertilizer use from an experiment conducted in Kenya. Using the fertilizer amount recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture can increase yields by 90%, however, rate at a loss of 40%. While using smaller amounts of fertilizer (Panel B ½ tsp.) is more optimal for profitability! Yield and profitability are only two factors although they are the most scientific.

I have tried to understand the other less tangible factors. I have tried to place myself in the shoes of a farmer, removing the biases that the farmer is poor and irrational has been helpful but I still don’t understand the entire spectrum of factors influencing farmer’s decisions on their farm. It seems that neither does MoFA or the countless donors that fund development projects that try to influence farmer’s behaviours in certain directions.

What our Agriculture as a Business Program is actually about, is getting MoFA field staff and farmers to discuss these factors. To start by analyzing the profitability of crops, of using fertilizer of whatever agriculture activity the farmers are engaged in. To look at market opportunities. To talk about the risks. And ultimately see if this increase in analysis and thoughtful planning can help farmers make more from their business.

Sitting with farmers

Today is World Food Day (October 16th). Some people are fasting to remember the millions who lack access to proper nutrition. Some are discussing the political and economic situation around food. Some are discussing the challenges of climate change and bioenergy. For me I choose to think about farmers and remind myself to respect their business that brings us all food.

Tarsi - The grandmother of my house and a farmer I greatly respect.