Monday, March 15, 2010

Supporting farmers to grow their vegetables!

It’s dry season, and although the rains this year are threatening to arrive the main excitement around agriculture is dry season vegetable farming.

A woman weeds her onion farm.

This weekend I met Mr. Salia, a hard-working vegetable farmer in the town called Buipe. Mr. Salia is one of those guys that after meeting I have to write about. He’s a young guy who was hired by the government to teach. He’s only employed part-time (government youth employment program) and so he supplements his income by farming. In the dry season, he sets himself up next to the Volta River and grows vegetables. He’s making a ton of money, enough to send himself to university and to support his new wife and young son.

Mr. Salia and I chat about his farm.

Growing vegetables to me is one of those businesses that I think everybody should get into! It’s good for you! Like eating your veges! But very few people have copied Mr. Salia and set up shop.


It requires a few things that can be tricky to access #1. the right type of start-up capital #2. a lot of technical knowledge #3. great market access. This post focuses on the first.

This year Mr. Salia is struggling. Cattle came and ate his entire crop. About $500 worth of investment. He’s out this money and wondering if he should continue.

The only evidence left behind...

He built a fence but it was not very effective because it was basically thorny bushes piled in a line. Not enough to stop hungry cattle in the dry season!

Make shift fence

It occurred to me that most development projects aren’t interested in providing support to help farmers put up fences. They most commonly provide water pumping machines. Mr. Salia was offered one but he turned it down. Figured it wasn’t worth the cost of fuel and maintenance. He’d rather have a fence. They weren’t offering fences.

I think the development sector has got it wrong when it’s supporting vegetable farmers. All I ever hear about is pumping machines. Nothing about fences.

Two years ago I worked with vegetable farmers along the Volta River in a place called Daboya. They were just starting out and the business was doing well. They had saved up enough money to buy a water pumping machine. They lacked the capital to buy the pipes so I provided them a small loan out of my own pocket ($200) for the pipes. The group was able to pay their first installment of the loan. But by the time the second installment came along a donor had given MoFA some free water pumping machines to distribute. The farmers I was working with in Daboya received 2 free water pumping machines! Two! Two too many! Since then the farmers have not paid back the other half of their loan and have been quite elusive.

Farmers setting up their pumping machine that they bough with their own money.

By the way, two years ago these farmers also had their crops eaten by cattle. They also lacked a fence. They were lucky enough to know the farmers who own the cattle and were reimbursed for their eaten vegetables.

Convinced yet?

Two weeks ago I visited a community in Binaba. Their fence was impressive! It is 4 feet tall. Hand build. From mud. These farmers are doing well. And no pumping machines required.

Impressive wall. Impressive Onion farm.

Mr. Salia doesn’t have time to build a wall like this.

Why does the development sector insist on pumping machines into the agriculture sector instead of building walls?

I’m not really sure. It could be because machines are perceived as more modern and therefore more desired by development works and farmers alike.

Maybe this doesn’t matter. What matters more is that the development sector listens to Mr. Salia and provides him what he needs.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Twins and Frisbee

There is a set of twins living at my house. Namawu and Ayisha. They are fraternal twins. Both are sweet, well behaved girls. They are also quite stunning but good thing they don’t know it!

Namawu (left) and Ayisha (right)

Every time I arrive home Namawu and Ayisha run up to me and grab by bags. They always greet me in the morning very politely. Their mother taught them well.

Last weekend I invited them to play ultimate Frisbee with a bunch of my foreigner friends in Tamale. They were both excited by this.

They were initially very shy and we’re really very aggressive. Not surprising since they were surrounded by a group of adult strangers. By the end of the game Namawu got the hang of it and made some great interceptions! Ayisha’s catching and throwing improved immensely.

What a treat it was for them!

They’ll likely join us again this week.

Honing our Frisbee skills

Back in Ghana and loving it

So I’m back in Ghana. Perhaps because I’m only here for the next 6 months, I am making more out of life here this time. Every day I look around me and no longer take for granted the beauty that surrounds me.

Beauty comes unexpectedly as some cattle stop to nibble on the bougainvillea.

A local cafĂ©. Modestly named ‘Try to respect’

Last Sunday I visited a friend, Florence. I met her through a previous EWB volunteer who worked at the agriculture college last fall. Flo is the top student at the agriculture college. She works her butt off to get amazing grades. She’s up at 3 am to study and normally goes to sleep around 11 pm. I don’t know how she functions on so little sleep!

I biked to visit Flo at the agriculture college, on the way I stopped to appreciate the beautiful sights.

Perfect mounds of dirt ready to be planted with yams once the rains begin.

A tree carries fruit that look similar to Christmas balls. The tree bears a seed called dawa-dawa that is a common cooking spice.

A man struggles up a hill with a ridiculous amount of sticks on his bicycle.

EWB has been working at the agriculture college for the past 8 months to help them develop an entrepreneurship curriculum. Currently, only about 10% of graduates from agriculture colleges find work with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. It’s estimated about 40% of grads find work with non-government organisations or with private companies such as input suppliers and private veterinary clinics. It’s a shame that 50% of these youth don’t end up using their talents.

Last week, a guy named Evan came to my office and dropped off his resume. He graduated from the agriculture college in 1993 and has been looking for work since! Since then he’s been selling cheap imported Chinese goods. That’s how I met him. He came to my office and gave me a pitch on the ‘best smelling cologne I’ve ever seen’. He also had a ton of other random goods – shoe shiner, condoms, flashlights…Is Evan better off than his friends whose parents couldn’t afford to send him to school?

So back to Flo another lucky college student. After graduation, Flo has plans to open up a dog grooming business. That’s quite a different ambition from her peers who mostly aim to be the lucky ones who will attain employment with MoFA. It’s likely they’ll end up like Evan struggling to make a living from a job they are overqualified for.

Flo wants to open a dog grooming business because she’s not going to take employment for granted. Flo figures dog grooming is the most profitable venture she can find in Ghana. A shame her talents won’t go to supporting the cattle sector in Northern Ghana, or the fowl industry in the South. Both industries have a ton of potential but are not growing due to a ton of challenges – imports bring down the prices, poor access to medicines make production inefficient, the people who raise cattle are among the most marginalized, underdeveloped cold storage facilities…

Hopefully, the work that EWB is doing at the agriculture college will help Flo and her peers find employment in the agriculture sector that will not only provide them with viable income but also stimulate the sector to grow and provide money to farmers pockets so they too can afford to send their kids to college.

Last fall, Flo applied to gain practical experience abroad. She was awarded this opportunity and will travel to Denmark for one month this summer. The EWB volunteer who worked with Flo, Carissa got her friends to raise money to buy Flo a camera. When I gave Flo the camera she just about died. She collapsed to the floor with shock! All over a small Canon point and shoot. Flo told me that she wanted to buy a camera and saved up her money. She had her eye on a $250 Panasonic camera. By the time she went to buy the camera they were all sold out and the cheapest camera she could find was for $400. Flo interpreted this situation as God’s doing. It would have been unnecessary for her to have 2 cameras.

Flo collapses to the ground in true dramatic style – in her free time she acts.

Flo reading the card with the words of encouragement and congratulations from Carissa’s friends.

I know Flo will make the most of her opportunity in Denmark. She takes nothing for granted as she has had to work for everything she’s earned. Much more than I. And after she returns, I hope that Flo will have opportunities to apply her skills in the agriculture sector to help it develop. Thanks Flo for being an inspiration!