Farmers Defy Global Volatility

Agri­cul­ture accounts for around one fifth of Ghana’s gross national product. In addi­tion to export successes like raw cocoa and palm oil, there is further poten­tial, although some struc­tural deficits still need to be over­come.

Charles Humbey comes slowly chug­ging across the small canal bridge on his moped, made by Chinese manu­fac­turer Jingcheng. The rice farmer from the village of Asut­suar, not far to the west of the mighty river Volta in Ghana, greets us with a smile. He rides his motorised two-wheeler along an unpaved road to his fields in the middle of a green plain where rice grows on over 3,000ha. The entire area is serviced by a clev­erly devised irri­ga­tion system which is strictly moni­tored by the public author­i­ties: This guar­an­tees two good harvests per year.

Wide plain on the banks of the Volta: Rice farmer Charles Humbey in front of his fields.

Ducts and ditches divide the cultivation area into many small plots, which are inten­sively culti­vated by around 2,700 small farmers and many thou­sands of workers. The fertile allu­vial land belongs to the Ghanaian state, with whom the farmers sign five-year lease agree­ments. The current rental price is esti­mated at seven sacks of rice (90kg) – i.e. 630kg/ha per year. The 59-year-old culti­vates 1.5ha of rice and, as group manager, is respon­sible for a further 130ha farmed by 285 rice producers. The first harvest begins in mid-February, the second in September and October.

The rice is dried locally in the open air to a mois­ture content of around 14% and, at a current price of 530 cedi (around £31.60), either ends up on the domestic market or is largely exported to Nigeria. “We rice farmers have nothing to complain about, we’ve been making a good living for many years,” says a satis­fied Charles, standing in the rice field with his employee Peter. This is despite the fact that Ghana, which had been thriving for many years, has been econom­i­cally weak­ened since the start of the coro­n­avirus pandemic.

In many places in Ghana, there is inten­sive fish farming (often run by Chinese compa­nies) due to the large supply of water.

Invest­ments from China

It’s easy to see just how quickly Ghanaian farming, which has a lot to offer thanks to its natural advan­tages (good soil, warmth and plenty of water) has devel­oped. Until the 1980s, sugar cane was still grown where Charles and his colleagues culti­vate rice today, but then the Polish investors at the time with­drew and the sugar factory fell into disre­pair. Suddenly a new approach was needed. For example, the French company Golden Exotics invested in the devel­op­ment of a banana plan­ta­tion, while the Ghana­ians in the neigh­bour­hood switched to rice. China’s Fujian Fishing Farm has also been investing in the region for several years. The fish farming company has installed large breeding tanks on the banks of the Volta, in which large quan­ti­ties of tilapia fish are reared. The farm is located south of the large Akosomba dam and hydro­elec­tric power station; a pres­ti­gious project of Ghana, which became inde­pen­dent in 1957.

In general, the Chinese play a domi­nant role as investors in the West African country. They are not only investing in aqua­cul­ture, but also in bridge and road construc­tion, many energy and mining projects, and are also involved in the construc­tion of a new fishing port in the capital Accra. “China Aid For a Shared Future” is promis­ingly displayed at the entrance to this large construc­tion site. A little further away, just a few hundred metres to the west, directly on a sandy beach of the Atlantic Ocean, Nil Kpopo’s buffaloes are herded into pens. They are on land that does not belong to anyone as the cattle farmer Nil puts it with a grin.

The cattle breeders without their own land keep their zebus directly on the sandy beach on the Atlantic.

The cows are not milked but give their milk to their calves. Nil feeds his cattle with cassava shells and fruit and vegetable scraps from local markets. “And if plastic gets lost in the feed, my cattle eat that too,” says Kpopo with a slightly deadpan grin. The Ghanaian man is also very scep­tical about the new fishing port being built in the neigh­bour­hood: “The Chinese act very friendly, but in the end, they steal the fish from right under our noses.”

From fattening chickens to laying hens

Regard­less of the activ­i­ties on the Atlantic shore, invest­ments in Ghanaian agri­cul­ture are not without risk in times of highly volatile markets and prices. Farmer Shaiku Yakubu has also expe­ri­enced this first-hand. Shaiku invested in the construc­tion of four chicken farms with 170,000 broilers in the village of Ampekrom in the Eastern Region in 2017, after returning from an eight-year stint in North Carolina and Mass­a­chu­setts. “It went well,” recalls the 37-year-old self-made man during a tour of his busi­ness. In 2018, feed prices were 90 cedis (around £5.40) for 150kg of chicken feed. But even before coro­n­avirus, prices had already risen quite a bit, and they skyrock­eted after the outbreak of the pandemic, by up to 10 times as much. “From then on, it was impos­sible for me to make a profit from raising chickens. I had to give up.”

A lot of manual labour: While farmer Shaiku Yakubu feeds his laying hens, …

… an employee at a rice mill in the South of the country shifts the grain with her feet.

Since then, Shaiku has kept 2,000 laying hens in the former broiler houses, which lay around 900 eggs a day. Selling them helps him to make ends meet. He has also purchased around 80 cattle in recent months to further diver­sify his busi­ness. However, in addi­tion to the major problem of falling ground­water levels, live­stock farming is still in strong compe­ti­tion with the cultivation of grain, cocoa, rubber and oil palms in many parts of Ghana.
In some regions, for example, there are hardly any live­stock at all. That means inten­sive plan­ta­tion farming suffers, because the soils receive too little manure or organic matter. For example, the inter­na­tional commodity cocoa is currently expe­ri­encing unex­pected price spikes because the harvests in neigh­bouring Ivory Coast; the world’s number one cocoa producer, and in Ghana; the world’s number two, have been weak­ening in recent years.

There are many reasons for this: Changing climate, high pest pres­sure from fungi, viruses and insects, deficits in natural polli­na­tion and soils becoming acidic and saline as humus levels fall. The state cocoa board deals with all of these issues and sets guar­an­teed prices for raw cocoa for each new harvest season. Divided into many working areas, the state organ­i­sa­tion main­tains branches spread across the country, compa­rable to local cham­bers of agri­cul­ture. One of these is the Pankese Cocoa Station in Pankese, where a large plan­ta­tion is used to deal with ques­tions around seed produc­tion and plant protec­tion.

Live­stock farming in the Cocoa Belt

Mean­while, Shaiku, in the middle of the Ghanaian cocoa belt, is looking for suit­able areas for his live­stock farming, which he can fence off and let his cattle graze. That is not an easy under­taking.

There is also a lack of agri­cul­tural machinery – trac­tors and hay balers. In fact, the mech­a­ni­sa­tion of Ghana’s diverse and region­ally very differ­ently struc­tured agri­cul­ture is not yet partic­u­larly advanced. This is reflected in the number of John Deere trac­tors sold in Ghana each year. “We are currently working with around 70 trac­tors per year,” reveals Aline Badre, head of John Deere Ghana at the Accra site. A large propor­tion of these go to the northern savannah-like regions, where soya and maize are culti­vated on a large scale.

A lack of educa­tion and finan­cial resources on the often very small farms are reasons why banks often do not consider invest­ments in agri­cul­tural machinery to be cred­it­worthy. In short: Many farmers are simply not bank­able.

Small­holder farmers harvest palm oil fruits on a farm near Nkawkaw. The palm oil kernels are deliv­ered directly to oil mills for further processing into cooking oil.

Cocoa harvest by farmer Justice Bediako near Suhum: Freshly harvested cocoa fruits are opened with machetes, after­wards the cocoa beans are fermented together with the sweet pulp – covered under banana leaves.

Fairafric in Amanese processes Ghanaian cocoa beans into high-quality choco­late completing the value chain directly in the cocoa country of Ghana.

However, what is possible in Ghanaian agri­cul­ture can be seen in Suhum, located between the city of Kumasi and Accra. There, the Glover company, initi­ated by Yayrator Glover, is setting up a farm organ­i­sa­tion in which around 5,000 cocoa producers have so far partic­i­pated. “We are buying around 5,000t of cocoa beans from our producers this year,” reveals managing director George Saviour Dotse. Glover sees itself as having a social and ecolog­ical respon­si­bility towards the orig­inal producers. “Our suppliers receive free health insur­ance,” empha­sises George, who is pleased that his farming fami­lies are bene­fiting from the current raw mate­rial price increases.

Conver­sion to organic cultivation

One such family are Justice and Vida Bediako, who converted their almost six hectares to organic farming three years ago. “It was a tough time,” Justice openly admits, “but we were finan­cially secure thanks to Glover.” Every 14 days, the family goes to their plan­ta­tion and harvests the ripe fruit, or ‘pods’, cutting them off the branch with a machete. When all the ripe pods have been harvested, they are carried to a pile.

While Vida, mother of five, spreads out banana leaves, Justice opens the pods and tosses the beans, wrapped in a whitish-sweet (deli­cious) fruit purée, onto the banana leaves. Once all the fruit has been opened and laid out, Vida covers them with more banana leaves. A fermen­ta­tion process begins within this seal, which is completed after seven days, after which the cocoa beans are dried. The cocoa pods remain on the plan­ta­tion, just as the manure from eleven pigs and a flock of poultry, as well as cassava husks, are spread under the cocoa trees.

We are fighting to make cocoa produc­tion in Ghana green.

 Yayrator Glover

“We are fighting to make cocoa produc­tion in Ghana green,” is the message from company founder Yayrator. A small propor­tion of the raw cocoa purchased and processed by Glover is supplied to the neigh­bouring German-Ghanaian choco­late factory, Fairafric. This firm’s guiding prin­ciple is to keep the added value of the ‘black gold’ in Ghana. This is very much in the spirit of Yayrator, who is by no means only concerned with cocoa cultivation. The entre­pre­neur has the entire rural area in mind.

After a tour of the sorting facil­i­ties, where there is a strong smell of cocoa beans, he provides an insight into another wing of the building, where his latest invest­ment is nearing comple­tion. It is a super-modern, spot­lessly clean produc­tion line for roasted peanuts, equipped with the most inno­v­a­tive machines the global food tech­nology market has to offer. But that’s not all. Behind Glover’s company premises, he has created a large tree garden in which all known and often endan­gered tree species throughout Ghana have been planted.

“In 15 years, this will be a paradise,” he states, walking past a depres­sion where he wants to create a lake with a small hydropower plant to generate renew­able elec­tricity for the farm and surrounding villages in the future. There is no doubt that the man has a vision. And this is good in these extremely uncer­tain times: Good for Suhum, for the region, and for Ghanaian agri­cul­ture as a whole.