I spent the morning yesterday harvesting rice with some farmers in Kpandai.
As I was cutting rice stalks with a kitchen knife in one hand and collecting bundles in the other, I was interested in learning how the farmers I was with had chosen to use the agricultural practices they were using and what they thought of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) and their programs in general. I was hoping they’d have some great things to say to cap off my last few weeks in the district, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case.
The farmers I was with had planted a local variety of rice seed on their fields. This was interesting to me, as I knew these farmers had access to improved varieties of seeds through MoFA’s Block Farm Program, which had the potential to give them much higher yields. The Block Farm Program aims to increase agricultural production across Ghana by providing farmers with improved inputs (seeds,fertilizer, even tractor services) which the farmers then pay back in-kind after harvest. I knew these farmers were enrolled in the program, but they consciously decided to only take advantage of the fertilizer being provided through it, choosing to skip out on the tractor services, seeds, weedicides and the rest.
When asked about this decision, the farmers explained they came to it due to how poorly the project went in the past. Last year, when the Block Farm Program was first run in the district, farmers were put into groups and given all of the required inputs to farm. Due to a confluence of various factors, many of these groups had poor harvests and didn’t achieve yields high enough to pay MoFA back for the inputs they received. Despite this, the farmers were still required to pay back the government, often out of their own pockets.
At this point, it would be easy to criticize the government of Ghana for forcing farmers to pay back these funds, but it must be remembered that the program was always designed with an in-kind payback mechanism, which was supposed to be explained to the farmers beforehand. It’s just not feasible to write-off large scale losses without future programs suffering. While there definitely are valid criticisms of this project that can be made, including those related to its implementation, a greater and often underappreciated aspect of this type of situation is the effect it can have on future interactions between MoFA and farmers, as demonstrated quite well by those I was harvesting rice with.
Ultimately, MoFA is a service provider. They provide agricultural education services and linkages to inputs (through projects) to farmers in their respective districts in Ghana. Like any other service provider in any other industry, recruitment and retention of customers is key to long term success. Although not driven by a pursuit of profit, MoFA’s bottom line, which I’d argue is broadly related to greater social impacts, can be achieved using typical business thinking from the service industry, namely through customer satisfaction leading to customer loyalty.
Both satisfaction and loyalty are built by first forming relationships with customers. Numerous studies from the business world have looked at these types of relationships, breaking them down into the different types of trust customers need to have with service providers, and the effects of these levels of trust on potential future interactions between the parties.
This is a great example here (Johnson and Grayson, 2005). In it, the authors discuss two separate, but equally important types of trust required in a relationship between customers and providers. Cognitive trust, also called ‘reliableness’ or ‘predictability’ relates to the level of confidence a customer has in the service providers’ competence – more of a knowledge-based trust. Affective trust is the confidence the customer has in the provider based on the level of care and concern being demonstrated – more of an emotionally-based trust. Both types of trust are required for different reasons in this type of relationship and are the result of different factors. For example, cognitive trust can be built through service provider expertise and product performance, while affective trust can be built by the perceived reputation of the provider and the similarity between the customer and provider. Importantly, both types of trust are needed to ensure the ultimate goal of successful future interactions.
So what does all this business-speak actually mean for MoFA and their relationships with farmers in Ghana?
It should be evident how important trust relationships are between extension staff and farmers. What’s also evident is how systemic challenges continue to undermine these relationships.
Taking the Block Farm example from above: some inputs were provided late and extension staff were stretched thin, meaning they had less time to counsel farmers. Both of these damaged the cognitive trust levels MoFA had with their customers. When MoFA went to collect payment from farmers who were part of the program but suffered from poor yields, their affective trust levels were negatively effected. These are two very small examples that can, and have, lead to poor future interactions between MoFA and farmers as can currently be seen with some farmers not interested in taking part in the Block Farm program this year.
As MoFA continues to be the implementer of choice for outside projects, I’m concerned these problems will just be exacerbated. If projects continue to be implemented poorly, MoFA will be seen as unreliable, unserious, and uncaring. The relationships that MoFA has developed with farmers over the years will be destroyed, and farmers will not be interested in taking part in MoFA’s services, an outcome which would be seriously detrimental to the agricultural sector in Ghana at large.
Solutions to this problem are difficult to imagine. Ghana’s governmental agencies are currently undergoing a decentralization process, which should theoretically give MoFA offices more autonomy in project/program selection and implementation. Ideally, this would lead to better tailored and contextually appropriate projects for each district, potentially increasing the reliability and perceived expertise of the delivered service. This, however, is a very slow process with too many unknowns to be relied on as a cure-all.
More immediately, MoFA staff need to remember how important investing in these trust relationships with their farmers actually is. They need to be open and honest with farmers when approaching them with a new project, fully explaining the potential risks and benefits in understandable terms. Farmers too, need to treat these relationships as important ones, prioritizing educational meetings and asking for help when they need it, as opposed to after the fact.
The longer I work here in agricultural development, the more I realize how little the problems I encounter actually have to do with the science and technologies involved. It’s seemingly more about the marketing, sales and customer service around them that truly matter.
Maybe someone should start a Salesmen Without Borders?