Common constraints to extension work

Time seems to fly by in Ghana.

It’s been more than a month since my last update – time I’ve spent travelling around different districts in the Northern Region.  I left Kpandai, went back to Tamale for a meeting with the rest of the team, then went up to Gushegu for a week before finally getting to Saboba yesterday.  I’ll be here for a week at least before heading down south to Kumasi and Cape Coast. 

My goal for these visits is to try and contrast some of the findings I saw in Kpandai with other districts – finding commonalities with approaches to extension work, what works well in different contexts, that sort of thing.  Beyond that, I’m hoping to gain better insights into how the Ministry of Food and Agriculture actually works, and what the reality is like for district level field staff – the front line workers who are tasked with working with smallholder farmers on a daily basis and on whose shoulders’ MoFA’s success ultimately lies.

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What I’ve been finding is a series of constraints common to all districts that seem to be keeping the extension agents from effectively doing their jobs.  These constraints are all well-understood and accepted by everyone at the district level and are apparently also well known at higher levels of MoFA, but not taken into account when new projects get rolled out, and are seemingly never addressed with an attempt to mitigate them. 

The three main issues that keep coming up wherever I am are lack of motorcycles for staff, lack of fuel allowances, and lack of adequate accommodation. 

MoFA has a motorcycle policy right now stating that AEAs are supposed to get a motorcycle every three years, which they pay back through a percentage deduction in their salary.  I’ve been meeting AEAs that have been with the Ministry for over 20 years that have yet to receive one, which is telling.  AEAs usually need to have their own personal motorcycle to use to do their work, or will rent/borrow one if they need to travel to distant villages, which happens frequently. 

Currently, MoFA staff are granted a fuel allowance to cover their extension work – a good practice to help them visit farmers more often and to monitor on-going projects.  The problem comes with the implementation of the allowance.  Historically, the fuel allowance was paid on a monthly basis, which has changed to a quarterly basis.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in itself, but the allowances are consistently late.  The fuel allowance for the fourth quarter of 2010 was only paid out in the first months of 2011, which forced AEAs to cut into their own salaries to do the work required of them.  There are other issues with the fuel allowance, namely that it was calculated when fuel costs were almost half of what they are now and that they don’t take actual travel distance into account – AEAs from metro areas that might have 5km round trips get the same allowance as someone from a rural district with a 20km round trip.  These costs can obviously add up over the months and years. 

The last constraint is tangentially related to the first two.  Agricultural extension agents are supposed to be living in their operational areas, closer to the farmers they to work with to be a presence in the area to highlight good farming practices.  This rarely happens, especially in the newer districts in the north, as they aren’t provided with accommodation in these areas.  This causes AEAs to live farther away, usually in the district capital area, which leads to less face time with farmers to develop relationships and promote new technologies.  Also, being farther away, AEAs need to travel greater distances and use more fuel to do their work.

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The MoFA staff I’ve been visiting have all been dedicated to their jobs – they’re passionate about working with farmers, hoping to improve food security and reduce poverty in the region by teaching farmers about new technologies and techniques to farming.  It’s unfortunate that they aren’t given all the opportunities that they’re supposed to be given in order to do this. 

I should say that these constraints are easy to identify, but much harder to solve.  No one person, or even a select group can be held responsible for these shortcomings.  There are funding issues, political issues and general bureaucratic issues that seemingly combine to create this perfect storm of ineffectiveness.  At the end of the day, however, it’s the smallholder farmers that are ultimately losing out on the work that MoFA can, and should be, doing.  

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Understanding Technology Adoption

Or – What I’m trying to do at the moment

It’s been a busy few weeks since my last post.  I went to Navrongo and Bolga in the Upper East Region of Ghana, first to shadow another volunteer on my team, Brian, then to go to the West African Retreat (or WAR) where all the EWBers from Ghana and Burkina Faso get together for a weekend of sharing, learning and bonding.  Lots of great times, but that isn’t really the focus of this post, so I’ll have to push it off until another time.

I wanted to write briefly about what I’m actually doing at the moment, since a lot of people have been asking of late.  Right now, I’m in Kpandai, which is a small town in the south-east part of the Northern Region.  I’ll be here for most of the month, visiting farmers and talking to Agricultural Extension Agents (AEAs), trying to better understand why certain agricultural technologies are not being adopted in the region.  These technologies seem fairly basic, such as using improved inputs (seeds, fertilizers) or techniques (row planting, irrigation) and were important in driving the Green Revolutions in both Asia and South America, but for some reason aren’t taking off to the extent they should be in Africa.

It’s a pretty complex problem that bright minds around the world have been studying for the last few decades.  Luckily, I’ve got two months, some sunscreen and a motorcycle, so I’m fairly confident I’ll have everything solved in short order.

Integrating into Ghanaian life

Integrating into Ghanaian life

 

From reviewing current research, it’s evident that there are a lot of different factors at play when it comes to farmers not adopting these technologies.  Many of them are external constraints (ie. lack of finances, lack of information, lack of appropriate technology) while there are also some social constraints that come into play (ie. lack of interest, lack of will, etc.).  At this point, I’m sceptical that the social constraints are the dominating ones, even though the majority of district staff that I’ve talked to seem to believe this to be the case.  Basically, I’m not sold on the idea that this all boils down to farmers being either too lazy or too stupid to want to better their own livelihoods.

Having said that, I’m not ruling out social factors as being important when it comes to farmers not adopting certain technologies.  Last week, during my first few days here in Kpandai, I went to visit two spot irrigation projects in villages that were about 50 km apart.  It’s the dry season right now in Ghana, and MoFA is trying to help farmers with vegetable farming to diversify their crops and income sources throughout the year.

Spot irrigation project - Nkanchina #2

Spot irrigation project - Nkanchina #2

 

Both project groups were provided with the same inputs (irrigation reservoirs, improved seeds, watering cans, etc.) and had similar plots of land and training from MoFA staff.  When I went to interview one of the groups, the majority of the discussion was centered around how difficult the farming was – how they needed to constantly water the plots and how they weren’t seeing the results they wanted.  It seemed like the majority of the farmers had actually given up on watering their plots.  They said they were interested in continuing the project next year, but wanted pumping machines and hoses to make the work easier.

When I went to talk to the second group, although there was some discussion about the difficulties surrounding the watering, most people weren’t concerned, saying that previously nothing was able to grow in the area and so even if the work was hard, it was still worth it to be able to grow things during the dry season.  They were seeing better results and were interested in expanding the program next year.  They were even talking about working together to farm larger plots in the years to come.

All other things being equal, the apparent success of one group over the other seemed to come down to social dynamics.  One group was willing to put in the time and effort required to realize the benefits of the project, while the other was not.  The district staff that I talked to after the fact all thought this to be the case, and I’ve been hard pressed to come up with another answer.

My instinct is telling me this case will be more of an exception than the rule, but it’s going to be an interesting few weeks seeing if this ends up being true.

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Village Stay

My village stay experience started on a regular Ghanaian Wednesday afternoon – it was hot and I was sweaty.

I left for Duuyin, a village about 15 km away from Tamale on the back of a moto.  Razak, an AEA from the Tamale metro office of MoFA drove me out there and introduced me to Nom-naa who was going to be my guide and teacher for the next week.  Nom-nah, as I learned, is very respected in both his and the surrounding communities.  His father was the previous chief of the village and he was a district assemblyman for twelve years.  He’s currently an opinion leader in Duuyin, meaning he, along with a few others, are sought out to solve social issues that might be happening or to dispense advice when needed.  Beyond that, Nom-naa’s a model farmer, taking care of fifteen acres of maize, four of rice, and three of yam every year, mainly to feed his family which consists of sixteen people.

Nom-naa teaching me about row planting

My main goals going into the village stay were to gain a better understanding of the realities faced by rural farmers in northern Ghana and to hopefully learn more about agriculture in general.  Unfortunately, since it’s currently the dry season, there wasn’t too much actual farming to be done.  Fortunately, Nom-naa is a pretty great teacher and was willing to entertain my basic questions for the week to make sure I learned as much as I could – even if I couldn’t put much into practice.

I won’t get into everything just yet.  A lot of what I learned will probably come up at later dates in other posts when I’m talking about specific subjects or agricultural practices, but I will touch on two items that resonated with me throughout my stay.

The first pertains to the sense of hospitality that I’ve noticed ever since arriving in Ghana, which was highlighted by Nom-naa when we were talking late into the evening one night – bare in mind late for this village was past 10pm which seems really late when there’s no electricity for lights anywhere.  He explained that to the Dagomba people, once you were a guest in someone’s house, you would never be turned away.  They would always have a place for you to stay and be ready to share their food with you.  As he explained it, even if you did something to lose their respect, they would still let you stay with them – they might just give you less food to eat.  I sensed this hospitaility throughout my stay in Duuyin.  Whenever we would walk around the village or meet new people, everyone would offer me something to eat.  As an aside, one of the first things I learned how to say in Dagbani when I was there was “I’m not hungry” since I knew if I ate the food it just meant someone else would be eating less or not eating at all – this strategy seemed to work well.  Whenever I’d meet them again they’d always stop and try to talk to me, even through the barriers in cross-cultural communication.  This sense of community and general welcoming takes a little getting used to coming from someone from North America where these  things are definitely not the norm.  Having said that, it’s easy to see how these traits help strengthen the overall community for the better.

The second thing I wanted to highlight relates to the plight of smallholder farmers in northern Ghana.  Again, during one of our many conversations, Nom-naa relayed some of his wisdom to me:

“In the north, small farmers will always farm.  In the sun we will farm.  In the rain, we will farm.  We do this to feed our families, so we will always farm.  Commercial farmers though, they farm for money.  Once they make money, that’s it.  They might not even visit their farms anymore, just have others do it for them.  So, between those that farm to feed our families and those that farm for money – who should MoFA be helping?”

Dry-season herb farming near the village

The answer should seem obvious if the goal of MoFA is to help lift smallholder farmers out of poverty.  Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this doesn’t seem to be the case.  Hopefully in the next few months and years, I’ll be able to gain a better understanding of why this is and help MoFA change to make sure that farmers like Nom-naa get the kind of support that they need and deserve.

To end on a lighter note: here’s a video of the kids in the village putting on an impromptu show in the middle of the day:

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