Salvaging Agric’s dwindling fortunes

A self sufficient nation as often described, is the one which cultivates and produces what her nationals live on. This thrives on the practice of growing what a people eat and canning what they cannot. In such an arrangement sufficiency is assured and waste of any form is kept in check.

The underlining principle of this popular cliché is what defines agriculture in general. The principle is about cultivating a piece of land, rearing animals and processing the yields into forms for man’s use either in a large or small scale undertaking.

The nation’s agricultural sector has still not received the needed boost to become the unmistakable backbone of the economy and a sub-regional break basket, with the capacity to employ a sizeable chunk of the labour force.

A 2010 report by the Ministry of Youth and Sports observed that the sector was the highest contributor to Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provided employment for a majority – 80% – of Ghana’s population. Ironically, this same ministry has failed to give the youth a reason to take to agriculture as an occupation. Instead, graduates are railroaded into farming in the name of national service only for them to abandon the farms when the service period is over. The reasons are not far-fetched. The greed of the ruling class that belies that bare-faced exploitation of the ordinary man who toils daily to cultivate crops and raise farm animals is a contributory factor.

The absence of adequate storage facilities to check the needless destruction of yields after scarcely educated farmers breast the weather to cultivate all year round is also another write-off for the youth. They have taken the position that idleness is better than toiling in vain in these circumstances. Until this despicable malaise is nipped in the bud the cold feet developed by the youth towards agriculture will become an abiding reality.

Today, a good number of university-educated agric graduates and experts are wasting away at the cashier counters of banks, call centres of the telecoms, front desks of hotels and customer service desks of insurance companies while the sector for which they were trained continues to suffer neglect from the educated whose invaluable input could have spurred the rural folks on to step up their production backed by affordable technology. The experts to drive the technology to put the sector have abandoned the field don’t feel attracted by the agric sector once they graduate. A friend with a first class qualification in Agric from KNUST is a cashier at one bank and her reason is that, she opted for Agric because she was denied her preferred programme of study, and she didn’t want to stay home for another year so she opted for Agric just to get a degree to work with. Bizarre as this may sound, it remains the raison d’etre for the absence of skilled manpower to transform the sector and give it a 21st century outlook.

The noise about mechanization does not seem to be yielding results because the implements so needed by farmers to step up this drive is beyond the means of most farmers who are actually at the forefront of producing what Ghana needs. The mass spraying exercise which took place some years ago became nothing short of a political tool aimed more at increasing the voter numbers for the ruling class than really assisting poor farmers to deal with cultivation challenges.

The sector, according to the European Union (EU) is an essential industry for many nations. In Europe, the share of Agriculture in total gross domestic product is less than 4%, but almost 50% of the worldwide agriculture trade is conducted by these developed worlds. Though these nations appear to have low dependence on agriculture, they encourage large investment in the area especially by way of heavy subsidy in agricultural products.

The African situation is a sad reverse of what pertains in these developed European nations. An International Labor Organization (ILO) report of 2010 indicated that, the world’s share of Agriculture’s contribution to employment was 35%, whereas the figure in the African situation was pegged at 86.8% but it still remained largely unattractive to the educated in Africa.

The Ghanaian economy, until recent times, was largely agrarian. There were few commercial farms, but majority of the farming activities that took place were small family-owned farms with little or no mechanization and they still held their own in the face of compelling challenges

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Ghana’s main agricultural commodities include cocoa, cassava, yam, banana and maize, as well as other cereals and fruits. Oil palm, cotton and coconut are also important cash crops. Production of food crops by smallholders has increased in recent years, but is still characterized by low productivity, owing to the resort of crude farming implements and the terrible social infrastructure in the farming areas, among others.

 

This has made Ghana a net importer of agricultural products – mainly consumer-ready commodities such as rice, wheat, sugar and poultry.

 

Prevailing trend

Sadly, the picture today does not like as good as some of the positive observations already touched on. The survival of the ordinary Ghanaian is in the hands of very few scarcely educated farmers while their rich, smart, educated counterparts line up as middlemen to rip them off – after harvest – and confine them to perpetual poverty.

The year 2015 was not a particularly good one for the sector. The sector recorded a 19% GDP as its contribution to the national economy. The figure as described by the stakeholder community is the lowest in the past eight years.

This is seen as an unfortunate downturn in events as compared to the sector’s average performance of about 39%  in terms of contribution to GDP between 2000 and 2008 – making it the highest GDP contributing sector during that period.

Although Ghana’s Agric sector has the potential of employing more than half of the nation’s workforce, it remains a largely neglected one with the scarcely educated serving as its core dramatis personae. The growth rate of crops hit a negative mark (-1.7%) in the year 2015.

In 2014 alone, 1.5 billion USD was spent on importing basic food items including tropical crops such as rice and palm oil; whereas only nearly 600 million USD served a similar purpose in 2008. In 2013, 374 million USD was spent on rice import alone.

A disturbing reality is the annual ritual called the national farmers’ day celebrations when self-sufficient farmers are festooned and awarded with things they can afford without feeling a loss in their pockets while the poor farmer – who actually does all the work – remains unsung. It has become another business as usual which makes farmer a beauty to behold for the rich without incentivizing the struggling mass to do better.

The way forward

The way forward is to craft a progress-oriented path in putting the sector back on a preferred route. The big picture actually is in identifying the real challenges faced by the sector and coming out with tailor-measured solutions to confront the challenges have plagued the sector into its latest ignominious showing.

The challenge here for discussion is not about faulting the central government alone for the marked decline as observed, but in reality, there are a lot of unattended problems from all quarters that have further aggravated the plummeting national situation.

 

Climate change

It defines a change in the weather patterns which can lead to a difficulty in actually determining the appropriate season for the cultivation of certain seasonal but vital crops.  The change in weather pattern in our part of the world is a big issue because; the nation’s metrological department is under-resourced hence its inability to provide near-accurate weather forecasts to help in making planting decisions.

Since most of our farming activities are rain-fed, poor judgment by the largely illiterate farming community has often resulted in very low yields, leading to losses. Irrigation is the way to go but not many farmers can afford the cost implications.

Urbanization

Rural-urban migration has led to most able-men and women moving especially from rural Ghana to the urban areas in search of non-existent white collar jobs.

Statistical record on rural-urban drift shows a periodic increase in the number of people leaving rural Ghana for the urban centres. The number of resident rural folks declined from 50.9% to 46.8% between 2007 and 2013. This may not have only led to the loss of active farm labour, but it has increased the dependence ratio on agric products without a corresponding rise in farm labour.

 

Consequentially, agricultural imports have increased exponentially over the past decade, primarily due to the inability of the agricultural and agro-processing sectors to meet the demands of the emerging and very dynamic urban markets, a May 2015 report by the African Center for Economic Transformation noted.

 

Farming system and skill level of farmers

A report on ‘Promoting Sustainable Rural Transformation’, by the ACET/Gates Foundation has advocated a shift towards farm mechanization. The population of Ghana has seen impressive increase over the decades. To this end, it is only wise that the growth of human population is in sync with the level of food production. The need to mechanize farming processes cannot be overemphasized

This is one of the numerous ways to halt the increasing importation of basic foods items into the country which has created an overriding appetite for everything foreign among the populace.

The May 2015 edition of the Country fact sheet on Ghana on food and agriculture policy trends of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stressed the need for mechanization on the premise of expanding the frontiers of the sector.

The report highlighted the move by government to fast-track the sector’s mechanization needs through the introduction of Agriculture Mechanization Services Enterprises Centers (AMSECs) program in 2007 as a credit facility to assist qualified private sector companies in purchasing agricultural machinery at a subsidized price, The report was however quick to add that,  its analysis of the viability of the program revealed that it did not  represent a viable business model attractive to private investors, even with the current level of subsidy. “Providing heavy subsidies on large and more costly tractors does not seem to be the most appropriate solution in a country dominated by small-scale farming”, the report noted.

 

Already, some stakeholders in the agric sector are accusing the government of plunging the nation into the Dutch disease – a situation where a country with oil resources over relies on the oil to the neglect of other sectors. This is always fuelled discontent and tension among the masses. Several shameful examples exists in some African countries.

Ghana has enormous potential in agriculture but most farmers remain largely poor with a populace that has insatiable appetite for imported edibles. “Here is a country with massive agricultural potential. For many years we have got all the natural resources, the rivers, forests, minerals and land space yet we are unable to feed ourselves. We depend on imports. That is unacceptable. Government policy in agriculture has not been encouraging to the extent that it does not allow us to produce the type of food we want,” Edward Kareweh, Deputy General Secretary of Agricultural Workers Union of the Trades Union Congress said in a recent interview on Joy fm

 

The sector from all indications still has a lot to offer and a pivotal role to play in the development of the Ghanaian economy. What is needed is a strategic policy turnaround which embraces the adoption of modern trends as practiced in other jurisdictions around the world.