Ghanaian farmers entrust their livelihoods to the land. Ideally, they could produce harvests large enough to feed their families with stockpiles left over to sell on the market, generating income to boost the quality of their lives and to invest in further improving their farm. But farming in Ghana can be difficult: environmentally, technologically and economically, and farmers often have to work their hardest just to keep their families fed. Unfortunately, this short-term urgency compels many farmers to opt for unsustainable practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture, which quickly clears and fertilizes plots but depletes the soil in the long-term. The techniques used to endure one season make it more difficult to get through the next.
In a way, farming techniques are subject to natural selection. If a technique works, it gets used again and gets passed down. Even though communities are slowly losing ground, metaphorically to a vicious cycle and literally to environmental degradation, slash-and-burn methods technically work. Food insecurity and its tragic human costs remain ever-present, but a farmer who slashes and burns can trust that doing so at least gives the family a good chance to survive the immediate future.
In 2011, with funding from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Africare/Ghana began implementing the Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) project to build the capacities of smallholder farmers to increase their productivity while eliminating practices that degrade the environment. Project participants have learned ways to enhance every phase of their operations: land preparation, planting, crop management, pest control, harvesting, post-harvest processing, storage and tailoring work from the outset to meet market demands. ISFM is also addressing larger value-chain issues by fostering farmer-based organizations to increase farmers’ strength in local markets and by connecting these organizations with financial institutions for microfinance loans.
A Ghanaian farmer doesn’t abandon the methods his community has used for generations just because someone comes to the farm and says to. When making decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their loved ones, farmers can be understandably reluctant to experiment with methods they’ve never used before, and whose results they’ve never observed. Our locally-hired in-country staff understand the competing motivations farmers face when they make decisions. This is why Africare builds trust among communities by demonstrating the results of new techniques, sharing skills and knowledge to build local capacity and partnering with local groups so that ultimately project participants can drive their own progress.
Africare conducted participatory outreach through media such as call-in radio broadcasts. A committee of local stakeholders such as church leaders, local elected officials, traditional chiefs, business association leaders and others governs implementation and ensures the project meets the specific needs of targeted communities. Twenty-one demonstration plots illustrate the results of numerous techniques on a variety of crops and expose local farmers to new methods first-hand. Now entering its third and final year, the ISFM project is currently producing audio and video materials to document promoted techniques and their benefits for wider distribution.
All the while, more farmers are deciding to make changes and are happy with their results. One hundred percent of farmers recently surveyed said they considered the promoted seeds and planting techniques to be improvements on the materials and methods they used previously. “We see the improvement of lives of people through the adoption of technologies and methods that will increase the yield and productivity of farmers in impactful ways,” says Ameleke Winfred, an ISFM project participant. In total, an estimated 3,000 farmers have adopted ISFM practices, and farmers are even going out on Africare’s behalf, sharing these methods with neighbors. Improved productivity is enjoyed by youth as well, since they can spend more time with friends in school and less time working in the fields. Admittedly, at present, some farmers are wary of the interest rates entailed by microfinance loans, but so far through the project’s business practices training and connections with local financial institutions, 15 farmer-based organizations comprising 114 farmers have secured agribusiness loans.
Farmers have persisted with traditional methods for all the right reasons. They are the methods that have allowed their families to live for generations. Also, they simply cannot afford the risk of trying something new that fails. Unfortunately, so far the traditional methods have only allowed most farmers to maintain a level of consistent food insecurity, providing no opportunity for investment and growth. Techniques and tools exist that can boost these farmers beyond the cycle of hunger seasons, but these methods need to reach farmers through trustworthy actors who can provide assurance the methods work. Africare always partners with communities to effectively communicate our technical expertise, and we’re proud that when a project ends, we can trust its participants to continue spreading the impact.