President John Agyekum Kufuor recently blamed western education for the high unemployment rate in Ghana, especially among the youth who form the majority of the population. The western education system, he said, made the youth think that agriculture is a preserve of the rural folk. Delivering a keynote address at the 22nd National Farmers' Day celebration at Nkawie in the Atwima Nwabiagya District of the Ashanti region, the President called for the readjustment of the nation's psychology and orientation towards agriculture so as to restore the sector to its dignity and profitability.
In Conquests and Cultures, Thomas Sowell opines that the “peoples of Africa were not simply hunters and gatherers of the spontaneous produce of nature. Agriculture existed centuries before Europeans came.” In fact, food security was guaranteed until the traditional set up was disrupted by colonial invasion, plunging the continent into a food impasse. Over 40 years down the line, Africans are still grappling with institutions inherited from colonialists such as the production of specific crops for export, with little progress made to get high level production and consumption.
According to Caroline Boin of International Policy Network, “President John Agyekum Kufuor's statement fits into the fallacy that agriculture is special. All of this begs the question of whether self-sufficiency in food is a sustainable option for any country or whether promoting trade (notably through reducing internal and external barriers) can do a lot more to fight poverty and hunger in the long-run.”
“It is not about being self sufficient in food production when 50 per cent of your produce can't be sold within the country of produce. Recently, The Ministry of Trade wanted to test a processor for tomato puree and needed 500 tonnes of fresh tomatoes. Only 300 tonnes were found after combining Ghana (because all the ones produced earlier got rotten on the farm even when sold at farm gate prices). Eventually, the Minister had to get the remaining tonnes from Burkina Faso, up north and drier than Ghana. Barriers! Barriers! Barriers!” says Franklin Cudjoe, Executive Director of Imani: The Centre for Humane Education.
Whereas blame games have neither added value to Africans’ livelihood nor extricated them from dark ghettos of economic stagnation, rethinking national policies and reorienting the mindset will surely unleash light and life. Food security in Africa will be attained if the farmer, government, agribusiness, finance bodies, think tanks and NGOs reexamine their mindset.
In Kenya for example, it is commonly held that agriculture is for the uneducated, jobless, retirees and people with nothing else to do. It is not uncommon to find university graduates with degrees in agriculture looking for alternative jobs. The youth equate the sector with farming, but make no connection to its technical or research intensive aspects. They perceive it to be hard physical labour because of machinery breakage, weather uncertainties and price variances. Genetics, engineering, financial management or international commodity markets are not considered.
“Entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa must seize this opportunity and convert these challenges into lucrative business,” argues James Shikwati, Director of Inter Region Economic Network. “It is a fallacy to talk about unemployment when farmers cannot access fertilizers, agrochemicals, water and farm implements to boost agricultural productivity.”
Farmers should adopt certified seeds and exit the farm-saved seed mentality. A cost analysis carried out by Syngenta East Africa among farmer groups in Kenya’s Eastern Province demonstrated how the seeds farmers consider “cheap” in the long run prove “expensive.” By placing side by side the quantity of seed required for planting, its cost, management and requirements, the certified seed which was perceived to be expensive performed over ten times better than the farm-saved seeds.
There is need for farmers to quit straightjacket thinking and consider the long term. Since certified seeds are packaged in specific quantities that farmers may not require or be able to purchase, they could go round this by forming a group, each farmer declaring how much of the seed he wants, pooling the money together, ordering the seed in bulk and subsequently subdividing it according to established demand.
The seed and agrochemical companies should repackage their products in manageable units that can be afforded by farmers at the bottom of the pyramid. Farmers don’t need sympathy. They don’t need food aid. They need products that are pocket friendly. The seed and agrochemical industries, together with research institutions can add value to their work by incorporating the extension aspect amongst their stockists and farmers. This will ensure stewardship of the products, consequently silencing the eco-imperialists.
Research institutions have been on the frontline breeding drought resistant strains but little seem to reach the low resource farmers who form a bulk of the African population. In cases where the certified seeds reach the farmer, they are backed little knowledge on best practices to ensure high yields. Farmers cry for extension services while government extension officers are locked up in their offices. Of what use is technology and research if it is interred in laboratory and academic vaults? There ought to be a linkage between research, extension and the final end users.
The global increase in agricultural output is attributable to improved agricultural technologies, the use of fertilizer and pesticides being key. Increased output has made food cheaper than it was four decades ago and freed part of the farming labour into other service industries. In developing countries, over 90 per cent of the population (40 per cent of the people on the planet) depend on agriculture for their livelihood, while only 7 per cent of the people in the rich nations do so.
The sector involves spending a lot with little yield to show. While one farmer in the US produces an output that is able to feed 10 more people and sell the surplus, an African farmer’s output is barely sufficient to sustain himself. In addition, African farmers spend backbreaking days; weeding their farms and exposing themselves to vagaries of weather. When improved technologies that saw the developed countries reach food security are introduced to farmers in the third world countries, eco-imperialists raise an outcry.
Take the case of Paraquat. This is a non volatile and non carcinogenic chemical that is used for systemic killing of foliage, sparing the farmer energy, time and extra labour. Paraquat successfully exterminates weeds in a farm. It does not leach into groundwater and degrades into substances that are not a risk to the soil or plant life. Paraquat’s safety has been validated by the World Health Organization through its International Program on Chemical Safety and independently validated by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Africa cannot afford the luxury of Pesticide Action Network’s debate against technologies that will make the continent feed her people and make many to join the middle class. The fact that people “commit suicide using this chemical” does not warrant its ban. How many people commit suicide using prescription drugs and kitchen knives? Have they been banned? The wearer of the shoe knows where it pinches. Pesticide Action Network should allow Africa to be food secure first, then Africa will be in a better position to have a roundtable discussion on imagined threats.
It is time for Africa to readjust its psychology away from people who want it to stagnate and choose for itself what will work for it. The government must take an active role as referee by facilitating good infrastructure, competition and more participation by many players to ensure high food productivity. Farmers should be given more options in the seed market. In an open economy, free trade induces competition and provides impetus to develop newer technologies, better methods and cheaper products.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
Comment on this article!