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Student Voices from Ghana

Akua Asare

With the aid of the Institute of African Development; Cornell University, I spent six weeks in the town of Asutsuare located in the West African country Ghana. Very pittoresque surrounded by a river with a mountainous landscape, it borders the Volta region and is located in the Osudoku District in the Greater Accra region. The predominant occupation in the town is farming, with most of the farmers, the majority of whom are women engaging in rice cultivation. Having farmed in Asutsuare for years, the women from the town and surrounding areas have mobilized themselves to form the farmer based organization named the Asutsuare Women’s Development Society (AWDS). This multi-function group provides small scale micro-credit services to its members, serves as a medium for contact (training on farming methods etc), between the farmers and the government’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA), and seeks to empower and advise women in matters of health, finance and household abuse and violence.

My Experience and Reflections

Despite Asutsuare’s growth from a village to a town in recent years, economic insecurity is still a problem. Given the low-income and vocational status of the town, I decided to introduce the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to the farmers, a system that has been used in Madagascar and worked on by professors in Cornell University. Given the high increase in yields that SRI has yielded in areas of its practice via its principles of good farming practices, it holds the key to increasing the farmer’s profit margins and incomes by increasing the quality and quantity of their yield and lowering their cost of production. It provides a means to combat the low income status of the rice farmers. Working in conjunction with the Asutsuare Women’s Development Society and the Kpong Irrigation Scheme (KIS), an autonomous extension of the MOFA, I intended to introduce the principles of SRI to my women’s group and have a pilot project running on a farm before the end of my stay.

Before starting my introduction of SRI, I decided to first assimilate myself into the fabric of their society and more importantly learn from the farmers what their current problems and concerns are, as well as the processes they go through in their rice production. I felt that it was important to first listen and learn from the farmers so as to ascertain the best way to broach the subject of SRI to them as well as assess the feasibility, extent and manner in which the principles of SRI could be integrated in their farming activities. The first few weeks went well with the farmers being willing to voice out the challenges they face with pest and weed control, lack of access to farm lands, high cost of inputs, unleveled lands and the lack of access to land preparation and harvesting machinery. Aside from directly affecting their rice plants and resulting yields, some of the challenges faced pose serious health problems to the farmers with the presence of poisonous snakes, blood sucking organisms and some biting ants.

After two weeks of daily trips to numerous farms to hear the farmers’ concerns and assess their responsiveness to a change in their farming methods, I was certain of three things. The first being that the farmers will incorporate SRI methods in their activities only if they had physical proof of its success in the context of their community. Research findings and case studies were simply not going to cut it. Second, the challenges they face, in particular financial constraints, unlevelled farmlands and the limited availability of inputs would be a more pronounced hindrance than before, limiting the success of SRI. The most significant realization of all was that if the use of SRI methods was to be a long-term practice and a main influence by which to increase the rice farmers’ yields and incomes, the pilot had to be a major success. However the difficulty was that many farmers have at most a hectare of land, with a huge proportion having even less. The small acreage of land is their main source of living, making them extremely reluctant to change their farming methods without having seen the results of such changes for themselves. This meant that the pilot could not be done on any of the farmers’ land, and in the event that a pilot was executed on a piece of land that would most definitely not belong to a farmer, it had to be a major success to move farmers to do same. To reach the success level necessary for the pilot to convince them of the importance of SRI, I first had to figure out a means by which to overcome or realistically minimize the limitations placed on the success of SRI by the afore mentioned challenges.

Working in conjunction with an Officer at MOFA for available funding venues for the women’s group, KIS Operations Manager Mr. Swatson for setting up a demonstration farm for a pilot project, a local business for the provision of inputs and the farmers on coordination and farming techniques to manage and level unlevelled lands, we got the ground work ready for the pilot study and made available to farmers resources that will be needed in the future to aid with the implementation of SRI. Getting the groundwork in place took much more time than I had expected. Much to my frustration, after a month in Asutsuare, the pilot study intended to give farmers the needed physical proof and convince them of the merits of SRI’s implementation had still not come to fruition. Fortunately, the Ghanaian government in its efforts to increase rice production decided a month into my internship to pursue SRI as a means of achieving its goals. This cemented my intension of asking KIS for a piece of land to be used as a pilot since the government through KIS, intended to set up demonstration farms to both convince the farmers to adopt SRI methods on their farms and to show them the right way to execute the practices of SRI. By extension, this also meant that the government would provide the needed training for farmers that I did not have the resources to provide. Only, the farmlands intended to be used for the SRI pilot studies were currently being used for other rice-farming pilots, pushing the execution of a demonstration farm as far back as the end of 2015.

The extended timeline made my previous expectation of having a pilot project well underway by the end of my stay unfeasible and reduced the odds of a farmer implementing SRI on their farms after learning about its merits (since there was no physical proof of the benefits of its implementation).  Nonetheless, the pilot study’s extended timeline was still a promise of providing the physical evidence farmers needed before modifying their farming methods and broaching into uncertain territories. Armed with this promise of physical evidence in the near future, I held educative talks with farmers on SRI; its implementation and benefits on a one on one basis going from farm to farm. With the prospect of seeing evidence of SRI’s benefits in the future, many farmers were more open to the idea of implementing it on their farms in the future. Furthermore, since farmers on the same block of land were in different stages of production, it became difficult rounding them up to talk to them collectively as different stages either demanded the farmer be constantly on their farm or not at all. Though talking to farmers as a collective group was wider reaching in terms of the number of people the message went across, it was less involving and engaging. Farmers tended to ask fewer questions and be less responsive as when I engaged with them one on one. Though a much slower process than educating a collective group, I particularly also liked the farm-to-farm method I was using because it was inclusive. When I went to the farms, it was not only those of the AWDS, but all rice farmers I came across, including women rice farmers not in the group as well as the male farmers.

      Nearing the end of my Cornell sponsored internship, with the help of the women’s group leader, Rosemary Guamah and the support of Mr. Swatson, I was able to get the members of AWDS to gather for a workshop, which was very successful. I truly wish I had been able to accomplish all that I had set out to do within the time frame that I had wanted to do it. However, after working with the Operations Manager of KIS on the ground work in preparation for the pilot project, I am confident that the plans I had set out to undertake will be accomplished and that my goal to increase income and food security in Asutsuare will come to fruition in the near future. Initially, one of my greatest concerns was how to make what I had started self-sustaining so that in the event that I didn’t have enough time to lay the proper foundation necessary or was no longer there in Asutsuare, the project would not come to an end. Thankfully, the government’s interest in increasing rice yields and providing the resource to jumpstart the achievement of this goal should provide the needed set up for SRI’s implementation after which the project will naturally take off.

      Given the problems of pest and weed control faced by the farmers, my last few days of the internship was spent collecting samples of the pests and weeds that had no known courses of treatment for their eradication. The samples were given to a weeds researcher to analyze and possibly recommend pest and weed control methods to deal with the problems. With the extensive research done in Cornell, I am also hoping to get advice from professors in the Crop and Soil Science department on how best to combat the pest and weed problems on the rice farms. Though the internship has come to a close, there is still so much that can be done for the rice farmers from Cornell and I intend to pursue these resources available.