The thoughts, sights, and sounds of my summer as an EWB Junior Fellow

Posts tagged “inoculants

Life as a (Pseudo) Small-Scale Farmer

When I was discussing with members of the women’s farming group in Loggu upon my arrival in the village, I asked the question “What can I do to best understand what it is like to be an outgrower farmer for the nucleus farmer I am working with?”. I was excited and pleased by their response. They said that they would support me in growing one acre of crops. After a couple of seconds of considering what this would mean, I said that I would gladly take on the challenge. My intention was to have this undertaking be a valuable supplement to my learning and understanding of the system I am working in, hopefully allowing me to gain credibility and build trust with multiple actors.

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After some discussion with my host brother and the nucleus farmer, I decided that I would grow ½ an acre of maize and ½ an acre of soyabeans, in order to gain an understanding of what is required to grow these two common crops in the Upper West. After mentioning “my farm” often in conversations to show that I was in fact committed, it was decided that I would sow the acre on Monday, June 25, before I left for the Mid-Placement Retreat in Mole National Park.

The Saturday before, I travelled to Antika [the inputs dealer] in Wa to pick the hybrid maize seed I would need to sow ½ an acre. I had decided that I would plant the only hybrid maize variety sold by Antika, which would hopefully allow my plot to act as a “proof of concept” for hybrid maize seed in Loggu. I also picked inoculant (rhizobium bacteria to support early development of nitrogen-fixing nodules in the roots of legumous crops) since my intention was to have my plot be a demonstration of Good Agricultural Practices, as well as an outlet for me to push my paradigm of how farming should be done with the available resources. I was taking my knowledge of how my family plants legumous crops in Canada, and applying it to the new scale I was working in.

When Monday came, I felt tired to begin with. I had stayed up late the night before soaking half of the maize and soyabean seeds in a Latvian peat fertilizer supplement solution and the other half of the seeds in water as a control. I was mixing integration and science and advertising for Antika  all together, and it was getting complicated. I had decided to apply insecticide/fungicide powder to the seeds before planting, and I went to the nucleus farmer’s inputs dealer shop to collect two packages. I read the label of the insecticide/fungicide, and soon became skeptical if I even wanted to use it. The product was extremely toxic. It should not be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. People using the product should wear gloves at least, and any containers used to mix the product with seed should be disposed of. It is strictly forbidden to use the product in the presence of children. I mentioned these things to those around me at the time, and they laughed at me. They said, “But not in Africa.” This made me extremely upset and frustrated. The fact that scientific knowledge is so low causes people to completely disregard any procedures for safety. At the field, the product was mixed with the seed with bare hands in a basin that would be used for hauling water and grinding maize after being rinsed out later, and women ate shea nuts from nearby trees as they were sowing the treated seed. They thought I was so silly for worrying about this. I felt responsible for making the decision to apply the insecticide, yet any steps I took to improve the safe handling of the product would be regarded as unnecessary.

According to my direction, maize seed was placed in a hole on one side of a rope stretched across the field, and on the other side of the rope compound fertilizer was placed in a hole, resulting in about 5 cm space between the seed and fertilizer. In Canada, all fertilizer is applied with the seed straight into the ground at the time of planting, yet in Ghana fertilizer is generally spread on top of the soil near the plants. The latter approach allows for volatilization of the fertilizer, as well as allowing it to be washed away by heavy rains. After talking to Agricultural Extension Agents and others, I had learned that it is actually preferable to bury the fertilizer, but people do not do it because they perceive it to take too much time.

The reason I say that I am a “pseudo” small-scale farmer in Loggu is that I have so many opportunities that the other members of the women’s farming group do not have. For the sowing, I actually ended up planting very little seed myself. I found myself in a managerial/monitoring role, and also I did not want to cause confusion regarding where had been planted and where had not. My plot was ploughed first of any of the outgrowers, and the hybrid seed and inoculant were donated by Antika despite my insistence that I can pay. I did not have to get a fertilizer subsidy passbook because the nucleus farmer arranged to have the fertilizer put under another farmer’s name (not being a Ghanaian citizen I do not have the appropriate ID card). I have the ability to read the labels of inputs and have comparatively extensive knowledge of Good Agricultural Practices, including “innovative” technologies such as inoculant. For keeping records, I can read and write without a problem, and I know the importance of cost-profit analysis. The fact that I knew exactly where to get all of the required inputs and had access to them when I needed them allowed me to apply fertilizer, seed treatment, inoculant (soyabeans), fertilizer additive (for half of the crops), and a pre-emergent glyphosate chemical burnoff all on the desired day. The current plan with my plot, as I will be leaving before it is harvested, is to have the profit from the plot go towards buying tarpaulins for the women on which to thresh the soyabeans by hand without mixing in dirt and stones. My entire livelihood does not depend on the success of the farm, even though I am trying to do everything to make the farm successful.

It is easy for me to become disconnected from understanding the true challenges of a small-scale farmer in Upper West Ghana, because I am not working with the same situation at all. It will take a different empathetic approach to understand what it truly is like to not be able to buy fertilizer for your farm without the support of a nucleus farmer or NGO, or to be waiting for weeks or forever for a tractor to come plow so that you can plant. The nucleus farmer I am working with had to tell approximately 300 farmers that he cannot support them this year as expected, as he was unable to receive the requested loan from the bank. What will they do? Will they really just sit down and put their hands in the air like the nucleus farmer says?

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Welcome to Ghana. Expect Surprises.

I am writing this as I sit on the floor of the fanciest room I have been in since I arrived in Accra that rainy night a week and a half ago. In the room there are two single beds, a fan, two plug-ins, a desk, a sink and shower, and a closet. Hmm, isn’t that exactly opposite to the progression a JF should be making in terms of integration?

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I am in the city of Wa, located in the Upper West region of Ghana, at the In-Service Training Centre hotel. I originally thought I would be spending the summer working in the Upper East, but found out during in-country training that I would be working in Upper West with an inputs dealer in Wa, a nucleus farmer and his outgrowers in a nearby village to Wa called Loggu , and a local agricultural development program office. A nucleus farmer is a wealthier farmer in a village who provides tractor services, inputs, and agricultural expertise to hundreds of farmers. As far as I currently understand it, the goal of my placement is to understand the ways in which the services of the inputs dealer, the nucleus farmer’s model, the programs run by the agriculture development organization, and the realities for the nucleus farmer’s outgrowers all relate. I get to be the eyes and ears that no one else has time to be, and in so doing can share insights with various market actors and suggest areas for innovation.

Getting to Wa was interesting. The plan was for Tom (blog on sidebar), Louise (my coach), and I to leave Tamale on the metro mass (non-fancy [not like STC Ghana]) transit bus for Wa on Monday, however tickets were sold out when Louise (my coach) went to purchase them on Sunday. We thought we would just go early the next morning to buy tickets for Tuesday’s bus, and find a way to contribute to our placements on our extra day in Tamale. Monday morning, however, when Ben (AVC Ghana APS, blog on sidebar) went to purchase the tickets at 7 am, he found that the tickets were again sold out for Tuesday. The reason was found to be that students attending university in Wa need to be present and registered by Wednesday, or face penalties. The decision was made to take the tro tro (see picture in previous post) to Bolgatanga in the extreme Upper East in the early afternoon on Monday, stay overnight in Bolgatanga, then catch the 6 am bus to Wa and get there before noon so that I could meet with the inputs dealer and nucleus farmer that afternoon as scheduled. Taking the tro to Bolga went well, and we enjoyed a nice relaxed supper with Don (AgEx APS who is the Usask ChAPSter Buddy!) and Jimmy (blog on sidebar) at a restaurant. I tried banku, which is a fermented maize dough, for the first time, and I think that taste will definitely grow on me.

We took a taxi at 4 am to the bus station in Bolga, and waited for an hour and a half in line to get tickets to ride the metro mass to Wa. Eventually we were told that we could only buy two tickets, not three, as the line was overflowing with university students needing to get to Wa. It was decided that Tom and I just go on to Wa without Louise, meaning that I would have to meet with all of the market actors myself without the support of Louise who set up the placement. I was feeling a little nervous at the thought of this, but then I just remembered Comfort Zone vs. Learning Zone and the great growth opportunity this presented. Finally Tom and I got on the bus, waited around all ready to go for a long time, and then were eventually told that we had to switch all our luggage and ourselves to another bus due to equipment problems with the bus we were seated in.

In the new bus, all of the seats were filled and large pieces of luggage were stored under the seats. Then passengers kept filing onto the bus until the entire aisle was crammed full with people standing and sitting for the entire journey. People were animated and raucous, and I couldn’t help laughing when I compared it in my head to an intercity bus I had been on in Saskatchewan, where half of the seats were empty, no one talked to each other, and no stop was longer than about a minute.

Tom and I amused ourselves by having me learn some new knots so I could tie up my mosquito net in any situation. The bus stopped every hour or so, allowing women and children to thrust “pure atah” (which is how I have finally assimilated to say pure water) through the window in exchange for ten pesawas. At one stop, people on the bus cried out “something’s burning!” and sure enough the tire right under our window was smoking considerably due to a combination of the scorching heat of the day and the friction of travel. The fix was to wait about ten minutes and continue on, having to stop every so often after that to allow it time to cool down.

Finally, at 4:30 pm, the bus finally rolled in to Wa. As I was too late for the meetings that had been scheduled, I took a taxi to a guest house that Louise recommended, and checked in. At this point, I was becoming uncomfortably aware of how I seemed to be met with reactions of intimidation, nervousness, fascination, enrapture, spectacle, and expectation as a young white woman in the Upper West. I decided to explore the community and walked up one of the main streets, trying to learn how to say “good evening” in Wali, and eventually met three outgoing little girls who showed me to their house and let me meet their family. They asked if I had a camera, and I realized I had forgotten it in the guest house. They escorted me back there and I was able to get some pictures with them with help of the guest house manager and friend (who also sneakily took pictures of me with his own camera despite me saying I was shy).

The next morning, I called the agricultural development organization and was eventually picked up. I was pleased to find that they were going straight to a farmer training session about application of inoculants on soyabean. Inoculant consists of rhizobium bacteria that encourages nitrogen-fixing bacteria to populate the plant roots even before the natural bacteria nodules develop. It greatly increases plant vigour and yields, and we use it on all of our peas and lentils on the farm in Saskatchewan. I found the workshop extremely engaging. It was very participatory, and involved a live demonstration of how to properly apply inoculant to a 1 kg batch of seed. Farmers asked many questions, and contributed experience as testimony to the value of inoculant use. I was impressed. Most of the workshop was translated to/from Wali/English. All the farmers spoke Wali but the main presenter (from the South) spoke Twi natively and did not understand Wali at all. Of the few people I had talked to that morning, a good number of them could not speak Wali because they were originally from a different city in Ghana, and were just as lost with the local language as I was. I was not expecting this, but it illustrates a fundamental challenge throughout Ghana which further incentivizes going to school and speaking English.

In the afternoon, I was taken to meet the nucleus farmer in the village of Loggu. Through a miscommunication/misunderstanding of the goals of my placement/misalignment of values between myself and the agricultural development office, I did not stay in the village as had been planned. I sat in the back of the fancy SUV feeling like some privileged white person (which, yeah, I guess I am) travelling back to the office, and then was dropped off at the hotel. I had to insist that a 30 Cedis per night room with a shared toilet was more than fine for me, rather than a 50 or 85 Cedi self-contained room. So here I am.

As staying in a village and understanding village life is integral to this stage of my placement, tomorrow I will be taking the tro-tro to another nearby village called Busa to spend five days with a new nucleus farmer and hopefully meet the friends of last year’s JF in the Upper West. A definite change of plans, but I have made a commitment to welcoming adventure. It is only fitting, in this land of surprises.

P.S. Another surprise….many Ghanaians love country music! Every once in a while I feel like I am back in Saskatchewan.