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THE DS INTERVIEW: OWUSU AFRIYIE AKOTO TALKS EXCLUSIVELY TO THE DAILY STATESMAN ABOUT HIS PLANS FOR GHANAIAN FARMERS (PART I)

General News

On the eve of last week’s African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, the Honourable Owusu Afriyie Akoto, Minister of Food and Agriculture, was working feverishly to put preparations in place to host 27 of his minister peers from other African countries and 18 high-level government delegations.

On the eve of last week’s African Green Revolution Forum in Accra, the Honourable Owusu Afriyie Akoto, Minister of Food and Agriculture, was working feverishly to put preparations in place to host 27 of his minister peers from other African countries and 18 high-level government delegations.

The four-day AGRF 2019 event at the Accra International Conference Centre was expected to attract roughly 2,000 guests: in the end, 2,800 showed up. As the Minister plugged away, sorting out the last details, tiny signs of fatigue were starting to appear around his eyes.

That did not stop him granting over an hour of his time to the Daily Statesman to talk about how the government’s efforts over the past two years – and the work of his own ministry in particular ‒ are conspiring to bring about a revolutionary change in Ghana’s fortunes. The spark, of course, has come from Planting for Food and Jobs.

Maximum impact

“Planting for Food and Jobs is the label we’ve given the government policy on agriculture under Nana Akufo-Addo’s government,” Dr Afriyie Akoto said, in a reflective mood in his office in the heart of the Ministries area of Accra. “We have made a central choice: to focus the growth of agriculture on smallholding technology. And for good reason: that smallholders continue to produce over 90 per cent of the agricultural output in this country and they’re doing it from a very low-productivity position.

“The productivity in Ghanaian agriculture is one of the lowest, even by West African standards.”

This poses a grave dilemma, he concedes – yet it also offers a challenge he relishes. With his own background as an agricultural economist, he sees the problem in terms of disease and cure.

“You won’t get technology to assist in improving agriculture if your strategy is wrong,” he explained. “For instance, if PFJ were to focus on large holdings and neglect the majority producer smallholdings, no matter what you do with technology it would not turn the agricultural performance around.

“So your diagnosis as to what is hindering growth in agriculture should be right, and once you get that right, from my little experience of the last two and a half years, you have to prioritise.
“You won’t get all the resources in the world to do [what you want]. The budget that you have is limited. So, which are the areas that you have to focus on to get the maximum impact?”

First principles

As host of AGRF 2019, the Minister was looking forward to receiving armies of tech-savvy “agripreneurs” from all over the world, preoccupied with apps, plug-ins, blockchain and multi-platforming.

He was keeping his counsel, though, and treading a cautious line on the Forum’s theme of “Grow Digital”. Where high-tech approaches to farming may be the rage in Europe and North America, he chooses to err on the side of apparently low-fi, but highly sophisticated interventions which will work for Ghana. Call it appropriate technology.

“We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Technology is meant to facilitate agricultural development, but it is not the be all and end all. You have to get your structures on the ground right and then technology will help you to accelerate.

“If the structures on the ground and our strategies for mobilising resources for agricultural development are not right, technology will not be of any use.”

The changes also have to follow a pre-set order, he stressed. “Then, if you get that right, technology can assist … in detecting animal and plant diseases, even in the distribution of resources to the farmers, such as fertilisers and improved seed.

“You need a database of the farmers that you are targeting, where they are located, how they get the quantities of inputs that they need. That’s where technology can be of great assistance.
“We can use it to target inputs, where and how they are supplied, and to track them.

“It’s scientific technology,” he says, with the scientist’s respect for the power of innovation, “but not digital technology for digital technology’s sake.” And the ultimate goal is focused on people, not tools: to increase farmers’ income, give them spending power and put a rocket under the Ghanaian economy.

Home-grown research

As in other parts of Africa such as Kenya and Ethiopia, where digital tech has been used to boost agriculture and expand distribution networks, mobile phones will be the main tool for disseminating the changes Dr Afriyie Akoto sees coming.

“Many Ghanaian farmers may not be that well educated but farming has been their career,” he said: “they know which seed is best for them and when time to plant, by experience. But now, using their mobile phones, they can search for information – extension services, for instance, or information on what quantities of fertiliser to apply at what time.

“And of course they can use their phones to get hold of market information. Now we have the Ghana Commodity Exchange.”

Launched in 2018, GCX, as it is known, aims to increase producers’ direct access to markets, help them market their crops more efficiently and cut out the middleman. Plans have been announced this month to extend the range of crops traded on the GCX to rice and sorghum. Both food crops have experienced a boom since the launch of PFJ, especially among farmers in the northern regions.

And the possibilities for technology are not only digital. “Take maize, for instance,” the Minister said. “The difference in yield between hybrid and traditional maize is incredible. And yet the majority of maize farmers in Ghana still use the old seed, which has been handed over from generation to generation, putting part of the harvest away and bringing it back into production the following year for sowing next season.

“But that will give you only three or four bags of 50 kilograms. Hybrid maize, which has actually been discovered and is produced by our own scientists in our laboratories here in Ghana, can give you several times that.”

He expanded: “Our scientists are applying breeding methods to create varieties of seed which will give harvests two or three times in a year, and sometimes ten times as much …”

He has seen farmers achieve 40 bags in Sissala East, he told the Daily Statesman.

“It makes you wonder: ‘Why is it that everybody is not using hybrid seed?’ This is the gap between [what we have and] what public resources can do to support the farmer.”

 

Bumper harvests

Dr Afriyie Akoto is clear that there is a long way to go but he notes the effects of two years of hard work with a certain satisfaction.

“Last year we exported 150,000 metric tonnes of 19 food items to our neighbours in West Africa, as far away as Nigeria, Niger, Mali. Which is healthy, but it still doesn’t solve the fundamental problem [of storage] because this year we’re going to have an even bigger bumper crop,” he said.

The boom in agriculture in Ghana is the fruit of the current government throwing its political weight behind a push for Ghanaian farmers. The work has happened quietly and leaders have not demanded instant results. A cross-departmental approach has given PFJ the full support of the current political machinery, including the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and its subsidiary metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, the Presidency and a host of state-run export agencies.

“Before we came into office, if you do the calculation, the percentage of budgetary resources going to agriculture was constantly cut. Real resources going to agriculture were going down. And is it surprising that the rate of growth of agriculture was also going down?

“The previous government inherited 7.8 per cent per annum growth in agriculture from 2008 and by 2016, when we got back into office, it was only 2.2 per cent.

“So the idea of the Akufo-Addo government is to pump more public resources into agriculture to support the smallholder. Hence the huge subsidy so that the poorest of the poor among our farmers can afford inputs. We offer 50 per cent subsidies on seed and fertiliser.

“It’s a question of affordability, apart from availability. Until we came into office, most farmers didn’t even use the word ‘fertiliser’; the most sophisticated would say ‘chemical’. But now ‘fertiliser’ has become a household word. That is a huge jump psychologically.”

* Correction: Earlier versions of this piece wrongly suggested that the Minister is a medical doctor or agronomist by training.