As a member of the African diaspora, I feel it is my duty to stay informed on what’s happening on the continent, as well as to contribute to its development. Therefore, I was thrilled when invited to teach a short course on scientific writing at the West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) this past January in Legon, Ghana. Known as a the “Gateway to Africa,” Ghana has always been seen as an example of Africa’s forward momentum towards economic growth and human development and it is only natural that this proud nation would want to lead in the agricultural sector as well.
WACCI’s goal is to train Africa’s future leaders in agriculture, and judging by the dedication and passion for the field shown by this crop of students there no doubt that each one will meet expectations. Representing a diverse crop of African countries, including Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal, these students have come to WACCI to hone their skills as plant breeders and lead their countries in application of positive agricultural policies and innovation.
I took advantage of my time in Ghana to gain a deeper understanding of the state-of-play for agriculture in Ghana and to talk to Ghanaians themselves about their hopes for the future. This quest for knowledge led me to eye-opening discussions with Ghanaian policy makers, farmers, journalists, and scientists, each of whom gave me their perspective on the direction that Ghana is going in terms of food security and agricultural prosperity. My visit could not have come at a more timely moment in Ghana’s history, as the country has just elected a new president, Nana Akufo-Addo, who has said that agriculture will be at the top of his list of priorities for Ghana.
One of my earliest discussions while in Accra, Ghana’s capital, was with Eric Okoree, CEO of the Ghana National Biosafety Authority. With thorough conviction that biotech should play a role in helping Ghana achieve food security, he explained to me all the inroads that Ghana has made towards safe commercialization of GM crops. He stressed the authority’s mandate to ensure protection from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology, which includes a clear mission dedicated to promoting sustainable socio-economic development through efficient and transparent biosafety. He made it clear that Ghana is prepared for an agricultural future that intends to help farmers have access to all the tools available to prosper and to successfully feed all of Ghana.
I wondered, though, “How do Ghana’s farmers themselves feel about where the country is headed in terms of agricultural development?” Ghana is an agrarian country with more than 55 percent of its workforce engaged in farming for their livelihood. Although a stable, prosperous, and generally food-secure nation, the last few decades have shown that Ghana’s capacity to feed its population is facing several challenges, including adverse effects due to climate change, new crop diseases and pests, and an agricultural extension program that is severely broken.
This led me to visit the farm of John Awuku Dziwornu, a 56-year-old rice farmer who serves as vice president of the Ghana National Association for Farmers and Fishermen and manages a 10-hectare rice farm in the remote village of Asutuare, some 55 kilometers away from Ghana’s capital. He is also a 2016 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow
John is a very active proponent of access to agricultural innovation and has high hopes for Ghana in this regard. However, he is not ignorant of the terrible problems that Ghanaian farmers are facing right now. He believes that the situation for not only Ghana, but all of Africa, has led to dire circumstances for small-scale producers, many of whom live hand-to-mouth and therefore risk their lives coming to a standstill when crops fail due to bad weather and diseases. For this reason, John has become a champion for change and agricultural innovation. Unlike many of his colleague farmers who face low productivity and thus remain poor, John lives a comfortable life. He lives in a decent home here and has managed to educate his children abroad. He attributes his successes to his love for research, agricultural technology innovation and a deep desire to craft a better future for himself, his family, and his community. From early on, John sought the expertise of researchers in his country and abroad to learn the latest techniques in farming.
John made it clear, however, that for Ghana’s agricultural future to remain bright, more than just new technologies are required. There is an urgent need to update and reinvigorate Ghana’s agricultural extension system so that farmers can gain better knowledge of successful farming practices. For Ghana to become more food secure the country needs better infrastructure: more roads so that agricultural goods can get to markets in other parts of the country; better storage, so that not so much food goes to waste from rotting; and deep investment in the processing of agricultural goods into other products that have longer shelf lives and potential for exportation. Nonetheless, John and the farmers in his community are confident that brighter days are ahead. He reminded me that there is strength in numbers, and that the farming community is united in building a better Ghana.
My visit and what I saw first hand made it very clear to me that the challenges are great, but certainly not insurmountable. Judging by the positive attitudes, strong will of the people and government, and the activity that is taking place all around the country, I would not be surprised if Ghana not only meets its expectations in the agricultural sector, but even surpasses them.