Growing Future Farmers
Pilot project sows the seeds of hope in northern Ghana
Canadian Feed The Children has been working cooperatively with three partners in Ghana since 1999: RAINS, SIDSEC (Sustainable Integrated Development Services Centre) and TradeAid Integrated. Each works in one of the three northern regions Ghana (the northern, the upper east and the upper west) – a part of the country reliant on small-scale farming as its chief livelihood and source of income, and regularly subject to drought. As a result, the three districts of the north are the most impoverished in all of Ghana.
Current statistics from the Ghana Statistical Service surveys indicate that, while poverty in Ghana overall has declined recently, with 28.5% of Ghanaians living below the poverty line, the statistics are much less optimistic for those in the north, where 52% live in poverty in the northern region. In the upper east region, that figure climbs to 70% and in the upper west, it rises to a staggering 88%.
Since there is only one season of rain in northern Ghana, making a good and steady livelihood from farming is risky business indeed. The season is limited to the period between May and September and lately, the rains on which the crops rely have been erratic. In some years, the rains have come too early or too late. In others, rainfall has been too heavy; and in others still, too scarce. This unpredictability in weather conditions leaves farmers in Ghana – like those across the world – at the mercy of nature. But for Ghanaian farmers, the situation is complicated by the erosion of soil fertility over many years, the use of low-sustainability farming practices, and the grinding poverty that prevents modern tools or techniques from being available or for much investment in anything but short-term farming strategies.
With that as the backdrop, it is not surprising that food security is severely compromised. This year, the good news is the rainy season was a good one, and crop yields are relatively high. And, the community school gardens project is showing early signs of success, offering hope and promise of a brighter tomorrow for many in northern Ghana.
Country Representative, Chrys Anab, works closely with Canadian Feed The Children’s partners in Ghana helping them to collaborate with each other. A lot of Chrys’s focus goes toward creating opportunities for our partners to share information and best practices to best serve the communities of northern Ghana. He, and our partners, also work closely with community representatives and staff of the Ministry of Agriculture and other governmental agencies to hear about the latest thinking, obtain resources and gain skills that they can then share with their communities.
One such program is the pilot project undertaken by RAINS to establish community gardens in three communities in which RAINS delivers services. The community garden program is run from the community schools in Kpachelo, Bidima and Zoosali. More than 500 students attend these three schools, which serve children from age two to age 15.
One of the challenges in Ghana is to make farming an attractive occupation for students to pursue. The school community gardens offer the benefit of educating teachers, students and their parents about modern agricultural methods. The school garden program is linked to a curriculum that places a heavy emphasis on environmental and agricultural science. Students learn best practices in sustainable farming, how to grow nutritional crops and protect the fertility of the soil while providing high-quality nutrition. While these concepts can be taught theoretically, there is nothing better than the practical, hands-on skills that the students gain by having their own acre of land to cultivate.
The pilot program started with one acre of land donated to each school by local farmers. Since arable land is scarce and of high value in the northern regions, RAINS undertook an extensive period of community-building and negotiation to explain the program to the local farmers and encourage them to offer a small portion of their land to the project.
In return, RAINS has made a concerted effort to bring in resources, tools, technology and experts to teach not just the students, but the teachers and through them the farm families to practice sustainable and advanced farming methods.
The second benefit is a purely practical one, and one that RAINS is hopeful will be realized once the pilot program expands: the food that each community school garden raises will help to supplement child and family nutrition overall. The vision for the project is that each school will raise enough food to support an in-school feeding program, so that schoolchildren are given one meal a day – one more than their parents are able to provide for them. School feeding programs of this type not only support the reduction of malnutrition among vulnerable populations, but they also enhance school attendance and the learning capabilities of students while they are in school.
Although still in the pilot phase, there has been a lot of learning already. The school gardens have successfully grown maize – a cereal crop that provides a significant percentage of northern Ghana’s caloric intake. They’ve also grown a leafy green vegetable called alefu, rich in iron, calcium and other nutrients. Another crop tested was pepper – a generic spice valuable for trade. Through the experience of the three different gardens, RAINS and the farmers-to-be learned that the pepper seed variety selected performed well in one location, but poorly in the other two. This experience has underscored the need to use indigenous seeds wherever possible, and to select plant varietals that are productive in very specific local conditions.
Overall, those involved with the program are looking forward to implementing some new ideas and the lessons they’ve learned from the pilot project this past year. One such lesson has to do with the importance of fences: in Ghana, farming is done in wide open spaces, with nary a fence to be found. Animals such as sheep and goats – which represent a source of income for many of the farmers second only to their crops – are allowed to forage freely, including munching more than their share of the community school crops! RAINS is working with local suppliers to source fencing material and teach farmers why it is important to keep their animals penned – not only to protect the crops, but also to prevent the spread of disease.
Another key objective is to work within the communities to gain additional land to farm. In 2011, RAINS’ plans for expansion also include:
- increasing the number of schools that are participating in the program;
- negotiating with the community to expand each school garden from one to two or three acres per school;
- introducing new vegetables to the school garden crops; and
- involving more professional staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and other agencies to bring new technology, teaching and resources to the children, teachers and families in each community.
In terms of governmental and local support for the program, all signs are pointing to a resurgence of interest in school gardening as a viable and effective method of supporting agricultural development, good nutrition and food security in northern Ghana. While programs of this type were popular in the 80s, they fell out of favour for a variety of reasons until just recently. RAINS is optimistic – as is Chrys and the rest of the staff at Canadian Feed The Children – that the program is leading the way to a renewal of interest in school gardens. As Chrys comments, “this pilot program has contributed to expanding the minds of youth that they can earn a decent living from agriculture. It has taught them that farming is a dignified occupation that can make a significant contribution to the health and well-being of themselves, their families and their communities.”
Gardening, in many forms, strengthens communities by providing nutrition, food security and livelihoods. If you’d like to help make gardens grow, consider a gift of: