CFTC’s food security expertise grows

As Canadian Feed the Children (CFTC) continues to work to increase our impact on children’s lives, we have honed our focus on food security and incorporated a climate-change lens into our work.

The Climate Change Adaptation in Northern Ghana Enhanced project (CHANGE) highlights how essential considerations of environmental sustainability and climate change adaption are in supporting community and family food security.

We recognized the need to expand our technical expertise in these areas, and so we are happy to introduce a new member of the CFTC team: Sohel Khan, Senior Advisor, Food Security and Environmental Sustainability.


1. Welcome to Canadian Feed The Children, Sohel! Can you tell us a little bit about the journey that brought you here?

Before coming to CFTC, I was working for the Canadian Hunger Foundation (CHF) as the technical advisor for food security and environmental sustainability and extending technical and operational support to CHF projects in Ghana, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, South Sudan and Eastern Caribbean Region.

Prior to that, I was working for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for eight years, posted in different countries. The last posting was in Nepal as Regional Coordinator for South Asia, where I was responsible for climate change adaption and disaster risk reduction and recovery program for six South Asia Countries, e.g. Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. South Asia’s is one of the most vulnerable zone to climate change and natural disasters. The food security issues are in serious threat due to its negative impact of on agricultural and water sectors in the region. I was also posted in Japan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and managed UNDP and UN-HBITAT’s regional programs focusing on Sustainable livelihood improvement, food security and Climate Change Adaptation.

My career in international development started with CARE International for six years in Bangladesh and other Asian countries, where I focused primarily on rural development, women’s rights, income diversification and livelihood improvement including agriculture.

I later moved to Vietnam as field director to lead a DFATD-funded multi-sectoral program on climate change adaptation, food and water security, and livelihood improvement in cooperation with the Canadian Centre for International Studies (CECI) based in Montreal. I also worked at the World Bank as program manager for their agriculture and water sector disaster risk mitigation project for Central Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In 1998 I came to Canada, in between my second Master’s in Development Economics through the World Bank, to work with CARE and take international relations at Carleton. I’m still learning every day.

2. As an expert in food security and environmental sustainability, what would you say are some of the issues and best practices that are influencing development right now?

I would first say that food security and environmental sustainability are interrelated and are difficult to separate. In terms of food security, however, a big challenge is that human population is increasing but food production is not. It is a big challenge for development and government stakeholders – by 2050 food demand will be doubled and the population is increasing even more than that; the base of production and demand is not consistent. This will prove a bigger challenge for developing countries, but it will also cause significant pressure to developed countries in terms of internal food strategies, as they are also supporting developing countries.

When we talk about production, of course production has increased, but the major problem is that production rates fluctuate, and so it presents a different challenge. Food production can be greatly affected by climate related issues and disasters, and many countries’ capacity and resiliency to withstand these factors is very low. So ultimately, the interrelated issues are causing more vulnerability for countries and smallholder farmers in particular.

3. In The Gates Foundation’s 2015 Letter, they make the claim that Africa will be able to feed itself in 15 years IF African farmers take advantage of the four key elements of agricultural extension: 1) Proper use of fertilizer; 2) crop rotation; 3) timing; and 4) planting techniques. Do you agree? What are the key challenges and opportunities that YOU see in Africa in terms of food security?

I would say that yes, agricultural extension is important and I would say that overall these issues are being highlighted. But the idea that only these four is required is misleading.

They’re talking about the modernization of bigger investments in agricultural inputs, fertilizer, tractors, technologies, improved soil – all of which is certainly good, but one thing I am concerned about with this approach is, are they considering the ecological aspects? For example, soil structure, culture, climate-related challenges, and price vulnerabilities.

Support for agricultural extension for farmers’ is significantly weak, and with re-modernization (a buzzword in Africa) we have to ask, is it a sustainable approach? When you talk about a massive outpouring of bigger tractors, it looks good, but in the long run it could be a big threat for farmers in terms of their soils. Bigger tractors plow very deep, and they can destroy soil.

The second concern is that bigger tractors are not a solution for smallholder farmers – it would require gasoline, rental costs, and transport to farms. It’s not feasible equipment to plow small amounts of land, as it would be very expensive. Recently an organization put 274 big tractors in northern Ghana, which I feel is not a feasible attempt. They didn’t consider the whole system and structure, like whether farmers will have reasonable access; whether it was suitable for the soil; how the long-term maintenance would work; and who will control the resources after five years when the tractors are old?

It is the same with fertilizer. They need fertilizer to improve their soils – great, but here is the question: who will provide the right training and techniques? When we talk about fertilizer we always have to consider whether it addresses environmental issues. For example, chemical fertilizer is good for short-term production but has a long-term impact on the soil. There needs to be a balance between chemical and organic fertilizer, so the soil is also improved. To me, we often say we have to apply organic fertilizer every time – it’s good for subsistence farmers to increase production, but when you’re talking about commercial applications, or getting bigger increases of farm production, then we need a combination.

4. You’re just back from Ghana, where CFTC has implemented CHANGE in 17 communities in the three northern regions. What were your impressions of the project? Did anything stand out to you in terms of what’s working really well, where are the challenges, and where the opportunities for growth are?

CHANGE is a very effective project that has a significant impact on farmers’ capacity in terms of increasing their resilient production, with a focus on climate change adaption, which helps farmers stabilize their farm production. In northern Ghana climate change is a significant threat.

CHANGE addresses climate change and builds farmers’ capacity to reduce impacts of climate change and apply certain techniques like drought resilience seeds, traditional seed variety revival, and income alternatives. This way, in terms of Disaster Risk Recovery there is resiliency.

CHANGE also looks to build capacity at the local level through community extension agents. Currently extension is so weak in Africa, and Ghana is in really bad shape because over time the government has reduced their investment in agricultural structure. Through CHANGE, there are now 62 extension workers, which is amazing because it’s so vast an area.

Human resources are also a big problem – people are leaving and retiring, and those left are often poorly trained, inexperienced and under-resourced. They have no funding for travel or for continuous learning or knowledge building. Extension is an advisory service and it must stay up to date.

CHANGE is actually training government extension workers, which is one of the only sources of training for them. This is extremely important. Through this, CHANGE has created a connection between the government and farmers, because community extension agents are living in the community, and now have the capacity to provide immediate support and connect with Ministry of Food & Agriculture staff extension agents.

5. DFATD and many large institutional funders are placing great emphasis on public-private partnerships, value-chain and market-based strategies for increasing agricultural production. Does this approach put the smallholder farmer – the poorest of the farmers, who so often can’t feed themselves or their families much less ‘commercialize’ their agricultural production – at a disadvantage? How do we make sure that development includes them and continues to benefit women and children who are most vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity?

Private-public partnerships are a big thrust for many donors, along with national stakeholders who are interested in bringing it into their country’s development. But when we push this agenda, there are some preconditions that need to be fulfilled.

First, the private sector should be operating at country level within a legal framework where there is a monitoring system, such that fertilizer application is properly done. Unfortunately, agricultural extension is so weak, almost all public extension services have been eliminated, and there is an expectation that private extension workers will take over. But, there needs to be a specific framework to guide private extension workers. Their ultimate motive is profit, which is fair – they’re in business – but they have to follow principles so they are not harming soil or creating negative long-term impacts for farmers. Regulations are absent.

Secondly, the knowledge of the private sector is great, but it should also come with a development perspective and a proper research perspective. They should be knowledgeable of soil structure, chemical content, techniques for fertilizer application. I have found that most countries have not done soil tests, for example; it’s not a precondition for many funding program for fertilizer application – it’s just not happening.

In Jamaica, talking to farmers, they are applying the same fertilizer every year but production is stagnating. Was there soil testing? No, they applied the same fertilizer at the same rate every year. When we did soil testing in previous projects, there was a 300 to 400 percent increase in certain chemicals; soil had already lost significant capacity because of over-fertilization. They are wasting their money, and over the long run, their production will decline – not increase.

Extension is another big challenge. When extension agents are supported by NGOs and the private sector, there is support and advice available to farmers, but at the same time, are the people providing this information properly trained and updated? For example, fertilizer company-based extension agents are focused on their own products and profits, and because the private sector is a small input provider they don’t spend a lot of time training. They don’t have the time or interest to understand the research, crops and soil at the local level.

It is unreasonable to expect that the private sector will do these things and even if they do, there still needs to be proper monitoring and regulation. There needs to be a system to verify what they are doing, how they are being trained, and how they are advising. So NGOs can and should step in to build capacity among private sector extension agents. It can be a great combination with NGOs and private sector: knowledge, training, technical support from the NGO link with the real needs of the communities.

Thank you Sohel for sharing your insight with us. We’re excited to have you join the team!