Thursday, September 29, 2011

"If I were the president..."

I believe most of us must have encountered or witnessed a problem for which we said to ourselves "if only I were the president, I will quickly fix this". And in most cases we really think those in authority are not doing enough. The fact is, as you made that wish there are probably a million others like you who made the same wish about one of the myriad of problems Ghana is facing. But today put your wish aside and join me as we explore what I have been witnessing in two sectors of the economy.

No country can call itself developed if it has a bad transportation network. Well, we don't call ourselves developed, we say we are a middle income nation; I wonder who gave us that nickie (I call it so because it's not real, sometimes I think our best description is "trying to develop" - my opinion). 

People, goods, services, commodities, etc, need to move from one place to another. This flow must be enhanced for efficiency and effectiveness in the cycle of production. If it takes too much effort to cart goods from the farm to your table because of bad road network, it increases your cost and reduces the quality of the food you eat. 
I am particularly concerned about the famous Eastern Corridor Road, for which the government secured an extra $250 million from Brazil to construct a road linking the Northern parts of the country to the south through the Volta Region. 

I travelled parts of that road and the picture you see is a shot I took. (the left part showing a stuck truck, the right showing better part of the road). Now this is after there has been some tractor grading on the road; any time it gets worse, there is regrading and that's how it has been. I heard (I said I heard) that whoever awards the grading contract to the contractor has his share every time there is re-grading, and so if it is tarred once and for all, he/she will loose his/her periodic "income". How sad, if this is true. 

It would interest you to know that as I travelled along the road I saw a lot of nicely arranged yam tubers and cassava at different points. What are they doing there? Waiting for a buyer to come and purchase, or waiting for that old Bedford truck that passes once a day or hoping one of these private land cruisers would come and buy. Seeing trucks and vehicles stuck in the mud at various sections of the road is a very common sight. Even within Accra, some roads are terrible, and rendered unmotorable whenever there is a downpour. The case of the hinterlands is worse; hardly would you see a tarred road. I can vouch that most of our commercial vehicles cannot traverse such roads. The sad thing about this is the fact that the lion's share of what we eat in Ghana comes from such areas.

So do the people in such areas vote? Yes, they have MPs. How do the MPs go there to campaign? In Nissan Patrols and Toyota Land Cruisers, the V8s. And after they win what happens? Something small or nothing. Damn it!

For a country that has around 56% of it's workforce in the agric sector, it is worrying that much care and attention is not given to the sector. There are a lot of programmes aimed at improving food production, like the Afram plains Agriculture Development Project, the various irrigation schemes, the planned free cocoa seedling distribution, etc. Recently the government secured a 70-million dollar facility from the World Bank to support Small and Medium Scale Enterprises in SMEs in the horticulture, roots and timber sub-sector of the economy. I believe these efforts are already yielding some good impacts. Yet, there is much left to be desired. 

Some of these programmes just select a section of farmers and most often, such programmes are not sustained over time. They are often political programmes which are not given thorough planning, they have no sustainability plan. New governments may choose to continue or discontinue such projects. Where is the once famous Presidential Special Initiative on Cassava?. A lot of people went into this project and the very government that promised the purchase of products was nowhere to be found after harvesting. 

As a nation if we are serious about agriculture, a lot can be achieved. Sometimes I strongly share some of the sentiments of the late Dan Lartey, Kofi Wayo and Dr.  Nduom on agriculture. I believe Ghana can produce what we eat. It is indeed true that a lot of food goes waste in the Afram plains due to inability to cart farm produce to the market. There are stories of pineapples and citrus rotting away on farms in the Central Region. Cassava and yams are rotting away in the soil in the Volta Region. Hundreds of tonnes of maize are going waste in the Northern Region. 

The irony of the situation is that people in the urban areas sometimes just don't know of the existence and abundance of food in the hinterlands; but the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) knows, yes they do! A story is told of a poultry farmer in Accra who was trying to import maize to feed his fowls; he doesn't know farmers in the North have more than enough maize. And the farmers cannot get their goods to the urban areas for many reasons including inadequate storage facilities, bad roads from farms, high cost of transportation, among others. Sometimes there may be a truck to cart the goods, but it can get stuck on the road for days, with the watermelons you and I eat sitting it, subject to all the weather conditions you can imagine - rain, sunshine, dust... arrrggg! 

Cheating or helping?
So if you meet a trader who hires his own truck, goes to these farmers and offers 13GHC for an almost full sack of yams, what will you call him? A cheat or a helper? If the farmer does not sell it out, it will get rotten over time, he loses the 13GHC. Before you call me a cheat, you must know that I am not a trader. I was only travelling and saw the yams. I bought from three different buyers. One of them, a pregnant woman told me her 9 tubers cost 7GHC. Typical of Ghana market deals, I bargained from 5GHC and we settled on 6. Seconds later I was feeling so bad I went and added 2 more cedis. I realised one of those those yams could sell for about 2GHC back in Accra. (I could have done better, don't you think so?)

These farmers, after toiling hard all year round end up selling their produce at such low prices to the traders who go there to buy and re-sell for you and I in the urban areas. You pay about 0.90GHC (90 pesewas) for three oranges in Accra, right? You know how much the traders buy from farmers in the Central Region? Between 4-10 cedis per hundred oranges, depending on the size! Pineapples? Traders offer about 20 pesewas for each fruit, and resell for between 80 pesewas to 1GHC. These traders are making money! If only the roads were good, some of these farmers could come down and sell to us directly. We buy cheaper, but they earn more, everyone is happy. But we will only have to keep waiting and hoping for this happiness to come until a serious marriage between the agric and transport sectors.

So if I were the president...
I will push for the injection of more capital and expertise in this sector. If you did a small study on the ownership of the biggest farms in Ghana, you will conclude that most of them are owned by people who were able to access some funds or already had money. Are you aware most rich men are diversifying into agriculture?. If the small holder farmers can be helped with inputs like seedlings, farm machinery and other agro products, food production could increase significantly.

The CSIR and other scientific bodies must be adequately resourced to carry out research and come up with more organic ways of improving production through the introduction of new and improved crop varieties.

While we are waiting for their seeds to germinate and grow till harvest, why can't we speed up road construction? Where are all the monies we have taken for road construction? Kick-backs and politically motivated projects!. Until we really care about each other, and our leaders get the roads linking to our farms constructed, food will continue to go rotten, farmers will still continue to be poor, we won't be eating fresh foodstuff and our food expenditure will keep rising.

There is a lot of good work going on, I believe, and whereas I admit that we cannot get to Z in a twinkle of an eye, it is equally true that more can be done, especially if as a nation we the citizens and our leaders stop misplacing our priorities.

Until I come to solicit for your vote in my Range Rover, think of the farmer in the village, stay safe and live a  green life!