by Ken Root
The Sub-Saharan country of Ghana was my location for the past week. I traveled there with a USDA Trade Mission led by Deputy Secretary, Krysta Harden. The goal of the group, of business and government leaders, was to strengthen relationships with an emerging nation and to evaluate potential business opportunities in West Africa. Now that I am home, with a bulging notebook and hours of audio, I find that I still know little about the people and the prospects for Ghana but I have hope that they will break the bonds of tribalism and government corruption that have held back this last major undeveloped area of the world.
Ghana can be said to be located at the center of the earth. The longitude and latitude is the closest to zero-zero of any country. It is due south of Britain on the prime meridian and near the equator. The land mass is about the same as Michigan and it is shaped like Indiana with the southern coast on the Atlantic Ocean.
Ghana, formerly called the “Gold Coast”, has lots of resources. Its 27 million people are blessed with gold, diamonds and oil. But for 300 years it was cursed with the slave trade taking its people. Only in 1957 did it gain independence from Britain. It has flirted with communism and had military rulers, but has had democratic governments and actual change in administrations with presidential succession. The national flag has three bold colors with a black star in the middle. Ghana is proudly the 63rd least corrupt country in the world. (One of the top five in Africa.)
The language is mostly English and people drive on the right. To clarify, the Ghanaians (Gan A yans) are a gentle people who speak softly but drive wildly. A car with a broken horn is inoperable and staying on the right side of the road is only a suggestion, not a mandate. No guns were seen, except in the hands of the military and no indications of violence were felt, even in the largest cities.
We focused on agricultural capacity noting that the country leads the world in cocoa production. After a harrowing drive to the outskirts of Accra, the capitol city, we were shown a quiet cocoa farm with tropical trees with green and yellow pods hanging from the trunks. The ripe, ten inch long seed pods are broken open with a stick and the large seeds, about the size of a brazil nut, are scooped out and piled for heating to get most of the moisture out. They are then placed on tables covered with mats, in the very hot tropical sun, until they can be stored. Even at that point, the cocoa flavor is minimal and requires extensive processing to intensify the flavor to the level we expect.
Farms are many in number and small in size. There is literally no mechanization past woven mats and discarded plastic buckets. The women are more involved in farming than their husbands. This is a theme throughout Africa and one Secretary Harden seized upon many times during our trip. Her goal is to empower the women farmers to be leaders, contending the strength and stability they bring to the family unit will also be the foundation of the entire country.
Here is a contradiction of developing countries that is playing out worldwide: Farmers, who work with a hoe, live in a hut and walk barefoot, have cell phones and watch television. The government claims that TV has a ninety-six percent penetration in their society and over eighty thousand farmers have a cell phone at this time. There are also many radio stations in several languages. As a result, divisions of government and nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) are focusing on direct communication with the masses. I met with A Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) in concert with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and was shown an example of a weekly reality show on farming. The production is well done and the concept for the non-commercial half hour is to have the hosts and video producers go to a farm to help a farmer improve production. A woman, who raised rice on one acre, was this week’s subject. Through expert advice from the local agricultural retailer and extension information, she was coaxed into changing from growing rice by seeding on dry soil to cultivating the crop in a paddy. Her tillage equipment was only the most rudimentary but the agency promoted planting certified seed that had germination above eighty percent. She transplanted green shoots every twenty centimeters into the muck of the paddy and placed a supersized granule of fertilizer equidistant between every four plants. At the end of the season, the cameras returned to show she had increased production from one thousand pounds to twenty-four hundred pounds. The humor and information were first class and the show is set for twenty six episodes per year. It airs each Sunday at three in the afternoon.
The most innovative technology was Short Message System (SMS), or texts, to farmers by region and crop. ESOKO is the service that provides the information. They are funded by USAID and Vodaphone, the largest cell phone distributor in the country. The messages are just 160 characters but each one is aimed at the needs of the farmers at that moment in time and there are homemaker tips as well. ESOKO also has a call center that takes inquiries from farmers. They provide more explanation of topics offered by the texts. Operators say some farmers call for information and others call to “just talk”!
Ghana’s future is unsure but the current trend shows rice production up fifty-three percent over last year, and more technical support for all agricultural enterprises. Processors are willing to buy locally grown products but want them to be as safe and cheap as imports they receive today.
This region is projected to have the world’s greatest population growth between now and 2050. It will either grow in production and purchasing power or fall to disease and famine. Foreign aid and investment reflects the immediacy of need, however, the outcome lies in the hands of Africans, not outsiders.