Peasant farmers provide solutions when government fails

In Ghana, farmers advocate for the support they need to create meaningful livelihoods

For many people, the phrase “peasant farmer” implies “powerless.” But then, they don’t know Regina Daberin.

Daberin grew up in a farming family with 13 children in Northern Ghana. At the age of 17, her mother fell ill and was sent away from home for treatment. When she needed money for lunch at school, her father often answered, “There is none.” Desperate to be able to support herself, Daberin decided to grow maize on her own plot of land.

“My brothers could go to work for somebody else to acquire money, but I was a young lady. That wasn’t considered appropriate. So, I started my own business,” recounts Daberin.

She rose at dawn to walk seven kilometers to school. When classes ended at noon, she trekked another two to three hours home, then milled the corn she grew, added water and cornstarch, and rolled it into dough, ready to ferment for a few days. Then she wrapped the already-fermented dough in dried plantain leaves she’d gathered from the bush and steamed it over the fire. Before leaving for school the next morning, a supply of the traditional Ghanaian food called kenkey was ready for the others to sell.

“I was very tired all the time, because I had no help in the house, no money, nothing. Sometimes even food was hard to get,” Daberin recalls. “But I was determined to take care of myself and finish high school, and I did, at age 21.”

Today, at 37, Daberin is married and living in Nkoranza Ghana. And she is still farming, this time with her two daughters who are13 and 16.

“We farm together. We do everything together,” she says. She rents some land close by to grow beans and other vegetables, but she has also acquired about 10 acres of her own about five hours away by motorbike, so she can grow tree crops. Daberin is still working hard to be independent.


Education is power

That’s one reason why she joined the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana (PFAG) in 2012.

“I joined PFAG because it organizes training on how to manage a farm as a business,” Daberin explains, adding that in addition, the association offers a sort of self-help banking system for those who can’t get loans. “I also want to help other people in my community learn. I’ve never gotten help from the government, so we have to help ourselves. I’m training about 600 women now.”

It’s that kind of grassroots-led initiative that attracted the International Budget Partnership (IBP) to PFAG when it looked for social movements to support that are vital to Ghana’s future growth and that benefit communities that are otherwise marginalized.

“Until the service sector recently took over, agriculture was the largest contributor to Ghana’s gross domestic product,” notes Abdulkarim Mohammed, IBP country manager. “Agriculture continues to be the number one employer. It is estimated that 70-90 percent of food production in Ghana is by smallholder farmers.”

Photo by PFAG.

Most smallholder farmers live in the rural hinterlands, where infrastructure is very basic, and have not been able to complete much formal education.

Due to the small sizes of farmlands, and low levels of fertilizer use, yields are low and so are incomes making it difficult for farmers to afford the supplies that could reverse the vicious cycle of poverty. In response, the government makes fertilizer and seeds available to smallholder farmers at a subsidized price. Though a very laudable initiative, the management of the program, leaves much to be desired.

“If you look at all the efforts government is making in agriculture, apart from paying salaries for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the largest budget commitment is for subsidized fertilizer,” explains Mohammed. “But private-sector suppliers are used and there are clearly a lot of leakages, rigging of procurement and poor targeting of beneficiaries.’

IBP began working with PFAG last year as part of its SPARK (Strengthening Public Accountability for Results and Knowledge) initiative. The organization has long worked for its voice to be reflected in the national budget, but its efforts had not been informed by any kind of sophisticated fiscal analysis. To add this dimension to PFAG’s work, IBP matched the association to its longtime partner, SEND GHANA, which has supported the Open Budget Survey for the past 10 years and has become expert in budget analysis.

“Whenever PFAG identifies an issue to address, we work with them to establish whether there is an underlying public-finance cause and that we can advocate for a remedial action that leverages the government budget,” notes Mohammed.

Charles Nyaaba, head of programs and advocacy for PFAG, appreciates that style of support.

“IBP is unique; unlike other donor organization that come with ready-made prescriptions, it allows us to do the things we think are best to address the concerns of our members,” he explains. “There are instances when PFAG has had to decline funding because we didn’t think the focus or tactics would benefit our members. But with IBP, anytime we discuss a proposal with them, they ask, ‘What do you think are the issues on the ground? What is the best way to address your concerns?’ Once we bring ideas to them, they inquire to understand what we exactly want to do. They provide technical recommendations and support us, but they don’t dictate to us.”

Open Budget Dialogue with 6 communites in Gambia on the importance of budget participation. / Gambia Participates
Local fisherwoman Nilawati runs a training on diversifying income for other women in her community due to budget credibility issues facing fisherfolk in Indonesia.


Enter the pandemic

When COVID-19 arrived, Daberin says, “no one knew what to do. But PFAG offered to train our farmers on how to protect themselves from the virus. I got trained and rode my motorbike to other communities so I could do the same for others. I went to eight communities to teach them how to handle farm tools safely, use hand sanitizers, etc.”

Meanwhile, laborers wouldn’t travel to work on the farms, and no one came to the market to buy. “Everybody was afraid to be in contact with each other,” says Daberin, who was separated by the restrictions from her husband, who works in the national capital Accra.

Nyaaba’s personal situation reflects that of many others: “I had some vegetables that were ready for harvesting, which I usually sold to hotels and restaurants. But due to the coronavirus, restaurants were not in operation. There was no market for my commodities, but they were perishable, so I lost them.”

Many other farmers he knows supply sorghum to Guinness Ghana Breweries Plc. But because the restaurants had closed, there was very low demand for its beverages.

Still, what didn’t change was the focus of PFAG and IBP on expanding farmers’ access to subsidized fertilizers and other farm inputs; with incomes even more precarious, it was needed more than ever.

“We made the need for food security a theme,” notes Mohammed. “We promoted the need for government to recognize this priority in its budget using community radio interviews of both farmers and experts on news programs, social media and direct engagements with government officials to amplify concerns of smallholder farmers.”

In addition, SEND and PFAG mobilized 23 other civil society organizations to circulate a petition to government, supplemented by a position paper and a public forum (once small gatherings were allowed)—all designed to push the Ministry of Agriculture to formulate and present a coherent COVID-response strategy that prioritized agriculture.

“It was clear that the ministry had not yet developed a COVID response strategy, so our goal was to get one developed and to be part of the process,” explains Mohammed. “Then, we wanted it to be prioritized in the supplementary budget.”

PFAG meeting with the Ghana Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Photo by PFAG.

The campaign was a success: “Most of the issues we highlighted are reflected in the supplementary budget,” notes Nyaaba. “Once we secured the opportunity to be part of developing the government’s COVID-response strategy we pushed for food security to be made a top priority, support to access affordable credit, mechanization and marketing of our produce and these have been provided for in the supplementary budget. The government has increased the number of beneficiaries of subsidized fertilizer from 1.2 million to 1.5 million, which is significant,” he notes, adding that the new COVID-19 Alleviation and Revitalization of Enterprises Support (CARES) program includes food security as one of its main pillars.

However, which farmers may access the much-needed aid is not well defined—in part, because there is no database of eligible recipients. “This is why our ongoing monitoring of beneficiary targeting is so important”. The government depends on retailers and private contractors to distribute subsidized fertilizers and seed but according to Nyaaba, a major challenge is the identification and targeting of eligible beneficiary farmers due in part to the absence of a comprehensive database. “But we are not waiting PFAG is building its own database with the support of IBP, to provide the government a basis for identifying beneficiaries of the program. The data will also be useful for analyzing how black marketers manipulate the system.”

PFAG fertilizer focus group in Asutsuare, Ghana. Photo by PFAG.


Farmers provide solutions

The initial instrument used to create the database is a paper survey administered in person once the lockdown eased. Zoom was used to train a cadre of farmers on its administration. Since July farmers have been monitoring the supply of subsidized fertilizer in selected regions and districts across Ghana.

“At first, we were afraid online training wouldn’t work,” notes Mohammed. “We know that farmers absorb information better through experiential learning. And although I think we’d use a lot more visual elements if we were to do it again, it went far better than we thought it would.”

Now, an online app has been developed to replace the paper form as well as to allow real-time monitoring of fertilizer availability across beneficiary communities.

To help collect and spread the personal stories behind the numbers in the database, influential media are engaged. Although PFAG and IBP were able to obtain exemption for many farmers and related supply traders from restrictions on movement, journalists often are able to travel to places others cannot are thus important allies, journalists often are able to travel to places others cannot. Eva Atiboka, a development journalist with TV3 Network in Ghana, is one such journalist who recalls “my passion for agriculture started in 2012, when I realized the farmers are doing so much, but got little media attention,”. She further recounts that, “Journalists in Ghana have done very little to cover the struggles and pains farmers go through to feed us.”

With such collaborations, farmers concerns are made more public and not easy for decision makers to ignore. This is the enduring resilience of smallholder farmers such Daberin. PFAG believes that it shouldn’t take that long and same struggles as Daberin for to create meaningful livelihoods and SPARK promises to provide the needed support to that future.

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