26, 2005: Last month I traveled to northern
Ghana as a volunteer with Opportunities Industrialization
Centers International (OICI), a nongovernmental, nonprofit
organization founded by civil rights leader Leon Sullivan
and mainly supported by Southern Baptist churches.
Known as "the Lion of Zion," Sullivan was
an influential black Baptist preacher in Philadelphia
who understood the economics of empowerment. He proclaimed
that equality was possible if minorities could achieve
parity in their job skills. To reach this goal, he opened
job training centers in many urban ghettos. In time,
the success of these centers led the creation of similar
programs in Africa and elsewhere.
Agriculture is a bit out of OICI's traditional area
of effort and expertise. On the strength of its many
successes, however, the group was awarded a US State
Department Agency for International Development (USAID)
grant for coordinating a farmer to farmer service in
Africa program called Farm Serve. I volunteered my time
and effort to help this project get going in the area
of organic agriculture.
My assignment was to work with 26 extension agents
from OICI and from Ghana’s Ministry of Food and
Agriculture. My goal was to better equip them to help
village farmers learn about and practice organic farming
Ghana is a former British colony on Africa's western
coast and was one of the first independent African nations.
It is considered a beacon of stability in an area wracked
by civil war. Both Togo and Ivory Coast (to Ghana's
east and west, respectively), are currently in the throws
of civil insurrections. Ghana is about the size of Oregon
and is a major producer of cacao, the plant whose seeds
are used to make chocolate.
Starting in Pennsylvania, my route to Africa was circuitous,
passing from Michigan to the Netherlands and then to
Accra, the capital of Ghana. From Accra I took a small
plane to Tamale.
Next to me on the flight from Amsterdam was a Ghanaian
lady from Toronto. She was well dressed in bright tropical
colors topped with a fancy headpiece. She told me I
would notice two things about Ghana: first, how hot
the climate was, and second, the dark nights.
She was right on both counts. Getting off the plane
at night the heat and humidity were stifling. And as
I approached my hotel I realized how accustomed I was
to night-time lighting--it was dark!
As you head north through Ghana the climate grows more
arid—the green goes out of the landscape and the
few, isolated trees seem to hug the ground. This is part
of the expanding Saharan region of Africa. For about seven
months of the year it is too dry to grow food crops. Planting
of corn, sorghum, cowpeas and pigeon peas starts with
the rains in May and June. When I arrived in early April
the dry season was still in full force but by late April,
when I left, it had rained a half-dozen times and planting
season had begun based on this earlier-than-normal rainfall.
Whereas daily temperatures soared to around 110° F
at the beginning of my trip, by the end of my visit maximum
temps were closer to 95° or 100° F. At those temperatures
you can really appreciate the difference of ten degrees.
The farmers I met told me that the beginning of the
dry season comes as something of a relief, since the
rains can bring diseases and pests as well as the season
of growth. As the dry time settles in, however, and
the land grows hotter and dustier, the general anticipation
of the coming of rains is palpable. Life depends on
this annual cycle of wet and dry, so it is not taken
lightly. To survive the dry season people gradually
sell off their animals to buy grain. This is the delicate
balancing act of farming here, the sub-Saharan tightrope.
After the end of the growing season animals are left
to roam uncontrolled. They forage among the crop residues
and eat the weeds. By the time I arrived only the unpalatable
and toxic weeds were left. Yet with rains that panorama
changes quickly. Plants promptly spring to attention,
and as the fields are planted animals are confined again
until after harvest.
The soils here are both red and acid. Soil infertility
is generally recognized as a major cropping limitation.
Pedro Sanchez, Director of Tropical Agriculture at Columbia
University's Earth Institute, has estimated that 67
percent of tropical soils are acid, but in this area
of Ghana the percentage is even higher. Four-fifths
of the soils in this area appear to be acid. Traditionally,
these lands were farmed until they were no longer farmable
because of the decreased fertility. In the villages
I visited, everyone knew that their system of farming
was not working and that crop yields and quality were
The classic, fertilizer-based development approach
does not work here. In the first place, commercial fertilizers
are too expensive for native farmers. In the second
place, even if they were available, fertilizers would
only exacerbate soil acidity problems in an area lacking
agricultural lime or other mineral resources for raising
soil pH. The economic picture changes markedly when
labor is abundant and capital is scarce. For African
farmers with small holdings, the use of composts is
the best remedy for acid soil infertility.
Successes with composting
Before starting our intensive classes on organic agriculture,
in visiting different villages I learned that composting
as an organic practice already had a small following
and was gaining in popularity. The composting was done
in pits, with static piles to maintain scarce moisture
and prevent the piles from drying out too fast. If the
piles are made at the beginning of the wet season, the
compost decomposes well and can be used the following
In the area around Tamale and in Walewale, three hours
to the north, a core group of composters existed thanks
to the efforts of Catholic Agency for Relief (CARE)
staff people. CARE had trained some locals in composting
and they were continuing the practice based on their
In Walewale, a former CARE employee and current farmer,
David, had encouraged composting among a group of women
farmers. David explained that women are parceled out
the poorest land for growing staple food crops. One
woman, Maria, was desperate after seeing her crops fail
and her donkey die. David taught her pit composting
and in the harvest that followed she had enough surplus
to sell that she was able to buy a new donkey. Maria
proudly showed me both her composting techniques and
her new donkey.
In another case, a woman explained that she had been
composting for four years and had noticed significant
improvements in her own health and in that of her family.
This woman was cited as one of the area's most successful
and forward-looking farmers. David took us deep into
the bush where he was planning a demonstration farm
so that people could learn organic farming methods first-hand.
It will include watering systems, woodlots and strategies
to prevent fires from destroying cropping efforts.
Back in the Tamale area, Kpilo was a model village
that relied exclusively on composts to maintain soil
fertility. The villagers explained that yields had improved
and—just as important--that compost-fed crops
withstood drought better than those fed with fertilizers.
I discussed with them how water penetrates the soil
more easily when compost is present, and how crops fed
from the soil develop stronger root systems that can
make use of soil moisture more effectively. They have
been composting for six years, and they say that their
corn tastes better and stores longer than it did before.
For these farmers, the biggest challenge in using compost
is the effort required to carry it to distant fields.
I asked if I were to give them fertilizer what they
would use it for. They replied that they would not make
the mistake of using fertilizer again because it was
very costly to them. They were sticking to compost.
Based on these vivid experiences I decided to concentrate
on teaching composting and on showing the class of extension
personnel how to work with villagers most effectively.
We would focus on learning from existing village technologies
and using them as a springboard for further improvements.
Next time: An intensive learning--and teaching--experience.