May 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 methods.
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
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
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 season.
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.