The coronavirus pandemic is dealing a blow to food producers all over the world. In Ghana, one of the world’s biggest cocoa exporters, the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers are under threat due to global lockdowns and border closures, as well as the spread of the disease itself.
Agriculture sustains more than half of Ghana’s labour force, mostly as smallholders who cultivate their own plots of land with their families. Agriculture makes up 54 % of Ghana’s GDP and over 40% of export earnings. It also covers over 90% of Ghana’s own food needs. COVID-19 severely endangers this vital sector, with potentially disastrous knock-on effects for both producers and consumers. But Ghana is also showing what governments can do to support their farmers, prevent a food crisis, and create a more inclusive and sustainable way forward.
Here are three measures taken by Ghana’s government that mitigate the threat to smallholders, and thereby strengthen the source of our food supply:
Support for farmers
Farmers are frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19. Their produce is needed to keep populations healthy and well-nourished. Ghana’s farmers typically grow food for their own needs as well as cash crops such as cocoa and cashew nuts for export to Europe, Asia and America. However, their economic importance is not reflected by their earnings, which are meagre and vulnerable to shocks.
Cocoa farmers, for instance, earn a daily income of approximately $0.40 – $0.45 per capita from their cocoa produce, culminating in an annual net income of $983.12 – $2627.81. To supplement the low incomes from the farming activities, other farmers have resorted to alternative livelihood programs to generate additional income.
One problem is that farmers lack the capital to acquire high-quality seeds, fertilizer and crop protection products, all of which help boost yields. Loans from the capital market come with high-interest rates. This means farmers cannot plan and maximise production, and instead live from cycle to cycle, saving seed from one harvest to grow the next.
When large parts of the world went into lockdown earlier this year, many farmers in Ghana lost their market as air freight and other international shipments were stopped. As a result, prices dived and have still not recovered, even as many countries are emerging from lockdown. In March 2020, Ghana recorded the first COVID19 case from individuals on return trips abroad. In lieu of this, the country put in various restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, including the closure of sea and air borders. Five months on, the borders remain closed, except for repatriation of stranded Ghanaians.
The price of cashew has fallen from $130 to $75 (per 100kg), resulting in reduced annual revenues between $378 million and $981 million for Ghana’s farming sector. The cocoa sector also suffered price shocks as a result of the pandemic. The International Cocoa Organization posits the price of cocoa as $234.9 per 100kg.
One key intervention by Ghana’s government has been to provide subsidized fertilizer, hybrid seeds and weed killer to over 42,000 smallholder farmers. It also offers warehouse receipt systems for farmers to store the harvest in anticipation of an appreciated price. Such support will improve food security, reduce poverty, and ensure the availability of selected food crops on the market as well as providing job opportunities within the agribusiness value chain.
Private sector partnerships
Many private-sector firms have empowered farmers through the pandemic period. Various community educational campaigns inform farmers of the virus, its symptoms and how to protect themselves. These campaigns spread health information via radio broadcasts, vans with loudspeakers, as well as text messages and mobile voice messages sent to farmers’ phones in local languages such as Twi for maximum reach.
Some farming communities still doubt the existence of the pandemic. Others think the pandemic only affects the rich and the elite because it initially spread in urban centres with international travel links. Ghana’s educational campaigns have gone a long way to demystify these stereotypes. They promote measures in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendations, such as hand-washing and mask-wearing. Village elders, influential farmers and traditional rulers have also been recruited as important role models and educators in the fight against the virus, passing on the information to their communities.
Where possible, administrative staff and other office workers in the agribusiness value chain have been asked to work from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They interact remotely with farmers using mobile phones and avoid in-person meetings as much as possible.
Home-grown science and innovation
Scientists in Ghana have been working on solutions to stop the spread of the virus. The University of Ghana successfully sequenced genomes of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to understand the genetic compositions of viral strains in confirmed local cases.
A local tech-startup, Incas Diagnostics, has also developed a rapid test kit that detects COVID-19 antibodies within 20 minutes. The test kits have been submitted to the Food and Drugs Authority for approval to assist in the fight against the virus. In addition, Incas is working on a traceability mobile app to identify people at high risk of infection. These innovations are perfectly tailored to Ghana’s requirements. They will help keep the population safe, including the farmers who play such a crucial role in preventing hunger and undernourishment.
Supply chain, support chain
Ghana has not been spared from the devastating impact of COVID-19. It recorded its first case in March 2020 and has since registered 10,358 active cases. It has introduced measures such as banning all social gatherings, closing schools and distributing food and other relief. It will also have to build long-term resilience through broader measures that promote inclusion and equality.
COVID-19 has made us all realize how much we depend on each other. Farmers are the source of the world’s food supply. They need support, information and protection if they are to weather the pandemic and continue growing, harvesting, selling and shipping produce. This also means acknowledging their contributions to society and giving them equal access to opportunities and resources.
In the past, many development initiatives and social policies in Ghana focused on urban areas, preventing rural dwellers from benefiting. Efforts to promote rural industrialization have not had the promised impact. In the future, such imbalances will no longer be acceptable. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the danger of excluding certain groups from growth and prosperity because we need everyone’s contributions in a crisis.
The recent supply disruptions have also shown that some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized groups, including smallholder farmers, are in fact essential workers who keep us all alive through their efforts. COVID-19 poses a severe challenge to all food producers. But it also offers an opportunity to re-think our supply chains and create a more resilient, sustainable and inclusive food production system for the future.