Giving up old practices is hard to do, especially when there is so much at stake. In a rural town called Kalande, in the East Gonja District of northern Ghana, farmer Sebewie Kwame Donkor recently turned a corner, thanks in part to the arm twisting of his brother Lawal. As head of the farmer co-operative in nearby Salaga, Lawal has seen the dramatic improvements that newly introduced farming methods are having on the health and nutrition of farm families in that region. Each time he visits his brother's home he urges Kwame to add nutritious soya beans to his regular crops. It's a new idea for farmers who for generations have relied on yams and maize for their family nutrition and income.
In the end, it was quite a different visitor that turned Kwame's skepticism into ready acceptance. A blight of yam beetles swept through this area last year. The resulting loss of income was a serious setback for many farmers already struggling to make ends meet.
"My brother has been talking to me about it for three years now and I think it's time to join them (the co-op)," says Kwame. "If I were a member, I would have had some support to cultivate soya beans which would have added to my income and also improved the health of my family. I see members of the co-operative and the improvement in their family life. Their wives and children are looking healthy. Their wives are also given loans to cultivate soya beans and to trade; there is happiness in their homes."
Determined to reduce his family's reliance on yams, both for consumption and farm revenue, Kwame has joined the farmer co-op and will add soya bean plants to his crops of maize, cassava and sorghum. His two wives, Afiais and Ramatu, intercrop pepper, okro, egushie and amarantus among the yams. They and their 15 children rely on yams and maize for their meals.
Despite lowering poverty in the past 20 years in Ghana, significant pockets of poverty and food insecurity remain, especially in the north. Each year more farmers are reaching a tipping point where they can no longer produce enough food to sell for income, and their tired and shrinking land holdings are equally unable to sustain their own nutritional needs.
Kwame's decision to embrace his local co-operative sets an important example for other farmers. He is a local chief and as such is looked to by many for his guidance and wisdom on such matters.
His dark soil with its small stones is just right for growing soya. Kwame says he'll continue to grow yams, noting their leaves make good fertilizer for soya. Through the co-op he will learn how to conserve the nutrients in his soil, and how to be less rainfall dependent. He will earn higher prices because, like the other co-op members, he can now store his soya beans in the co-op silo until prices rise in the weeks following the initial harvest sell off.
Kwame's turnaround is not unique among farmers in the Eastern Corridor. Farmers in eight districts are turning to each other to reduce their vulnerability. Aided by the Canadian Co-operative Association (on behalf of the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada), the Ghana Co-operative Credit Unions Association Limited and SEND - GHANA, they are forming co-operative enterprises to help improve production and off-season revenue, enhance processing and storage, and improve marketing. Strong credit unions are providing needed and stable financing. Farmers are gradually improving productivity, earning higher prices by pooling, storing and marketing their crops, and generating off-farm revenue by turning household activities to sustainable small businesses.
This five-year project, known as FOSTERING, will ensure food security for almost 42,000 smallholder farmers and their households.