This post was originally published on the Esoko blog, where we share the experiences and adventures of building, deploying and using a mobile Market Information System in Africa.
Because of close to zero background in agriculture & because Esoko's service offerings are mainly in the field of agriculture, I decided to (read as 'forced to') venture on this 3 days trip to Tamale. As part of the USAID accelerator program (in the Northern part of Ghana) we are supposed to interview agribusinesses & farmers to enroll them onto the program. And that's how I got to fulfill my wish of learning a little more about agriculture. And the fact that Mark & Stephen were present throughout made it even better.
Flight to Tamale from Accra was a quickie. It’s just an hour and the airport is in the middle of nowhere with I think just one air strip. Stephen (in charge of the accelerator program) who had gone ahead of us met us there and we embarked on this “trying to learn more about Agriculture” journey.
I liked Tamale instantly! The town is clean and a lot greener (in comparison to Accra), roads are wide, women on their mopeds riding with such joy.
The first interview Stephen arranged was with a farmer based organization (FBO) called ZOCOFFAMS (mind you, that’s an acronym and I can't recall what it stands for, and there are plenty more to come). On our way to their office Stephen tells us that ZOCOFFAMS managed over 2000 farmers and also act as aggregators (get in touch with me if you don't know what aggregators mean) I was for some strange reason expecting to meet this typical big shot type of person in a suit and tie, decent office, air conditioning etc.
We get there and my shock; the office had two rooms - the first acted as a garage for the 2-wheelers, the second as the office with a single computer covered in red dust, two tables and chairs. We had to wake up the farmer head (in charge of the office) from his afternoon nap. He then got us two extra chairs from his house so he could accommodate all 3 of us along with the translator. That was our first interview but I could hardly concentrate. I was so taken aback by the surroundings, by the fact that the man running the show could barely speak English; yet managed 2000 farmers, is quite knowledgeable of what farmers needs, interacts with donor funded organizations, tracks farmer information and makes time to talk with us. By the end of it I was impressed!!
Next in line for the interview was Gunda Producing Company. We met with Musa Gunda Zacariah who is a large scale farmer himself and also runs Gunda Producing Company. They work with the biggies like USAID, GAIP, GIZ, WFP (I told you! more acronyms) to insure farmers against food security in and around Tamale. In contrast to what I saw before, Gunda has a massive warehouse built with support of USAID where farmers' produce are stored and used as collateral for seeds, fertilizers and even bank loans. The only downside to that is farmers end up selling to Gunda with no bargaining advantage. And immediately I am thinking of a business opportunity. Warehouse Receipt System!
My second assumption was that farmers close to the city (urban farmers) could read/write/speak English. Well that was wrong as well because we had to use the help of interpreters to converse with the farmers.
Once we were done interviewing for the day, we checked into our hotel. It was clean, mosquito free (at least my room was) and quite nice. In the evening we bumped into Dr. Aisha, the MD for African Connection in Ghana, a nonprofit organization that supports small holder farmers in collaboration with SADA. And she was telling us about how small holder farmers are taken advantage of by the aggregators & corporations and how farmers are spoilt by various NGOs pouring in money without providing any sustainable solutions to farmers. And then she starts talking about the plight of maize farmers in Northern Ghana this year as both the Government & WFP didn't buy maize which resulted in a huge drop in maize prices. And that farmers are storing their produce with a hope that the prices would go up but then it's the weevils who are getting richer.
And I just gave her a blank look as she ended her statement looking at me, then she looks at Mark and tells him that the weevils are getting richer and he understands & nods his head. So I ask Mark what organization the weevils belonged to, because we were talking about all these organizations trying to help/save farmers and cause I had no idea what weevils were till then. I was so embarrassed with my question while the rest of them had a good laugh.
The next day saw more interviews, more farmers, and more talks with agribusinesses. More learning for me like process of husking, shelling. Also that farmers are opening their minds to scientific advice and to technology rather than relying on age old methods of agriculture.
The third and final day saw an early start as well as we had to travel to a village 80kms from tamale. Due to the distance, the project manager of ADRA, Isaac Boadu offered to drive us to the place but not before we said a prayer! We wanted to interview both female and male farmers to find out if both had the same information requirements. The male farmers while initially hesitant agreed for the women farmers to be interviewed separately. And I took on the role of interviewing the women farmers.
|Telling the women about the value of information|
My first interview and I was really excited (as if I was about to climb the Mt. Everest) Now you should know that these people are used to getting free seeds, fertilizers, cash, promises of tractor services among other incentives from NGOs. So when I tell them that we don't give any of that but we are here to provide information to them they all looked upset. They lost interest in me and what I had to say. Now how do you show these people who are uneducated the power of information when they cannot even touch it or see it? Even the interpreter had lost interest and was flirting with one of the ladies. I was this close to giving up when the lightbulb lit above my head EUREKA!! I take Mark's phone and dial 1900. And I let the women talk on the phone. The leader of the pack takes the phone and starts talking to the call centre agent with her eyes on me filled with suspicion which later changed to surprise and then to joy. I had no idea what they were talking about cause it was all in Dagbani but I could sense the joy and curiosity. And the call ended with four women talking to our call center agent. They learnt that they could talk to our agent in Dagbani, ask for any agricultural or weather related information and that all this was just a phone call away; I was so proud to see that these farmers finally realized the power of information.
And the best part was they gifting us with two guinea fowls & twenty eggs. Truly, it is the poor who are generous!
The next day we flew back to Accra. I carried with me excitement, zest, enthusiasm and of course my luggage.
As I write this blog I can feel the goose bumps on my hands. I am glad that I am part of something that is changing farmer's lives, that is adding value and making an impact more than I had imagined and that I part of the solution and not the problem.
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