Two Days on A Farm (or Why It’s Hard to Be an Innovative Farmer)

When you’re from the city, two days on a farm can teach you a lot. I’m working in Ghana for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture but man do I have a lot to learn about farming. Two weeks ago I spent two days in Blema, a small village between Sawla and Tuna in the Sawla-Tuna-Kalba district of Northern Ghana. A good friend of mine, Troy Barrie, dropped me off on a Wednesday morning and took off on his moto, promising to return by the same time Friday.

I had the privilege of staying with a farmer named Musah who is doing some pretty incredible things in Blema. Here is a quick run down of the activities he was undertaking during the dry season, when most farmers take a break in preparation for the busy rainy season:

  • Palm nut cultivation (harvesting and nursing seedlings)
  • Mango grafting and cultivation
  • Orange grafting
  • Cashew cultivation
  • Irrigated tomato and garden egg (eggplant) cultivation
  • Animal husbandry (cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, guinea fowl)
  • Training bullocks

Needless to say I learned a lot of practicals about farming over the two days. During the rainy season he’ll add the traditional staple farming activities and also grow maize, rice, yam and cassava; in two months it will be another whole world of learning for me! What was more important to me about the two days though, was not what it taught me about farming, but rather about farmers.

Besides being an insanely hard worker, Musah is an innovator and an experimenter. Farmers don’t have a lot of insulation from risk here, and even common farming activities such as growing maize and yams are highly dependent on external factors, most notably rain. To invest in new, unproven activities when your family’s livelihood is at stake takes a lot of foresight and guts.

The most obvious example of Musah’s experiments is his palm nut plantation. To the best of Troy’s knowledge, Musah is the only farmer growing palm nut in the entire district – it is much more common in the south where the ground is softer allowing the tree’s roots to grow strong and deep. Musah has some land around a stream that floods regularly during the rainy season and decided to test out some palm nut trees. Now, five years later, he has a flourishing palm nut plantation. He has continued to experiment in different places and has another plot of land where the test trees he planted three years ago have started bearing fruit. He plans to fill in the area with palm nut seedlings this year.

Another example of Musah’s innovation is his grafting. He learned how to graft mangoes, combining local mangoes with varieties of mangoes that produce bigger fruits. Grafted mangoes are common in Ghana and at first this didn’t especially set him apart in my mind. Then we came across a mango tree that had several grafts, six in total. Each graft was a different variety, so this tree will grow up to bear six different types of fruits, and Musah will learn which type does best.

All of this without any formal education. Musah doesn’t speak a word of English – his son Alhassan translated for me as we went around the farm. Pretty incredible.

Innovation is something we like to talk a lot about in EWB and at Waterloo. When I think of innovation I think of fast-moving exciting projects, pushing the boundaries and learning quickly. I think of shortening feedback cycles, “failing fast” and constant iteration. Two days with Musah taught me that innovation in farming is a bit different. Watching him meticulously check each of his palm nut trees and grafted mangoes showed me another type of innovation. Innovation where you invest in a seedling and wait three years (three years!!!) before you reap any rewards, before you learn if your experiment worked. This innovation requires patience, doing the small things each and every day with the hope that it might pay off in the end.

In many ways all farmers face this challenge of evaluating short-term decisions against long-term outcomes, even with their regular year-to-year crops. Will the rains come early or late? Is it worth it to invest in fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide? At the end of the day, what will all of this work be worth for me? All of these questions are ambiguous in farming. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off at all. I recently met a farmer group in Bole trying to do dry season vegetable gardening. They have several gardens of tomatoes that have just started flowering. Unfortunately, the wells they have been using to irrigate are drying up early this year, along with the tomatoes.

All of this adds to my respect and admiration for what Musah is doing is Blema. Being an innovative farmer is hard. Not only do you have to work hard, you need to be willing to experiment, to take risks, and to be patient.

If you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering, what does all this mean for EWB’s work with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and with farmers? In order to keep this from becoming another one of my excessively long posts, I’ll defer that question, as it’s a big one. Stay tuned, that post is on its way!

PS Below are some more pictures from the two days. Hope you enjoy!

Musah stands proudly in front of his palm nut plantation

Musah's son Alhassan holds a palm nut seedling in the nursery

Palm nuts! They become more red as the mature before they're ready to be harvested.

Young cashews before the fruit develops

Alhassan shows the different types of cashew fruits

Mature cashews ready to be bagged and sold to a processor

Taking the bullocks to the dam to fetch water

Look familiar? A soka (or treadle) pump. One of the technologies EWB used to promote in Southern Africa. They use this for irrigation when they don't have money for fuel for the gas pump.

Alright, fine, a picture of me... if I have to. Alhassan to my right and Musah to my left.

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6 Responses to Two Days on A Farm (or Why It’s Hard to Be an Innovative Farmer)

  1. Kyle says:

    This is the clean cut Ben I remember sauntering down the streets of Tamale back in '06. Long live Ghana Ben!

  2. Josh says:

    Great post Ben! Thanks for sharing this. I'm definitely interested to know how you'll take this learning and share it or connect it to your work with MoFA. Keep on rockin'!

  3. Olivia says:

    It sounds like you had an amazing couple of days :) Thanks for sharing!

  4. Sarah says:

    I wonder if we have the patience necessary to be innovative in Ghana…

  5. Leah says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Ben – keep the long posts coming!!!

  6. Tony says:

    My notions of innovations were the same as yours so reading this was enlightening.
    Does Musah share his discoveries with other farmers in the area?

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