‘A child cannot learn on an empty stomach’: tackling Ghana’s crop crisis

Paul Miles and John Yarney
‘A child cannot learn on an empty stomach’: tackling Ghana’s crop crisis. In Northern Ghana, climate change means shorter wet seasons and blighted harvests. But new varieties of crops and organic compost are helping farmers be more resilient

“Before you realise it, the [growing] season is over,” says Cecilia Awini, a farmer in Garu district in Northern Ghana. “It used to rain around April and by May we would be sowing, but now the rain comes around May – or sometimes not until June.”

Like farmers worldwide, Awini is one of the first to notice the effects of the climate crisis first-hand. Northern Ghana is a fragile, semi-desert savanna ecosystem with just two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season – the only time that large-scale crops can grow – is shrinking, while the “hunger season”, during which there are no crops to harvest, is lengthening to more than half the year.

Awini explains that one solution has been to alter the crops that are cultivated. “We cope with this situation by planting early maturing varieties,” she says. “Because of the rainfall pattern, if we want to grow the traditional crops [they] would not be able to mature.”

Like most semi-subsistence farmers in the area, Awini’s few acres of land is not only her livelihood, it’s also her larder. If crops don’t grow, she will have nothing to feed her six children and six grandchildren. There will be shea nuts from which she can extract oil, but there will be no maize, sorghum or millet, and nothing to feed livestock or guinea fowl.

Savanna Agricultural Research Institute, a Ghanaian government research centre, is using selective breeding to develop new varieties of maize, millet and sorghum that ripen in about 60 days instead of 90. This means that there will still be food staples, even with a shorter wet season.

  • Farmer – and headmaster – Abass Musah with his father Seidu

Thanks to these early cropping varieties, farmers can now hedge their bets and reap a harvest whether the rains are late or not. “It’s difficult to predict the rainfall pattern,” says Abass Musah, who, as well as being headmaster of a junior secondary school, also farms six acres of land. “So we sow both the early-maturing maize and the late-maturing one. Then, whichever way the rains come, at least we should have something to keep the farm running.”

As well as early cropping, new varieties are being selected that can tolerate drier growing conditions. “The newest maize variety, wang-dataa, is drought-resistant,” explains Obed Asunka, climate change and livelihoods officer at an agricultural station in Garu district run by the Presbyterian church. Other new crops are singled out for their nutritional value. “For example, obatanpa [maize] is high in nutrients,” says Asunka, who trains farmers in these new varieties. He also flags up the benefits of new varieties of millet: “That is what we eat before we go to school. Early morning you can roast some and then you chew and go to school … These varieties are very, very important because of the climate change issues that we are now battling with – rainfall patterns aren’t as they used to be.”

It’s not only late rain that is the problem. The intensity of rainfall has changed too. “Instead of rainfall being evenly distributed across the season, it comes shortly and heavily and causes floods,” says Asunka. Flooding strips the ground of nutrients. “The soils have become too poor, so that when you grow you have to fertilise before you are able to get a good harvest,” he says.

  • Obed Asunka, who trains local farmers in new maize varieties

To combat this, Oxfam is teaching farmers to make organic compost from maize husks, ash, and waste from the processing of shea nuts and animal manure. Farmers have been given tools – wheelbarrows, shovels and pickaxes – to dig and maintain compost pits. One farmer, Alima Fatawu, has seen a massive increase in her maize harvest as a result of enriching the ground organically this way. “Before I started using compost, I used to get just [a few bags] of maize from the farm,” she says. “From the same piece of land, I got 10 bags last year.”

Related: How solar power is helping Ghanaian farmers thrive – in pictures

The increase in yield has changed Fatawu’s life. Extra income from selling surplus maize has helped her to pay school-related costs for her four school-age children. “It has helped me in taking care of the children and it has helped me to get us food to eat,” she says. “I’m happy it has helped me.”

Mmalebna Abang, who is 50 and lives in Tambalug, was also shown by Oxfam how to make compost. “What makes me happy is when I go to the farm and I see that my crops are ready for harvest,” she says. “The crop I like most is the maize because I can use it to feed my family and I can also sell some to support my family.”

These interventions – crop varieties that mature early are drought-resistant and more nutritious, plus improved yields from composting – can change people’s fortunes for life. “The benefits of a good harvest to my students are many,” says Musah. “A child cannot learn on an empty stomach. When the child is hungry, that child can’t pay attention. So a good harvest means a child pays attention in class, and teaching and learning go well.”

Oxfam is working with determined families all over the world to challenge climate change. Take part in the Green Christmas appeal and help families survive.