Region focus: Africa
But this dichotomy misses an important point. Agriculture is not going away; it is transforming. Subsistence farming may be gradually disappearing (the number of Ghanaians who say farming is their primary job fell from 57 to 44 percent between 2006 and 2016), but it is being replaced by a more dynamic, productive, market-oriented agriculture.
This new agriculture generates jobs off the farm for entrepreneurs who sell farm equipment and supplies, trade and transport food, and process crops into valuable commodities (tomatoes into tomato sauce, for example). We call this holistic view of agriculture the “agrifood system.” The off-farm elements of this system already employ more than 10 percent of Ghanaians, and they will provide opportunities for millions of ambitious young people in the decades to come.
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) constructed a model to project the impact of agricultural development on Ghana’s future. What it shows is that a thriving agrifood system could cut poverty in half, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and drive economic growth.
Ghana is already on a good trajectory. Even with current trends, the poverty rate is projected to fall from 20 percent in 2016 to 6 percent in 2030.
But if Ghana achieves the Sustainable Development Goal for agriculture—a doubling of productivity by 2030—poverty will fall not to 6 percent but to 3 percent. That is another 848,000 people escaping poverty.
Productivity reduces poverty in three ways: It increases smallholder farmers’ income; boosts rural economies because farmers spend money locally; and lowers food prices, which especially helps the poorest consumers. A doubling of productivity would also create 671,000 new jobs, the vast majority involved in trading and transporting food to urban markets.
It is important to note that Ghana is not currently on pace to double its productivity. This is an ambitious goal, but not an impossible one.
Part of what is needed is innovation. Thanks in part to new, locally adapted varieties of maize released by Ghana’s Crops Research Institute, for example, average yields have increased from 1.2 tons to 2 tons per hectare since 1990. If farmers adopt new hybrid varieties, yields could go up to 4.5 tons or more. The key is to get these sorts of gains across all the crops grown in Ghana. The national government has made a good start, with agricultural research spending more than doubling since 2000. Ghana also needs to build systems to deliver these innovations to farmers, and to link farmers to the markets generated by the rising demand for food in fast-growing cities.
There is ample room for Ghana’s agrifood system to keep developing. For example, the food processing sector is still projected to be very small by 2030. Currently, Ghana’s main export crop, cocoa, is sold raw and processed outside the country. Meanwhile, almost half of all processed foods consumed in Ghana are imported. If Ghanaians bought food that had been processed in Ghana, their money would stay in the country, generating more jobs for young Ghanaians.
Ghana’s future is indeed in Accra and Kumasi. But it is also in the fields and small towns that will supply food to the rest of the country, the region, and, perhaps, the world.
Located approximately 620 kilometers north of Accra, at the crossing of three ancient trade routes, Tamale is Ghana’s fastest growing city. The sight and sound of motorbikes wading through green and yellow auto-rickshaws on well-paved roads define the city. The population is visibly youthful. The weather—a feature of the savannah—is assertively hot and dry in the absence of rain. The third most populous city in Ghana, Tamale is led in numbers by Accra, followed by Kumasi. For its residents, Tamale’s transition from big town to city has come with new banks, more houses that expand the boundaries of habitation, supermarkets, and hotels. For sports lovers, the benign majesty of Tamale’s football stadium, built 10 years ago, remains a source of pride. The frequency of domestic flights to the city’s airport these days provides more than a hint of Tamale’s importance in the national economy: Not long ago, flights were limited to a few a week. Today, you have a daily option of four flights from a single airline. There are plans to upgrade the airport from domestic to international.
Tomato wholesalers from Duayaw Nkwanta sell to vendors at the Agbogbloshie market (Accra, Ghana)
Some things, however, remain the same in Tamale. The Aboabo market is one example, like a scene from a historical movie. Its glory lies in its alleys and its nonexistent direction signs. Here, neither Google maps nor the Internet can give any clues on where you can find what. You get what you need by keeping your eyes open and talking to people. I travelled here in July 2018 to find out more about the tomatoes sold on this market, to trace their source and understand their contribution to the economy of Tamale.
Growing up in Accra, I have had at best a casual relationship with the tomato. I lacked any knowledge of how it ended up in the grocery and in my food. Unlike my sister and mother, who bought it to prepare family meals, I had no idea when it was out of season, how it affected the family budget for groceries, or what relationships were forged in markets between buyers and sellers. How are the tomatoes in the Aboabo market connected to the ones I consume in Accra? I wanted to know.
Ghana storyteller and journalist
For the past 40 years, Mariama Nagumsi has been selling tomatoes at the Aboabo market, which has a reputation as the epicenter of the city’s commercial activities. To the casual onlooker, there’s no telling which varieties of tomato Mariama might be selling at any given time. They all appear the same: red, fresh, fleshy, a mix of large and small. But ask Mariama, and she’ll give you the detailed background on her tomatoes. “These ones right here,” she said, pointing, “are from Techiman in the Brong Ahafo region.” She spoke Dagbani, the local language.
Tomato production in Ghana is highly seasonal, reflecting regional differences in access to water and rainfall patterns. As a result, different parts of the country produce tomatoes at different times of the year. From late December through late spring, Ghana’s Upper East region and Burkina Faso supply almost all the fresh tomatoes in the country. From June onward, the harvest picks up in the rainy areas, with a longer season in the Brong Ahafo and Ashanti regions and shorter seasons in Greater Accra. Irrigated tomatoes from Greater Accra dominate the market later in the year.
Mariama has to navigate these seasons by traveling to different regions, buying from different farmers under different conditions. She has stuck with the trade through the years because of its profitability. “I have built six huts and put my kids through school. I’m happy,” she told me. She’s not alone. In Tamale, I also met 63-year old Amaama Yakubu, 56-year old Rahi Mohammed, and 20-year old Asana Yakubu—all tomato traders. Mastering these seasonal dynamics keeps them smiling and in business.
For a period in her 40 years as a tomato trader, Mariama Nagumsi encouraged her son to become a tomato farmer. “I wanted him to be my supplier, so we could make money together,” she told me. Her son obliged and started planting tomatoes, but he’s unable to meet her full market demands. “He cannot expand because there are no funding opportunities for going commercial,” she told me.
I could not meet her son, but in Gbulahagu—a village some 27 kilometers away from Tamale—I came across a cluster of tomato farms. The fields looked more like gardens in their potential for yields. Inusah Wumbei, aged 35, is one of the farmers. “We do not focus on tomatoes alone,” he said. “I plant maize, yam, and rice as well.” Even though Inusah says tomatoes are profitable, they require a lot of attention and resources. “We don't have capital for fertilizers or other chemicals needed to grow them on a large scale.” There was clearly a void in large-scale tomato cultivation and processing, even in Ghana's fastest-growing city.
Wemombou Arridan farms tomatoes when they are in season. Off season, he plants millet, groundnuts, peppers, and potatoes. (Sinsula, Burkina Faso)
A week before my trip to Tamale, I had sat with two researchers for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Accra to learn about tomatoes in Ghana and their contribution to the national economy. A survey from 2013 on vegetable consumption in Ghana showed that vegetables took 12.8 percent of total food expenditure for Ghanaian households; among vegetables, tomatoes are on top (at 35.2 percent), followed by onions (19.0 percent), chilies (9.7 percent), and carrots (1.3 percent). The agriculture and natural resource sectors account for 41.5 percent of employment in the country and about a third of its GDP.
Nestled among the charts and tables in the survey, this passage piqued my interest: “Despite the importance of these vegetables in the local diet, much of the demand is met by imports, especially from neighboring countries. There is a widely held perception that Ghanaian farmers do not attain the productivity levels needed for the vegetables to compete in the regional market.” I decided to look further.
From the 1970s through the 1980s, tomato farmers in Ghana benefited immensely from a number of investments made by government within the agriculture sector. Dams were constructed in the savannah regions of Northern Ghana. Local market squares were created in rural areas between the 1970s and 1980s to boost commerce. Bad roads were fixed and new ones were constructed to make the movement of people and goods easy. Tomato farming increased during this period, but there’s been little emphasis on improving productivity. According to a 2010 IFPRI report, “commitment to the tomato sector as a whole has not to date been strong.”
According to the Ghana National Tomato Producers’ Federation, Ghana produces 510,000 metric tons of tomato each year, while it imports up to 7,000 tons per month from its neighbors, alongside 27,000 tons of processed tomato from Europe. With its growing middle class, Ghana undoubtedly has a consumer base for tomatoes. Within this overwhelming case of demand lies the opportunity for Ghana’s tomato industry—and for the future of agriculture throughout the country.
From Tamale, I travelled to the Upper East region, Ghana’s northernmost. It shares a border with Burkina Faso. It is also famed as the origin of Ghana’s best tomatoes, though traveling in July meant I was missing out on seeing any tomatoes in the region or in Burkina Faso. Still, I wanted to talk to farmers, traders, and others connected to the tomato market.
In Bolgatanga, I met 28-year old Nelson Akantuge, a junior high school mathematics teacher. Two years ago, he decided to go into tomato farming. “Most people I knew were already tomato farmers, and they told me it was a profitable business. So I decided to give it a try.” That year, Nelson not only got a lesser yield than expected; he found it hard to get buyers. “Some of the tomatoes went rotten. I gave some away because we didn’t get buyers. Many people were into it, but the big buyers preferred tomatoes from Burkina Faso.” He will not invest in a tomato farm again, he told me.
Part of the issue is that a tomato crop requires a lot of care and feeding. “Tomato plants like to grow in warm, well-drained soil,” reads a how-to website. “Pick an area with full sun,” the dos and don’ts continue. Sow seeds three times over a two-week period, making sure your first set of seeds is an early maturing variety. Tomato seedlings need plenty of light and may require supplemental light in many areas. Spacing tomatoes out to at least 3 feet apart gives room for good airflow. Make sure seedlings get no more than 18 hours of sun each day, or the foliage will become mottled and begin to wither. Tomatoes are ready for harvesting 50–180 days from time of transplant, depending on the variety. Tomatoes ripen best between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. And the list goes on and on. “It’s like having a baby, just that you sometimes invest a lot of money in this expecting to make profit,” Nelson told me.
Asana Yakubu has a stall at the Dakurlini market. She is new to the tomato business.
For farmers like Nelson in the Upper East region, competing with Burkina Faso tomatoes is inevitable. Both harvest their tomatoes within the same season, which results in the overabundance of tomatoes during that period. In an ideal world, these gluts can be taken care of by storing the excess tomatoes or processing them into tomato paste—especially since tomato paste is one of Ghana’s top 10 imports—but these are technologies that Ghana currently lacks.
Burkina Faso farmers always win in this season because, unlike their Ghanaian counterparts, they benefit from dams and a government program that provides assistance in the right seed selection and the supply of pesticides. The competition ultimately ends up being unfavorable to the Ghanaian side because Burkina Faso farmers end up producing in larger quantities. “Given the choice between tomatoes from all the regions, I’ll choose Burkina tomatoes,” 56-year old Rahi Mohammed told me in Tamale. “Burkina tomatoes are of a higher quality,” said one buyer in Accra. To succeed as a Ghanaian tomato farmer, relying on changing weather patterns and sharing the same harvest season as the Burkinabe farmer, you have to be twice as good.
Traveling further into Burkina Faso, I got a sense of how much effort farmers and the government there put into the growing of tomatoes. For them, success means a bountiful harvest and a ready market in Ghana, which imports an estimated $99.5 million worth of tomatoes from their country.
When I met 53-year old Victoria Amoah on a busy market in Accra one morning in mid-July, she was seated with her peers, a group of women who ensure there are enough tomatoes for consumers in the city. In the pecking order of tomato trade, Victoria and her peers are the top suppliers. Without them, Accra will have a tomato shortage. Like their compatriots in Tamale, they have mastered the seasonal dynamics that require they crisscross the country or travel into Burkina Faso for tomatoes. Around them that day, I saw at play a real-life portrait of the nation’s tomato industry: an almost endless view of wooden boxes filled with fresh tomatoes, a number of trailer trucks offloading more tomatoes, traders buying in small and large quantities.
“I’ve been doing this for 32 years,” Victoria told me with a smile. “We have had our share of struggles, but this work is important. If you do it well, you don’t need to travel out of Ghana to make a living.” She told me about a national association of tomato sellers with over 3,000 members, to which she belongs. “We have a queen, and she has a record of all members in the country.” She pointed to the trailer trucks. “There are more than 300 of these trucks, belonging to the Tomato Drivers Union. We work with them as we travel to get tomatoes.” She further laid out the value chain of the tomato industry, a list of jobs and opportunities created by tomatoes. There are the assistants to the drivers. Each trailer has a minimum of two. Then, there are carpenters who build the wooden boxes that house tomatoes from farm to market. To show the scale, she explained that each trailer can carry 120 boxes. On the farms, they have people who sort the tomatoes, from ripe to unripe, soft to hard, etc., before placing them in the boxes. Then there are the loading boys, who help load the tomatoes into the trucks. “Whenever we travel to Burkina Faso (between January and June each year), we take the loading boys along.” They don’t have loading boys in Burkina Faso, she said.
I wanted to know what she meant by “our share of struggles.” “We get attacked by robbers sometimes,” she said. “They know it’s a business, so we have money on us.” The attacks have happened in both Ghana and Burkina Faso, she added. “But in Burkina Faso, we get military protection when we travel through the night to the Ghana border.”
During our chat, she invited her peers to join in the discussion. They shared memories, told me about their favorite trade routes and the best tomatoes. There was a sense of kinship among these women, one solidified through shared experiences in the pursuit of tomatoes. These are stories that the final consumer, whose jollof rice hinges on tomatoes, may never know. These women appeared to love what they do, even though they wish they had institutional and governmental support. “If we had processing factories, we can make use of the surplus tomatoes which we end up throwing away during bounty harvests,” Victoria said. “If we got support, things will be far better in Ghana. We might not even have to go to Burkina Faso.”
Before saying goodbye, I asked if any of them would encourage their children to get into tomato farming. There was united laughter. Victoria broke the laughter with an answer: “My children are educated. If I went to school, do you think I would be selling tomatoes?” Another woman, Abena, interjected: “My kids will do it. It’s profitable.” Another lady countered, “She’s joking. Ask her, if her kids are going to join, when will that be?”
This last conversation happened in a spirit of fun, but it got me thinking afterward. Nothing encourages any of my peers—young and educated Ghanaians—to get into agriculture or trade of this kind, in spite of its importance to our development. Besides 20-year-old Asana Yakubu, who had to drop out of school to take care of her mother’s tomato business in Tamale, the class of women at the top of the tomato supply chain in Ghana is rapidly aging without any visible successors.
Government support could change that, and that support may be on its way. Ghana may soon be on track to switch from these imports to homegrown tomatoes that meet the country’s demand. The government has launched a campaign with a series of activities meant to support farmers and actors in the agricultural supply chain. The campaign, called Planting for Food and Jobs, is intended to “enhance productivity of crops of significance for food and feed in Ghana through integrated services on marketing.” If done right, this campaign could transform agriculture and put Ghana on an accelerated path to seize the opportunities in the tomato industry—and to transform agriculture nationwide.