Agriculture is the backbone of Ghana’s economy with about 80 per cent of total agricultural production attributed to smallholder farmers including women.
These farmers are faced with issues of environmental degradation and poor soil fertility, due to climate change yet it is amazing how smallholder farmers are able to use their own knowledge to mitigate the impact of those challenges on their livelihoods.
The farmers conduct unscientific experiments on several issues including soil fertility and which type of crop to sow on what soil, rain patterns and what to plant at what time and indigenous mode of controlling pests and diseases.
These may not be scientifically proven, but they have sustained the smallholder farmers over the years; the reason for which Ghana enjoys an amount of food security today.
The key to produce better crops to meet the needs of the growing world’s population may lie in combining the traditional knowledge of subsistence farmers with scientific knowledge to better inform policy formulation.
The livelihood of hundreds of millions of people living in smallholder farming systems depends on the products they obtain from marginal fields.
Smallholder farmers are very knowledgeable in what they grow, because they must be efficient in selecting the crop varieties that will ensure the subsistence of their household.
In Ghana, however, there is a knowledge gap between smallholder farmers and policy makers resulting in the failure in reaching the desired results.
Perhaps, policy makers have not yet realised the need to work with peasant farmers to better shape policies and programmes for best results to increase production.
Mr. Ben Y. Guri, Executive Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organisational Development (CIKOD) said it was out of place for scientists to underestimate the knowledge from farmers for what they have been practicing over the years.
“Farmers are also scientists”, he said, and explained that in every difficult situation they also have their own indigenous experimental ways to overcome the challenge.”
Mr. Guri said it was therefore prudent that their perspectives and experiences were considered in decisions that affected the farmers to better shape the policy decision.
An International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) team of researchers have established that smallholder farmers are faced with difficult choices regarding allocation of assets including land, labour, capital knowledge to achieve multiple household objectives with challenges of the climate change, population growth and changing diets which increased pressure on the natural resource base.
In addition, programmes aiming to increase agriculture productivity often do not consider farmers’ perceptions of trade-offs and synergies while interventions did not reach the poorest and most vulnerable farmers, including women.
Despite this, farmers are still able to ‘produce more with less’ by intensifying their production in a sustainable way that also increases their resilience to shock and stresses.
It is therefore clear that decision makers working in agricultural development and research need to better understand household, intra-household and community-level decision-making processes on the Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture (SIA) and how they are influenced by the enabling environment to design more supportive agricultural policies, programmes and investments.
For this reason, the Sustainable Intensification: Trade-offs Agriculture Management (SITAM) Project which is seeking how smallholder farmers in Africa manage the trade-offs between production, sustainability and other economic and environmental factors is said to have arrived on time.
SITAM, a four-year project (2016-2019) which is being led by IIED will address the challenges and opportunities of smallholder farmers, in particular poor farmers and women in managing the trade-offs between production, sustainability and other socio-economic and environmental factors.
The project also hopes to co-generate research findings with communities and local stakeholders in Eastern Burkina Faso, northwest Ghana and Central Malawi, using household and community level processes.
It will further engage decision makers through National Learning Alliances (NLAs) to bring about changes in their knowledge, awareness, attitudes and capacities.
Dr. Barbara Adolph, IIED’s Principal Researcher and Team Leader for Agro-ecology explained that SITAM was being implemented by a partnership of 10 organisations sharing a common vision of sustainable agriculture that left no one behind.
In an interview with the Ghana News Agency (GNA) at a workshop dubbed “Supporting Smallholder Farmers’ Decision-making: Managing Trade-offs and Synergies for Sustainable Intensification (SITAM),” she said, the expected outcome of SITAM was that “Decision makers and other actors at local and national levels would change their attitudes and capacity in support of proven pro-poor approaches for scaling up sustainable ideas that recognised farmers’ perceptions of synergies and trade-offs”.
Dr Adolph explained that this would be achieved through three outputs which would involve co-generating research findings with communities and decision makers at different levels, based on rigorous and inclusive methods.
She said by engaging with the NLA, they would have the opportunity throughout the research process to continuously feed the results to the decision making process at the national level such that knowledge, perceptions and investments would be changed in favour of smallholder farmers towards achieving sustainable agriculture.
Dr. Peter Gubbels, Groundswell International’s Director for Action Research and Advocacy, West Africa said investigating the things smallholder farmers did and why they did those things would establish whether their pathways were towards sustainable agriculture or just a short term measure.
He said the investigation would help bring out some of the factors that really influenced decision-making by smallholder farmers and how the organisation could support them to adopt methods of farming that would not only meet their immediate needs but also lead to long term environmental sustainability.
Dr. Gubbels noted that finding ways to link smallholder farmers to policy decision makers would enhance the understanding of their needs and lead to better policy and programmes formulation using the best practices that would promote sustainable agriculture.
Dr. Naaminong Karbo, Facilitator of the NLA Ghana, said if certain evidence was generated at the end of the research, the NLA would facilitate the engagement with policy makers.
This would ensure that the policy makers would appreciate the role of small scale farmers in policy decision and give them the enabling environment to benefit from sustainable agriculture programmes.
The SITAM project is funded by the Sustainable Agricultural Intensification Research and Learning in Africa (SAIRLA) Programme,funded by the United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development and managed by WYG International Limited and the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich.
The SAIRLA project seeks to generate evidence and design tools to enable governments, investors and other stakeholders to deliver more effective policies and investments in sustainable agriculture intensification that strengthens the capacity of poorer farmers, especially women and the youth, to benefit from sustainable intensification in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia.
IIED of UK is the project lead organisation while two organisations - the Association Nourrir sans Detruire (‘feeding without destroying’) and the Institute of Environment and Research (INERA) are the implementing partners in Burkina Faso.
CIKOD and the University for Development Studies (UDS) constitute the Project implementing partners in Ghana while the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), Practical Action Consulting and Total Land Care (TLC) formed the project partners in Malawi.
The rest are Wageningen University of Netherlands and Groundswell International of the United States of America.