Accra, Nov. 4, GNA - Agriculture, the mainstay of the national economy, after more than four decades of independence, still remains the single most attractive and important sector that seriously engages the attention of every Government, no matter its ideology and political manifesto.
The Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) states that the Sector contributes about 40 per cent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP); 30 per cent of its export earnings and employs more than 60 per cent of its workforce and feeds a population of more than 18 million people.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the first Friday of December every year has been set aside as a National Farmers' Day to honour the hard-working cash, food crop and livestock farmers, fishermen and others working in agri-business enterprises.
From a humble beginning of token donations of Wellington boots, pieces of wax prints and machetes, the National Best Farmer has grown to become the proud recipient of power tillers; tractors; a brand new pick-up vehicle and recently a four-bedroom house.
Thousands of farmers and fishermen countrywide also receive awards of different dimensions from the district to the national level to, at least, compensate for their toil and efforts to feed the nation and assist it in its export drive.
The recent increase in the producer price of cocoa from 8.5 million cedis per metric ton or 531,250 cedis per bag of 64 kilograms gross to 9 million cedis per metric ton or 562,500 cedis per bag of 64 kilograms is a further incentive to boost the morale of cocoa farmers.
Ghanaian farmers could have reaped more monetary gains from their produce but this has not been possible due to the fluctuating and unstable prices of primary commodities such as cocoa and coffee on the world market.
The unfair North-South trade, which restricts imports from developing countries like Ghana into the European Community and the United States, has seriously affected the fortunes of this nation and, for that matter, farmers.
This problem has been accentuated by the poor intra-African trade dictated by import restrictions and foot dragging by members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to implement protocols on the free movement of goods and services within the community.
Ghana, therefore, needs to take a hard look at its agricultural policy with a view to boosting food production and forestalling post-harvest losses through increased efforts at value addition or processing and preservation of agricultural produce.
The theme for this year's Farmers' Day - Enhancing Agricultural Productivity and Food Security Through Improved Agri-Business - must capture the main concerns of the MoFA and the Government. Food security and increased production of food and raw materials have, indeed, pervaded the themes of all previous celebrations since the Farmers' Day was instituted in 1985.
That is why Government must attach considerable importance to agro-processing and preservation, which would not only help to minimise post-harvest losses, stabilise prices throughout the year, but would also increase farmers' incomes and their standard of living.
The bitter truth as stated by the Ministry on the state of agro-processing in Ghana, however, is that only about 13 per cent of agricultural produce get processed, with most of this value addition occurring mostly in cassava and cereals, especially maize. The Ministry concedes that "processing of vegetables such as tomatoes is virtually non-existent and yet the vegetable area experiences the greatest post-harvest losses, estimated at up to 30 per cent, if not more".
For example, it states that in September 2002, a crate of 52 kilograms of tomatoes, which sold for about 80,000 cedis in Keta went came down to 20,000 cedis in the first week of October, the same year.
Efforts by previous governments to forestall this situation by engaging directly in agri-business such as tomato and meat processing on a commercial scale, however, failed miserably.
The defunct Pwalugu and Wenchi Tomato Factories are typical examples of the non-viability of state-run enterprises, hence the decision of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) Government to provide support to the private sector to go into the procurement of inputs, production, processing and marketing of agricultural produce.
The Ghana News Agency reported that the Minister of Trade, Industry and President's Special Initiatives, Mr Alan Kyerematen in his keynote address to launch this year's Farmers' Day celebration, bemoaned the fact that a basically agricultural country like Ghana imports virtually all its improved agricultural inputs such as hybrid seeds, fertilisers, agro-chemicals, agro-machinery and equipment and packaging materials. "Even more pathetic is the fact that close to 500 million dollars worth of food, such as rice, wheat, fish, meat, and sugar, are imported with our hard earned foreign exchange," he said.
Such a development is untenable in the face of seasonal glut for certain food crops and vegetables like yam, cassava, maize, plantain and tomato and the resultant unreasonable fluctuation in prices and recurring post-harvest losses, which hovers around 30 and 40 per cent. Mr Kyerematen said Ghana would be on the road to rapid growth and development "if agriculture and related economic activities are handled by the private sector in a business-like manner, backed by appropriate technologies and economies of scale".
Here, the emphasis is on firms that manufacture agricultural inputs and produce raw materials and those engaged in the distribution, packaging, storage and transportation of agricultural produce.
The President's Special Initiatives is gradually rekindling interest in private sector investment in agriculture and its related enterprises, particularly in cassava to promote industrial starch production.
For example, the Ayensu Starch Processing Plant, Amasa Cassava Processing Company and the Dunkwa Continental Goldfields Limited are all engaged in the production of quality cassava flour, which can be used by bakers to reduce their over-reliance on wheat flour.
There is certainly great potential for investors, who wish to go into processing highly improved varieties of cassava into dough, starch, gari, biscuit, flour, tapioca and chips for export.
Other private sector projects that can ensure food security include medium-scale processing of logging residue, processing of oil palm by-products, tomato paste production and fruit and vegetable processing. Entrepreneurs may, however, have to face the obstacles of seasonality of production, high cost of imported machinery and low durability of locally manufactured equipment.
Another area of much concern to entrepreneurs is inadequate infrastructure and high cost of utilities such as electricity, telephone and water and the problem of access to formal credit, which need to be addressed.
The weak link between agricultural research and industry needs to be strengthened to curtail wastage, increase the shelf-life of agricultural produce to ensure price stability and make agri-business more attractive to private investors and industrialists.
Documents made available to the Ghana News Agency show that research institutes under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) such as the Crops Research Institute (CRI), Industrial Research Institute (IRI), as well as the universities and the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC) can easily link up with operatives in agri-business.
The IRI, for example, has designed and fabricated various food processing and industrial machines while the CRI has developed high yielding Quality Protein Maize - Dada-ba, Mama-ba, and CIDA-ba-, which are said to be widely cultivated by farmers, and a high yielding and disease resistant variety of rice.
It has also developed three varieties of cassava noted to be resistant to pests and diseases and yields three times more than the local crop. The Food Research Institute (FRI) of the CSIR has also developed fufu flour, dehydrated fermented maize meal for preparing porridge, kenkey and banku.
The Animal Research Institute of the CSIR is known to have developed formulations of wheat bran for the preparation of animal feed while the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agricultural Research Institute of the GAEC has been extensively involved in plant breeding using in-vitro culture and mutation breeding techniques.
The Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi has developed palm oil extraction technology with a pounder that is five times faster than the traditional method.
The Chorkor Smoker extensively used by fishmongers was also developed by the Nutrition and Food Science Department of the University of Ghana, Legon.
There are, indeed, many more research works and products that could be applied locally to improve processing of produce and drastically cut down on waste and post-harvest losses and thus ensure food security. An appropriate mix of agriculture, research, industry and private sector participation is all that is required to enhance agricultural productivity, food security and improved agri-business.