In the Upper East Region there is no tomato season that passes without some farmers committing suicide as a result of frustration. As a matter of fact it has become an annual ritual.
One of the tomato farmers, Mr Nsobila Adongo, narrating his experience to this Writer said he took a loan from a bank to cultivate tomato and had a bumper harvest but there was no market for the produce, which was highly perishable.
Many tomato farmers in the Region are in similar predicament this season. The faint hearted among them resort to committing suicide. Of late no tomato season passes without one or two farmers committing suicide.
So far, it is alleged that two farmers have committed suicide this year even before the harvesting season reaches its peak. One wonders how many tomato farmers would commit suicide during the peak period if they failed to get market for their produce. Something needs to be done to reverse the trend immediately.
Ironically, tomato traders from the Southern Ghana, who are known as "Market Queens" refuse to purchase tomato from the Region but rather cross into Burkina Faso to purchase the produce.
It is alleged that the market Queens smuggle roofing sheets and local manufactured drinks (Akpatashie) to Burkina Faso, where they are in high demand to sell, after which they buy tomato from there to sell in Ghana at great profit. Tomato Imports
Meanwhile it is on record that Ghana is the second largest importer of tomato in the world, second to Germany. Records at the Ministry of Trade and Industry indicated that in 2000 the Ghana imported about 10 million kilograms of tomato at 8.9 million US Dollars.
This rose to about 12 million kilograms at 9.6 million dollars in 2001. The year 2002 saw the importation of 16.4 million kilograms at a total cost of 12.7 million dollars.
The European Union was reported to have exported 27,000 tones of preserved tomatoes to Ghana in 2003. Though in 2004, 2005 and 2006 statistics were not available, the trend suggested that each year, Ghana's tomato paste imports jump by about 23 per cent. According to the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana over 700 tomato farmers have already been rendered unemployed as a result of the tomato importation. Research Findings
A recent research report entitled "Free Trade, Small Scale Production and Poverty" undertaken in 2008 and facilitated by Social Enterprise Foundation of West Africa explained that the inability of farmers to raise funds to repay loans resulted from both price volatility and competition, which were characteristic of the increasing market share of imported tomato paste.
The research noted that the lack of access to credit facilities and high cost of inputs are the three top challenges they faced. Tomato price control by market queens, prevalence of disease attack leading to loss of yields, and difficulty in accessing land for agriculture purposes are the other challenges facing the farmers.
The Research finding also indicated that the continued withdrawal of Government support from the agricultural sector in the wake of trade liberalization also meant increased unfair competition faced by small-scale farmers.
The lack of such support further heightens fears of subsequent loss of market and livelihood as liberalization is deepened within the context of the ECOWAS Regional Market.
It recommended that there should be flexible credit facilities, which should be extended to the women's groups in the sector, building the capacity of farmers, and the provision of storage facilities at the major production centres. There is the need to create the opportunities of access to market.
In this regards, it is prudent to mandate district assemblies to link small scale farmers to the Ghana school feeding programme to serve as a ready market instead of using, say, imported rice or imported tomatoes.
Indeed it was heart-warming to hear Vice President John Mahama talk about the need to protect the indigenous sector of the economy if jobs were to be created and to sustain the existing ones. In fact the Vice President who is conventionally the head of the Economic Management Team should put his feet on the paddle and ensure the sustainability of Ghanaian livelihoods. Vice President Mahama's promised intervention
Meanwhile it has been quite refreshing and a big relief to tomato farmers in the Upper East Region as the Vice President visited the Region and interacted with tomato farmers. He also visited the Pwalugu Tomato Factory and assured the farmers that the Government would create the necessary environment to assist the to farmers crop and market their produce.
"Tomato farmers produce as from next year would not be allowed to go bad on the farms. Government would put up effective strategies to address the problem," he told the farmers.
During an interaction with the Management of the Tomato Factory, Vice President Mahama was told that the factory had no funds to purchase the produce of the farmers. The Vice President said as a medium term measure he would liaise with relevant agencies in Accra to purchase the tomato from the farmers to enable them to settle their liabilities to the banks.
He asked the factory to purchase tomato from the farmers on credit instead of allowing them to go to waste so that they could pay the farmers later. He assures the farmers that the present Government was more committed to the agriculture sector and would put in place pragmatic policies to help farmers and encourage others, especially the youth, to undertake farming and appealed to them to stop committing suicide.
Mr Mark Wayongo, the Regional Minister, also assured the farmers that he would liaise with the various institutions, especially schools in the area to purchase the tomatoes.
The Regional Minister said as a long-term measure, the District Assemblies in the Region and the farmers themselves would be encouraged to hold shares in the factory as from next year.
In fact it is envisaged that if this perennial problem of the tomato farmers were solved, it would help engage people especially the youth, who either migrate or are used by other selfish people to commit criminal acts, in productive ventures.
Indeed it would be one of the best means to help to bridge the gap between the North and the South as pledged by the present Government.
It is, therefore, the hope that the Government would live by its promise by ensuring that the farmers' problems were solved once and for all to avoid the numerous suicide associated with the frustration farmers go through in the Region.
Most of the farmers interviewed told this Writer that they would be very much appreciative if the Government helped to resolve their plight, explaining that tomato farming was one of the major sources of livelihood for farmers in the Upper East Region.
It is of the view of this Writer that Government should intervene and regulate the tomato trade by opening new tomato markets in Accra; Kumasi; Sekondi; Cape Coast and other major towns to offer alternate source of tomato supply and break the stranglehold of Market Queens. At present five pieces of averaged-sized tomatoes sell at one Ghana Cedi in Accra. The problem lies at the farm gate - marketing centre interface of the tomato production chain.
Tomato farmers should also be advised that committing suicide is not the best. They should be educated to appreciate the fact that becoming indebted to a bank is a normal occurrence in business, and that a person's inability to service his or her debts to a bank in Ghana is not punishable by death.
This matter is serious. How many tomato farmers should die before a solution is found to their plight?
A GNA Feature by Samuel Adadi Akapule