Hunger and malnutrition is a significant problem in Ghana. Fourteen percent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition nationwide; this soars to 36 percent in the rural north.
A large part of the problem is that Ghana is not food self sufficient. Fifty-seven percent of Ghana's land is classified as agricultural, but only 24 percent is under cultivation. About 60 percent of this cultivated land is tended by smallholder farmers, who are expected to produce about 80 percent of the total agricultural output.
These farmers face many challenges. They use rudimentary agricultural equipment and substandard inputs including seeds and fertilizers. Poorly maintained roads negatively influence delivery of requisite supplies and transportation of outputs. Methods of crop production and storage are outdated, meaning that crops are not fully exploited and postharvest losses are significant. One of the cows vital for milk or meat production may get bitten by a tsetse fly, and get infected with a disease called Nagana (Animal Trypanosomiasis). The fly may transmit the disease to other animals. To compound the program, Ghana's climate favors a very long dry season. During many months of the year, some farm families can't produce enough food to meet even their own nutritional demands.
The Ghanaian government has been intervening with programs to improve the situation. But, with an average annual population growth of three percent, farming can continue to lag behind what the country needs to meet the demands of its citizens.
One of the smartest things the Ghanaian government can do is to help farmers take advantage of their greatest asset—livestock. Most small farmers own a few cows, some pigs or goats, and chickens. But many don't understand the many roles these animals can play toward boosting a farm's productivity, so the animals are underutilized. In fact, some farmers may even sell their livestock when they need money. This is short-sighted when you consider that livestock can make a significant contribution to food security—for the farmer and for the country.
Milk, meat, eggs and cheese from animals provide a much-needed source of animal protein for a more balanced, healthy diet. The demand for animal protein is reported to be on the increase worldwide. When compared to crops, animals provide food year-round, and aren't susceptible to the climate the way crops are. Cattle are a source of draft power; they pull plows but can also be used for weeding and other jobs. Cow dung can be used as a source of fuel, and manure can be used as fertilizer to improve soil quality without the environmental side effects from chemical fertilizers.
Healthy, productive livestock can ensure that the farmer has a regular stream of income through milk and eggs sold in the marketplace. Farmers can also use livestock to sell services such as providing cattle to pull plows for neighboring farms. Livestock also helps close the gender gap that is biased toward men in Ghana. By tending to chickens and milking dairy cows, women are valued for the role they play in feeding their families while their husbands focus on farming outputs for income generation.
The government of Ghana recently received a major loan from the African Development Bank for a Livestock Development Project. A critical part of this project must involve educating farmers about the valuable role livestock plays toward reducing food insecurity and teaching farmers how to market their livestock outputs. Farmers must be trained on how to keep livestock healthy and productive with nutritious food, fresh water, clean stalls and sufficient natural light. They must learn how to recognize symptoms that mean livestock is ill, and when it's important to seek veterinary services. Events can be organized to demonstrate ways to calm animals irritated by biting and nuisance flies and how to protect them from diseases, such as Nagana, which can be deadly to animals and their owners.
At a more advanced level, farmers can be taught about more effective farming practices such as how to crossbreed their cows to produce higher-yielding animals which will result in increased milk to consume and sell. Government can initiate policies that provide reasonable financing options to support farming production and effective marketing of farming outputs.
Ghanaian farmers can succeed in overcoming the challenges of food insecurity, and livestock can be one of their greatest assets. But first we must empower our farmers with the right resources and skills. Then they'll be able to create a brighter future—for themselves and for the country.
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Dr. Charles Mahama is the Ghana Project Coordinator for the Ghana Tsetse Control Programme.