The outbreak of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is the new epidemic ravaging the world. The main coronavirus affected countries are Ghana’s key trading partners and sources of our food imports, which is a threat to our national food security.
A March 20, 2020, publication by the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future Programme on the impact of coronavirus on food supply, cautions that a community spread of the pandemic in Ghana could create a situation comparable to the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak which disrupted Food systems and increased food insecurity in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea between 2013 and 2016.
The population segment most affected by the coronavirus is the aged of over 60 years.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) stated in 2019 that, the average age of active farm workforce in the developing world, including Ghana as a lower middle income country, is 60 years. Each of these aged smallholder farmers cultivate 1.6-hectare land on average. Agriculture account for up 90 per cent of Ghana’s food supply, 54 per cent of the country’s GDP and 40 per cent of her export earnings as reported by the FAO Committee on Food Security.
It is worrying that the over 60-year-old group constitutes the largest proportion of coronavirus infections and mortalities. In Italy, the current epicentre of the pandemic, infection rates are 1.2 per cent in the 0-18 years’ group, 25 per cent in the 19-50 years’ group, 37.3 per cent in the 51-70 years’ group and 36.5 per cent in the older than 70 years’ group according to Statista data of March 22, 2020. The loss of the aged farmers in Ghana will be grave for national food security and the quest for food self-sufficiency should the pandemic spread in Ghana. Ghana’s life expectancy of 55-60 years already makes the situation dire even without the coronavirus outbreak.
Our aged farmers could be described, figuratively, as “endangered species.” Losing them will greatly impact our local food production, increase food insecurity vulnerabilities, deepen our import dependency and defeat gains made in agricultural development in Ghana over the years.
Low youth involvement in well-developed, mechanised and profitable commercial agricultural ventures in Ghana, despite numerous public and private interventions to promote the transition of youth into agriculture, is a clear indication that youth in commercial agriculture interventions have not yielded desired outcomes.
Overreliance on aged farmers and use of poor technology in agriculture has not helped Ghana’s agriculture and national food security. A Ghana trade report of March, 2020, showed that among Ghana’s leading agricultural imports, rice is imported from Pakistan, Korea, India, Thailand, Japan, China, Vietnam and the U.S. Wheat is imported from the U.S., E.U. and Canada. The local poultry industry is not able to compete with foreign imports. An International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report of 2018 on the Competitiveness of the Ghanaian Vegetable Sector, reported increasing annual imports of onion, chili and tomato from neighbouring countries. This, coupled with the coronavirus threat, achievement of only 50 per cent of our crop yield potentials and high postharvest losses of 30 to 50 per cent and beyond, as data from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture indicates, presents a bleak picture for our future food self-sufficiency.
Concerted effort is needed to protect the nation’s agricultural workforce of all ages and gender to help secure our food supply amidst the coronavirus outbreak and other unforeseen crises.
Proposed mitigation strategies
The following broad strategies are proposed for Ghana to manage the coronavirus and other threats to agriculture and food security:
1. Deepening coronavirus engagement with local farmers. Farmer education on coronavirus prevention protocols tailored to the literacy, language, understanding and technology level of local farmers should be intensified. The National Commission on Civic Education and Ministry of Food and Agriculture should produce and disseminate educational materials to local farmers through social media, interactive rural radio programmes, farmer networks and bulk text messaging through mobile services.
2. Developing Block-Chain and e-Commerce technology for agriculture. Ghana’s agricultural trade and services should be modernized through digitization, automation and tracking for efficiency. Integrating agro-commodity trade platforms, National Food Buffer Stock Company, community warehouses, market information systems, agro-financing, crop insurance, agro-logistics hubs, local markets, e-Extension services and Ghana Post GPS etc. in a block-chain.
3. Incentives for youth into commercial agriculture through irrigation development. Irrigation water should be directly delivered to crops from the One Village One Dam projects and Ghana Irrigation Development Authority’s irrigation schemes across the country. The farms should be laid out, developed and GPS mapped. Each farmer in the scheme should have at least an acre of production land irrigated by canal, drip or sprinkler and supported to mechanise operations.
4. Improving value addition to primary agricultural commodities. Primary commodities should be processed to improve their storability. Some farm products such as cassava, yam and pepper can be solar-dried. Fruits such as mango, pineapple and citrus can be stored as concentrates. Tomato can be turned into purees or paste and stored in hermetic containers. Local food processors should be supported to acquire simple processing equipment for value addition to fresh produce.
5. Amendment to the Free Zones Act to restrict food exports. The parliament of Ghana passed the “Imposition of Restriction Bill” to address coronavirus challenges. Movement of agricultural products out of the country in emergencies may also need to be curtailed. The Free Zones Act Mandates Free Zones companies to export 70 per cent of their products. Amendment to the Free Zones Act should allow 100 per cent sale of Free Zones products on the local market in times of crisis to guarantee national food security.
6. Promoting home gardening. Households can begin home gardens on beds constructed around the house or even convert lawns to farms. Old gallons, car tyres, crates, buckets, waste rice and polyethylene bags can also be recycled to grow crops. They can be arranged on paved or concreted areas and filled with amended topsoil, coco peat, bio-char, saw dust or rice husk to grow crops. The Department of Horticulture of KNUST, Kumasi, and other research institutions can provide technical support.