Ghanaian tomato farmers are preparing for bumper harvest but, for many forced to leave their produce to rot on the farms, it could also be a time of devastation. Suicide rates among tomato farmers might be disputed but what is not disputed is that many farmers are often unable to find an outlet for their fresh produce due to a glut on the market.
But it doesn't need to be this way; Ghanaian authorities could step up and put processing technologies in the hands of local farmers.
Media reports highlight the experiences of farmers like Wisdom Banini, a smallholder farmer in Anloga who harvests between 600 and 1,000 kilogrammes of tomatoes each season. Until he met Mr Sena Ahiabor, a crop scientist who has found a simple technology to process tomatoes, his surplus tomatoes would be left on his farm to rot.
Banani is one of thousands of Ghanaian farmers whose hard labour often goes to waste. Many farmers like Banani do not have access to simple tools to help process their produce into other forms such as tomato paste and, in so doing, reduce losses and generate additional income.
Tomato is the most common vegetable used in cooking in Ghana and more than 381,015 tonnes are grown annually. At the same time, researchers estimate that farmers lose between 20 to 40 percent of their harvest because of the lack of tomato processing facilities which, in turn, pushes up prices.
In the past, the government of Ghana built tomato processing factories like the Pwalugu tomato factory and Nsawam Cannery in order to cut down the losses. But these factories are expensive to set up and running costs are high. As a result, many of these factories have since shut down and tomato farmers continue to be amongst the poorest in the country.
The impact of the lack of processing facilities is exacerbated by market forces. Farmers have been exploited by “Market queens” who buy tomatoes from Burkina Faso because it is cheaper. These market queens are powerful middle women who determine the price of tomatoes . By controlling the market price, they give farmers little choice in determining the final cost of the product – sometimes at prices which do not recoup production costs, which leads to greater losses.
Even though Ghana grows enough tomatoes to serve its markets, it imports $99 million worth of tomatoes from Burkina Faso, depriving farmers of this income. This has created fierce competition for tomato amongst the two countries. Ghanaian farmers are disadvantaged as tomatoes from Burkina Faso are cheaper and of better quality. Unlike Ghana, the Burkinabe government supports tomato growers with improved seeds. Farmers process dried tomato using solar dryers which are sold to generate more income.
Tomato paste is a lucrative market which has attracted foreign traders. In order to gain competitive advantage, these privately owned companies – most of which are foreign companies – have set up tomato paste packing facilities using imported bulk raw material which they package and label as “made in Ghana” products.
This is a cheaper way of bringing in tomato paste as import duties on bulk goods is 10 percent but 35 percent on finished goods. These activities do not address the fundamental problems of absorbing excess supply of locally grown tomatoes — especially in the glut seasons.
Benefits from large scale processing have not filtered down to farmers and it is time to use small-scale processing on farms with a structured plan to turn tomato into products such canned tomato paste.
Simple technologies can place the power in the hands of farmers. For example, I have developed a low-cost solar dryer – which does not require the use of electricity – to process fresh tomato into tomato powder which can then be made into canned tomato paste.
However, most farmers do not see these processing technologies as a way out because successive governments have failed to offer these options. We see processing as a large scale activity when we should see it on the farms – with farmers at the helm.
Small-scale processing on or around farms is crucial. Not only is it easier for the farmer to access for their harvest but also makes the final product easier to transport.
And farmers, farmer organisations, civil society groups, private sector and government all have a role to play in making this work.
Farmers like Banini are proof that when you put processing facilities in the hands of farmers, not only do farmers win with better harvests and greater income but consumers benefit with sustainable, cost-effective and nutritious local produce on their table.
Mavis Owureku-Asare is a food scientist based in Ghana and an Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on twitter @mowurekuasare .