An agrarian revolution in the Fumbisi Valley: the modernisation of farming

Written by: Joseph A. Yaro

In past green revolutions, Africa has not fared well. During the 1970s, for instance, efforts were made to modernise practices for enhanced farmer efficacy and productivity – and, in turn, reduce poverty and hunger. During these periods, governments and international development organisations aimed to spread new crop cultivars and introduce new irrigation methods, mechanisations, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and weedicides – but without significant success. Hindering factors included low uptake of these new farm technologies, while unequal access to subsidised inputs led to social imbalances. Furthermore, investments from both states and outsiders were too low to influence change, and the promoted strategies were inappropriate for most geographical and economic contexts. As a result, those working in African agriculture continued to rely on traditional methods of rainfed farming. Yet, in spite of previous shortcomings, African states and their farmers have not abandoned their quest to experience change – and their efforts are now being rewarded.

Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is currently experiencing rapid transformation, characterised by increasing farm sizes in land-abundant communities and the modernisation of farm practices. Together, these conditions are ripe with opportunities which offer brighter outlooks for farmers than ever before.

A recent APRA study analysed and documented changes occurring in the Fumbisi Valley in the north-east of Ghana, an area characterised by an abundance of fertile yet flood-prone farmlands. Focusing on differentiated peasantry and new commercial farmers, the researchers explored transformations relating to farmland sizes and the use of modern inputs (herbicides, weedicides, and varied fertilisers), along with the reasons for their occurrence. Data was collected using a mixed method approach involving qualitative interviews, GPS mapping, focus groups, farm visits, and a cross-sectional survey.

Growing for good

The study shows that a green revolution in Fumbisi Valley is well underway. Rice cultivation in the region is highly commercialised, occupies a huge land area (and continues to expand), and cultivation techniques are becoming more modernised.

Traditional ways of farming are being replaced by contemporary practices using tractors, drones, combine harvesters, fertilisers, weedicides, and herbicides. Furthermore, a bond system for managing water is being widely adopted by farmers. Bond systems comprise various enclosures which allow for water to be trapped and used as irrigation. Farmers have been able to adopt this approach by employing bulldozers, tractors, and backhoe earth-moving machines – use of which has been largely sponsored by the state, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and commercial farmers.

However, enhancing rice cultivation and commercialisation and adopting modern technologies requires more land. As such, some small farmers have expanded their farms to sizes of 4 ha and above. In our study, farm sizes were categorised into four groups: small (less than 10 acres/4 ha); lower-medium (11-50 acres/4.1-20.5 ha); upper-medium (51-100 acres/20.6-40.5 ha); and large (100 acres/40.5 ha and above).

Most small-scale farmers have graduated (stepped up) into lower-medium size category, now cultivating 4-20 ha. This group represents the bulk of farmers (54%) in the district, whose production in aggregate accounts for the bulk of total production. Unfortunately, women are seemingly less able to make the transition to larger land cultivation: of the 36% of farmers remaining in the ‘small’ category, 60% are women. This is due to poor access to land and financial capital, compounded by poor attention given to them by state and non-state agencies.

The upper-medium (8%) and large-scale (2%) farmer groups are composed of chiefs, urban farmers, and a few local rich farmers. All large-scale farmers are male, and their number has remained stable in the last 15 years. Most large-scale farmers have stepped in, using capital from other sectors. Together, this top 10% possess the mechanisations, such as tractors and combine harvesters, needed for the huge cultivation area in the valleys in order to be functional and attract agro-input dealers. These dealers make agro-inputs readily available at competitive prices for small and lower-medium scale farmers. The large-scale farmers also lobby government for projects for the area, such as construction of roads and bridges, and inclusion in subsidy programs. This synergy between larger and smaller farmers is an important mark and driver of the new green revolution, since their union creates a win-win situation for now. In spite of differences in land size, all farmers used herbicides, weedicides, improved rice seeds, and varying amounts of fertilisers.

Drivers of change

So why is the green revolution successfully happening in the Fumbisi Valley now? This agrarian transition has been enabled by a collective combination of local, national, and global factors. For instance, the area is sparsely populated, which makes land availability and access less of a problem using traditional tenure systems. Meanwhile, because the land is largely flood-prone, crop cultivation is typically limited to rice – so there’s little-to-no competition from other crops. Accessibility is another key element, with enhanced road networks increasing movement to and from markets. Mechanisation services have also been improved thanks to bridges and new roads shortening distances to trunk roads. Enhanced mechanisation began in the 1990s and is funded largely by the state – who often use loans provided by Chinese and Indian firms that have established sales centres in Tamale and Bolgatanga.

Meanwhile, changes at a global level have also inadvertently supported African farmers. For example, the 2007 food price hikes, combined with the growing urban population in Ghana and neighbouring countries (especially Nigeria, from where most traders originate), has allowed rice farmers to demand favourable prices. 

Looking ahead

The dark days of structural adjustment policies which served to destroy food crop cultivation in Africa are behind us. Now, new policies, local realities, and global trends encourage farmland expansion and the use of modern inputs and mechanisation. Alongside these, subsidy programmes have effectively enabled both the rich and the poor to transform their agricultural practices – albeit somewhat controversially. To support and maintain the positive changes to rice livelihoods in the area, three important strategies are required. First, there is need to design new targeted subsidies for marginalised groups – as doing so will help address gender inequalities and prevent local women and youth from being left behind. Second, socially equitable land allocation rules are required to empower local farmers to step-up and ensure local wealth accumulation and poverty reduction in these communities. However, these should not prevent commercial farmers from investing, as they are politically powerful lobbyists that are necessitated by the local communities. Finally, investors should be encouraged to engage in rice processing and bulk purchasing, along with annual price negotiations with farmer groups – as this will help resolve the current problems of gluts in production, low prices, and challenges with storing paddy.