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Ghana

The paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty

Despite being a farming region, northern Ghana bears the brunt of hunger and malnutrition as demand quickly outstrips supply. However, both local and national initiatives to increase household food security are paying dividends.
Santuah Niagia

October is the only month in the year when food is in abundance in northern Ghana. Little wonder that 36 per cent of children under five in the region are malnourished. Both national and local initiatives to increase household food security are yielding good dividends. Among the Kassena-Nankana, with a population of 150,000, October is described as “wondabu chana”, that is, the month in which no child is discriminated against in terms of food.

The harvest of the early millet in July usually attenuates the six-month long hunger season, which lasts from January to June. Then in October, groundnut, the basic ingredient for making soups of all types to go with any kind of meal, is harvested in earnest across the district. There are also sweet potatoes and yams.

In the central part of the district where an irrigation facility exists, rice is being harvested to make room for growing tomatoes, one of the main cash crops in the district. Leftover of the district’s main meal can be found in the morning in even some of the poorest homes. But food is not always in abundance in the Kassena-Nankana district nor does the season of feasting last more than a few months in northern Ghana.

Even in a bumper harvest there is never enough food to last the long dry season. Throughout the Upper East region in particular and northern Ghana generally, hunger and malnutrition are two permanent sides of the same coin, poverty. The percentage of Ghanaians defined as ‘poor’ fell from 51 per cent in 1991-92 to 43 per cent in 1998-99 but the percentage of absolute poor in rural Savannah, and the depth of their poverty, increased. Owing to the harsh weather conditions, agricultural yields are usually very poor, culminating in poor nutrition, which in turn aggravates the mortality impact of infectious diseases.

Malnutrition among children below five years in the three northern regions in Ghana is three times higher than in the Greater Accra region. The cause of maternal and infant malnutrition in northern Ghana is attributed to household food insecurity. But food scarcity and malnutrition are not peculiar to northern Ghana.

FAO's estimates indicate that, in 1997-99, there were 815 million undernourished people in the world, 777 million in the developing countries. Poverty, hunger and malnutrition are perpetual paradoxes. It is said that the world today produces enough grain alone to provide every human being on the planet with 3,500 calories a day, which is enough to make most people fat. Increases in food production during the past 35 years reportedly outstripped the world's population growth by about 16 per cent, says the Worldwatch magazine.

This phenomenon has also been observed in northern Ghana where majority of the people are farmers. They produce considerable amounts of cereals that under normal circumstances should be enough to feed the populace. They are primary producers of yam, corn, millet, groundnuts, tomatoes and other food crops. Yet 37 per cent of children below five years in northern Ghana are stunted as compared to 12 per cent of children in Accra region, which depends solely on foodstuffs brought in from northern Ghana.

According to FAO, gains in food production since 1950 have kept ahead of population growth in every region except Africa. The American Association for the Advancement of Science found in a 1997 study that 78 per cent of all malnourished children under five in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses. The irony is that many of the countries in which hunger is rampant export much more in agricultural goods than they import. The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with about 213 million chronically malnourished people, continue to export food even during the most severe droughts. During one of the worst droughts on record, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the value of the region's agricultural exports - US$1.25 billion - remained three times greater than the value of grain imported.

But all hope is not gone. The Gia Nabio Agro-Forestry Development Organisation in the Kassena-Nankana District has won a national award for its agro-forestry initiatives to provide the district with green cover. But the organization grows more than just trees. It has recently launched a programme to encourage women farmers to expand food production to increase household food stocks by providing seed, bullocks and ploughs during the rainy season. The women operate in groups of 10 and apply for financial support. Each group gets a bullock and plough and each woman gets two bags of groundnuts, all of which are valued at roughly US$700, and payable within two farming seasons.

Daniel Luguzuri, Director of the Organisation, says women have been targeted to benefit from the scheme to improve their economic status. In many households throughout northern Ghana, women are the breadwinners. After the harvest season the women repay the loan with 15 per cent interest. Another scheme aims to empower women to stockpile food during the harvest season for resale in the lean season. Under a pilot project, which starts this October, 900 women have been identified to benefit.

Under a programme called the President’s Special Initiative (PSI), Ghana’s President, John Agyekum Kufour is promoting special food crops on a national scale. A forty million dollar loan has been secured to promote pineapple and oil palm production. The PSI is already supporting large-scale production of Cassava, which contributes 22 per cent of Ghana’s Agricultural GDP, thus making it the single most important crop in the country today.

The previous government took a loan of US$9 million to promote certain varieties through a six-year project called Root and Tuber Improvement Programme. Three years down the line, the national production of cassava has gone up significantly to about 8 million tonnes per annum. The President’s Special Initiative on Cassava has, however, come under severe criticism from sections of the media regarding the alleged toxicity of the four varieties being promoted. The four varieties, Afisiafi, tekbankye basafitaa and Gblemoduade, are said to have been released by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in 1993 to farmers based on the potential of these varieties for higher yields and resistance to pests.

A government’s spokesperson Hon. Asiedu Nketia admitted in Parliament that the four varieties of cassava under the PSI have a cynogenic potential in their unprocessed state but insisted that they are safe for human consumption. He assured critics that after processing the cassava, the cyanide potential in the four varieties would drastically reduce, making them completely safe for human consumption.

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