How Climate Change is Affecting Crops in Northern Ghana

It’s mid-May so traditionally it is time for farmers in Northern Ghana to start planting. In Upper East Region it has been traditional practice to grow two crops of millet during the wet season, and to make sure this is possible the ‘early millet’ needs to be planted in mid-May. However, farmers have not begun planting and most have not yet begun land preparation. This is a symptom of climate change.

Early millet would be maturing by mid-July if planted in May

Farmers in the region will describe the wet season as beginning in April, with rains stabilising by May. This means that they would begin land preparation after the start of the rains in April and are ready to plant once the rains have stabilised in May. But farmer’s expectations of when the wet season will start and when the rains will stabilise have been changing. Most will now describe that over the past ten to fifteen years the onset of the wet season has been getting later. However, a more important change is that once the rains have started they do not always stabilise, meaning rainfall is not consistent and wet days are separated by several, or even many, dry days. This leaves farmers unsure when to plant.

When the rains are unstable, it may rain heavily once or twice but then there could be a period of a week or two before the next rain. This rainfall pattern is not adequate for crop growth, especially in the degraded soils of Northern Ghana which have poor soil structure and low capacity for water retention.

In Bolgatanga, where the Trax head office is located, this year the first rain of the season fell on the 21st of April. Between then and the 1st of May it rained a further four times, including rain for several hours on one day. Then, from the 2nd of May, it stopped raining. The rains had not stabilised and the area went another eight days before receiving more rainfall.

When the rain started in April, farmers waited to see whether the rain would stabilise before they began preparing their land for planting. They were right to wait because the rain stopped again. Although we have now again had rainfall two days in a row, farmers are still uncertain whether the rain is stable and they can begin preparing their farms for the season.

With the wet season starting later in the year and the rains not stabilising early, farmers are unable to plant during May like they used to. For farmers who grow millet, planting their early millet crop in June or later means that it won’t harvest in time to be able to plant and yield a second crop. This means farming households have lost a whole yield to climate change.

Crops dried out and died during a drought, meaning this field gave no yield at all.

To make things worse, it is now more common to have periods of drought during the wet season than it was fifteen years ago. Even after the rains have appeared to stabilise, it is now common for there to be periods of one or two weeks, sometime longer, when there is no rain at all, meaning it is a drought. This can result in low yields, or in some cases no yield, for all crop types. A farmer may lose their entire yield after months of labour, losing the primary income and source of food for their household.

So, the later onset of rains and more frequent periods of drought during the wet season both present risks to farming livelihoods.

Furthermore, when it does rain, it is now more likely to fall during a violent tropical storm than it used to, rather than typical rainfall. Tropical storms bring lightning and strong winds, which both cause damage to property. Additionally, the rain which falls during a storm a very much heavier than typical rainfall. So, when strong tropical storms bring rain after crops have been planted, the storm will often cause much damage to crops, especially cereals with tall stems. Another way in which changing weather patterns are damaging or reducing yields.

This photo was taken by a farmer to show one of their buildings which collapsed during a storm.

Unfortunately, climate projections suggest that this trend for exceptionally heavy rainfall interspersed with periods of drought are likely to continue and worsen. Models reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change project that the area of West Africa in which Ghana falls is likely to experience an increase in extreme weather events as climate change continues. This will mean more drought and more flooding after intense storms. There is currently uncertainty in models which project average rainfall trends for the region, but most suggest that total annual rainfall will remain similar to current levels, the difference is that this rainfall will come in fewer but more intense weather events.

After eight days without rain followed by two days with extremely strong storms, this pattern of drought and heavy rainfall certainly seems to reflect the present weather. With farmers already facing much uncertainty regarding when to plant and what weather their crops will face during the season, the prospects of the climate changing more over coming decades will increase the uncertainty and challenges of farming and the vulnerability of crops on which the nation depends.

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April 2017 Newsletter now available

Trax has been busy during April. Find out what we have been up to be reading our monthly newsletter here: Newsletter April 2017

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Strength in Numbers: Alliance-Building for Better Food and Farming

Trax want to see sustainable livelihoods which reduce poverty and increase food security among the most vulnerable in society. We believe this can be achieved while also ensuring environmental sustainability by restoring degraded land, and producing organic, nutritious food which is culturally appropriate. This is why we promote agroecological farming practices. We also want to see the rights of small-holder farmers respected and their knowledge recognised and valued. This is why we promote food sovereignty.

We know that our vision of a Ghana without poverty and food insecurity is ambitious. We know that we cannot achieve agroecology and food sovereignty for all Ghanaians alone. This is why we are supporting an alliance of similar organisations, networks, groups, businesses, and individuals across Ghana. Together, we have strength in numbers to achieve our ambitious objectives.

The Ghana Alliance for Agroecology and Food Sovereignty (GAAFS) was officially launched today with the publication of Our Manifesto: A Better Food System for Ghana.

GAAFS members want to see a food system which is socially just, culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable. GAAFS want to see a Ghanaian food system for Ghanaians.

Trax is proud to be a lead partner in GAAFS and act as the current secretariat for the Alliance. To see agroecology and food sovereignty promoted across Ghana, we need to work with others who have a similar vision to Trax. As an Alliance we have a stronger voice and a bigger movement for effective change, we have strength in numbers.

You can read more about GAAFS on their website or download the Manifesto here: GAAFS Our Manifesto for a Better Food System for Ghana (opens pdf).

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“Planting for Food and Jobs” – Doing it a Different Way

The Government of Ghana has announced that it’s headline strategy for agricultural development across the country is “Planting for Food and Jobs”. The policy of the recently inaugurated government is due to be officially launched later this month, on the 19th of April 2017. The Planting for Food and Jobs campaign is expected to initially cost Ghc 560 million.

A field of maize which didn’t yield due to poor soil fertility in Upper East Region, Ghana.

At Trax we are supportive of the government increasing investment in the agricultural sector, especially if this investment is shared equally with farmers in the north and south of the country. However, we have significant reservations about the farming methods promoted through government’s programme.

The Planting for Food and Jobs campaign sits alongside the government’s Food and Agriculture Sector Development Policy (FASDEP II). FASDEP II states that it will oversee the mechanisation and modernisation of the agricultural sector in order to increase yields and income through value chain development.

Although the Government of Ghana and Trax are working towards the same objectives of increased food security, reduced poverty, and environmental sustainability, we seek to meet our objectives through different means.

Why Trax Plant for Food and Jobs in a Different Way

Land degradation in Upper East Region, Ghana

Mechanisation means using tractors to plough fields. In Upper East Region, and across much of Northern Ghana, the soils are highly degraded and have poor soil structure. This means top soil is liable to severe soil erosion during rainfall events as the water will carry the soil, and any fertiliser, with it as it runs over the land.

The use of tractors to plough soil with poor structure exacerbates soil erosion. Ploughing with tractors in sandy soil loosens the top soil, exposing it to rainfall when widespread soil erosion occurs.

At Trax, we know that the soils our farming communities cultivate cannot tolerate heavy machinery or ploughing via tractor. We are concerned about the potential damage that the government’s programme of ‘mechanised’ agriculture will cause. Instead, Trax promotes other methods for land preparation, those which do not damage the soil structure and which reverse land degradation.

What Do Trax Do Differently?

Trax support farming communities to practice agroecological methods by providing necessary training and materials. Agroecology benefits soils by increasing soil fertility and water retention, and prevents soil erosion.

By constructing stone bunds or grass strips on their farm land, top soil is held on the farm instead of being washed away by surface water runoff. Agroecological farming parctices further limit soil erosion by improving soil structure through increased organic matter, because we use compost made from crop residue and farmyard manure instead of chemical fertiliser pellets.

Trax promote agroforestry and afforestation, with the increased tree cover also reducing soil erosion because their root network stabilises the soil. Trees also improve soil water retention so benefit crop production as well as preventing soil erosion.

A healthy, organic maize yield on an agroecological farm supported by Trax.

Having been supporting farmers in Northern Ghana for 28 years, we know that this works. The results are visible in the communities we support, where soil erosion has been halted and land degradation reversed. Farmers using the methods Trax promote have seen yield increases of up to 160% over a five-year period, based on their yield before they started using agroecological practices.

Trax farms prevent soil erosion, reverse land degradation by restoring tree cover and soil fertility, and improve biodiversity of beneficial plants, insects, soil microbia, and animals. While doing all of these beneficial things, the agroecological practices Trax promote also increase crop yields which provide food and income for the farming households, thus increasing food security and reducing poverty.

When it is possible to farm with so many beneficial outcomes, why further degrad the land we depend on by ploughing it with tractors? We know that this will not provide long-term sustainable production. This is why Trax plant for food and livelihoods using a different approach to the government.

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The Value of Dry Season Gardening

Up to 80% of the population of Northern Ghana are farmers and they mostly depend on vulnerable rained agriculture. Due to strong seasonality of rainfall in the region, rainfed farming is limited to only five to six months of the year. So what do farmers do during the other six to seven months? While some take up other livelihoods or seek temporary employment elsewhere, others continue to grow food through dry season gardening.

A farmer who Trax have supported has established an agroforestry garden for growing dry season vegetables. He uses mixed-cropping to grow vegetables, fruit, and establish seedlings for transplanting at the start of the wet season.

Trax supports farmers to take up dry season gardening through training them on agroforestry practices and, in some communities, constructing the necessary well or borehole which provides the critical source of water. Trax believes dry season gardening can contribute to environmental restoration, sustainable livelihoods, increased food security and good nutrition when practiced using agroforestry and an agroecological approach.

For farming communities supported by Trax, dry season gardening not only continues to provide essential income during the dry months, but the vegetables also provide a valuable source of nutrition for their families.


What is Dry Season Gardening?

Dry season gardening is typically done on a smaller scale than wet season farming, which is why it is termed ‘gardening’ rather than ‘farming’. This is because it can only be practiced in areas near to a water source where water will be available even during the driest months. As it is done on a small scale, dry season gardening is used to grow vegetables and leafy greens rather than the cereals or roots and tubers grown in the wet season. Typical crops grown during the dry season are onions, tomatoes, chili pepper, bitter leaf, and other green herbs.

A treadle pump used to pump water from a pond to the vegetable beds in a dry season garden.

Vegetables are irrigated by hand, with the farmer collecting water from the local water sources and applying it to the crop, sometimes with a hose or a watering can, sometimes with a bucket. In some areas, farmers will irrigate their dry season crops by digging channels from the water source to the vegetable beds.

Where the water table is high, farmers can dig small pools or ponds on their farms to supply the water. Some will farm around micro-dams, which others will collect water from a nearby well or borehole. In cases where the farmer or community can afford it, a pump run by a generator will pump water from a well to their vegetable beds. A newer addition to pumping water for dry season gardening is the use of a treadle and hand pump which works like a generator pump but using human power instead of fuel.


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Trax March 2017 Newsletter Now Available

Trax have launched a monthly newsletter with updates about our work and the farming communities we support in Northern Ghana. The first issue is available here: Trax Newsletter March 2017 (opens pdf).

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Why Water is Central to what Trax Do

Water is an essential part of everyday life. For farmers in dryland environments such as Northern Ghana, water also dictates their livelihoods. That’s why Trax Ghana support rural farming communities to increase availability of water for farming and household use.

The United Nations (UN) in Agenda 21 of the 1992 conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro designated 22 March as International World Water Day. The day since then, is celebrated each year and focuses attention on the importance of universal access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities in developing countries. The day also focuses on advocating for sustainable management of fresh water resources. Trax Ghana is joining in the celebration of this year’s World Water Day, whose theme is “wastewater”.

Girls collect water from a borehole installed by Trax

The Challenge in Ghana

According to UNICEF’s WASH in communities report, hand washing can reduce diarrhoea and pneumonia by up to 50%, yet less than 15% of Ghanaian households have hand washing facilities. Improved sanitation can reduce diarrhoea rates by 36%, but only 15% of Ghanaians have access to improved sanitation, well short of the 2015 goal of 54%. One in five Ghanaians have no access to a toilet and defecate in the open, with open defecation rates over 70% in Northern Ghana, reflecting significant national inequalities.

Drilling of the new borehole for the Trax Norway and Kavli Foundation scholarship farm for small ruminants

Falling within the savannah zone of Ghana, the northern portions of the country generally has a distinct dry season between November and April, with the wet season falling between May and October. During the dry season, water can be a limiting factor for both domestic use and agricultural livelihoods of much of the population and finding a clean and sustainable source of freshwater can be challenging. Furthermore, heavy rainfall events in the wet season have been known to cause damaging flooding in the region, especially for communities on the banks of the region’s three major rivers: The Black and White Volta rivers, and the Oti river.
In Ghana, potable water sources are diminishing at such a fast rate that the country faces a looming water crisis by the year 2030, if conditions continue to persist. The Water Research Institute (WRI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has warned that there would be no treatable water source, either surface or ground water by 2030, should the rate at which the country’s water sources are being polluted.

Two farmers enjoy the first bucket of water raised from a new well to enable dry season vegetable gardening

Over the past two decades, Trax Ghana community-based Sustainable Land Management (SLM) interventions to regulate surface water flow and soil erosion focus on reforestation, natural regeneration, grass stripping, composting, crop residue management, wild fire prevention and management, energy-efficient stove use, inter-cropping with legumes, contour identification and terracing, zero or control burning and contour ridging among others.

Our activities increase the water retention of soil, reducing flooding and improving crop growth and biodiversity. We also undertake initiatives for rain water harvesting and providing sources of clean water for communities.

Potable Water for Farming Communities
To address the problem of scarcity of potable water in some farming communities, Trax Ghana in partnership with the District Assembly, John and Katherine Hindson (UK), and Self Help Africa (UK), drilled eleven boreholes in seven different communities in the Bongo District and Bolga Municipal, in the Upper East region of Ghana. Another seven boreholes were drilled in seven different communities in the Bunkpurugu/Yunyoo District, in the Northern region of Ghana.

Constructing a well for vegetable gardening, in partnership with Self Help Africa

Also in partnership with Self Help Africa, Trax Ghana has dug wells to provide a source or water to enable vegetable production, including during the dry season. This valuable water enables hand irrigation of vegetables which provides an additional source of good nutrition and income for farming households. The vegetables are all grown organically using agroecological practices.

Solving the Challenge of Water in Schools
In partnership with the British School of Brussels, a 4-unit KVIP and 2 urinals were completed in 2013 and handed over to the Zuarungu Moshie School in the Bolga municipal. Boreholes were also drilled in Gaare/Gbani, Duusi, Dachio and Zuarungu Moshie schools, in the Upper East region. Prior to the provision of borehole in the schools, students walk long distances in search of drinking water during break periods, and in the process some fail to return to class. The challenge of the schools is now a thing of the past!

Children enjoying the new borehole and hand pump at their school.

Addressing the issue of sanitation and hygiene in schools, Trax Ghana partnership project in 2015, presented sanitation containers and hand washing materials to Gaare/Gbani, Duusi, Dachio and Zuarungu Moshie schools. The donations now serve a dual purpose of clean water storage for drinking and thorough washing of hands after using the washroom and other public places.

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