Our May Newsletter is Now Available

May has involved lots of new faces in the Trax office, staff travelling around the country, as well as lots of fieldwork and project development. As we move into the farming season here in northern Ghana, we continue to support rural farming communities daily. To find out more about what we have been busy with this month you can read our newsletter here: Newsletter May 2017


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Disiwani Laar: Dedicated Expertise Creates Successful Initiatives

Trax’s projects to support communities to develop sustainable livelihoods in Northern Ghana depend on the expertise of our staff. We want to celebrate the successes, achievements, and dedication of our staff, without whom Trax could not help reduce poverty and increase food security in vulnerable communities.

In this post we are celebrating the work and dedication of Madam Disiwani Laar. This year marks 20 years of Disiwani’s dedicated service to the farming communities in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District, in Northern Region, as part of Trax’s staff team.

Madam Disiwani Laar – Senior Field Officer at Trax’s office in Bunkpurugu, Northern Region.

In the two decades Disiwani has worked for Trax, she has seen many other staff come and go, changes in the structure and facilitation of our programmes, new project activities, and changes in funding partnerships and local collaborations.

When Disiwani joined Trax in 1997 she was employed as a Project Assistant, before working as a Income Generating Activities Assistant. Through these roles she developed vast expertise working at the grassroots level, facilitating participatory processes and supporting sustainable agricultural livelihoods. She has since been working as a Field Officer and is now the Senior Field Officer located at the Trax office in Bunkpurugu.

Disiwani visits a farm in Mozio community which is practicing agroecology.

In her 20 years working for Trax, Disi (as she is commonly known) has supported 20 communities or sub-communities in and around Bunkpurugu, working with thousands of farmers living in poverty. She is well known and very highly regarded in the local area. The farming communities she has supported to establish sustainable agricultural livelihoods through an agroecological approach to farming report increased yield, restoration of land which was previously deforested and degraded, increased income from diversified sustainable livehood sources, and stronger unity among the communities. The life changing poverty reduction, increased food security, and community self-reliance created through these changes deserve recognition and celebration. Disiwani has clearly achieved many positive outcomes for rural communities living in Northern Ghana.

Disiwani says that the agroecological soil and water conservation practices which Trax facilitate are those which she has observed to make the biggest difference towards sustainable agricultural livelihoods in farming communities. In particular, she recognises the important role of contour identification and construction of stone bunds, and compost production using crop residue and farmyard manure, to have the greatest positive impact for crop yields and sustainable farming.

Disiwani (back left) celebrates with a VSLA group at their first share out in Yunyoo.

Disiwani is particularly interested in gender equality and women’s empowerment, as has worked often with women’s farmer groups. In recent years she has been supporting numerous women’s groups to establish Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) across the Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District. VSLAs are very popular in the area and Disiwani is now under much demand to support additional groups and communities to establish VSLAs.

As we have shared elsewhere, since the beginning of 2016 Trax has been facing significant financial shortfall when our primary funding source ended at short notice. Unfortunately, this has left no direct project funding to support ongoing activities in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District. As such, Disiwani, and other field staff, have been unpaid for 10 months, a move which was the most difficult Trax has had to take in it’s 28 years of opperation.

Disiwani inspects bee hives installed as part of a Trax project in partnership with Tree Aid. The bee hives have been colonised.

Despite this challenging situation, throughout the past 10 months Disiwani, and other field staff, have continued to work voluntarily. This demonstrates the high level of commitment and dedication which Disiwani holds for the farmers and communities she supports. It is this dedication which make Disiwani and all of the Trax staff team so valuable in our efforts to support a sustainable life for vulnerable communities.

Outside of working for Trax, Disiwani is a farmer herself and is specialised in rearing livestock. At present she keeps goats, pigs, and fowls. During the past 10 months when Disi has not been able to receive her salary from Trax, she has relied on income generation from her livestock in order to continue to support the many people in her household.

A farmer tells Disiwani about the activities he has undertaken to prepare the land for the upcoming farming season. Here he shows her his recently-restored stone bunds.

In recent months and throughout the past 20 years, Disiwani has contributed her expertise to the development of Trax project activities and the organisation as a whole. We value and appreciate her work everyday, as do the communities she is so dedicated to. In this year marking her 20 years of dedicated service to Trax, we want to take this opportunity to celebrate her extensive achievements and successes during this time and thank her for continuing to support Trax’s work.We hope you will join us in thanking and congratulating Disiwani.

Disiwani Laar, thank you. Congratulations on achieving 20 years of service for Trax. We look forward to many years to come working alongside you with a more positive and supportive funding environment.

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Diverse Uses of the Borassus Tree in Northern Ghana

The enivronment in northern Ghana is diverse and can vary from community to community. Trax works in Upper East and Northern Regions but the local environmental conditions differ across the communities and districts we work. We know that understanding and respecting the environmental variations from place to place, as well as the social, cultural and language variations, are integral to the success of Trax’s project activities. This is why our field staff are all from the local areas in which they work, such that they are aware of localised customs and environmental sensitivities.

In Northern Region, Trax has an office in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District which borders Togo to the east. In the area around the town of Bunkpurugu, the Borassus tree is abundant and is off local importance for it’s diverse uses.

A plantation of young Borassus trees on a farm in Masio, Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District

Borassus is a genus of palm tree found in tropical areas around the world. The species Borassus aethiopum is found across the Sahel and sub-Sahelian region of Africa, stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia. Despite the tree’s generally wide geographical spread, in Ghana it is much more prolific in some areas, including in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District.

The large fruit of the Borassus tree collected for consumption and planting of the seeds.

The large fruits are edible and provide a good source of some nutrient, including calcium, iron, and Vitamins A, B, and C. It is also know to support digestive health and in some areas is used as a natural health remedy due to anit-inflammatory properties and is used to treat vomiting and other digestive complaints. In Bunkpurugu, the Broassus fruit is widely eaten.

Another source of food from the Borassus tree which is widely utilised in Bunkpurugu is the young root. When the fruit is harvested for consumption, farmers will retrieve the seeds from the fruit and plant them. Once the seed has begun to shoot they will harvest it and the root extending from the seed is cut for consumption. The small root, roughly 30cm in length, can be roasted and eaten as it is but it is also used as a substitute for yam or cassava in local dishes, where the root is ground and used for locally important dishes such as fufu and gari.

The leaves of the Borassus tree – once dried the leaves can be used to weaving, a local craft.

Beyond edible parts of the plant, in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District the leaves are widely used as the raw material for weaving, a local craft. The tree stem, or trunk, is hard wood so is used in construction: in Bunkpurugu, the stem is commonly used for building rafters to support thatched rooves. The strong, woody petioles of leaves which have since died remain around the stem of the tree, channeling water to the base of the stem and the roots. These long petioles are also used for fencing in Bunkpurugu.

Thus, every part of the Borassus tree is utilised by farmers and households in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District. The tree is widely abundant in the district so it makes sense for local communities to capitalise on the non-timber forest products, as well as the timber. Many farmers now grow plantations of Borassus in order to secure a supply of the fruits and seeds, for cultivating the young root, as a food source.

A young Borassus tree with the petioles of leaves which have died surrounding the stem, or trunk.

Understanding the local significance of the Borassus tree means that, when working with farming communities in Bunkpurugu-Yunyoo District, Trax field staff are in a better position to tailor agroecological and sustainable livelhood project activities to the needs, priorities, and preferences of the communities. This relationship with the local context is essential for agroecology and food sovereignty and for the success and sustainability of all of Trax’s projects.

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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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