The Elephant in the Room — The Case for Maize

Ghana, our beloved country, is free forever.

These words, spoken by our first president at the dawn of our independence, have echoed in the hearts of every Ghanaian for the sixty-two years that we have been a free and independent state. As memorable as these words have been, they also beg the emotional and difficult question of what it means to be free—as a country, and as citizens.

Just as a country can only be as strong as its citizens, a citizen can only be as free as her economic circumstances allow. And for a lot of our fellow citizens, there is nothing more indicative of our economic freedom than the single activity—maize farming—more than a million Ghanaians engage in it and it supplies the highest percentage of our annual calorie intake. For the income it provides to millions of our fellow citizens, and the energy it provides us to go about our daily lives, maize is the elephant in the room.

Getting past the awkwardness of maize farming as an indicator of our economic freedom, we arrive at many observations resembling and relevant to our broader country. And getting a handle on improving the productivity of maize farming portends fundamental and sustainable ideas for improving our broader economy.

Would you be surprised to learn that Ghana has more maize farmers than the United States, yet matches less than one percent of their maize output? Some dismiss this comparison with the easy answer that many of our maize farmers are casual and subsistent, without acknowledging that the subsistence nature of our maize farming is symptomatic of our broader problems. Our farmers are not casual and subsistence by choice—they are as a matter of urgent necessity.

For the past nine years, I have been involved in the primary and secondary processing of maize, with an approach reflective of my analytical background in management consulting and engineering.

The starting point of any analysis of the maize sector is to admit that the 15% year-to-year increase in total production in 2017 is a strong positive and substantially attributable to the Planting for Food and Jobs program of the present government. Despite this important achievement, significant work remains.

A crop budget analysis of a typical Ghanaian and American maize farm shows that our productivity deficit is not an accident of history, but the result of a deliberate choice of misguided policies spanning decades.

With a proliferation of poor seeds (mostly grains masqueraded as seeds) in part because of a lax regulatory environment for local seeds, we shouldn’t be surprised when our farmers often take a dim view on seeds and invest less than 10% of what an American farmer does in seeds.

The benefits of good seeds are so overwhelming that we need not spare any effort in driving awareness and adoption of improved seed technologies. Demonstration fields for improved seeds should proliferate in our farming communities, and if possible, improved seeds should be made mandatory for all beneficiaries of the government subsidy program for agricultural inputs.

The difficulties of our seed market are further compounded for farmers by a frustrating certification process for imported improved seeds. Because our seed companies often lack the substantial resources needed for rigorous seed research and development, we should leverage the expertise and resources of capable international seed companies as much as possible.

For most economic activities to be sustainable, scale is a decisive factor. With average farm sizes of about 5 acres, less than 2% of American farms, most Ghanaian farms are too small to be economically viable. This is where the preponderance of labor in our crop budget is a direct inhibitor to our economic growth—there is only so much we can do with our manpower. The heart of any farm mechanization is the tractor, and the recent government policy to ease the requirements for tractor operator licenses is a huge relief to many young people eager to earn a living as operators. To lower the total cost of tractors, all fees, duties, and tariffs associated with the importation of tractors should be eliminated. To ensure equitable access to tractor services, misguided and chauvinistic practices that give preference to tractor services for men over women, who are more than half of all smallholder farmers, should be discouraged. As important as mechanization and seeds are, they are insufficient for the total transformation of the maize sector. An integrated and comprehensive farm-to-table approach is needed to truly unlock the enormous potential of maize to better our lives.

Over the past three years, in partnership with the USAID Ghana Mission on Improving the Productivity and Income of Maize Farmers in the SADA Zone, I have had the opportunity to test out a comprehensive integrated value chain approach, and the results, though provisional, are encouraging. In partnership with USAID/Ghana, Sahel Grains, a wholly Ghanaian company has trained more than five thousand farmers in good agronomic practices and provided the full suite of upstream on-field mechanized services to many of them. The farmers have increased their farm sizes by 25.2%; we have improved gender access to mechanization by having tractors solely dedicated to women farmers; yields and incomes of the farmers have increased by 3.3% and 12.4% respectively.

To make these gains enduring and sustainable, we have learned that it helps to provide market access with firm demand backstops linked to quality. Maize is familiar to all Ghanaians, but what is not nearly as familiar is that the maize in our open market does not meet the health and safety standards set by our accredited regulatory agencies. Aflatoxin is a substance present in maize that promotes the formation of cancer cells. It is so toxic that roasting maize at 180 degrees Celsius is unable to totally eliminate it. It is the most persistent grain quality problem in our country. We have worked with our partner farmers on appropriate practices to reduce the incidence of aflatoxin, and have additionally invested in very modern primary processing equipment to further sort and clean the maize to meet the highest quality standards anywhere in the world. Because market access requires storage, the USAID-Sahel Grains partnership is putting up one of the largest grain silo installations in the country.

The results of our grain quality program have been so spectacular that it meets the highest and most stringent aflatoxin parameters in the world—the European standard. Nestle, a European company, uses this stringent standard in all its grain-based products, and we are happy to count them as a customer of our maize. By working together and adopting a comprehensive value chain approach, we have reduced the need for Nestle to import maize and substituted that with our own locally produced maize. Because we want the health benefits of aflatoxin-free maize to reach as many Ghanaians as possible, we are using this same high-quality maize to produce our local traditional fermented corn dough that is used in the preparation of koko and banku.

In addition to the benefits of the aflatoxin-free maize, we have included additional health benefits in using treated water for all aspects of our milling operation and using food-grade attrition plates to reduce the incidence of broken metal particles in our food. Crucial to infant nutrition, the smooth-milled nature of the dough doesn’t require sieving to achieve the smoothness of the prepared koko, allowing access to all the available nutrients in the maize.

It is heartening to see the great enthusiasm with which Ghanaians are welcoming the new emphasis on health and safety in our traditional foods, with ShopRite, MaxMart, and Opoku Trading (Kumasi), and other leading supermarkets stocking it. Our country’s leading restaurant for and West African foods, The Buka Restaurant, has also adopted it as their dough for the preparation of the banku that they serve their customers.

It is helpful to recall the jubilation that greeted the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in Ghana about a decade ago. The annual output gap of maize given our current acreage under cultivation is about USD 1.7 billion–contributing three times what we get from oil to our hard currency position. There is something powerful and profoundly beneficial to our country, and it is right in our face – the elephant in the room. The question is whether we can pursue it with the same zeal and energy as we pursued oil exploration.

USAID/Ghana Mission Director visiting Sahel Grains