Angela Cobbinah reports from Ghana’s Ashanti Region on how one London-based charity is helping to tackle climate change from the ground up
GLOBAL warming in Africa is usually seen through the lens of catastrophic extreme weather events, flash floods and prolonged drought that require rapid humanitarian intervention. But there is another side to climate change, the insidious shift in weather patterns over the decades that has turned savannah into desert and forests into savannah, leading to the loss of productive agricultural land. Poverty, migration and food insecurity inevitably follow.
One corner of Ghana’s Ashanti Region has borne witness to this process as people migrate from the north of the country to escape desertification and settle in an area where loss of forest cover has led to the demise of the main income earner, cocoa. “Temperatures have been rising steadily since 1982,” explains Nicholas Aboagye, project manager for the charity Ashanti Development that has been working in the area for the past 15 years.
“Northern Ghana used to have a maximum temperature of 40°C, now it is 45°C, while in Ashanti Region it has gone from 35°C to 40°C. In this area, we suffer wildfires every year due to a combination of very high temperatures and careless bush burning by farmers and hunters. Wildfires even take place in protected forest zones and contribute to the deforestation already taking place due to land clearance and logging.”
The impact of deforestation, a major contributor to climate change, has been particularly felt in the northern part of Ashanti Region, around the town of Mampong, where the charity operates and which has its own micro-climate due to its particular topography. Cocoa has been wiped out as a commercial crop and, in place of secondary rainforest that once blocked one’s line of vision, a type of wooded savannah has emerged. The process began in 1983 following the uncontrollable wildfire that engulfed the country, not least in the Mampong area, where 80 per cent of the cocoa farms burned down. The crop eventually rallied but never regained its former strength, leaving local people destitute.
“I was shocked by what I found,” recalls Ashanti Development co-founder Martha Boadu of her visit to her village of Gyetiase in 2000 after 18 years in London.
“Farmers didn’t know anything about climate change, just that rainy and dry seasons were becoming more and more unpredictable, making it difficult to grow cocoa. It used to be a thriving place. Without cocoa people had nothing and were so poor they were going hungry,” she says.
Some moved their farms to neighbouring Western Region and Brong Ahafo, others tried to make a living out of former subsistence crops like yam and cassava, but not very successfully. Yet more villagers joined the migration trail to the cities and further afield to Europe.
At around the same time, a steady stream of people from northern Ghana began settling in Ashanti. They’d started arriving in their numbers around 40 years ago, initially to work on cocoa farms and later to set up their own farms because of the changing weather back home.
The convergence of migrants settling in an area struggling to get back on its feet, prompted Ashanti Development to embark on its ambitious farm support programme, which aims to adapt farmers to the new climate order.
“Savannah does not support cocoa so we have to have crops that suit the new climatic conditions, like yam, cassava and maize,” explains Aboagye, who graduated in development studies in the UK and is based at Gyetiase, the charity’s Ghana HQ that lies a 20-minute drive away from Mampong.
“We have varieties of maize developed in Ghana that give you two harvests a year, while cassava is highly versatile because it can be processed in different ways, for example into gari and flour; the tubers can also stay in the soil for a year. All this makes it an important food security crop. There is also a focus on vegetables like carrots, green peppers, cabbage, garden eggs and tomatoes, which can be easily grown on small plots of land through crop rotation and bring in a lot of money.”
More than 240 farmers have participated in the programme since it started seven years ago, each one receiving a small loan, training and inputs like fertiliser and seed as well as items like Wellington boots to protect against snake bites.
“Our farmers have the experience but not the technical knowledge,” continues Aboagye. “We monitor their progress for five years and if there are any problems we help solve them. We judge the effectiveness of the programme by increased yields and the higher standard of quality of the crop as well as the overall change it brings to the lives of those taking part.”
One of its beneficiaries is Shaba Tinkani, who travelled the 300 or so kilometres from northern Ghana 15 years ago and is now a prosperous farmer, having produced bumper harvests of yam, rice and maize and won the 2019 Best Farmer of the Year award for the Sekyere Central local government area.
“In 2018, I produced 15 bags of rice but last year I was able to increase this to 35 bags. I bought a [motor] tricycle for 7,000 Ghana cedis [about $1,300] with the proceeds,” he says proudly.
“I have learnt a lot,” he adds with a modest smile. “One of the lessons I have learnt that it is better to plant rice rather than broadcast it, as I did before. It was a surprise to me to be told that, but the results have been very good.”
Mentioning that he has three wives and 20 children, he said the extra money in his pocket has also enabled him to send some of the family to live in the Ashanti capital, Kumasi, opening up other avenues for income.
Tinkani lives in Dagarti, a village named after the Dagarti tribe of northern Ghana which he and most of his neighbours belong to, and his success is also part of the programme’s wider aim to create centres of excellence, in Dagarti’s case for yam, rice and maize production.
“We want a village to concentrate on two main crops that they can supply all year round,” explains Aboagye. “In that way they will develop a brand that is abundant and will attract traders.”
Although the local government runs its own farm support programme that likewise encourages the cultivation of so-called savannah crops like yam and cassava, it does not include any training, he points out.
“The training element is very important,” he insists. “Without it, farmers will continue to use traditional methods of farming and get lower yields.”
Meaning ‘in God’s eye’, Onyameani, another settler village, lies a few kilometres away, along one of the ubiquitous dirt roads criss crossing the district that are virtually impassable during the rains. Like Dagarti, it is a collection of mostly thatched dwellings made of mud set around a central clearing. Around 250 people live here, mostly Dagatis, who grow yam, maize and rice, having first arrived in the area in the 1970s as cocoa farm labourers.
Here, too, farmers appeared to be doing well, saying they produced enough surplus to sell in the market. A corn mill just delivered by Ashanti Development will provide another source of revenue.
“Where we come from agriculture is becoming more difficult due to climate change but here it is easier and you can have two or three harvests a year,” says Joseph Angmayir, a young farmer. Although settled here, their ties to their homeland up north remained strong. “It’s a nine to 10-hour journey but we go back at least once a year. There are still people in the village, and there always will be to make sure the elderly are well looked after.” Although the weather there was less favourable, farming continued to be a way of life, and the more enterprising might complete a harvest down south and then travel north to work their farms there for a period, he added.
Taking note of all this is Penny David, who set up Ashanti Development in London with Boadu in 2005. She is on one of her regular visits to the region to monitor the progress of projects and find out where else help might be needed. The settler villages have become a more recent focus because many lack basic amenities and are often cut off from local health and education services due to their remoteness.
“Our mission is to relieve poverty and promote health and development in the region, beginning with the provision of safe and accessible water,” explains David, a retired management consultant.
This comes in the form of boreholes sunk deep into the ground to provide clean drinking water, the first of which was installed at Gyetiase in 2006. Previously villagers had to collect water from a stream far into the bush, which was often polluted and the source of many debilitating health problems like diarrhoea and typhoid. Household latrines – to replace dilapidated communal latrines – came next, swiftly followed by a health clinic, community centre and kindergarten.
The charity now runs similar projects across 70 communities as well as several programmes like a micro-credit and business training scheme for women.
Its most recent initiative, a health centre and maternity clinic, its fourth to date, was unveiled in January and Nana Osei Kwame, the chief of Nyinampong, the biggest of the six communities the clinic will serve – around 3,000 people – joined government officials for the grand opening, a traditional durbar ceremony involving drumming, dancing and much speechifying. With most women having an average of six children and the nearest hospital some distance away, the new facility is much appreciated.
It was the huge outbreak of the skin disease yaws a few years ago that first drew Onyameani to the attention of the authorities, and ultimately Ashanti Development. Yaws is another condition caused by contaminated water, and a borehole and latrines were installed. “We were drinking dirty water and defecating everywhere due to diarrhoea,” says Angmayir with cheerful candour. “Chickens would eat it and we would eat chickens – this way we were recycling disease. Now we have been able to save money because we no longer need to go to hospital and buy medication and we also have more energy to farm.”
Over in Esereso, another settler village, the construction of a kindergarten is nearing completion, while Kwasi Yeboah, one of Ashanti Development’s network of community-based health assistants, reports on the progress of the drugs distribution programme to eradicate worms infestation in children. With the nearest clinic six kilometres away in Kwamena, he provides a vital frontline service.
“This place now has a future,” declares the headman Joshua Nyako pointing to buildings where thatch has been replaced by corrugated iron, a sign of that settlers have come to stay.
It cannot escape one’s notice that the charity is carrying out work the government should be doing. Now overtaking South Africa as the continent’s biggest gold producer and an emerging player in the oil and gas industry, Ghana is classified by the World Bank as a middle-income nation and boasts shiny shopping malls, Uber and advanced mobile technology. But 20 per cent of the population, officially at least, lives in poverty and there is widespread inequality.
While there is plenty of muttering about mismanagement and corruption on high, Aboagye takes a less judgemental line. “The government has more problems than it has got money to deal with,” he says with a sigh. “We are just trying to improve things in our own small way.”
In terms of climate change, the current Nana Akufo-Addo administration has drawn up a national framework to combat it, including the 25-year Ghana Forest Plantation Strategy that was launched in 2016 and the more recent Youth in Afforestation Programme. A small plantation of trees at Gyetiase primary school is an example of Ashanti Development’s own efforts. “We teach children to plant and look after trees to give them the consciousness of combatting climate change,” Aboagye explains. “The trees are mainly teak because teak regenerates even after burning down.”
Small bush fires and burnt out patches of woodland around Mampong are a common sight in the dry season, suggesting that much more needs to be done at government level to get to grips with this climate change hotspot.