Last week we had the opportunity to meet with a number of smallholders in a few different communities in the Upper East region of Ghana. We flew the short 50 minute flight from Accra into the regional airport in Tamale and drove nearly four hours to reach Paga right on the border with Burkina Faso. This region is a stunningly beautiful part of the country. The savannah grasslands stretch as far as the eye can see with the occasional imposing baobab trees dotting the landscape. Every couple of miles, villages can be seen with their distinctive round huts and communal areas, where activities such as shea butter processing occur. The architecture of the huts plays a practical purpose for its inhabitants. This region gets hot - very hot.
We visited Upper East during the rainy season, but at the height of the dry season, when tomatoes grow abundantly, daytime temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit)! Temperature aside, farming in this region is wrought with challenges. A decade ago, tomato farmers encountered the devastating “yellow leaf curl” disease that resulted in huge harvest losses. The following year, farmers, scared by the veracity and speed of the yellow leaf curl disease, decided not to plant tomatoes. This decision meant that the traders who had previously sourced tomatoes this productive part of country needed to find new markets. They did not have to look far. Tomato farmers in neighboring Burkina Faso seized the opportunity to supply the Ghanaian traders, and have now become permanent suppliers for the fresh tomato markets in southern Ghana.
Various attempts have been made to revive tomato production in the Upper East but none have been successful. The farmers we interviewed prefer not to grow tomatoes due to the uncertainty of a final market for their produce. They also find the cost of raw inputs (seeds, agro-chemicals and water) too much of an initial financial outlay as credit opportunities are rare and prohibitively expensive.
Despite all of these challenges, the Upper East region still has favorable climatic conditions for farming tomatoes. The dry, hot weather reduces the risk of disease, and the irrigated land at the Tono and Vea dams could be used for tomato production. The farmers here are motivated and willing to learn new practices. They are resourceful and able to work around challenges. It pains them to see truckload after truckload of tomatoes crossing the border at Paga with tomatoes that could be produced in the Upper East.