TFT Project Manager Vail Miller explains more about our work in Ghana supporting palm oil farmers to improve their practices and become more self-sufficient.
Since January 2019, TFT has become Earthworm Foundation.
Although our focus is on palm oil, 99% of farmers in Ghana farm multiple commodities, ranging from food to other things like rubber.
Traditionally they’ve sold their produce locally, either to markets or neighbouring villages and towns, but there are often bigger opportunities available to them. Part of our role is to provide the support for farmers to take those opportunities.
Taking such opportunities requires some forward planning, which we provide through individual farmer coaching. This is relevant because these farmers have a variety of different circumstances. Along with palm oil, some grow cassava, plantains or vegetables, while others keep livestock; some work on their own farms, while others hire labour to do so.
The difference in circumstances was evident with one of the first farmers we started working with. He kept chickens. His first foray with poultry hadn’t gone as planned, so we helped him to change this by timing his next batch with the Christmas and New Year holidays. It was a success. He sold all his chickens, which helped him to first break even, then quickly make a profit.
Moreover, we worked with this farmer to keep meticulous records of his expenditures on feed and vaccinations as well as his sales records. He now knows not only that he profited, but by how much. We are already working together with him to pilot some home-made food supplements to cut down on the expense of commercial feed the next time around.
This shows, albeit on a micro level, the work we are trying to do. It involves having an intimate knowledge of how farmers work and the challenges they are faced with. My Rurality colleagues Charles Boateng and Grace Obeng spent the best part of a year working day in and day out with 155 independent family farmers in order to get a better understanding of how they manage their farms and the results of their labour.
These farmers typically have smallholdings of around two to five acres. The research done by Charles and Grace enabled us to take into account how they farm, in terms of their land use, their farming practices, and the types of tools, fertilisers, and feed that they use for their crops and livestock. It helped us to consider other factors too, like whether or not the farmers themselves, or hired labour, work on the farms; what they do with their income; and their access to tools and equipment.
Half these farmers said palm oil was their main source of income. Yet up until now, palm oil mills in Ghana have not had especially strong relations with the farmers from whom they source their oil palm. Compared to mills in Indonesia and Malaysia, West African mills typically have limited records on the volumes purchased from – and the money paid to – small farmers. Likewise, farmers do not tend to keep records of their production and revenue. This makes it more difficult to know what their expected income will be, or to determine which investments are worthwhile and which less so. Farming is a risky business as it is, but even more so without sufficient information to rely on.
Part of the long-term vision of our work in Ghana is helping smallholders to realise their potential. By supporting farmers to record and interpret crucial information, by serving as a sounding board for their business plans and challenges, and by facilitating communication with the mill and other stakeholders, Rurality hopes to support farmers to initiate a positive change not just in their businesses, but in their lives.
At the same time, it is within the mills’ interests to support this approach – the more information that mills have about suppliers, the better their understanding of their oil palm supply. In a cascading effect, better understanding leads to better efficiency, which in turn saves money. A fresh approach and small but consistent changes can lead to big improvements in peoples’ livelihoods and the bottom lines of companies. We are excited to see how these small changes begin to transform the smallholder oil palm sector in Ghana.