Bridging agricultural mechanisation gap - Leveraging local knowledge for sustainable economic impact
Agriculture used to be the most significant contributor to Ghana's economic growth and development, but this has changed in recent years.
From 2009 to 2019, the agriculture sector's employment share and contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) decreased from 51.4 per cent to 33.6 per cent and from 31 per cent to 18.2 per cent, respectively.
Almost 70 years after achieving independence, Ghana continues to rely heavily on agricultural food imports. The country imports rice worth an estimated $200-$400 million annually, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of the rice consumed in the country. The same holds for other commonly consumed staple foods, including maize, soya bean, tomatoes, onions, etc.
The issue of the ageing farmer population is another growing concern in agriculture. Youth preference for non-agricultural careers is on the rise, making the future of agriculture uncertain. This lack of youth interest in agriculture has been attributed to the labour-intensive nature of traditional farming techniques.
The lack of appropriate technology stands out as the most important of the many issues plaguing the agriculture sector, which also includes a lack of agricultural extension officers, labour shortage and high labour costs, high cost of farm inputs, limited credit options, land disputes, poor marketing infrastructure, climate change and low prices for farm produce.
Mechanisation includes the production, distribution and use of all kinds of implements, machinery, tools and equipment in advance of agriculture.
Agricultural mechanisation applies agricultural engineering principles and technologies to processing food, fibre and fuel.
Production, processing, handling and storage of agricultural products are all covered by mechanisation. According to the Institute for Inclusive Finance and Development, the most significant factor driving agricultural change and rural development is mechanisation. Agricultural mechanisation aims to increase crop yields, operational effectiveness and financial success.
In fact, it is impossible to overstate the value of agricultural mechanisation to the industry. Ghana's food and agriculture sector will undoubtedly fail to produce the desired economic impact without effective mechanisation.
Agricultural mechanisation technology can be classified into basic, intermediate, and advanced depending on the level of manpower requirement. Ghanaian smallholder farmers still operate at the basic level of mechanisation using hoes, machetes, sickles, etc.
This could be attributed to the small-scale nature of production, making it challenging to meet the growing demand for agricultural food produce.
Ghana's agricultural production primarily depends on rainfall, with only two per cent of agricultural land irrigated by various forms of mechanised irrigation. Earlier attempts by the government to mechanise agricultural operations failed miserably.
Regarding the introduction of advanced or modern forms of agricultural mechanisation, it is easy to conclude that Ghana made a "forced jump" based on its agricultural mechanisation history. Therefore, it is unsurprising that previous attempts at mechanisation have failed to the detriment of the agricultural sector.
This is evidenced by the large quantity of imported agricultural equipment that sit abandoned on farms in the country's northern region after only a few months of use due to poor operation practices, lack of spare parts, unsuitable terrain, etc.
Low agricultural output could be a direct result of smallholder farmers' lack of familiarity with modern agricultural techniques.
From 2007 to 2015, the government of Ghana brought in a total of 2,627 different types of farm tools and machinery through its agricultural mechanisation services centres (AMSEC) all over the country (MoFA SRID, 2016). In order to keep its promise to mechanise agriculture in the nation, the government has invested over $269 million in agricultural equipment since 2017.
Despite all these significant investments, it is still surprising that the agriculture sector is not witnessing the expected impacts.
Therefore, it is accurate to say that buying tractors and other farm equipment by themselves is not an end but rather a means to implementing a successful mechanisation plan.
The government's good intentions are still seriously hampered by the accessibility of these imported implements to smallholder farmers. One concern is whether smallholder farmers, who produce most of the food consumed, have access to appropriate agricultural technology.
Another worrying question is what happens after these imported agricultural technologies break down or lose their commercial viability.
Fulfilling the government's 'Ghana Beyond Aid' agenda in the area of agricultural production will be a long shot until this cycle of agricultural machinery importation is broken.
It is now imperative that the government devotes its full attention to creating a practical document to ensure that future mechanisation initiatives produce the desired result and are long-lasting.
The sustainability of such government interventions would be improbable as long as imported farm equipment and machinery are not driven by demand.
The writer is a Senior Research Scientist, CSIR-Crops Research Institute.