Our wild, vast land; Spio-Gabrah blasts dysfunctional education

BY: Joe Fraizer
Dr Ekwow Spio-Gabrah

When politicians, technocrats and academicians congregate, a platform is created to vent the nation’s frustrations on failures in the attempt to develop the nation. Typically there is very little success story to savour but plenty to bash.

The occasion to play the blame game was offered at the posh Kempinski Hotel recently where stakeholders had gathered at the auspices of the Millennium Excellence Award and The Ghana Export Promotion Council to brainstorm on the way forward for Agro-processing and Compliance.

Leading the charge was Dr Ekwow Spio-Gabrah, the Minister of Trade and Industry. He voiced his disappointment at Ghana being unable to cultivate the nation’s vast land resources and add value to the produce through preservation. He blamed the tertiary education system that only teaches students the theory of how to make things, not the practical aspect of making things. He said that the institutions were farming graduates out with a mentality of holding on to government to do everything.

All governments, to be fair, have rolled out some initiatives to boost the agri-business but outcomes have done little justice to these efforts. The import bill of $1.6 billion for essential food items is a clear indictment and provided the talking point for most presentations at the workshop. The reasons, the technocrats have pointed out, can be found in inadequate budgetary allocations.

The researchers, while claiming poor funding add that their findings on improved quality planting materials and soils are left on the shelves unused. The banks say they have had their fingers burnt by loans with high default rates.

Farmers bemoan the late release of agricultural subsidies. Some blame climate change and lack of irrigation. Others point out that international standards for products are not being maintained (and references were made to the recent scandal of unwholesome palm oil which is banned from our traditional markets.) Interestingly, apart from Spio, nobody was bold enough to blame the human capital.

The story of agro-processing in Ghana in the last 14 years can be told with cassava cultivation and processing into food-grade starch as a case study. Supply chain was created for cassava farmers, the processors and end users. Set up as a Presidential Initiative, the Ayensu Starch Company (ASCO) was a co-operative model with farmers, Government and some banks owning shares.

Land was made available by chiefs in nine administrative districts in the Central and part of the Eastern regions located 25 km radius of the catchment area of the factory at Bawjiase .The Crop Research Institute provided the farming technical expertise and the Ministry of Agriculture, the farm extension services. The HIPC Fund and the Ministry of Gender and Children Affairs provided microfinance for the farmers. The factory machinery suppliers from Denmark provided training for the factory staff. But the overall supervision of the project has been under the Ministry of Trade and Industries.

ASCOs starch was of ISO standard. Supplier Audits were very rigorous and regular. It was and is supposed to be manufactured in strict compliance of the highest food standards and was exported to the EU, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal. There were local customers as well such as Nestle and Unilever who used it as direct food component. Elsa Foods, a leading Neat Fufu exporter also employed it extensively. It was envisaged that nine of ASCO-type cassava processing operations would be established all over the country.

Unfortunately, challenges cropped up in rapid succession. First, farmers complained of poor farm gate price and stopped cultivation. The second snag was the technology of manual harvesting which is drudgery, especially during the dry season. The third constraint was that the variety of cassava initially recommended had low starch content and recorded a lot of waste during processing. Additionally, this variety takes 18 months to mature and thus ties capital down unnecessarily. Fortunately, researchers have since come out with varieties that mature in nine months.

There were factory problems as well. The plant did not operate at the efficiency and reliability guaranteed by the suppliers. The fourth challenge was that the world price for cassava starch which customers were prepared to pay for was far lower than the production cost and the factory always had and still 

has extreme cash-flow problems. Qualified technical personnel left only to be replaced with unqualified ones who were prepared to accept starvation wages which would be paid several months in arrears.

Supervision by MOTI was poor. It was not uncommon for operations to shut down for a couple of years, to be revived near to general elections when a lot of resources would be poured into farming. A new co-ordinator, an errand boy of the Minister usually without a clue of agro-processing, was appointed. He would run his own agenda and leave the factory in the form of a scrap yard. Over the years ASCO lost her customers who had had to turn to starch imports. Fortuitously, a brewery currently offers technical support to the factory with the caveat of being a monopoly customer. The agreement husbanded by MOTI raises a lot of eyebrows because it leaves ASCO more cash-strapped. Currently, workers have not been paid for five months.

Ownership and supervision have been identified as the greatest woes of ASCO. The business will now run on PPP model. Tenders have been decided and a new strategic investor selected nearly 10 months ago. However, the deal is yet to be forwarded to Cabinet for approval. Meanwhile, ASCO owes practically everybody under the sun and writs for liens on the property are hanging.

Dr Spio-Gabrah should know that if ASCO had been successful, 10 of such operations would have reduced the acreage of the vast, wild land that offends his eyes. His ministry should take a lot of the blame of a situation of failure that arises from appointment of party boys as co-ordinators. As things stand, ASCO is a very inefficient cassava starch producer, unable to satisfy the demand of even the monopoly customer. No wonder one small bowl of fufu from imported starch at the Kempinski Hotel costs GH¢134.00

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(Author: Blame not the Darkness; Akora; The Sissain Bridge)