By Mavis Owureku-Asare
Mavis Owureku-Asare is Research Scientific Officer at the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. She is also an African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) fellowship laureate.
Postharvest losses in Ghana are not just an agricultural marketing problem; they are a matter of life and death.
In Ghana’s Upper East Region, high rates of suicide are reported among tomato farmers who have lost their crops, their markets, and their livelihoods. Many can’t earn a living, despite the fact that Ghana is the world’s second-largest importer of tomato paste.
Close to 90 percent of the two million people residing in this area cultivate tomatoes, and a high percentage of these farmers are women. Growing tomatoes is more lucrative than rice, maize and yam, and there is an extremely high demand for them. However, farmers face tremendous challenges in getting their products to market and they must compete with imported tomato products.
Ghanaians annually consume an average of 25,000 metric (FAOSTAT 2010) tons of tomato paste, valued at $25 million. Ironically, Ghana produces an average of 350,000 metric tons of tomatoes annually, and could be producing its own tomato paste rather than depending on imports. However, at the height of the harvest season, farmers lose up to 40 percent of their produce due to a lack of processing facilities. This results in severe price fluctuations for tomatoes.
Farmers are dependent on traders known as “tomato queens”—powerful middle women who determine the price of tomatoes. One day while collecting research data, I saw a tomato queen turn away a farmer who was trying to deliver a truck-load of produce to the market she controlled. The farmer wouldn’t accept the low price that the tomato queen was offering for his crop. By the second day of negotiations, she allowed the heat-scorched tomatoes to be off-loaded, and they were sold quite cheaply to the market women—at a big loss for the farmer.
Farmers like this experience high losses due to two main reasons:
First, they lack the technical knowledge and storage facilities needed to preserve their produce. Secondly, there is a lack of factories within the production area to process surplus tomatoes.
In the past, Ghana has attempted to reduce post-harvest losses of tomatoes by processing its own tomato paste. However, the high cost and complexity of setting up tomato canning facilities has prevented a sustainable tomato preservation industry in the country.There is a need to introduce alternative, inexpensive, efficient, small-scale processing methods in tomato-producing areas. This would absorb excess supply and enhance the value chain. It would also reduce the country’s dependence on imported tomato paste and provide employment opportunities.
My research focuses on alternative tomato processing, which can be adopted by women farmers. I am optimising dried tomato products by using solar energy to enhance the drying process. If women are equipped with processing facilities in their communities, they can contribute significantly to reducing post-harvest losses through value addition.
As a scientist, I want to engage in research activities that will directly benefit women smallholder farmers. I believe in agricultural research and development that positively impacts the lives of women, who are front-runners in tomato cultivation and marketing. They play a vital role in implementing new strategies that will help them improve return on their harvests. Setting up community-based processing centers is the best way to integrate processing activities in the production and management of fresh produce. Given the chance, women can contribute substantially to the development of the food processing industry in Ghana and across Africa.
It is also critically important to increase the number of African women agricultural scientists, to strengthen their research and leadership skills and promote their advancement. We know that the majority of those who produce, process and market Africa’s food are women. However, only one in four agricultural scientists in Africa is a woman. The current leadership pool in agricultural science is fragile, thin, predominantly male and on the verge of retirement. If food security in Africa is to become a reality, we need a new generation of African agricultural leaders, including highly skilled, well-positioned women who can influence the research agenda.
We also need to get innovative research and technologies to the people who need it most—smallholder farmers. For Ghana’s tomato farmers, it is a matter of life and death.