African farmers demand increased access to mechanization

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 10, 2018

Fascinated by the advanced technology on farms in America, African farmers are demanding increased access to mechanized means of farming as the sure way to ensure food security and help lift the continent out of poverty.

In sub Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 70 percent of agricultural production is subsistence farming and very little commercialized farming occurs. A lot of farmers in Africa rely on light implements in their farming, use traditional seeds and employ mainly family labor. The average farm size in the United States is 178 hectares (440 acres), but in Africa it is as low as 2.4 hectares (six acres), with the majority of the producers relying on hoes and cutlasses to farm at very low productivity rates. The continent is heavily dependent on imported food, bringing in about $50 billion worth annually.

Recently, a number of farmers from Africa and other parts of the world had the opportunity to visit one of America’s most productive farms, Cinnamon Ridge Farms, which is run by John Maxwell in Iowa.

With a degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, Maxwell started farming in 1988 with a loan from the eighth bank he approached after seven others turned him down.

Today, Maxwell has a 2000-hectare (4942-acre) farm on which he grows soy, maize and other crops. He doesn’t rely on machete and the physical strength of his staff to produce. He has a highly mechanized farm on which he uses machines to clear his fields, sow and harvest, relying on tractors, plows and combined harvesters among others. This is aside from the more than 240 cows he raises for milk and dairy products.

The farm is so mechanized that there are only 11 workers on the 2,000-plus hectares of farm fields. He produces 22 tonnes of corn per hectare on his fields, while in Africa the average level of productivity on corn farms is 1.5 tonnes per hectare.

Leaders of various African farmer groups who visited the fields were excited about what they saw. Nana Aisha Bashir, who is national vice president of All Farmers Association of Nigeria and owns 3.5 hectares of farm fields, said she would be glad to see such technology on her farm because it is more efficient. “With this type of technology, a lot of cost is being cut. And there is precision in everything he is doing. You don’t over fertilize. You don’t over water. Everything is done properly to minimize the cost of production and you end up getting high yield at a lesser cost,” she said.

Bashir encouraged her government to invest more in such technology to help make farming better. “Nigeria has the money to go into it (mechanized farming). If our governments are serious, we can do this. The government needs to subsidize some of these inputs to farmers and provide them with credit facilities at very conducive interest rates…,” she said.

Jurua Jackson McPeace, vice president of the Uganda National Farmers Federation, is equally convinced a lot of the food insecurity challenges in his country can be fixed with improved technology on farms. “(In my country), farmers are not producing enough. The productivity is so low. They are food insecure. Income levels are so low. And that is not good. Mechanization is the way to go,” he said.

He says his association is already working on helping their members secure mechanized tools to improve productivity. “We cannot depend on the hoe. We as a federation are talking to tractor companies and finance institutions to see if we can have internal arrangements so we avail these tractors to farmer associations on a contract basis to groups of farmers to be able to rent these tractors to improve upon tillage and improve upon areas they can cultivate,” he said.

“Government should avail subsidies… they are already availing subsidies by providing seeds. But apart from that, it will be good if they subsidize the services of these tractors,” he added.

Davies Korboe, president of the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Award Winners Association, told the Alliance for Science he is equally convinced the sure way for Africa to become food secure and economically self-sufficient is to introduce improved technology to farms.

“Our president is preaching Ghana and Africa beyond aid. The only way to go is to see African farms being well-mechanized, using a lot of these innovations and getting GMOs to penetrate our systems to make our farmers rich and also to alleviate poverty. And above all, to be food secure,” he said.

“Through that, we can export to the United States and other countries and make a lot of money and through that there will be Africa beyond aid.”

In Ghana’s Parliament, the issue of mechanizing agriculture came up for discussion during debate on agricultural productivity, with legislators calling for a prioritization of mechanization in farming practices in the country.

“Farmers need to move from the regular farming with the cutlass and the hoe and peasant farming, and move into mechanized farming,” Sarah Adwoa Sarfo, deputy majority leader in Ghana’s Parliament told the house.

Maxwell of Cinnamon Ridge Farms is convinced such technology can be transferred from America to other parts of the world, where it will work fine. “There is something that all of we farmers have in common…. We want to do better, we want to grow our farm as best as we can,” he said. “There are things on this farm I learned from my visit to Chile… Farmers learn best practices from all over the world.”