This article was originally published on the Post Growth Institute Website.
Farmers planting nitrogen fixing trees on their farms
As a group challenging the growth paradigm, one of the most common questions that we hear is, ‘But don’t we need economic growth to lift the poor out of poverty?’. While growth has been successful to this end in certain ways, there are also some unwelcome consequences of growth. We prefer to ask other questions, like ‘Do we need to target economic growth to help those in need?’ and even better, ‘How are people currently breaking the poverty cycle in sustainable and inspiring ways?’. This piece demonstrates how a group of incredible people are doing just that.
In mid August, I found myself at a little ecovillage in the Danish countryside briefly attending an ecovillage design education (EDE) course that was being hosted there. After a 3pm a silent meeting with the rest of the Post Growth Institute team I walked down the wooden staircase and into the dining room from which the warm tones of happy conversation had been emanating for the past hour or so. I sat down to a tasty dessert and found myself talking with an engaging fellow by the name of Lovans Owusu-Takyi. Our conversation soon turned to what had brought us to the conference that day and before long I was intently listening to the inspiring story of the Kumasi Institute of Tropical Agriculture (KITA) in Ghana. I soon realised the relevance of the story Lovans was telling me and I called a ‘time out’ to search for a laptop so that I could record our conversation and share this story with more than just those around the table.
Bordered by Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo, Ghana is regarded by many (Lovans included) as the gateway to Africa. Lovans describes it as a place of secure democratic rule, where democracy has been embraced and peace increasing for many years. With an economy heavily rooted in agriculture, Lovans tells me how vulnerable Ghana is to the recent changes in climate and rainfall patterns and speaks concernedly about the impacts of these changes on the livelihoods of men, women and children, water scarcity and associated problems.
Despite strong political and social infrastructure, there are still many challenges that Ghana faces. Lovans says that of the approximately 50% of the population engaged in farming, many of them work on small scale, family run farms. I begin to hear about the story of a typical small scale farmer: What it generally means to be a small scale farmer is to tend a plot of 1 to 2 acres farming slow growing, low-yield, low nutrition crops like corn, plantains and cassava, and to be amongst the poorest of the poor (PDF). Using traditional slash and burn techniques that degrade land quality and constitute a shifting cultivation method, a lack of knowledge about sustainable farming practices is exacerbating a Ghanaian deforestation crisis that is already looking very bleak.
This is a story of a people who are balancing on a knife-edge that is being increasingly shaken by a changing climate.
Lovans explains to me that there are many governmental and international NGO efforts to improve the situation of Ghanaian farmers, but much of the money is lost along the way and the little which makes it through generally goes to improve the industrialization and mechanization of farming, which further leaves traditional farmers behind. This is where the Kumasi Institute of Tropical Agriculture (KITA) steps in.
Lovans squatting by an innovative live-fence of moringa Oliefera and Jatropha
for animal husbandry at the permaculture demonstration site
KITA is a not-for-profit agricultural institution providing professional technical training, research and outreach in general tropical agriculture to prospective and practicing farmers. They focus on the youth, women and peasant farmers at the grassroots level. Through strong local and international networks, they use permaculture and agroforestry principles to give struggling farmers alternative, sustainable and more resilient livelihoods.
KITA has both a professional farmers’ college and a department for community extension and rural development.
- The farmers’ college began as a training centre and has developed into a diploma awarding institution where it is providing on-the-job training to youth and producing graduates with the knowledge and skills necessary to transform the Ghanaian agricultural sector into the sustainability powerhouse that it can be. A major challenge that this sector has faced in Ghana (as is the case in many other countries) is that farming was beginning to be incorrectly seen as a role for those who couldn’t succeed in other professions such as law, engineering, or commerce. One of the best things that KITA’s professional farmers college has done is add a more professional element to the farming picture, thereby changing the image of farming and making it more attractive to the bright youth of Ghana.
- KITA’s department for community extension and rural development is the department that links the trainees and staff of KITA to the rest of Ghana. Outreach is firmly planted in the required curriculum of the farmers’ college and this means that trained graduates go back to their communities to establish farms and set up community-based organizations that provide outreach to other farmers. This high level of embedded engagement education is something to which many western colleges and universities aspire.
The strengths of the techniques and practices enacted by KITA are that they are simple to learn and implement, require very little material throughout and are highly effective. Simple changes such as crop diversification, agroforestry and also changing the variety of crops to higher yield and more nutrient rich varieties can mean that farmers only wait 3 to 4 months rather than 8 to 9 before they reap what they’ve sown. Techniques such as double-digging garden beds to maintain the nutrients and using more fuel efficient stoves to reduce deforestation and detrimental health effects of the traditional 3 stone fire have massive impacts with very low costs. KITA has also partnered with Trees for the Future to better facilitate the establishment of fast growing multi-purpose nitrogen fixing trees like moringa and gliricidia to improve soil fertility, provide firewood (and reduce deforestation), increase animal fodder and for various other hygiene and medicinal products.
These initiatives have provided KITA with numerous success stories. The college has won regional “Best Institution” awards from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and many of its graduates have won “Best Farmer” awards. Since its establishment in 1984, KITA has trained over 20,000 youth prospective farmers and providing extension education to about 15,000 traditional practicing farmers.
This led to Lovans training in Ecovillage Design Education in Germany after which KITA became part of the global network of ecovillages and part of a group of African institutions co-creating the growth and emergence of GEN-Africa, all with support from GEN-Europe.)
GEN-Africa is an ecovillage membership network that highlights current success stories, connects those already acting, enhances north-south cooperation and embraces traditional knowledge with a deep respect.
Lovans is assisting in the emergence of GEN-Africa as project coordinator and speaks with particular passion about the project. He tells me about the four pillars on which the ecovillage concept is based:
- Social – peace and team building initiatives help farmers to come together and improve group cohesiveness, decision making, conflict resolution, especially along the lines of traditional tribal conflict.
- Economic – having a financially sustainable community and in Africa, he feels that co-operatives and farmer groupings enable farmers to better work together, diversify and do shared marketing and have access to micro-financing opportunities.
- Worldview – indigenous knowledge and local culture is acknowledged and put into a global perspective to preserve and integrate the old and the new.
- Ecological – as a citizen of one of the highest per capita emitting countries (Australia), it was surprising to hear Lovans talk about how ecovillages can help emerging African communities to reduce their carbon footprints, but he was serious. GEN-Africa helps to strongly embed permaculture principles and sustainability practices to help traditional communities to thrive without producing the unfortunate externalities that many western lifestyles do.
Lovans has high hopes that KITA and its associated groups and partners will continue to strive and grow to enable it to help more small scale farmers and help Ghana to reduce its environmental impact whilst providing the necessities of a thriving life.
I was inspired and enthused by the story of KITA, its approach was so much in line with the PGI charter. Recognizing the ecological limits of shifting cultivation methods, protecting and prioritizing ecosystems to sustain well-being for humans and other species, acknowledging the planet as our collective heritage, building on existing knowledge, respecting diversity of both plant life and farming approaches, seeing the world as one large interconnected network and using appropriate technology to find strength in both local and international partnerships.
So the next time someone asks me “But don’t we need economic growth to lift the poor out of poverty?” I will tell them the story of the Kumasi Institute of Tropical Agriculture and how an organisation based on permaculture and cooperation is changing the lives of thousands in Ghana.
As with all organizations, KITA requires funding to help maintain its current projects and get new projects off the ground. Visit KITAghana.org to make a donation or to begin a conversation about partnership.
If you would like to volunteer or take internship with KITA (anything from 2 weeks to a year) contact Lovans Owusu-Takyi on lovans (at) kitaghana.org