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When dismal infrastructure affects the entire agrifood system

jo.cadilhon's picture

I have been visiting Lawra and Wa Districts in the Upper West Region of Ghana last week as part of the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food’s Volta2 project. The main purpose of my trip was to have a feel for the local conditions encountered by an ILRI Research Fellow undertaking fieldwork there. I must say that I have been negatively impressed by the state of infrastructure in this otherwise dynamic mixed crop and livestock production area.

One regularly reads lamentations on the low level of infrastructure in rural Africa and how its negative impacts affect the development of agriculture and food marketing systems. But it is often difficult to understand this implication when one lives in a large city with air conditioning and fast internet access at home and at work. Even those living in urban areas of a developing country might not comprehend fully the extent of the situation faced by isolated rural areas in their country. True: there are sometimes a few power cuts here and there but that does not hinder the virtually unlimited usage of one’s mobile phone. Now, I can say that I have experienced, albeit for only two days, how dismal infrastructure can stop the agrifood production and marketing system from working. I am shocked by the idea that the situation I describe below could happen on a regular basis.

This is e-agriculture, so let me start with information and communication technologies. My research fellow Zewdie Adane, an Ethiopian citizen, had been complaining for the past two months about the very slow Internet access in Northern Ghana. Because he was working both from a local research institute and his hostel room, he was advised to buy a 3G key so his computer could dial into the Internet anywhere in the country. It turned out that the 3G key was incompatible with Skype. This meant that Zewdie was cut off from conversations with his professional and personal contacts using that online tool. Zewdie and I had to find other ways of communicating and this finally fell back to email. Then Zewdie told me that three or four days could pass without his computer being able to download his emails, although he had Internet access. Just opening and updating his inbox would take a whole day! Needless to say, this was a major hindrance to obtaining guidance from colleagues for his field research work on innovation platforms.

Lawra District Volta2 innovation platform meeting Now for mobile phones. At the project innovation platform meeting I observed in Lawra on Thursday 27 June 2013, I noticed that all the participants, including smallholder farmers, held a mobile phone. The input dealers and maize processors involved in the meeting kept leaving the room to answer phone calls. When Zewdie asked the members what they had gained from their participation in the innovation platform in terms of market access, the farmers responded that their participation in the platform had allowed them to meet traders and processors. They could now call them at any time on their mobile phones so as to check market prices before engaging in their own produce sales. This corroborated the reports I had read on the positive impacts of the mobile phone revolution in rural Africa. However, it all started going pear-shaped in the evening. It so happened that there was the funeral of a relative of the District tribal chief on Saturday 29 June. All friends and relatives had been called in from all over the country. I was told there could have been several hundred extra visitors in Lawra for that week end. As a result, the Lawra mobile phone network got saturated: from Thursday 27 evening to our leaving Lawra on Friday 28 afternoon, we could not send mobile phone calls although we definitely had airtime credit, even sending out text messages was sometimes refused by the network. So for two or three days, the phone calls necessary to facilitate business processes in the agrifood system in Lawra just did not work…

Just a note in passing on accommodation. The few guesthouses proposing accommodation in Lawra would probably be able to host 50 guests. That week end, there was a fight to find a bed because of all the visitors coming for the funeral. Imagine being a trader coming from another province and wanting to find a place to stay while looking for maize and other crops to buy in bulk; there would have been no bed available in Lawra on that week end. That is why Zewdie and I had to move out to Wa: there were no more bedrooms to accommodate my driver and me in Lawra on the Friday night.

I then got to experience road travel in Ghana’s Upper West Region. I travelled on the road between the Burkinabese border town of Léo, Lawra and Wa towns in Ghana and back to Léo. After clearing Burkinabese immigration one continues on the road through the forested savanna towards Ghana. One passes a road sign bidding farewell out of Burkina and suddenly the asphalt road turns into a dirt trail. Three hours of unpaved, potholed and bumpy trails follow to reach Lawra (distance from Léo to Lawra: 136 km). On the way out of Ghana on that same road, we encountered a truck overfull with goods that had toppled over, probably after driving too quickly over the enormous potholes, thus losing its balance. My local hosts told me the roads were so bad around Lawra that it was not worth it for a private operator to set up a bus service: vehicle maintenance costs would not be covered by the passenger fees. So there is no public transport reaching Lawra. One has to find one’s own way to Wa, the next district town 85 km further South, to find some public transport out of the Region. The poor road infrastructure is therefore an awful deterrent to any private entrepreneur wanting to do business to bring in crop inputs and export agricultural produce out of the region.

And finally, the power supply. When we left Lawra on Friday 28 June 2013 at 13.00, there had been no electricity in town since the previous evening. Luckily, our guesthouse did have a back-up generator which was turned on at nightfall. When we reached Wa on Friday 28 June at 16.00, there was still no electricity. 24 hours without any electricity in the area. Of course, that has little impact on smallholder farmers who do not have electricity anyway in their villages. But it did definitely have an impact on the food businesses in the area’s cities. Cooking in restaurants relies on wood or gas for fuel so there was no impact of the power cut during the daytime. On the other hand, at night, most of the restaurants in Wa had closed at sunset because they could not decently serve their guests in pitch darkness. Zewdie, our driver and I had a difficult time finding a place to eat that evening. All the restaurants had closed early and all the visitors into the city were looking for food. Our local contact at SNV-Ghana had to take his motorbike while we waited, find a place with food available, pay for our meals in advance and lead us there for our dinner. We saw at least half a dozen other visitors unsuccessfully trying to get food while we were eating our meal under torchlight. That power cut ruined a whole evening of potential business for the food service industry of Wa. When we left the city at 8.00 the next morning, there was still no electricity… How many hours does your laptop or mobile phone battery last?

Jo Cadilhon
Agro-economist, Policy Trade and Value Chains Program
ILRI, Nairobi