Be part of the CowTribe- A veterinary services company in Ghana that uses mobile technology

First published here at the Africa Institute at Western University 

The ‘Uber’ of animal health

Animal production is critical to rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the semi-arid drylands, such as northern Ghana where water scarcity, more erratic rainfall and a shortening growing season due to climate change make crop production acutely challenging (Codjoe et al., 2012). Animals often function like a family’s savings account- they are an emergency resource available to overcome climatic and market shocks, such as drought and food price hikes (Scoones, 1995). Animal production can also be essential for crops, as manure adds back essential lost soil nutrients, and fertilizes more sustainably than chemical alternatives. They are also often the only adequate source of protein in areas with high malnutrition and serve as important symbolic gestures and gifts in customary ceremonies (Kristjanson et al., 2001).

In Ghana, animal production is low and has remained stagnate for the past 10 years because of a lack of monitoring systems, high incidents of parasitic infections among other reasons (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 2016). Worryingly, in 2015, there was an outbreak of the avian flu (HPAI) killing 17.6% of all poultry in the country (CDC, 2016). There are also 28 livestock diseases in Ghana, which are killing millions of animals, and many are infecting people at alarming rates. For example, brucellosis is a zoonotic disease that when it spreads from cattle to women, can kill unborn babies. This is acutely affecting the Fulani in Ghana, a nomadic tribe commonly responsible for cattle grazing. Parasites, tics, tuberculosis are all tormenting school-aged children in particular. Fortunately, many of these diseases can be prevented with vaccines and this is recognized in Ghana’s national agri-food policy strategies. Unfortunately, the animal health systems, like clinics, drugs, tracking etc. are woefully underfunded and underserved by public, private and not for profit actors, and there are less than 100 veterinary technicians graduating each year in the country. Hence, in some communities, animal mortality rates are between 30-60% and could be reduced to 5% with simple vaccines and care.

Picture5Video filmed by Siera Vercillo in northern Ghana during the dry season

That is why I want to tell you about a new company in northern Ghana called CowTribe which was founded in 2016 to deliver life-saving vaccines, drugs, and emergency veterinary care in a reliable manner using mobile technology like databases, hotlines, SMS, and voicemails. Think of CowTribe as the Uber for animal health. Farmers subscribe to CowTribe’s services for only $5 via their mobile phone, they build a profile about their animals and CowTribe creates a health care schedule tailored to their needs, sending them reminders, information about disease outbreaks and risks. Farmers can also request for preventative assistance and emergency care, while home visits to administer drugs and conduct surgeries are coordinated.

CowTribe has already served 29,000 farmers in 119 communities in the Northern and Upper East Regions of Ghana. For 2018, their major partnerships are with the Cattle Farmers Association where they plan to directly provide animal health services to 8,910 farmers (and an expected 1 million farmers in upcoming years), as well as the Presbyterian Agriculture Station in Garu, Upper East Region to send multimedia to 4000 farmers.

Picture4CowTribe’s services

There are a few reasons why I am proud of CowTribe and their services. CowTribe is,

Delivering essential animal health services that are woefully underfunded

According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), globally 30% of farm animals die due to preventative outbreaks and diseases by using simple vaccines. For every US$1 spent on a vaccine, more than $US100 is saved in treatment and potential mortality. Many farmers cannot adequately monitor their animal’s health, nor do they know what to do when their animal is sick or who to call to figure it out. In 2011-2012, I worked with overburdened veterinarian extension officers at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture who could not provide sufficient care to the thousands of farmers they were responsible for. CowTribe can fill in a much-needed service gap while using new communication technology to reach more farmers.

Reaching the most vulnerable farmers and respecting their needs

I had the opportunity to advise CowTribe while conducting my doctoral research in 2016-2017 on how to design tailored made care for farmers in remote communities who tend to be left behind by the public and private agriculture sectors. Using participatory research, we asked farmers important questions about their animals, their barriers to veterinary care and what they are willing to pay for. CowTribe reaches farmers in remote communities for their services, which most companies in Ghana say they do, but do not do so in actuality. Agribusiness, NGO, and government programs tend to work with farmers close to urban areas, middlemen, or educated, business elite and not the smallholders in remote areas that CowTribe works with.

Supporting women leaders and creating employment for youth

The co-founders of CowTribe, Peter Awin, and Alima Bawah are Ghanaians who have close relationships with farmers and the rural communities where they come from. Many of their staff are recent graduates who are looking for work opportunities in a context where youth unemployment is among the highest in the world (at 60%) and people are abandoning rural areas at unprecedented rates. I have introduced CowTribe to a number of recent graduates from the Animal Health and Production College in Ghana who are building their network of farmers and need financial support mentorship to launch their careers. This is a Ghanaian youth-led initiative intended to build a prosperous future for rural areas and who have not given up on agriculture.

I began working with CowTribe as a Veterinary Officer last year after I completed my education in 2016. My work is to vaccinate and deworm animals for farmers and give them information to register with the company using the mobile app. I help the farmers take details about the flock size, work with them to create a schedule for the treatment and prophylaxis and provide further extension. I am delighted to be pioneering CowTribe and that we are recognized internationally. As a young man, I had trouble starting, and had many problems and issues. I am very hardworking and ready to learn new things which was appreciated by the company. -Abdul Latif Sulemana

Follow CowTribe on Facebook or Twitter


Ghana’s new agriculture policy is leaving behind its smallholders

In a recent meeting at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, we were presented with the designated Minister, Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto’s plans for what the new government is going to offer its farmers: Planting for Food and Jobs, a Campaign for Rapid Growth.

The plan makes grand claims to promote growth in food production and create 750,000 new jobs through a focus on five areas: seed, fertilizer, extension services, marketing and e-fertilizer. The growth will come from five main food crops maize, rice, soybean, sorghum and vegetables and in the north of the country where I work, the focus will be entirely on the first three: maize, rice and soy. Notably, yam, millet, livestock and other animals are not included, as well as other natural resources like shea.


Women’s shea production and processing group, Ghana


African yam mounds

The campaigns focus on getting every Ghanaian to grow food for the country is reminiscent of the 1970s Operation Feed Yourself policy that focused on Green Revolution development approaches only without the focus on mechanization and a renewed emphasis on seed and fertilizer. A novel feature is that local district assemblies will have a main coordination role alongside the local Ministry of Food and Agriculture units. We will wait to see what support to strengthening local government systems will be provided beyond hiring new extension staff proposed. The National Buffer Stock (NAFCO) will be reinvested in, operating as the market, storage and processing option. We also wait to see if support for operations is budgeted for and not just infrastructure maintenance.

Most worryingly is that the government is only registering ‘lead farmers’ those who have 10 acres or more of one of the targeted crops. In a place where virtually all farmers are smallholders who grow many crops to meet a diverse diet and reduce risk, government extension have expressed concerns about who the government is targeting and how their services will shift. As one extension staff said in the meeting, “I bet we won’t even get up to 100 farmers registered for the entire district”. Since farmers are registered for where they are farming and not where they live, it is likely that most of the farmers registered will not be those in the rural communities, but business men from the city or government staff who have the capital to rent and prepare land, hire labour and access inputs on a medium scale. Moreover, it is likely that women (especially those who do not inherit land) and the ‘teeming youth’ will not have the ten acres needed, leaving them behind.


The extension staff I work with perceive their jobs to be about developing smallholder livelihoods and rural communities and in the meeting, they began strategizing about how they could register them so they are included. One suggestion was through the registration of groups of smallholders (farming based organizations), like cooperatives where they could aggregate land. But, no, individuals are only allowed. Others suggested registering smallholders with plots next to each other, but under one name. I can’t help but think about the deep mistrust between smallholders and government and the potential community conflict that could arise because smallholders’ land, rented tractors and hired labour are already being monopolized by these business men who can afford to pay more at the necessary time. Now the government is supporting them, not the smallholders.


This campaign for rapid growth is worrying because where there is rapid growth, there tends to be rapid inequality and rapid environmental degradation. There seems to be a mismatch between what the government, NGOs and the private sector sees as the future of agriculture in Ghana and what smallholders themselves want. Chemical fertilizer for example is being widely adopted by smallholders, and government (with pressure from farmer lobbyists) have subsidized the cost from around 100 GH cedis to 85 GH cedis per 45 kg bag to reduce costs. However, smallholders have issued concerns to me about the impact this fertilizer usage has on soil health and the quality of food produced. Those both near and far away from town are reluctantly adopting fertilizer because of desperation and they perceive themselves as being addicted to these expensive chemicals. The improved, shorter varieties of seed provided produce more in times of erratic rainfall, but the quality of produce and ability to withstand drought is also a problem perceived by smallholders. We will also wait to see what kinds of seeds are encouraged in the future and perhaps the renewal of hybrids and other non-open pollinated varieties smallholders are not willing to adopt will make its way back in the name of growth. Moreover, the focus on e-extension and e-fertilizer was tried and failed last year because of the technical and literacy problems across the country. We await to see what new innovations are provided to combat this.


After all, it is the medium scale farmer who is willing to invest and depend on these inputs year after year to generate surplus, moving on when the soil is dead, but not the smallholder who needs to think about sustaining her subsistence and existence first – food quality, diversification and environmental sustainability.


Smallholder farmers in Ghana

Development concentration: When non-profit and for-profit efforts in agriculture converge

With recent talks about the impact of corporate concentration in the agro chemicals and seed industry sparked by the move of Monsanto to Buyer, I have been thinking about what the potential impacts of ‘development’ concentration could be for smallholders.

In case you did not hear, the seed company Monsanto was recently taken over by Bayer, a large pharmaceutical company. Monsanto is commonly associated with GMOs, but also environmental degradation and lack of business ethics in the way their products and services impact family farmers. One way Monsanto’s products, research and services plans to break the poor brand and reputation is to morph into a larger corporation with the hope to change the image of GMOs. This is discussed in a CBC The Current podcast here.

But, what do seeds and chemicals have to do with each other?

A lot of the seeds developed by Monsanto require pesticides. Monsanto has been trying to partner (as mentioned in this article at The Guardian here) firstly, and unsuccessfully with Sygenta. Dow and Dupont is another example of a company, which controls 40% of the corn and soybean market in the US. Related, ChemChina has also purchased Syngenta giving it the largest handle on the agricultural chemical market. The reality is that mega-mergers like this are happening because of low interest rates and cheap borrowing since the financial crisis.




What is the big deal about these corporate mergers? – It will negatively affect smallholders

Corporate consolidation of input agribusinesses also concentrate power, where they can lobby governments to shape the political economy. Government favouring large scale, industrial agriculture will disenfranchise the smallholder who prefers to save their seed, diversify farms and practice agro ecology.

Smallholders in northern Ghana where I am doing research have explained a reality that they haven’t told their government policy makers or civil society groups because of the lack of trust and perceived poor representation: They don’t want to use chemicals or hybrid seed (especially not GMO) that these corporations are providing or funding, whether foreign or locally bred. Smallholders claim that the chemicals make their physical health and soil sick and reduces the quality of their food.

These smallholders felt pressured to adopt chemical inputs and are now addicted to using them because of the lack of fertility in the soil and lack of alternative agro ecological practices and technology resulting from land and labour pressure. Shifting their open pollinated variety of seed to hybrid seed, where they can no longer save their seed each year makes them further dependent on corporations that their government is supporting. This is all something smallholders have been resisting for decades, but articulate to me that they have been left with little choice for alternatives.

The Second African Green Revolution

 There has been renewed interest in what has been perceived as the failure of the first Green Revolution in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, where farmers refused to adopt ‘modern’ technologies, such as improved seed and chemical inputs to intensify their farms. However, in northern Ghana the 1980s was the height of the agriculture sector where the country was producing enough food for self-sufficiency and export. I have been told that even smallholders owned assets, were producing on much larger tracts of land and used many best planting practices, such as dibbling and spacing. But with the onset of Structural Adjustment Progammes and the liberalization of agri-food markets (including cheap food importation), allowing for foreign investment and privatization of inputs that have been increasing prices and consolidating good quality land, the Second Green Revolution in Africa is perceived as even more problematic by smallholders then the first.


So, what are ‘development actors’ doing exactly? – Private sector growth

Something that became apparent to me on my last visit to Ghana and has sparked my reflection by the recent corporate mergers is the uniformity of agriculture development efforts. Governments, non-profits (like USAID’s Feed the Future programmes), and agribusinesses like Wienco (Masara N’Arziki) seemed to be doing the same thing in similar ways. They are striving to intensify smallholders through Green Revolution technology provision and market integration. As explained in this webinar here by IFPRI and Rockefeller Foundation on the importance of intensification of smallholders for food security. The Government of Ghana has recently established the national fertilizer subsidy program and set up a number of public seed research units (CSIR / SARI) supported by USAID to improve varieties. USAID focuses their efforts on the agriculture value chain connecting all types of agribusinesses to provide inputs to farmers. Wienco imports new kinds of technologies and provides them to farmers and does so in a viable business model.




I have been told the only difference between what is being done now to support farmers in comparison to the 1980s or the first Green Revolution is that there is a strong focus on market integration and that all efforts are led by the private sector, even if government is involved. This is communicated as an improvement, as development, but the costs of inputs are perceived to be too high and the loans impossible. Undoubtedly, there have been improvements, hunger rates have been decreasing as people have access to cheaply, imported food and storage has greatly developed with a lot less food wastage.

Although in theory sustainable intensification practices that account for a triple bottom line in agribusiness: environment, social justice and growth are proposed, this is not what is happening in practice in northern Ghana. Especially since, from what I have seen, none of these actors directly support agroecology. For example, by developing manure markets or subsidization as opposed to just chemical intensive ones. To be fair, the intercropping of soya is proposed as a nitrogen rich alternative that is more nutritious, but this does not actually address the inequitable power relations within an agri-food political economy by depending on an unregulated input market, cheap grain imports, labour migration and land consolidation. It kind of ignores the problem.

I have also been told by different staff at all three of these organizations that they find it difficult to work with smallholders. Smallholders often do not fulfill contracts or promises and ‘abuse’ their partnership by diverting inputs to other plots, lying to them about their yields and practices and sometimes go as far as burn their fields. I am told they are unreliable and reliability is the most important thing in a business model and value chain.


Artificial flavours imported that are cheaper and easier


Dawadawa – is a preferred spice, which comes from  a tree, but I have been told it is being dropped in favour of imported ones because of cost and ease with related negative health consequences

We need to ask why are smallholders resisting the Second Green Revolution (as with the first)?

Perhaps it is because the smallholders feel what is on offer (Green Revolution technology) is not useful and might actually create more harm than good to their environments –it’s not really that green (unless you count drought resistance?). This might also not meet their farming mental model, which differs than the business one. Perhaps it is because they do not like the terms of the agreements set by the unregulated private sector. Perhaps it is because they see the corruption of both the public and private sector through the catering to the business men and not the family farmer. At least this is what they are explaining to me.



Blog post on Women & Food Waste @FoodWasteStudy

I just published a blog post here for the Food Waste Studies Group International on
Food Waste – What do Women Have to do With It?

Check it out and the group for an active discussion, resources and community on all things food waste.

Follow us on Twitter @FoodWasteStudies

Why we still need International Women’s Day

And my biggest pet peeves when discussing gender and women’s rights issues from this past year

Happy International Women’s Day! #IWD2016 It is my favourite day of the year because I have an excuse to discuss one of my favourite topics: gender justice and women’s rights. If you have me as a friend on Facebook, or follow me on Twitter, you know that I go out of my way to create spaces for dialogue and debate. I want to continue to embrace disagreement and conflict both because it is uncomfortable, and because it fosters that dialogue.

Every now and then I have a friend (typically a woman) send me a private message asking me about how I deal with the loud, brash, seemingly entitled people (mostly men) who enjoy filling my wall or feed with their opinions about women’s issues. I respond by assuring them that I am ok with these comments, that I see them as dialogue and as an opportunity to learn, to challenge, and to practice communicating complex ideas to people who think differently than I do. It can be annoying, and it often brings me stress and even sometimes keeps me up at night. But it is important to be uncomfortable, to challenge yourself and discuss issues (respectfully) with those who differ from you, otherwise I would be just preaching to the choir.
3ed24edd6bd9be32690a448806dfd481 I would like to tell you about some of my biggest pet peeves that I have discovered in creating these spaces for dialogue, and in the process highlight my favourite posts online from this past year.

Here they are:

1. Why do we still need feminism? Isn’t it 2015? Aren’t you satisfied yet?

No. Here are 15 reasons posted here or another 100 reasons posted here of why I am not even close to being satisfied.

  • Canada is falling behind on gender equality, we moved to 23rd in the UN’s world rankings
  • Many places (like the USA) still do not have parental leave and Canada has been defunding it for more than 10 years
  • Politicians still want to try and control women’s health care and their bodies
  • Women make less money than men even with the same job and credentials – in Canada it is more than twice the global average. Even the winning women’s soccer team will get less money than the men’s team
  • Twice as many men dominate fields of decision making in every career all over the world
  • Implicit perceptions of women who take leadership positions as masculine AND that we expect twice as much from them as men
  • Sexual assault and harassment is still widespread even in Canada
  • Women’s products in stores cost more even when they are the exact same as men’s products
  • Women have been erased from history – look at all of the cool women and their biographies we never heard about in our Grade 10 history class
  • Or the books by women about our rights that we never read

But also because men are still discriminated against as care providers and kindergarten teachers, that they still also experience a lot of violence (mostly from other men and authority figures like the police); that men are committing suicide at alarming rates; men are losing the right to be fathers in court and feel isolation in fatherhood and pressure to keep working (instead of taking parental leave). The economic recession hits men hardest because of patriarchal ideas of who good men are and how they should be as providers and protectors.

That is why we still need feminism and International Women’s Day, because patriarchy hurts men and women.


2. Women do not have it that bad here – I mean, it is so much worse in other places

According to several UN experts who are from countries that we would label as ‘one of those other places’ are shocked by the level of discrimination against women in the USA. See here and here quoting them by saying, “While all women are the victims of countless missing rights, women who are poor, belong to Native American, Afro-American and Hispanic ethnic minorities, migrant women, LBTQ women, women with disabilities and older women are disparately vulnerable,” the experts stressed.


3. Men and women are naturally…

Naturally what? Naturally better toilet cleaners, cooks, diaper changers? Really? What is it about our brain and vagina that makes us better at these things? According to this study published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that brains aren’t distinctly “male” or “female.” Scientists from Tel-Aviv University hypothesized that if the brain is truly gendered, MRI scans would reveal consistent structural differences between sexes.  Instead, they discovered that brain features vary across a spectrum like a mosaic. The study concludes that brains are not classifiable as male or female, but instead vary by the features of each individual.

Also this interesting video dispels some myths on the nature v. nurture debate about how biology is somehow separate from society. The two actually shape each other and are interdependent. So, if you could prove that there are genetic differences between females and males and that this shapes women and men’s behavior, to suggest that it is deterministic makes little sense.


4. Why do we call it Feminism? We should call it Humanism

If we called it Humanism, then we are reinforcing a different (already established) theory that historically left out women and other minorities (such as men without property). We call the movement feminism because it is still important to acknowledge that equality and empowerment for women is as important as it is for men.

“The reason why it’s called feminism while advocating for gender equality is because females are the gender that are the underprivileged, underserved gender,” Shives says in his video response. “You attain gender equality by advocating for the rights of the underprivileged gender.”
—And also the fact that people will still listen to his video response more so because he is a man talking about feminism

Feminism emerged out of women’s rights movements. Thus it comes from a challenge to the inequality of women. Feminism today exists as an agglomeration of past and present efforts to address forms of inequality facing women. This post provides excellent answers to some more questions.


5. Female celebrities who say they are not a feminist

This song found here would be my response if I was musically or comically inclined.
“Just take a look at the checklist: You like voting? You like driving? You’re a feminist,” Goodman sings as images of women’s suffrage flash on the screen. The video, which includes a nod to Gloria Steinem and the work of second-wave American feminists who fought for reproductive rights. When you say these things you just prove how you probably shouldn’t quit your day job and tackle social issues. You might actually hurt social efforts and justice and do more harm than good. So use your power for good and just leave it to people who have given it a bit more thought, or maybe do some further reading.

6. Feminists believe women should have more rights than men

Yes, in fact we are angry cat ladies, who don’t shave and have horns.
This stereotype has been fabricated for decades, and negative stereotypes about feminists have actually been created, see here which explains a bit about this history of making you think these things that have little bearing in reality. They are based more on the fear of change than anything else.


7. Feminism does not include me

Feminism has been talking about intersectionality for more than 20 years, explained here. People of multiple minority groups face both distinct advantages and disadvantages. Biases based on gender and race do not always simply pile up to create double disadvantages, for instance. Although feminism at one point in time has ignored certain groups and rendered them invisible, feminism has also learned a lot from this. Those who continue to ignore intersectionality are not up to speed with their theory *tsk tsk*.


8. The gender wage gap exists because women do not want to work and take lesser paying jobs

Skeptics of the gender wage gap say it’s misleading to cite the statistic that women overall are paid 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. This does not account for women’s choices, whether it’s working fewer and more flexible hours, or in industries or college majors that happen to pay less. But advocates say this misses the point. It’s true that the 78 cents figure does not account for different industries and education levels. But controlling for those factors still doesn’t erase the gap—women are paid 7 percent less than men a year out of college even controlling for just about every possible difference other than gender.

The gender wage gap is not only bad in the STEM fields, but also in social sciences. This article talks about how bad the problem of sexism is in the social sciences, such as economics.

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9. Policing women’s bodies? Don’t be so dramatic!

Here is a list of items of clothing women have been told not to wear in 2015 – from a skirt that was too short, or too long (or skirts in general), from pants that were too tight and hair for being in braids, from flat shoes to high heels. The list goes on and on. Remember all of those times you or your daughter came home for disobeying the school dress code? Now do you believe me?

I always shock my friends and colleagues who live outside of Canada and the USA when I tell them that women cannot breast feed in public where I live. I mean they can, but there are always the dirty looks and side glances, and even sometimes that person who feels so entitled that they tell you it is gross. Women literally have to hide in toilets or cover their child with a blanket in order to breast feed. My friends do not understand because that is what women’s breasts are primarily for (they are not just play things), and also because nipples are so harmless (especially since we see men’s nipples all the time). We wonder why women get so lonely and suffer post-natal depression and make them feel even worse for being bad mothers for suffering depression. Perhaps it is because we cannot go anywhere because breast feeding is actually very demanding. Don’t believe me? Check out this video here.

Objectification of women’s bodies goes so far that even this study says that certain female students get higher grades because of their attractiveness. Wow.

10. We can empower her by…

You cannot empower someone. Empowerment only comes from within. This means that empowerment is by definition someone’s ability to imagine their world differently and be able to act upon it. You cannot just throw money at her and BOOM all of her problems are solved, she is empowered—doesn’t that sound like objectification? And I find it even more worrying when women’s empowerment is used to sell products that reinforce gender differences, and are ultimately disempowering. For example, this Dove commercial that continues to patronize and remind us that we need to think we are beautiful.


11. Feminism is Un-African

Some of the most popular current feminists are African, so really what are you talking about? Here is a list of 18 phenomenal African feminists: from Theo Sowa, Abena Busia, Osai Ojigho, Leymah Gbowee, and of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Liberate yourself from mental slavery, please.


12. Men’s Rights Movement (in North America)

This blog post exposes the terrifying types of men who are part of this movement. “No longer a fringe movement constricted to static ideology, MRAs have become a persistent, often violent force online, stooping to rape and death threats when defending their stance.” I recommend reading this post of an interview with one of the leaders and those attending an annual conference. This movement is an injustice to men’s issues and men everywhere. The issue of disproportionate suicide for men, experiences of violence (from other men) lack of access to formal health services, isolation in fatherhood are all symptoms of the same system that also hurts women – patriarchy. One of the most destructive forces in our social construction of masculinity is this notion of having to be the tough guy, the provider who does not feel emotion (until he explodes) or feels so much pressure resorting to violence (even to oneself). This same construction of masculinity is part of the reason that holds men back from accessing services, such as child care and health.

The men’s rights movement recognizes these issues, but places the blame not on social gendered norms, but on feminism. I know, I don’t really get it either. The worst part is when women’s issues come up and are raised, the conversation gets diverted (i.e. #notallmen) making issues to be again all about men. If I was a man, I would be more horrified with the level of misplaced anger that the men’s rights movement has – #notinmyname seems appropriate.

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Please share the post, resources and leave comments debating these points. I know the resources are not gold standard or peer reviewed. I know the facts are communicated in definitive and simplistic ways – but this is my attempt at being clear, concise and interesting. I assume you will take issue with something – and I respect that. I look forward to what you have to say.

Justice for whom? – Court fines community protestors against multinational’s land grab in Sierra Leone


I practically spat out my coffee at breakfast this morning while listening to BBC Africa (podcast found here). The story was about a ‘landmark case’ in Sierra Leone where a court’s decision to fine six people $10,000 or serve up to six months’ in jail for vandalizing a palm oil plantation that is owned by the French company, Socfin. The court says the ruling is an attempt to intimidate people who resist the activities of multinationals across the country, perhaps across the continent more generally.

Socfin says it acted within the law when it obtained the land, and the government says the plots were unused, thus justifying planting a highly productive cash crop. Let’s be clear, this is no ordinary plantation and I believe those who have told me that it is one of the largest plantations in Africa, maybe even the largest. It looks more like untouched rainforest was cleared and replaced with uniform and orderly trees, than it does a stereotypical plantation.

I have written about Socfin’s activities in this earlier blog post. In 2014, I spent several months working in Pujehun district, including the Malen community where Socfin’s plantation activities operate. I have visited Malen many times to work on community farms, listen to community’s needs and develop agriculture extension services to meet those needs. A major part of my work has been to get around the displacement and disarray that Socfin’s plantation has caused. Instead of the larger scale cassava farming and processing that the community relies on, different farming groups ask me how to plant swamp valley rice. All of the land that they typically grow cassava on now has trees on it and is no longer available to use for growing food for their community. The only thing left are the swamps that they know less about.


I have been warned about the ‘uneasy calm’ in the district since the first day I arrived in the country. Not wanting to alarm me, but this description does not explain the community conflict and disruption that this land transition has had to my work, the service providers who visit the communities on a weekly basis, market functions and other community activities. Although I was supposed to live and stay in Malen (as well as other communities) to provide more direct, technical support to farming, simply visiting the communities safely was a challenge. We had to travel in a large truck, on differing, clearer routes, only during the afternoon. As we drove towards the community, women on the side of the road with wood stacked on their heads would see our vehicle and jump into the bush, terrified –of what, I am still not entirely sure (and I never ask for fear of causing more panic). Our community meetings and farm visits are often disrupted by discussions about the land and their relations with Socfin. They seemed genuinely worried about their livelihoods, access to food and explain that things are different than before, they are getting worse. The company promised jobs, infrastructure and other benefits, but taking away their ability to grow cassava is like switching from one job to another without any training or support and still expecting them to do well. Only in this situation it means that the community might not have enough food to eat.

What the BBC Africa news story does not tell us is about the violence that this displacement of livelihoods and land has caused. Every couple of weeks I hear of a ritualistic murder, of women resorting to prostitution and family’s selling and shipping their children away. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I used to wonder about how a tight knit community with nothing to lose could let a foreign company come in and take their only leverage -land. After reading, spending time and interviewing people I now realize how naive those thoughts are. My social and historical analysis tells me a different story. This is a community that was once occupied by rebel forces in a civil war that happened only one or two generations prior. In times of conflict, people isolate themselves and instead of rising together, they actually do the opposite and keep to themselves. The displacement caused by this land grab is in a way a resort back to old coping strategies of not being able to trust your neighbors and those who are part of your own kin, your own family. The village that is needed to raise a child (or rise against an unfair land contract) becomes dislocated.


I should mention that the story is complex and multifaceted. That there is more going on than what community members tell me. Perhaps this is why we need more gold standard research conducted to capture the whole story, such as this study by my colleagues here. Socfin did not just come in and put palm trees down. They did so legally. They went to the government and rented the land for just over $12 per acre for the next 50 years. I also assume that there was some community consultation during these negotiations. After all, land is owned and controlled by community leaders. However, it is in this negotiation where some people win and others lose. In this case, someone has benefited and continues to benefit from the plantation, and it does not seem to be the community members who uneasily jump at any strange vehicle they see.

When I found out this morning that the court ruled against community protestors who vandalized the plantation I wondered: is this justice? Justice for whom? What makes this court case such a landmark? Is it that the community was finally fed up enough, empowered enough to lash out? Or that a multinational was still able to win and have power over them, despite all of the other crimes that are indirectly attributed to their activities. Perhaps it is the fact that courts are trying to silence their citizens. Six community members versus a multinational hardly seems fair. It is sort of like the David v. Goliath story only in reverse- this time Goliath seemingly won.


GMO food is ‘Generally Missing Observation’ & Why Smallholders in Africa are so Against Growing it

To all of the converted – to those who turn to the quick, technical solutions of GM food for saving the ongoing food crisis – there is something you should know.

We actually have enough food in the world to feed everyone (FAO, 2014).

Those who are often the hungriest tend to be farmers (Watts, 2013).

Despite all of the gains we have made in technical improvements (we are producing 17% more food per person than we did 30 years ago) close to a billion people are hungry and this number has not changed for decades. In some regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is getting worse.

So if hunger and malnutrition still exists despite improved technology and food production to meet the growing population, than what is going on? Why are so many people still hungry?

Like any technology, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not exist in a vacuum. Whether they are successful in increasing food production by deterring pests and insects, or add nutritious elements to the crop itself, this is by no means something that farmers want to grow or consumers want to eat.

Worse still, there is actually very little research conducted about GMOs. The recent article we published here finds very little evidence pointing to the health, environment or political economic gains from biotechnology.

Food for thought

In this paper we ask important questions about equality issues: will an innovation cause unemployment or migration in rural communities? Will the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Have the negative impacts of an innovation been considered?

Uribe, Glover, and Schnurr’s (2014) contribution makes clear that contextual factors such as governance and policy frameworks, credit availability and seed markets, as well as local agro-ecological factors such as insect pests, shape food security outcomes of GMO technology.

So what is the actual evidence?

Evidence of positive gains from GMOs in Africa:
– In a most recent meta-analysis, Klümper and Qaim (2014) details that herbicide-tolerant crops have lower production costs although insect-resistant crops have higher seed prices.

– Production levels of GM crops for herbicide tolerance rose by 9 and 25% above that for insect resistance. For example, average yields for GM cotton in South Africa from 1998 and 2001 were 25% higher than for conventional cotton with average increased earnings of 77%. Additionally, in Burkina Faso Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton hectares increased by 126% in 2010 from the level in 2009. According to Clive (2013), biotech cotton in low- income countries increased the income of 16.5 million smallholder farmers in 2013, including success in India (Kathage & Qaim, 2012).

Despite the few positive studies, evidence of gains for most is quite mixed and uncertain. If one thing’s for certain, an overwhelming majority of farmers have collectively organized against GMOs across the continent of Africa. Particularly against the private-sector-led agriculture investment strategies for food security that pushes GMOs.


The evidence supporting farmers concerns in Africa are many:
– Cases exist where industrial agriculture pushed by large corporate investment and their respective technologies have contributed to a decline in community development and environmental conditions (Patel, Torres, & Rosset, 2005) because they have no mechanisms or incentives to ensure basic rights (Carney, 2012; Patel et al., 2005, p. 430; Shepherd, 2012; Yengoh & Armah, 2014)

– Related neoliberal economic models of deregulation policies to allow for technology have weakened government services that regulate markets, which push vulnerable smallholder farmers to give up farming and migrate (Kuuire, Mkandawire, Arku, & Luginaah, 2013).

– The focus on technical and short-term fixes by public–private partnerships shifts funding away from fundamental structural problems (DFID & Wiggins, 2004).

– Even the focus on incorporating the smallholder farmer into the value chain has been found to work for only the top 2–20% of small-scale producers, who are often only men (McKeon, 2014, p. 10) and typically excludes farmers themselves in the planning process.

-Generally, smallholder farmers are unable to afford traditional agriculture technologies and especially not the more costly new biotechnology (Patel et al., 2005).

– Due to the monopoly of power on biotechnology by certain major corporations, GM crops would result in the costs of inputs increasing and the diversity of seed choice declining (Shiva, Jafri, Emani, & Pande, 2000).

Terminator technologies ensure that farmers must either purchase new seed for each season or buy chemical keys to activate bioengineers’ crop traits, which will also put certain farmers at a disadvantage.

– Engineered genetic constructs may contaminate other farms unintentionally (Bailey, Willoughby, & Grzywacz, 2014).

-Leakages of GM crops into the food and feed supply have been reported with Prodigene corn, Syngenta Bt10 corn, and Liberty Link rice pointing to larger implications if done in places with poor infrastructure regulation (Bagavathiannan et al., 2011).

kill gene

In current political economic conditions, should we really be pushing this stuff?

So even though there is some positive evidence that points to increasing yields and lowering production costs for farmers in Africa, the political economy of production (cotton in South Africa for example) has resulted in inequitable profit-sharing, coerced eviction, and widespread indebtedness of farmers (Witt, Patel, & Scnurr, 2006). It is unclear in the range of studies accounted for in the meta-analysis (Klümper & Qaim, 2014) whether these factors are considered and how they relate to food security or nutrition.

“When are you people going to stop coming into our continent with your recipes for solving our problems rather than supporting our own solutions?” – USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in Rome in May 2012 speaking to the National Alliance. (McKeon, 2014, p. 13)

Policymakers, planners, donors tend to blame farmers for being ignorant, backward, lazy and low to uptake the technology. The implication is that farmers do not know what is good for them. That they do not understand the vision for modernization and progress for the future of their agriculture systems and food security.

However, perhaps it is the farmers who know what is best for their own farms.

The bioethical concerns over GM crops and other biotechnology needs to be situated in the much wider related issues of poverty, inequality, and social justice that puts the smallholder farmer at the centre of analysis, which is why debates of biotechnology must be understood within the broader context of neoliberal agrarian policies.