By Gertrude Dzifa Torvikey
In time of a pandemic when food access is already a challenge for many vulnerable people, a country cannot afford unhealthy tensions developing between the state and food producers and traders. Yet, this is currently the state of affairs in Ghana amid a stand-off with the government over the production and supply of tomatoes, which have come to be viewed as a “political crop” due to their importance to national food security.
Tomatoes are an essential item in Ghanaian cuisine. A total of 440,000 tons are consumed annually, and the crop constitutes 40 per cent of annual expenditure on vegetables. However, in its efforts to assert its control over the domestic tomato market, which it has pledged to support, the state is denying the importance of the role of imports in meeting national demand – thus effectively abandoning the traders and transporters who, in many cases, are risking life and limb to bring in urgently needed supplies of the crop.
Ghana imports over 100,000 tons of tomatoes annually from Burkina Faso alone. Traders from Ghana, most of whom are women, travel at night to farm gates in Burkina Faso to collect and bring the produce to the various food markets across the country, even though they may risk their lives by doing so. Indeed, such is the threat that, in February, the Ghana National Tomato Traders and Transporters Association (GNTTTA) called on its members to stop importing tomatoes after continuous attacks by armed robbers on tomato traders and transporters travelling to and from Burkina Faso.
In one such attack, a 22-year-old driver sent to bring in a load of tomatoes was shot dead. Others have been injured. The traders believe the robbers, who had stopped such attacks several years ago after transactions for the produce were increasingly conducted electronically, have returned in the mistaken belief that the drivers sent to collect the loads under Covid-19 restrictions are carrying cash for the purchases.
In addition to calling on its members to stop importing tomatoes under such dangerous conditions, the GNTTTA also criticised the Minister of Food and Agriculture, Owusu Afriyie Akoto, describing him as “bogus” for his lack of commitment to developing the sector. In response, the Minister’s office described the association’s view as a “political attack” on him.
The spat is part of a larger contestation between producers and traders and the state in which the government’s position appears essentially to be one of denial. Most notably, President Nana Akufo-Addo, in his State of the Nation Address in January, touted the government’s agricultural flagship programme, “Planting for Food and Jobs”, as having produced so much food the country was now exporting tomatoes. This despite, there is clear evidence that Ghana remains a net importer of both tomato concentrate and fresh tomatoes.
The current dispute about the production of, and trade in, tomatoes is the latest in a turbulent history that dates back many decades after early efforts by the state to support domestic supply and processing of the crop gave way to an increasing reliance on imports. In 1968, the state invested in the tomato sector with the establishment of the Pwalugu Tomato Factory in the Upper East Region and the GIHOC Tomato Cannery-TOMACAN at Wenchi in the Bono Ahafo Region. These plants processed concentrate from locally grown tomatoes.
However, under economic liberalisation policies in the 1980s, the state withdrew support for the agricultural sector, leaving farmers vulnerable. Subsequently, trade liberalisation promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) resulted in relatively cheap tomato paste being imported from the European Union (EU), which in turn led to the collapse of the local state-supported manufacturers and undermined the domestic market for local tomato farmers. Ghana now imports $100 million of vegetables a year, mainly tomatoes and onions. In 2019, its imports of tomato paste accounted for 13 per cent of total African imports of this product, with only regional giant Nigeria importing more.
Meanwhile, within the region, tomato, farmers in Burkina Faso, who have superior irrigation facilities, are outperforming their Ghanaian peers – which has led local traders to favour cross-border imports from their northern neighbour. This has further squeezed Ghanaian tomato farmers, some of whom, faced with increasing debts and a shrinking market for their produce have committed suicide out of frustration. Meanwhile, the state, which has pledged to support farmers by ending tomato imports and sourcing locally produced crops for its school-feeding programmes, has increasingly sought to blame those bringing in tomatoes from Burkina Faso for the plight of these farmers and the state of local agriculture.
But the impacts on food supply in this time of pandemic, as isolated importers have abandoned trade in the face of government hostility and rising crime, have led to even greater volatility in the prices of tomato than normal. By end of February, a box of tomatoes which had sold for 450 cedis at Techiman market prior to the GNTTTA’s action to stop the cross-border trade was now selling for 750 cedis. And as one trader remarked: “It is not only the price which is the problem. We now have to buy fresh tomato clandestinely from the importer at home instead of in the market.”
Although the state periodically asserts its commitment to developing the tomato sector, its support for such an effort remains largely rhetorical. Meanwhile, although the Inspector General of Police, James Oppong-Boanuh, has promised to provide escorts to ensure the safety of traders and transporters, this does not resolve the endemic structural challenges faced by the sector. In this regard, both farmers and traders are calling on the state to institute inclusive structural transformation by investing in irrigation systems, promoting high quality seeds, improving rural roads and providing cheap credit to sector players so that local production and trade can improve.
Given the importance of tomatoes for Ghana’s food security, it is imperative that the state finally heeds this call.
Dr Gertrude Dzifa Torvikey is the Programme Officer for Feminist Africa Journal, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana.
The research that informed this article is part of the African food systems and Covid-19 project supported by the IDRC. To learn more about this project, visit its page here: https://www.plaas.org.za/african-food-systems-and-covid-19/