The Upper East Region falls within the Sudan Savanna zone which is characterised by a uni-modal rainfall regime lasting five to six months and a long dry period of six to seven months.
Average annual rainfall of 885mm can be very patchily distributed and farmers sow seeds two or three times before the rains set in reliably somewhere in August.
The unfavourable climatic condition coupled with low soil fertility account for the poor yields of crops in the Region.
Predominantly farmers’ household food security becomes a major problem despite the fact that they tediously and labouriously till the land for cropping each year.
Whilst majority of the farmers in the area usually do small scale farming just to feed their families, there are others who undertake commercial farming. The two group of farmers face the same problems.
It is significant to note that crops such as the late and early millets which used to yield a lot of produce for the farmers to enable them feed their families and to secure some in their food barns for the lean seasons no longer turn out with good yields and this has adversely affected food security in the Region which is reflecting in higher incidence of poverty. The highest proportion of food insecure households in the country is found in the Upper East Region where 28 percent of the people are either severely or moderately food insecure.
The situation has necessitated a feeding calendar to be instituted by many deprived households in the Region particularly in the rural areas. Between September and January some households are able to feed three times a day. March to June, twice daily and from July to August once in a day and in some cases not at all because food is simply not available.
A 50- year-old Pastor of the Baptist Church of Africa, Clement Sapana from the Yinduri Community, said food insecurity was continuously being replicated almost every year and attributed the high rate of malnourishment among some women and children in the Region to such recurrent situation. Many school children attend school hungry and this mostly affect teaching and learning.
This phenomenon accounts for the rural urban migration which is high in the Region as many people from the area especially the youth and women have to travel to either Kumasi or Accra to do menial jobs.
However with the introduction of a new sustainable land and water management intervention in the Region known as the “Zai Concept” by the Regional Director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Mr Asher Nkegbe, there is the provision of a window of opportunity for farmers to improve crop performance in this harsh and changing climate. The future seems brighter for the farmers and their families.
According to the Regional Director, one of the major constraints to agriculture development in the Region is land degradation. This is due to high population densities which make fallowing impossible and virtually all lands are cultivated continuously every year.
These cultivated lands are characterized by gradual loss of soil structure, hardpan formation, reduced permeability, compaction, inadequate aeration and limited plant root development. He said the already precarious situation, worsened by climate change, has resulted in the increased vulnerability of small holder farmers. The most vulnerable people are the poor, women and women-headed households. To reduce the vulnerability of such rural communities to climate change variability and also build their resilience to climate change, there is the need to build the capacity of farmers to use simple and cost effective methods to control run-off, optimize in-field water harvesting techniques to improve crop yields.
Majority of the small holder farmers in the region particularly from Yinduri, Wuug and Balungu in the Talensi District and some farmers in the Bawku West and Kassena–Nankana West districts have adopted the Zai farming concept and their crops are doing better than before. It is expected that those who started the concept would harvest more yields and be able to feed their households so as to attract more farmers to the new farming technology to increase food production and ensure food security in the Region.
Narrating how he got introduced to the technology, the Regional Director said he got the idea from Burkina Faso when he attended a seminar and decided to implement the concept in collaboration with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) and the traditional authorities in the Upper West Region when he was then the Regional Head of EPA of the area.
Farmers in the Ghana Environmental Management Project (GEMP) operational areas, he noted, were supported to adopt the technology to improve food production and food security. Majority of households in the area could hardly afford three square meals a day, but with the intervention of the Zai concept coupled with composting, mucuna intercropping with maize, the natural regeneration and stone lining, households food security has improved in the area.
“Upon my assumption of office in the Region as the Upper East Regional Director of the EPA, I decided to transfer the technology to the farmers in this Region since it shares the same climatic conditions with the Upper West Region particularly in terms of poor soils”.
According to the EPA Director, the Zai concept was the best for unproductive soils and it has the potential of making crop yield much better in such poor soils.
Under the Zai farming concept, farmers are empowered with the necessary skills and capacity of digging planting pits in crusted soils which used to produce high runoff.
The zai pits have a diameter of 15 to 30 cm and a depth of 10 to 15 cm to collect rainfall and runoff. This means that more water infiltrates so that water will be available to plant roots. Farmers put a handful of organic matter in each pit (ranging from about 300 gram/pit and above). The Zai concept captures rainfall and runoffs, promotes the efficient use of limited quantities of organic matter and ensures the concentration of water and soil fertility at the beginning of the rainy season.
According to him, the use of the zai method increases the amount of water stored in the soil profile by trapping rain water. It retains moisture in-situ and holds water long enough to allow it to infiltrate. Pits are sometimes dug during the dry season and this alleviates the labour burden for land preparation at the onset of the rains. Besides, the zai improves soil fertility in completely barren soils where nothing could grow before. They also protect seeds and organic matter against being washed away, in addition to conserving nutrients. Even though they are labour intensive, experts say they increase yields by up to 500 percent if properly executed.
Zaï technology also reactivates biological activities in the soil and eventually leads to an improvement in soil structure. The application of the Zaï technique can increase production by about 500% if properly executed.
Some farmers across the Region are adopting the Zai technology. Some 150 farmers made up of 82 women and 88 men are doing well and they expect to get higher yields this time around than before. It is hoped that in the next farming seasons many farmers would adopt in the concept to help contribute to food security in the Region.
A 59 – year-old farmer, Mr Michael Tampolaaba from Wuug, said he had been farming throughout his life said had never seen a farming technology in the Region which was as good as the Zai concept.
Mr Tampolaaba was full of praise for the Zai farming methodology and said “I separated my two farms and applied the Zai concept in one of the farms and the other I did the usual methods of farming and realized that the one with the Zai was growing faster than the other one. It was even able to withstand the drought which occurred in July this year (2014). In fact the maize on my Zai farm has already started tussling and the results are eye catching and one can clearly see the difference between the two plots.”
According to him many farmers in the area had come to watch his farm and seeing the good results of it, have promised to embark upon the method come next year (2015) farming season. He said unlike the old system of farming where birds pick the seeds and fertilizer gets washed away by rains making him to look for money to purchase seeds and fertilizer again for a restart, in the Zai method it was not so.
“With this experience and good result I will now embark on large scale farming with the Zai method and I hope to harvest more crops to be able to feed my household better. I am really thankful to the EPA Director and MoFA for introducing us to this technology,” Mr Tampolaaba said.
Mr. Clement Sapana also a farmer from the Yinduri Community, on his part, said he was very impressed with the way his maize was growing fast on his Zai farms and said as a Pastor he has already begun preaching the good message of the new discovery and stressed that it has come as a redeemer from God to help improve upon food security in the area.
“Look at my farm. The crops are healthy. I am so happy and I will apply the concept on my large scale farm land come the next farming season”.
Mr Julius Awaregya, an Agriculturalist and Consultant who lauded the Regional Director for introducing the concept in the Region said it was very good for the area since most of the soils in the area were too poor for planting including the erratic rainfall pattern and when well patronised it could help improve food security in the area.
The Regional Director of the EPA pledged that he would exhibit the same zeal, level of commitment and spirit that he exhibited in the Upper West Region that led to the successful implementation of the project in the area by collaborating with other partners in the Upper East Region particularly MOFA, Traditional and Religious leaders to ensure that a lot of farmers adopt the programme to ensure food security in the Region.
Literature available indicate that as part of their objective to assist local communities to strengthen their local capacity by using their local knowledge, the World Bank program on Indigenous Knowledge for Development provided support to farmers for scaling up the dissemination of the Zai technique in three provinces in central Burkina Faso. The Association “pour la Vulgarisation et l’Appui aux Producteurs Agro-écologistes au Sahel (AVAPAS)” provided day-to-day guidance to farmers. Other local development actors (administration, extension workers, local authorities, community leaders) supported the initiative to ensure sustainability.
The campaign was carried on through the period 2002 – 2003. The farmers highly appreciated the technique and put it into practice and this has helped boost food production and food security in Burkina Faso and other countries that are practicing the concept.