From cultivators to importers; the irony of tomato farming

“The Burkina Faso farmers were fascinated by the way we sent trucks to load tomatoes from the Upper East Region to Accra and other parts of the country and so they also went into tomato cultivation, learning from our Ghanaian farmers. But now, they are rather supplying us with the tomatoes while our farmers are unable to meet the local demands of tomatoes let alone exporting some to other parts of the world”.
These were the words of Mr Eric Osei Tuffour, the National Chairman of the Ghana Tomato Traders and Transporters Association (GTTTA), in an interview with the Daily Graphic.
I decided to probe ‘why’ and ‘how’ our cherished farmers, who once inspired their fellows in Burkina Faso to go into tomato farming, are now struggling to meet market demand?
“When the Burkina Faso government realised that we (Ghanaians) were interested in their tomatoes and that we were buying them in large quantities,it supported the farmers by constructing several dams where the farmers could get water to farm even during the dry season”, Mr Tuffour added.
In my layman’s opinion, I thought maybe our lands did not support large scale tomato cultivation, thus, not encouraging our farmers to go into the sector. But I was immediately corrected by Mr Tuffour who said “We have more suitable lands and climatic conditions for tomato cultivation than our friends in Burkina Faso”.
I asked if there was no ready market for tomatoes in the country and beyond. To this question Mr Tuffour responded that “Ghanaians like fresh tomatoes than anyone else and we use them a lot in our foods, almost every day and so there is a very large market for tomatoes”.
Having been exposed to the potentials of the tomato farming industry, my ‘whys’, ‘hows’ and ‘thens’ became many in my thoughts.
Production
If indeed “we have the blessing of the wealth of our vast resources, the power of our talents and the potentialities of our people” as stated by our first President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, then why are we not “grabbing now the opportunities before us and meet the challenge to our survival?”
Tomato production is a thriving farming activity in the savannah and forest-savannah transitional belt of the country. However, in spite of its economic and nutritional values, production of Tomatoes has not been encouraging over the years.
Mrs Mavis Owureku-Asare, a Research Scientific Officer at the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, in her commentary- ‘Minimising postharvest losses among smallholder tomato farmers in Ghana’, dated November 25, 2013 said “Growing tomatoes is more lucrative than rice, maize and yam and there is an extremely high demand for them”.
She said in spite of the country being the world’s second largest importer of tomato paste, many tomato farmers in the country “can’t earn a living”.
She explained that the country annually consumed an average of 25,000 tonnes of tomato paste, valued at US$25 million.
Mrs Owureku-Asare noted that ironically, the country produced an average of 350,000 tonnes of tomatoes annually, and could be producing its own tomato paste rather than depending on imports.
For instance, in 1994, 1995 and 1996, the country imported 2,873.4, 3,283.2 and 6,177.8 tonnes respectively of tomato paste.
Mr Tuffour explained that because Ghanaian tomato farmers relied on rain-fed type of agriculture, they could not supply the tomato needs of the country for more than a month when they started harvesting.
He said during the dry season, Ghanaian farmers were unable to produce tomatoes, leaving traders with no other choice than to resort to the importation of the vegetables from Burkina Faso.
Burkina method
Mr Tuffour said the Director General of Agriculture in Burkina Faso visited the country some years ago to interact with the traders on how they wanted the tomatoes from Burkina Faso.
Another team from Burkina Faso, he said, also came to the country to find market for other vegetables such as onions, carrots, cabbage, and potatoes.
Regional patronage
Concerning quality, he said, tomatoes produced in Burkina Faso were of higher quality than the Ghanaian grown ones, noting “that is why Ghanaian traders prefer the Burkina tomatoes to ours”.
According to him, Ghanaian traders were the main buyers of the tomatoes from Burkina Faso saying “Ghanaian traders buy more tomatoes from Burkina than any other country”.
Mr Tuffour said as many as 70 trucks of fresh tomatoes from Burkina Faso entered the country daily.
He explained that 40 to 50 trucks of the tomatoes go to the Greater Accra Region while the Ashanti Regional capital, Kumasi, received 16 to 20 trucks.
He said Central, Western, Eastern, Brong Ahafo, Northern and Upper East Regions received seven, six, 12, five, and three trucks of Tomatoes respectively every day.
Each truck contains 120 crates of tomatoes. The cost of a crate could rise up to CFA 80,000, 100,000, and 150,000 with the lowest price being CFA 30,000 depending on the season.
Mr Tuffour wondered why the country continued to spend huge sums of money to import tomatoes when Ghanaian farmers, when supported, could produce enough tomatoes to feed the country’s needs and even make some available for export.
He also expressed the worry that due to lack of storage facilities, tomato farmers lose up to 40 per cent of their produce during the harvesting period.
Trade statistics
The Accra-based radio station, Citi Fm, on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, reported that the country’s trade deficit from January to October 2013 was pegged at US$ 3.4 billion.
The Public Agenda in its March 20, 2006 issue, carried a story with the headline: “Ghana- 2nd largest importer of tin tomatoes” quoting the National President of the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana (PFAG), Mr Mohammed Nasiru Adams, as having said that over 700 tomato farmers had been rendered unemployed as a result of the imports.
These farmers are mainly from Navrongo and Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region, Bontanga, Gulinga and Libga in the Northern Region, Tuobodom in the Brong Ahafo Region and Asante Akim in the Ashanti Region.
Mr Stephen Boahen, a tomato farmer at Derma, in the Tano South District in the Brong Ahafo Region in an interview, appealed to the government to ban the importation of fresh tomatoes from Burkina Faso in order to ensure that Ghanaian tomato farmers got ready markets for their produce all year round.
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