During pre-departure training in Toronto, one of the exercises our group went through involved analyzing a failed initiative in the Upper East Region of Ghana. This initiative was the Pwalugu Tomato Factory, which existed to process locally-grown tomatoes into tomato paste that would be sold within Ghana. The factory ended up going under for a variety of reasons – a big one being that agricultural subsidies from EU countries undercut the market, causing the locally made tomato paste to be more expensive than imported paste. Thus, customers bought the less expensive paste, and the factory was no more.
In the late 1990’s, a Dutch businessman saw a market opportunity for organic mangos in the EU. Given his strong connections to the Ghanaian agricultural industry, he hired a few mango experts to assess the viability of growing mangos in the Northern Region of Ghana. To that point, mangos were primarily grown in southern Ghana, and those trees had no organic certification.
The mango consultants assessed the soil and temperature conditions in the region, and said organic mangos could be grown here. They told him to plant Kent trees, and to expect income generating yields 4-5 years after planting the trees.
Thus the ITFC was founded. It began with a few hundred acres of trees owned by the company and eventually expanded to an outgrower scheme. This means that they had to go around to farmers in the region, convince them to plant a few mango trees and labour for 4-5 years before making any profit. The farmers were used to harvesting crops some weeks after planting them; waiting several years before any harvest would occur was an unheard-of request. But the ITFC told them that mango farming would increase their annual income – moving them from subsistence farmers to profitable farmers. So farmers bought into the scheme. Up to 1400 farmers were recruited by 2008 – recruitment tactics were working.
But there was still one hiccup in the project – and it was a fairly large hiccup. Most farmers, 7-8 years after planting their mango trees, were harvesting little to no mangos each year. So farmer recruitment stopped, and the ITFC decided to focus on getting adequate yields from the mango trees already in the ground.
It turns out that Kent trees weren’t suitable for the climate in northern Ghana. They thrive when nighttime temperatures reach 10 degrees celsius, but the temperatures in the Northern Region never fall that low. Current projections estimate that the trees will take 15 years to acclimatize to their new environment. That means that for the earliest planted trees, adequate yields are 3-4 years away.
As a result, some farmers have become disengaged and mistrustful of the ITFC. OMOA exists to alleviate alot of the concerns farmers have, and that job has become quite difficult in recent years. Many of the mango farms are not being ‘slashed’ (the grass is not being cut); AEAs and management need to keep on top of many farmers to get them to spray their trees; and some of the pruning work that has taken place recently has been done poorly.
Right now, the ITFC and OMOA are trying to bridge the gap that exists between now and 2015 (when yields are predicted to increase). It is a trying task and requires alot of time in the field talking with farmers.
Lets assume that by 2015, yields reach a level that generates income for the farmers and for the ITFC/OMOA. Grade A organic mangos will be exported mainly to Europe and sold at an unsubsidized price. Grade B mangos will be produced into dried mangos and mango juice as a secondary income for the company.
Now lets assume that a developed country (lets say Canada) figures out a way to grow organic mangos and wants to exploit that market in Europe. On their way out of the country, Canadian Grade A organic mangos will be heavily subsidized to ensure that Canadian mango farmers make an income. This will cause Dutch and UK customers to buy the cheaper Canadian-grown mangos when they’re at the supermarket, leaving the ITFC mangos on the shelves.
There are many aspects of the ITFC’s business model that I am not aware of. Those aspects might make this mango project work in the long term, but to some degree, this project will only succeed in so far as external forces allow. Poverty will still exist in African countries as long as other countries want it to.
Many people assume that they can only affect the quality of life in developing countries through taking a plane over and spreading first world ‘wisdom’, but there are very important roles that Canadians can play on their own soil if they want a world in a better state of equilibrium. Until widespread action evolves from that line of thought, many more empty fruit factories will shoot-up throughout Africa.