A poor prognosis, with some cause for hope

Abuja Declaration: broken promises

African nations have largely defaulted on a 2001 pledge to commit at least 15% of their annual budgets to healthcare

Followers in front of the Yoff Layene Mosque during the Islamic festivity of Korite marking the end of the
Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Dakar, Senegal, May 2020 Photo: John Wessels/AFP

Africa has so far seen controversial and even dramatic policy measures in response to the coronavirus crisis. From Tanzania withholding infection and fatality data as the government pushed conspiracy theories, to Egypt’s clampdown on citizens disagreeing with the government’s handling of the pandemic, to Madagascar’s promotion of a botanical brew as an antidote without following the standard scientific approval steps, the continent has had its share of the blunders that have helped exacerbate the crisis globally. Few, however, have seemed as ironic as Nigeria’s fiscal response at the peak of the crisis.

As the virus ravaged nations, overwhelmed health systems and devastated markets, the continent’s biggest economy announced a steep health budget cut in June, citing a decline in crude oil revenues. The government sliced basic healthcare funding by nearly half, reducing it to 25.5 billion naira ($71 million). The move angered a public already enraged by the government’s earlier plan to refurbish its parliament building with 37 billion naira. Before the pandemic, Nigeria’s entire health sector received 8% of the country’s total budget this year. That figure fell to 6% after the cut.

“This shows what is wrong with our country: poor prioritisation of projects,” Sam Ohuabunwa, the president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, told the popular Lagos-based daily, Punch, at the time. “How come the renovation of the National Assembly is taking priority over healthcare and education? It does not make sense to me.” But Nigeria’s typically measly health spending this year is not unique. Kenya proposed to spend only 4% of its total budget on health this year before the pandemic started, and South Africa allotted 11.8% of its budget to the sector.

Besides being relatively low, all three budgets – and many others – share a thing in common: they fall short of a benchmark voluntarily set by African leaders in the Abuja Declaration in 2001, to yearly allocate at least 15% percent of their countries’ budgets to health expenditure. Nearly 20 years after the Abuja Declaration, named after the Nigerian capital where it was signed, many African countries have largely failed to honour it. Their health systems are without needed resources to build and equip hospitals, train and pay health workers and implement health insurance for citizens. The World Health Organization says more than 37% of all of Africa’s health spending comes from out-of-pocket payments.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic, more than any other crisis in recent history, has shown how grim the situation is across the region. In April, the WHO said 43 African countries had just 2,000 ventilators and 5,000 intensive care beds, while 10 countries had no ventilators at all. Making up just 16% of the global population, Africa bears 23% of the world’s disease burden, yet accounts for just 1% of the total global health expenditure in 2015, according to United Nations and WHO figures. “The COVID-19 crisis and its impact on health and other social policy sectors such as education as well as the economy, has brought to the fore the importance of strong healthcare systems to pre-empt and deal with such global threats,” Kalipso Chalkidou, professor of practice in Global Health, Imperial College London, told Africa in Fact.

The Abuja Declaration was agreed to address the persistent funding problem that had seen health per capita public spending in Africa at a meagre US$70 in the early 2000s. A decade after the declaration, 27 nations had increased the proportion of their health expenditure, according to a 2011 report by the WHO. By 2013, only three countries – Rwanda, Botswana and Zambia – had achieved the 15% mark. By 2014, while the average per capita health spending rose to US$160, more countries (19) were spending less on health as a percentage of their budgets, a follow-up report by the WHO in 2016 stated.

Coronavirus awareness graffitti at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, March 2020 Photo: John Wessels/AFP

According to the report, countries whose health spending fell lower than the pre-2000s figures included Chad, Mozambique, Tanzania, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Rwanda, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Comoros, Benin, Mauritania, Togo, Botswana, Niger and Central Africa Republic. Remarkably, the report found that a country’s wealth did not exactly determine its allocation share to healthcare. For example, while countries with high per capita income (over $10,000) such as Algeria, Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa did not spend as much on health, those with relatively lower per capita like Ethiopia, Gambia and Malawi, surpassed the 15% target.

“Despite increases in fiscal capacity, spending on health has been deprioritised as governments strive to meet other obligations,” the report stated. “In low income settings, the deprioritisation of health in public expenditure tends to be associated with country-level fragility and political instability, poor governance and corruption.” It also found that most countries prioritised high-end care, that is secondary and tertiary levels referral hospitals that treat mostly the middle and upper classes, and committed, on average, less than 40% of health expenditure to primary care that caters for the majority of the continent’s poorest population.

In some countries, the allotted funds were never fully spent due mainly to unpredictable allocations, mismatch between policy and budget allocations, inappropriate budget structures, and under-performing execution systems. As much as 60% of the money remained unspent in Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance. The Nigeria case shows that years after the WHO’s latest report, not much has changed across the continent. Nigeria’s highest-ever public budget share for its health was 7%. A more recent assessment of specific countries in 2019 by a non-governmental group, Africa Health Budget Network, based in Abuja, found that only Burkina Faso (11.03%), Ethiopia (8.1%), Malawi (9.83%), Mozambique (8.35%), Rwanda (8.88%) and Tanzania (9.52%) made some level of progress in trying to meet the 2001 target.

Among all the countries reviewed, only Madagascar reached the 15% goal. “In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, health expenditure has nosedived, with many African countries relying on regional and international loans, grants, and donations,” Aminu Garba, the coordinator of the group, told Africa in Fact. By 18 August, Africa had recorded over 1.1 million cases of the coronavirus and 26,346 deaths. Activists and health experts are hoping the COVID-19 experience will provide a new window for Africa’s policymakers to take the decisive step of committing more resources to healthcare.

Chalkidou, who is also the director of Global Health Policy and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said with debt at unsustainable levels, they could do so by leveraging innovative and radical ways of generating revenue to not only protect but also to boost spending on health. Also, wealthier nations, although even worse hit by the recession, should do their bit by boosting rather than cutting development aid, she said.

“Radical tax reform, including revisiting fuel subsidies and introducing excise, including tobacco and alcohol taxes, smarter spending, leveraging pooled public procurement to improve procurement of pharmaceuticals where billions are wasted every year in a fragmented and inefficient fashion, and actively exploring underused tools such as debt swaps, must be at the forefront of the policy response,” she said. Response measures should also include governments cutting unnecessary overhead and recurrent expenditures and ensuring judicious utilisation of all loans, grants and donations, Garba added.

 

Ini Ekoutt is the Assistant Managing Editor (News) at Premium Times, an online newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria. Prior to this, he reported for Next ,an investigative newspaper in Lagos. He has written for IPS Africa and other publications and is a former Wole Soyinka Investigative Journalist of the Year.

A stronger and more united Africa?

Strong medicine: the COVID-19 effect

Despite immense challenges, the coronavirus pandemic could offer a unique opportunity for transformative change across the continent

Factory workers check personal protective equipment for COVID-19 frontline health workers at a factory commissioned by the government in Accra, Ghana, April 2020 Photo: Nipah Dennis/AFP

Despite the devastating worldwide effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, some politicians and scholars have advanced the idea that this crisis could be a transformative event in the long run. Others have refuted that notion, suggesting we will simply return to the “status quo”, whatever that means. One thing is certain: life will be more difficult for many people around the world for some time, as they confront the pandemic’s health, economic and social consequences. But in the longer term there is good reason to believe that COVID-19 can be positively transformative for African and global health.

However, this will require some honest retrospection on what didn’t go so well with the global response, and a willingness to do things differently in the future, as I have argued in a commentary recently published in the Global Public Health journal (2020). Although a pandemic of this nature was not unforeseeable, the arrival of COVID-19 in late 2019 seemed to catch the world off guard, hurling us into a state of partly haphazard disaster mitigation. In early 2020, some of the world’s wealthiest areas initially affected by the pandemic, in Europe and the Americas, saw their health systems overwhelmed and their economies crippled.

Containment measures have since been inconsistent within and across countries. Global solidarity mechanisms and allocated funds have not come close to the predicted need: in May, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicated that less than 15% of the estimated $6,7 billion needed to respond to the public health and humanitarian consequences of this pandemic had been met. Moreover, challenges in global response coordination have not been helped by the United States (US), the World Health Organization’s main contributing member, undermining the agency’s credibility through accusations of mismanagement and withdrawal of funding at such a crucial time.

Strengthening both health crises management – and more broadly global health – will require going beyond the development of more effective plans for health emergency preparedness. It will entail confronting the failings of global health governance and leadership, which in turn cannot be disentangled from power disparities and social inequalities that continue to exist at various levels. These include individual level social determinants of poor health, such as inadequate housing and food insecurity, weak public health systems that prevent universal access to decent healthcare, and disparities in health research, information and decision-making power between the Global North and South.

As always, across the world, the most vulnerable have borne the brunt of this latest health crisis. COVID-19 has simply further highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities. Redressing health disparities cannot be effectively achieved during times of crisis, but instead requires longer-term sustained action: through policies and interventions that tackle key social determinants of health; through more sustained technical support for, and investment in, health systems in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), as envisaged in the International Health Regulations; through the creation of contingency resources for crisis solidarity funding and, importantly, by ensuring that governance structures of key global health players – including the WHO – are more representative of LMICs, marginalised communities, and civil society organisations.

A public hand washing facility on a street of Accra after the lockdown announcement on March 28, 2020
Photo: Nipah Dennis/AFP

But what is Africa’s role in this much-needed transformation of global health? This will ultimately have to be determined by African countries and their constituents. However, the COVID-19 response provides some useful lessons. First, African countries should further strengthen their own health (and broader) governance, building on the gains of past decades, such as progress made in addressing infectious disease and preventing childhood illness. This will both bolster countries’ health and crisis management capacity and increase their influence on the world stage. There have already been examples of good African leadership in response to COVID-19. In fact, despite grim predictions of the pandemic’s effects in lower-income countries, the reality has been more nuanced.

Initial success stories can be mainly attributed to prompt evidence-based action, strong leadership by example and community mobilisation, driven by the realisation that some of the approaches adopted in wealthier settings would not be an option. For example, Senegal and Ghana managed to control their epidemics early through good contact tracing systems and the involvement of community health facilities, workers and volunteers. Senegal developed a low-cost COVID-19 testing kit, while Ghana implemented “pool testing” (testing of multiple blood samples together, followed up only in the case of a positive result).

Moreover, it has been argued that the pandemic can be a catalyst to transform health services in Africa and re-envisage health as a public good. In their recent commentary titled: ‘How COVID-19 could benefit tuberculosis and HIV services in South Africa’, Keene et al (2020) argue that interventions developed for COVID-19, such as stigma reduction campaigns and community screening and tracking tools, could enhance existing services (for example, for TB or HIV) and systems. At the same time, they point out, the pandemic has highlighted persisting system weaknesses to be addressed, such as poor integration of community health workers and supply shortages.

Second, we should draw inspiration and learnings from the myriad of innovations, creative ideas and resourceful thinking emerging in response to COVID-19 across sectors in Africa, often in a context of scarce resources. Examples include: a free online triaging App developed in Nigeria to help users assess their coronavirus risk level and connect them to remote medical advice or healthcare facilities; the South African government’s Whatsapp interactive chatbot to address queries on COVID-19 prevention and treatment; a $1 immune-based diagnostic test and multifunctional medical robots to lessen the burden on healthcare workers, developed in Senegal; and the use of drones to take samples to testing sites or provide inflight public awareness broadcasts in Ghana and Rwanda.

Companies across the continent have adapted manufacturing capacity to produce compact economical ventilators and other medical supplies. E-commerce models and digital technology solutions have been strengthened, motorcycle taxis repurposed into couriers and delivery services, and mobile testing booths set up. And these examples are by no means exhaustive. Third, cross-sectoral country and regional partnerships should be established or strengthened to systematically promote, scale up and fund innovative local products, emerging technologies and information exchange. Here, too, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for new initiatives.

Staff in a secure laboratory research the coronavirus at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, February 2020 Photo: Seyllou/AFP

These include regional economic and technical communities, public-private coalitions and innovation hubs across the continent. For example, a Kenyan coalition including technology firms and community groups is using their digital platforms and supply chains to distribute sanitisers and other protective equipment in informal settlements. South Africa developed a COVID-19 modelling consortium and an online dashboard to share real-time updates. Business coalitions have been set up in Nigeria and South Africa to mobilise private sector resources for the pandemic response. E-learning platforms have been launched in a number of countries through partnerships among broadcasters, telecoms and private organisations.

And in July, the WHO and the Africa Centres for Diseases Control (CDC) launched an expert advisory committee to enhance the research and development of traditional medicines for COVID-19 in Africa. Fourth, cooperation and integration on health and social issues need to be further bolstered on the African continent. The COVID-19 crisis has, in fact, prompted greater health collaboration within the African Union (AU). Initiatives include the AU’s Joint Continental Strategy to guide cooperation between member states, a COVID-19 response fund, and a platform to pool African countries’ procurement of diagnostic and medical supplies.

It remains to be seen whether these developments can be sustained and lead to longer-term cooperation on health and social projects, including research and development, within and beyond the region. Lastly, African countries and supranational bodies should play a key role in reshaping the global health order and redressing power disparities. As important as it is to support initiatives originating from Africa, this should not obscure the need for broader structural and systemic change on the continent and beyond, as argued above. In an increasingly interconnected world with historical and persisting social injustice, the change we need has to be both local and global, and the two are inextricably connected.

A stronger and more united Africa should use its leverage to influence the world’s most powerful countries and global health organisations. It should advocate for increased solidarity and sustained investment in health systems support in African and other Lower and Middle Income Countries (LMICs), and for their stronger representation in the decision-making processes determining world health priorities and funding allocation. Despite the pesky international politics that overshadowed African leaders’ presence at the 2019 G7 in Biarritz, the increasing focus on issues of inequality and the dialogue on health initiated at these world fora are at least steps in the right direction.

African leaders should capitalise on these to push forward discussions and collaboration for global health reform. This is also a moment of pressure for change emerging from other important centres of power: for example, social movements such as the “Me Too” movement and “Black Lives Matter” are connecting individuals and civil society organisations across the globe in their demands for a more just world. We should not underestimate their power, nor forget the transnational change spearheaded by African civil society during the darkest moments of HIV denialism. Africa needs to move with the resolve and the energy of this moment, to push for the local and global change its people deserve.

 

Marisa Casale is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health (SOPH) and an Associate Member of Oxford University’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention. She is currently leading a work package focused on translating evidence into impact, within the UKRI GCRF Accelerating Achievement for Africa’s Adolescents Hub.

The struggle to keep pace

Africa’s collective electricity supply is bedevilled by weak legal frameworks and regional rivalry

An estimated 580 million Africans lack access to electricity, three quarters of the global total. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects this number to rise as the COVID-19 pandemic stalls efforts to keep up with rising demand. 

Before coronavirus struck, the continent had been making slow progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 7 – Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all – but it now stands little chance of meeting this target by 2030.

Despite extensive petroleum reserves, high solar irradiation levels and vast hydropower potential, Africa receives only 4% of global energy supply investment, according to the IEA. This is largely a result of foreign investors’ fears that short-term political considerations will trump long-term policy goals, rendering energy master plans obsolete. Investors’ primary concerns include abrupt changes to the policy environment, unsustainably low electricity tariffs dependent on unaffordable state subsidies, and the poor governance and creditworthiness of state-owned utility companies. A whopping 95% of African energy utilities fail to recover their costs, according to the Energy for Growth Hub, scaring off potential investors. 

Regional cooperation on energy promises potential solutions in three key areas. First, cross-border partnerships increase market size, making projects more likely to attract foreign investment. Second, regional connections enable countries with surplus electricity to share it with neighbours experiencing shortfalls thereby making power supplies more reliable. Third, a regional market can help drive down the costs for consumers if utility companies are mandated to purchase the cheapest available power. All three trends help to promote a shift in the energy mix by maximising the potential of new renewable sources at the expense of older and inefficient thermal generators.  

Power lines leaving the Eskom Duvha power station, some 15 km east of Witbank, South Africa.  Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

Africa’s regional economic communities have already taken steps to integrate through power pools, which enable national utility companies to plan and operate their collective electricity supply and transmission in the most reliable and economic manner given their load requirements. These power pools have the potential to promote investment in new hydropower capacity, reducing power system operating costs by $2.7 billion each year, and carbon dioxide emissions by 70 million tonnes per annum, according to estimates by the World Bank.  

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) was the first regional economic community to connect national electricity grids and form a common market for electricity, establishing the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP) in 1995. Rising power demand in South Africa and at energy-intensive mining projects elsewhere in the region helped to attract foreign investment. This led to the creation of the Copperbelt Energy Corporation, a private Zambian electricity generation, transmission, distribution and supply company, in 1997, and Motraco, a joint venture between Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland to upgrade cross-border transmission lines in 1998.  

This early progress spurred the signing of bilateral contracts between the member countries, followed by the development of a Short-Term Electricity Market in 2001 and a Day-Ahead Market in 2009. By 2010, 7.5% of power generated in the region was being traded across the SAPP, according to the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa. However, this early progress in trading was not accompanied by comparable attention to the institutional environment. SADC failed to establish an independent regulator to oversee compliance with technical codes, regulate prices and promote competition. The weak legal framework and the absence of an autonomous dispute-resolution body undermined the pool’s prospects, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank.   

Regional rivalry also undermined SAPP’s prospects, with SADC energy ministers unable to agree on a list of priority projects, thus missing opportunities to secure new investment in power production during the 2000s.

Uneven development left members overly reliant on Eskom, the utility company in regional hegemon South Africa, which had both the most installed capacity and was the top buyer of surplus electricity. A wave of power cuts in South Africa forced other members of the pool to implement load-shedding from 2008 onwards. Rather than address this challenge President Jacob Zuma mismanaged Eskom, leaving the utility company overstaffed and broke, undermining its ability to honour contracts through SAPP.  

The Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS) was more pragmatic than SADC when it established the West African Power Pool (WAPP) in 1999. Recognising the chronic energy shortages which plagued the region’s economic engine, Nigeria, WAPP adopted a more pragmatic, two-tier approach. Where reliable connections existed, steps were taken to forge a common market for electricity. Bilateral power purchase agreements enabled Côte d’Ivoire to export surplus energy to neighbouring Ghana, which was grappling with power cuts, and onwards to Benin and Togo, which as small countries had struggled to secure investment in their grids. By 2010, 6.9% of power generated in the region was being traded across this bloc, according to the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa.  

Where reliable connections were lacking, the focus was on linking the hinterland to more developed coastal nations. Thus inland Burkina Faso gained access to power from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, while Niger was hooked up to Nigeria. But a number of smaller economies remain left behind, with laggards Guinea, Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone still busy aligning their systems in the hope of accessing cheaper energy supplies from elsewhere in the WAPP. Other countries have forged their own path. Senegal initially cooperated with Mali and Mauritania to share hydropower from the Manantali dam, but President Macky Sall has since focused on upgrading his country’s installed capacity and grid, eyeing abundant offshore gas reserves. This threatens to leave Senegal’s smaller neighbours Guinea-Bissau and Gambia in the dark.   

While the WAPP’s approach risks exacerbating regional inequality, it has at least developed a more robust framework, including a stronger and more autonomous secretariat capable of promoting priority projects and finalising decisions rather than waiting for national governments to act, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank. ECOWAS also took the critical step of establishing a Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA), which became operational in 2011, addressing the lacuna identified in the SAPP.  

The thermal power station of Ivory Coast’s electricity production company Ciprel, a subdivision of French industrial group Eranove.  Photo: Sia Kambou/AFP

In the middle of the continent, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has failed to emulate ECOWAS’ dynamism through the Central Africa Power Pool (CAPP), which it founded in 2003. 

Hugely ambitious plans to build new transmission lines required to unlock the vast hydropower potential of the River Congo have yet to move beyond the drawing board, with neither donors nor the private sector willing to tackle myriad political, regulatory, macroeconomic and security risks.  

Greater hope lies in the Eastern Africa Power Pool (EAPP), which was formed by seven Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) members in February 2005. Although the World Bank dismissed regional energy trade as “negligible” less than a decade ago, investment in new dams and transmission lines promises to make Ethiopia and Kenya major electricity exporters. While Kenya has mastered geothermal power from the Rift Valley, Ethiopia is doubling its installed generation capacity courtesy of the 6,000 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is expected to become fully operational in 2023. Such vast potential convinced the World Bank and African Development Bank to fund a new 2,000 MW transmission line between the two countries, which was completed last year. The GERD promises to lower electricity costs, transform the energy mix and make power supplies more reliable across EAPP.  

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COMESA has also moved to establish common legal, regulatory and institutional frameworks. In 2012, the EAPP established an independent regulatory board to supervise the pool, ensure compliance with electricity codes and technical standards, and regulate the use and price of transmission lines. The regulator also plays a role in enforcing standards and resolving disputes, helping to encourage private investment, thus promoting competition in the pool progressively. For now, the focus is the Day-Ahead Market, but the EAPP aims to move to a centralised trading regime in the next five years, according to the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa.   

[However, Francois Pienaar, Business Development Manager at ESB International and a former consultant to utilities in Ghana, Liberia and Tanzania, worries that “billions spent on interconnections will be wasted” without greater attention to regional integration. Too many African governments focus on short-term objectives, such as subsidising electricity to key electoral constituencies to retain their political support, rather than considering how to address the contingent financial liabilities of national utility companies. Moreover, the energy sector has to vie for attention with competing industries, including the transport sector, beloved by politicians seeking visible projects. 

The outlook is also complicated by COVID-19. “A crisis can often predispose policymakers to undertake more politically risky energy sector reforms”, as Alan David Lee and Zainab Usman note in their World Bank paper, Taking stock of the political economy of power sector reforms in developing countries. Yet Dr Usman told Africa in Fact that “the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased fiscal pressures in ways that could make African governments subordinate electrification projects to more urgent priorities.” The strengthening of Africa’s power pools therefore looks to be among the many casualties of the current public health emergency, increasing the number of Africans deprived of access to electricity. 

Nick Branson, Director of Gondwana Risk, advises foreign investors on key African markets and helps African governments to fine-tune their policy objectives. Nick has extensive experience of conducting research across the continent and producing actionable analysis for a range of different audiences. Nick undertook doctoral studies at SOAS, University of London, and previously worked at the think tank Africa Research Institute.

 

Working from the ground up

Case study: Talensi, Ghana

A low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique has helped smallholders in northern Ghana resist the ravages of climate change

Farmers select pineapple plants to be cultivated on a farm in Ekumfi, Ghana, 2018 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

Although climate change has not received as much discussion as it should have in Ghana, it has taken its toll on the Talensi district in the upper east region of the country. Fortunately for the farmers in the area, a Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) project, sponsored by World Vision Ghana, has helped to alleviate its effects on the people. The project, which has been well received and is showing signs of success thus far, could be replicated across the African continent to increase food and timber production as well as resilience to climate extremes.

The Talensi district forms part of the 15  municipalities and districts in  the upper east region and is one of 260 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). About 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Production of the main staple food crops, namely cereals and legumes, is done by smallholder farmers using traditional methods, which have made little room for modern scientific advancement. The main crops produced are millet, sorghum, groundnut and beans. These are dependent on annual rain, which has become erratic over the years, leading to poor harvests.

Inusah Baba, a senior research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), says the Ghanaian authorities have woken up to the fact that climate change is a phenomenon that is not remote to the country. Changing weather conditions have also led to flooding, which has become an annual ritual in all major farming communities on the banks of the White Volta [the headstream of the Volta River, Ghana’s main waterway], Inusah said. As a result, many people’s crops have been washed away by flood waters.

In addition, the erratic rains have reduced yields for most crops grown in northern Ghana. Moreover, in recent years intermittent droughts – which are understood to consist of three or more weeks with no significant rains – have also combined with unusually high temperatures in March through to April, affecting the period between August and September, when most crops are grown under rain- fed conditions. Farmers in the Talensi district, however, say that World Vision’s FMNR has helped to maintain their livelihoods.

Standing in his fields, wearing his fugu – a cotton outfit worn by men – John Anaba, a farmer at Namoalug in the Talensi district, said he was proud of what he had been able to achieve using only hoes and cutlasses. However, changes in the weather had given him good and bad times, he said. He did not understand what climate change was, but the weather had changed in recent years, negatively affecting his crops and those of others in the district. It was “better now”, he added.

“The Talensi FMNR, is a rapid, low-cost, easily replicated land restoration technique to combat poverty and hunger that works with communities and partners to restore degraded lands in the district so as to improve on soil health for healthy agricultural production,” World Vision Ghana’s food security and resilience technical programmes manager, Maxwell Amedi, told Africa in Fact. In practice, FMNR involves the systematic regrowth and management of trees and shrubs from felled tree stumps, which helps to sprout root systems or seeds.

The regrown trees and shrubs, which help restore soil structure and fertility, inhibit erosion and soil moisture evaporation, rehabilitate the water table and increase biodiversity. Some tree species also provide the soil with nutrients. The FMNR approach encourages the use of living tree stumps, which can resprout or produce seeds. When trees are cut down, their root systems often remain alive underground. “In many formerly forested areas this underground forest [may be] vast, with millions of trees waiting to be regenerated. FMNR systematically regenerates this underground forest,” he said.

The project is a tree management practice, involving selection, pruning, protection and maintenance, and also empowers communities, regreening both community mindsets and peoples’ relationship with nature and the landscape. Preparation for the FMNR project started in October 2006, with the support of World Vision Australia (WVA). “WVA’s aim was to improve the socio- economic living conditions of the people in the Talensi area,” Amendi says. “The WVA contributed to this goal through a programme focus approach that tackled deep-rooted issues of poverty, economic empowerment and capacity building in health and nutrition, education, water sanitation and hygiene, environmental sustainability and livelihood empowerment.”

Farmers tapping rubber trees to collect latex at Agona, Ghana, 2019 Photo: Christina Aldehuela

The FMNR did not just take off, Amendi says. “A baseline study was conducted before the implementation of each of the three phases. With each phase, we worked with the communities to reverse land degradation and hunger resulting from poor soils in the district.” In addition to the drought, floods, and erratic rainfall patterns mentioned, the Talensi district is vulnerable to infertile and degraded soils, food insecurity, land scarcity, with occasional disease outbreaks of cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). To further test the viability of the project before it was fully implemented, a pilot was started in 2009, which aimed to incorporate sound environmental management into the farming practices in the project area.

This led to the first phase, which started in 2009 and ended in 2011, involving nine communities using the FMNR concept. So far, more than 3,000 people have benefited, and the project has helped restore over 400 hectares of degraded lands. “After successfully implementing the first phase, the second phase began in 2012 and ended in 2017,” Amendi says, adding that, “The second phase was implemented in 33 communities with funding support from Computer Share Australia through WVA. It benefited more than 8,000 people and restored over 700 hectares of degraded lands in the district.”

The third phase of the project started in July 2017 and ended  in  June this year, with funding support from the Australian government through WVA. It aimed to benefit 8,000 people and restore another 500 hectares of degraded land. WVA has similar FMNR projects in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Burundi, and Senegal, the organisation’s media manager, Mike Bruce, told Africa in Fact. The outcomes differ slightly from community to community, depending on circumstances.

“I have seen the difference that the project has brought to my people,” farmer John Anaba says. “Before, it was like the soil had quarrelled with us. Our crops refused to show any sign of life. We were just the forgotten people in the country, and food to feed our families became a problem.” So far, the project has seen an improvement in household food security and the resilience of people in the Talensi district, especially the most vulnerable and their families. This has happened through farmer-managed natural regeneration approaches and improved farming systems.

In addition, there has been better environmental management and stewardship, as well as an improvement in household income and savings among the people. Two project evaluations have taken place, both of which have shown that the approach has resulted in an increase in soil fertility and crop yield, as well as improvements in bulk compost and field mulching with crop residue, which has produced more food, Amendi says. Moreover, bush fires, once an annual occurrence, have been reduced by 80%, protecting the soil and allowing grasses and trees to recover, leading to massive reforestation of farms and communal fields.

The district now produces more fodder and nesting for livestock, which means the animals do not need to wander to feed. More fruit is available for home consumption and for sale, and more firewood is available. In total, the project has restored over 2,000 hectares of degraded land, with more than 10,000 farmers using conservation practices such as zero/minimum tillage, the use of stone bund walls, protecting the soil with layers of the residue from harvest crops, and making and using compost to improve soil fertility.

Other people in the district, among them several women, commented that FMNR has had a huge impact on the Talensi district by improving smallholder farmers’ levels of the production and reducing environmental degradation. Overall, the approach has seen an increase in opportunities for livelihoods and incomes for the people in the area.

 

Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. A former member of the governing board of the state-owned Ghana News Agency (GNA), he is currently a writer for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor to Science and Development.Net (SciDev.Net) as well as the University World News.
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