An Approtech Solution for the Farmers of Ghana

In Ghana, the popularity of rice is growing.  It has become the second most important cereal grain for the population and since 2000, the amount of rice grown in Ghana has doubled.  Ghana, however, does not produce enough rice to meet the rising demand.  In fact, over half of the rice consumed in Ghana is imported from other countries.  The high price tag of these imports has encouraged the government to invest in expanding access to home-grown rice by increasing the yields of local producers.

This is where Vincent Avornyo comes in.  As he pursues his PhD at Iowa State, Vincent is working with Dr. Andrew Manu to develop a product that can be applied to the soil to boost rice yields.  Vincent is a native of Ghana and began working on a product to boost rice yields as part of a research team at the University for Development Studies in Tamale.  His PhD is part of a larger project funded by USAID’s Feed the Future Ghana Agricultural Technology Transfer, “is seeking to increase the availability and use of agricultural technologies to maximize and sustain productivity in Northern Ghana.”  Iowa State University is a subcontractor to the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) on this project. 

The soils of Northern Ghana, where Vincent’s research is focused, are very low in the nutrients that are necessary for plant growth.  This low fertility is due to geologic material, Voltaian sandstone, that the soil developed in and the reality that much of Northern Ghana has been continuously cropped and many of the nutrients have already been depleted.  The most limiting nutrients to plant growth in Northern Ghana are phosphorus and nitrogen.  Vincent’s goal is to increase the fertility of Ghana’s soil by “killing two birds with one stone,” and finding a product that will re-introduce both of these nutrients into the soil.

“The simplest way to correct the low inherent soil fertility is to import fertilizers and apply them in huge quantities,” says Vincent.  “But we are talking here about farmers whose holdings are about half an acre to an acre.  They are so resource poor that they cannot afford the fertilizers that industry recommends in the more advanced countries.”

Vincent is looking for an “approtech” solution, or an appropriate technology that relies on “resources that are available to the local farmer.”  Two potential resources that he has identified are rice husks and rock phosphate, both of which are high in phosphorus.

Rice husks or hulls are the outer layer of rice that are usually removed during the milling process.  Many farmers in Ghana view them as “an undesirable end products of rice cultivation.”

Rock phosphate is a naturally occurring rock material.  It is the raw source for industrially produced phosphorus fertilizer and can be found in China, Morocco and the United States.  Many of the countries bordering Ghana such as Burkina Faso and Togo are exporters of rock phosphate, and Ghanaian farmers could thus cheaply purchase it.

Vincent, however, warns that simply adding rock phosphate and rice husks to the soil does not solve soil infertility.  Phosphorus is a tricky element.  Although rock phosphate and rice husks are high in phosphorus, it is not in a form that can be easily absorbed by plants.  Both products need to be altered before they are useful for plant growth.

One method that scientists have used to alter organic raw material to promote plant nutrient availability is pyrolysis.  Pyrolysis involves burning a substance in the absence of oxygen so that the chemical and physical properties of the substance are altered.

Pyrolysis usually requires an expensive and technologically advanced facility, but Vincent has worked with a research group from the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences on a funnel-type apparatus that restricts oxygen in the burning environment to produce a product similar to that obtained from the sophisticated facilities.  Importantly, this is a type of device that “even our local blacksmiths could easily manufacture for poor resource farmers to adopt in Ghana.”

Vincent began his studies at Iowa State in the Fall of 2014, and plans to complete his degree by 2018.  Before coming to Iowa, he had not visited the United States and has been impressed by “the level of professionalism, especially with the Global Programs office.  They have been very professional with how they deal with and respond to you and would always answer your questions and try to clarify what was not clear to you.”

Another difference he has noted, however, both in the classroom and in his apartment complex in Ames is that in his home-country “people project a sense of community and have more of a collective attitude, but over here, people are more-or-less individualistic.  As an example you fairly know almost all your neighbors wherever you live in Ghana, and everything about their families like the number of kids they have, where the kids go to school… you are like one big community.”

Dr. Manu, Vincent’s major professor and the George Washington Carver Chair in Agronomy, wants “Vincent to go back as a great soil scientist and share that experience he has gained at Iowa State University with students in Ghana.”  And one of the greatest training opportunities for him as a graduate student, contends Dr. Manu, is teaching.

This semester Vincent will be a teaching assistant for Dr. Manu’s Introduction to Soil Science.  The class is unique in that it reaches 190 students on an average semester, and also allows students to work at their own pace through an innovative lab component.  Dr. Manu points out that when he attended the University of Ghana for his Bachelor’s degree in the 1970s, the whole university had 3,500 students.  Today, that number has risen to close to 30,000.  “So the student numbers are going up and maybe the infrastructure is not keeping up.  There is the need, therefore, for innovative ways of educating more people with limited space.  This course, because of the way it is set up, can reach a lot of students.”  Dr. Manu is hopeful that Vincent can take the lessons he has learned as a teaching assistant for this exceptional class, and share it with rising student populations in Ghana.

Vincent, who recently presented some of his initial work at the Agronomy Society of America’s annual conference in Minneapolis, refers to his research as ‘hydra-headed.’  There are many aspects and theories he would like to explore, but he is optimistic that his research will result in an “approtech” solution for the farmers of Ghana.  He is also positive that the ‘network of professionals’ that Dr. Manu has exposed him to, and the opportunity to act as a teaching assistant will be invaluable for his future career.

--Catherine DeLong

The Feed the Future Agriculture Technology Transfer Project is one of the many assistance programs supported by the American people through the United States Agency for International Development.  The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development or the United States Government.