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A Conversation on Blending Indigenous Knowledge and Modern Farming Techniques

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

“Farmers can look at the skies and determine whether there will be rainfall or not –

based on the direction of the rainfall and the winds. Meanwhile, the behavior of some

traditional seasonal birds – how they build their nests – could also tell farmers if they will get a bumper harvest…or not.”

But indigenous knowledge is so vast, unstructured and very peculiar to specific locations in Africa. Therefore, the ability of a modern-day smallholder knowhow to infuse indigenous practice with modern farming techniques will make greater impact on Agriculture production in Ghana.” – Raymond N. Enye, Projects Specialist, Agrisolve Ghana Limited

Farmers possess a deep understanding of their environment and traditional agricultural practices. They’ve honed this knowledge over generations, allowing them to predict weather patterns and understand plant interactions. Who are we to tell them what to do?

The above was one of my key questions during my field trip with Agrisolve.

I’m all for learning new things and skills, in “keeping with the times”. And so, I’m curious about what and how useful still are some of this indigenous knowledge, and to what extent modern farming technique is needed in today’s day and age.

I spoke with Raymond N. Enye, a co-worker of mine, who grew up in a farming household. He learned the ways of both farming for experimental practice as well as technical knowledge application from modern available technologies.

How birds build their nests could tell you a lot

First up: you can get a weather report and expectations from observing how birds build their nests.

“If birds build their nests on lower tree trunks by the riverbanks, it means there will not be much rainfall within the given season,” Raymond told me.

“If these birds’ nests are built on a higher ground, it indicates there will be a lot of rain and maybe even flooding as well in low lying areas… which implies a bumper harvest season,” he added.

According to Raymond, birds could also tell you when the farming season is beginning and about to come to a close. “When the birds are flying from the North to the East, it implies that the season is about to set in hence their moving to the East in search of foods.” Thus picking germination seeds and matured crops. However, when they’re flying from the East to the North, it means the season is coming to a close in Northern Ghana.

“If the wind is blowing the crops to the direction of the rainclouds, it means there’s possible rain – within hours. If the wind stands against them, the weather is clear.”

Picture source: An African Pied Wagtail stands upon a mat of reeds in a flooded meadow © Diego Delso

Challenges brought about by climate change

Climate change has posed serious problems especially for farmers up North in Ghana.

Agriculture in Ghana is mostly rain-fed, with less than one percent of cultivated land being irrigated, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. And up North in Ghana, there’s only one rainy season – as opposed to two down South.

Erratic and delayed rainfalls, along with the need for increased productivity have prompted the integration of modern farming techniques with indigenous knowledge.

“In the past, you could get natural fertilization from leaves of plants grasses, and animal residues but is not more sustainable given the changing climatic patterns in Northern Ghana” Raymond said.

But now, the rate at which deforestation is taking place in Northern Ghana is alarming.

“Economical trees like Shea, Dawadawa and other rare medicinal crop trees have been sacrificed to produce charcoal for fuel for urban consumption and exports, impacting smallholder farmers in the North.”

In addition to that, overtime, as farmlands are used over and over, you could no longer get as much natural fertilization as before – especially after chemical fertilizers have infiltrated the lands.

Mix cropping technique to help fix soil infertility

Raymond said this is where modern techniques such as inter-cropping or mix cropping is used.

“Maize needs nitrogen, while soya beans give nitrogen back to the soil. If you plant maize (on one lane) and soya or sorghum (on the other), you would need less fertilizers,” Raymond proceeded to explain.

Another tip from Raymond: Crop rotations. “If you plough legumes (i.e., soya beans) this year on this land, in the following year you should change it to cereals, like maize or sorghum.”

Team Agrisolve out in the field in Goripie, Upper West Region of Ghana

There’s also the distance of planting between crops to keep in mind of too.

“In the past, people measure row planting through discretion. And at times, they could do it even much better – they have done it for years and can approximate and know the right pacing,” Raymond said.

“They would then use dibbers to dig holes and input the seeds, covering them using their foot. But that’s very time and effort-consuming.”

To solve this, Agrisolve Ghana Limited has introduced portable seeders and chargeable knapsacks for farmers to plant seeds and spray herbicides, fertilizers.

“It’s important to apply the right quantity of inputs, at the right time, to the right crop, so that you don’t have adverse effects on your yields,” Raymond said.

He noted that the issue with indigenous knowledge is its lack of accessibility: that it’s confined to a specific location and cultural settings, and it’s not as well-documented as modern knowledge where it might be more easily accessible to the elite group.

Having seen how hard farmers work on the fields, Raymond is strongly convinced of the importance of indigenous knowledge but believes even more about blending modern techniques together with the farmers’ indigenous experience, to lessen their time in farming and to improve productivity.

Photo and Cover Photo: Raymond, who sees himself as a teacher by heart, doing what he's most passionate about -- educating farmers

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