Treating the Symptoms
The small holder farmers of northern Ghana are not known for their diligent dedication to recording their farm incomes, expenses and related activities. But it is easy to see how keeping records could really help farmers plan their farming activities to maximize their profits, especially with regards to calculating profits from costs and incomes and using this information to make decisions on investments which continuously improve profits.
To address this gap in record keeping, one project created a workbook to be distributed to farmers throughout northern Ghana that would act as a template for documenting this important information.
I have no doubt that this book will be put to some kind of use. Indeed, even my empty floss container was picked out of my garbage and put to use by the neighbour’s children. But let’s take a moment to consider the core issues affecting farmer record keeping and I think it will become obvious that the efforts behind the farmer workbook treat the symptom but not the cause.
From my field experience, literacy and education level are the biggest hindrances to farmer record keeping. The majority of farmers didn’t regularly attend school so the instinct to record things is completely foreign and takes time to build. But the farmers also need to know how to keep such records and see the benefits of doing it. Once all that is in place, then there will be a need and a use for a workbook and perhaps a pen. But if all that was in place, the farmer would already know the value of keeping records and simply go to a stationary store and buy the pen and paper.
To its credit, the development industry does invest heavily in education and huge improvements in literacy can be seen across northern Ghana. However, there’s still room for projects to encourage record keeping by taking the time needed (i.e. multiple meetings throughout the year) with farmer groups to demonstrate practical tracking of expenses and incomes for profitability analyses and why such records are useful for decision making.
But I don’t just mean explaining how to draw tables and subtract expenses from income; I’m talking about using beans in a jar, marks on a wall, knots in a rope, or any number of other creative ways the farmers I have worked with envisioned to overcome their illiteracy and keep business records for their farms.
We can’t just distribute a workbook, hope the farmers see its function and have a literate neighbour nice enough to fill it out for them. After all, the point of keeping records is for farmers to refer to the records they took in the past and use them to make decisions to improve their farming business. Indecipherable script will not help a farmer remember her past farming activities.
Instead we need to think about the root causes behind the challenges faced by rural farmers that development is trying to address. The example above shows how the inappropriateness of paper and pen documentation, and especially the need to understand the benefits, prevents farmers from keeping records more so than the lack of paper. If we dig below the surface and try to understand and define the core issues, then development projects can begin to address real challenges and make development sector interventions as useful as possible to the farmers.