With cross-border price-undercutting, mounting debt and a lack of buyers, many tomato farmers in Ghana's Upper East Region are turning to suicide.
Three tomato farmers in the region committed suicide in 2008 and many others attempted to, according to the General Agriculture Workers Union.
Women who control produce, suppliers and prices throughout the country, buy tomatoes across the border in Burkina Faso at cheaper prices, leaving local farmers to watch their crops rot in the sun, farmers told IRIN.
The women – known as 'queens' – priced a crate of Ghanaian tomatoes at US$150 at the beginning of 2008 and at just $10 by the end of the year. Prices in the volatile industry are now up again – to $120 a crate – but tomato farmer Martin Pwayidi based in Upper East Region told IRIN this price is not likely to stick.
Pwayidi lost the $2,000 he had secured from a bank and invested into his four-acre tomato farm in 2008 because no one would buy from him. "Last year was very terrible for me; I lost everything. There was absolutely no reason to live. I am just lucky to still be alive today [and not to have committed suicide]," Pwayidi, told IRIN.
Five of Pwayidi’s friends attempted suicide in 2008. "Some tried to hang themselves; others drank insecticides and disinfectants." Ninety percent of the two million people in the Upper East region and its neighbours are involved in tomato cultivation.
Ghana produces 510,000 metric tons of tomatoes each year, while it imports up to 7,000mt per month from its neighbours, along with 27,000mt of processed tomatoes from Europe each year, according to the Ghana National Tomato Producers Federation.
“All over the sub-region there is serious price-undercutting and price fluctuations from country to country for agricultural products,” said Ibrahim Akalbila, coordinator of local NGO Ghana Trade and Livelihood Coalition.
West African trade laws impose no duties on agricultural products crossing borders, making it cheap for buyers to purchase abroad.
With European Union Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) currently being negotiated, West African markets are about to be flooded with heavily subsidised EU products, says Akalbila, meaning buyers will abandon African products in favour of European ones.
“Unless ECOWAS introduces a common pricing policy [before the EPA is signed], more farmers will commit suicide," he said. "Sub-regional poverty reduction strategies will be compromised, and more and more families will slide into poverty. The result will be a crisis of unimaginable proportions.”
Most of Ghana’s population, estimated by the UN to be "extremely poor" – living on less than $1 a day – live in Upper East and neighbouring regions in the north.
|...Unless ECOWAS introduces a common pricing policy [before the Economic Partnership Agreement is signed], more farmers will commit suicide...|
“Most of these [those affected] are poor peasant farmers," Akalbila said. "They need the market to survive."
Maame Dufie, vendor at Abeka Market in the capital Accra, told IRIN Burkina tomatoes are of higher quality and sell more quickly than local varieties.
"Burkina tomatoes are bigger, harder, far superior in taste and last longer in storage," she said. "We are business women, not charity organisations, so we will only buy the best that will guarantee our profits."
Foreign investors, including Taiwan, built up the Burkina Faso tomato industry, providing training and seeds and setting up irrigation schemes.
Edward Karewe of the agriculture workers union agrees Ghanaian tomatoes are of lesser quality.
But farmer Pwayidi said vendors favour importing tomatoes from Burkina Faso because "they can use the tomatoes as a cover to smuggle in contraband goods." He did not specify what goods.
In response to such allegations Dufie said simply: "I will continue to import tomatoes so far as local farmers refuse to cultivate the Burkina Faso variety."
The union has been pushing the government to research a high-yield, high-quality tomato variety, suitable for the local and export market. Karewe is urging the government to guarantee low-interest loans to farmers and to train farmers in identifying the best seeds.
The Agriculture Ministry's northern programme coordinator, Roy Ayariga, told IRIN the ministry is researching local tomato varieties, as well as trying to push business people and farmers to sign agreements to secure tomato buyers before planting.
The tomato-growers federation has called on the government to temporarily ban tomato imports from neighbouring countries but this would transgress ECOWAS trade policy.
The ministry has said it will provide more support to tomato farmers, but has not given details of how.