Technology development and market access: from a food sovereignty perspective

Quaye, W.


The concepts of ‘relevant social groups’ and ‘technical code’ are used to investigate the social relations in cowpea variety development (technology studies) and also the relationship of small-scale farmers to the Ghana School Feeding Program (market access) against the background of food sovereignty. For the technology studies, empirical findings reveal the wider socio-cultural context within which cowpea production, processing and consumption are organized and the differences in social meanings constructed for cowpea varieties among relevant social groups (RSGs) in the local cowpea network. Farmers attach social meanings to variety choices in relation to the purpose of cultivation, either primarily for household food provision or for commercial purposes, and select varieties on the basis of these social meanings alongside other, technical considerations, such as yield and tolerance to diseases and pests. There is another, sharper contrast between social meanings ascribed to cowpea variety choice by (small-scale) processors and consumers from that of the farmers. Processor and consumer cowpea variety preferences are tied to bean characteristics, such as white seed colour, short cooking time and taste, which aremore attuned to the social relevance of consumption than technical functionality for cultivation.

There are different desires for different traits and thus different varieties of cowpea among the various RSGs, yet empirical findings show that the technical codes in variety designs do not reflect these. In particular, the social meanings constructed for preferred cowpea varieties among the RSGS in the user (processor/consumer, as opposed to producer) category go unrecognised in the variety designs produced in Ghana. Basically, empirical findings confirm a mismatch between what farmers grow and what consumers want. Thereis thus a demand on the Ghanaian cowpea market that local farmers fail to take advantage of, an opportunity that has been taken instead by foreign producers. To understand why the variety preferences of some RSGs have been neglected in Ghanaian cowpea variety development, we unearth the structural and asymmetric power relations among the RSGs in constructing the technical codes of variety designs.

Research reveals three major phases in the social organisation of cowpea variety development in Ghana: the upstream breeding, downstream breeding and validation and release. A core element in the upstream breeding is the development of technical codes in variety designs or exotic lines using local germplasm as raw material at the international breeding centres. These codes have both technical specifications and in-built socio-cultural assumptions that become explicit through critical reflection on the variety development process. In the downstream breeding phase, the core element of the variety development process becomes the adaptability of the exotic lines to the local environment, basically involving evaluation of and selection from the variety designs developed upstream. At the validation and release phase, interpretative differences and design flexibility come to a closure as the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC) determines a proposed improved variety to be an improvement over already existing varieties.

There is a strong influence of international researchers in the development of exotic lines upstream, largely due to power imbalances between this and other RSGs, such as in technical know-how, research infrastructure and funding resources. This asymmetric relationship means that downstream breeding activities are centrally controlled through the functioning of standardized breeding procedures developed by international breeding institutions at the upstream breeding phase working with the basic intention of a universal applicability of (cowpea) variety design. This research thus points especially to the need for institutional rearrangements that encourage a greater engagement of local researchers in upstream breeding and the inclusion of other RSGs in the user category in the breeding process. And in order to enhance flexibility in attuning exotic lines developed at international organisations to locality specific contexts in downstream breeding, this study recommends the establishment of localized (rather than global) breeding frameworks, with clear (sets of) RSG defined breeding objectives that consider the differences in variety preferences at production and consumption levels, for both market and household consumption. Indeed, small-scale farmers can enhance their access to the domestic market and their food sovereignty if demand driven varieties are produced.

The market access study using the Ghana School Feeding Program (GSFP) typifies a food re-localisation strategy which elaborates on the relationship of market access for smallholder farmers to their food sovereignty situations. Similarly to the empirical findings from the technology studies, the code analysis of the market access study shows structural limitations and unequal power relations among GSFP RSGs. Despite the good intentions of decentralizing decisions pertaining to the GSFP, this research reveals a top-down bureaucratic approach to program conceptualization and implementation that has effectively negated some RSGs. The GSFP was implemented with little involvement by small-holder farmers who are supposed to represent one of the beneficiaries of the programme (by supplying the market it creates) The local (district and school) level bodies supposed to be responsible for mobilizing community support and linking smallholders to the GSFP market were not empowered to perform. They were given little support or direction as to their roles and responsibilities and there were funding shortages for food purchases. This situation gave traders and other food suppliers the power to use their money to take advantage of the market opportunities created.

The asymmetry of power influence among the RSGs in the GSFP network is reflected in the choice of food procurement model. A code analysis of the market access study shows three procurement models to be operative in the GSFP: i) theSupplier Model, which employs the use of contractors or suppliers to supply food items to the schools, ii) the School-Based Model,which involves thecommunity mobilization of resources and purchase of raw foodstuffs from local farmers, and iii) theCaterer Model, which involves the handling of food purchases and food preparations by contracted qualified caterers. In practice, the caterer model is found to be mostly used largely due to convenience and power imbalances, even though it is the school-based model that best fits the programme objectives. This is shown to be a significant cause of the failure of smallholders to access the GSGP market and their ‘replacement’ by traders and other food suppliers.

Nevertheless, assessment of the socio-economic impact on the group of farmers (less than 30% of 100 farmers interviewed in GSFP participating communities) who have been able to access the GSFP market shows a very positive relationship between market access and household food sovereignty. In the space of a year, production of the crop sold (rice) went up 30%, food stocks rose by a half (from six to nine months) and farmers’ incomes increased by 80%. Notably, these farmers were organised, by a development agency, which also provided various inputs (including credit and technical assistance) and, acting as the link to the GSFP, guaranteed the market.

Several factors are found to have limited and continue to restrict effective implementation of the GSFP, but from the code analysis it is clear that the GSFP can be socially reconstructed to seek specific goals. Despite the constraints limiting smallholder farmer access to the GSFP market, critical investigations into the procurement models open-up possibilities for reconstructing the GSFP market and making it an endogenous structure that can facilitate smallholder access. Identification also of the factors enabling access on the part of some farmers also suggests ways in which interventions in social relations can enable localised producer-consumer linkages through the GSFP that promote food sovereignty.

Since resource constraints favour the use of supplier and caterer procurement models, it is recommended that contract agreements specify food purchases from local farmers. Concrete proposals for endogenizing the GSFP to facilitate the linkage between local food production and school feeding (local consumption) include i) strengthening collaboration efforts with strategic partners working with farmer groups, ii) developing social relations between farmers and caterers or school kitchen centres, and iii) affirming the roles and responsibilities of actors who have the capacity to develop farmer-GSFP linkages through performance contract agreements and regular monitoring. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture and FONG, an apex organisation of farmers’ groups, were identified as actors that could be developed for important, nationwide roles at the local level.

This research shows a link betweenendogenous development andhousehold food sovereignty. Empirical findings from the GSFP analysis provide a test case of what actually happens to the food sovereignty situation of small-scale farmers who have good access to a domestic market. Using a range of measures at the household level as proxy for food sovereignty, this study shows a positive linkage between domestic market access for smallholder farmers and food sovereignty. However, it is realised that farmers in marginalized areas, especially those in hunger hotspots, cannot just produce for the GSFP market unless it is organised in a way that reflects endogenous capacities and improves small-scale farmers’ access to production resources.

The technological studies and market access parts of this research both reveal the importance ofparticipation by RSGs – the former especially through genuinely participatory plant breeding programmes and the latter through the need for communities and farmers’ groups to be proactively introduced into and involved in the organisation of food procurement. Underscoring this, the linkage of fundamental failures, again in both programmes – both in breeding (at the upstream phrase) and school feeding (conceptualisation and implementation) – to asymmetric social power relations attest to the need to confront and restructure these in practical, creative ways.