License to kill

Introducing Organic Farming in Ghana, Northern Region.

During my first visit to Ghana I saw, traveling through rural Northern Region, many pieces of land burning. In my naivety I asked if the burning was because of drought. I then learned that it is usual practice among farmers to burn the land after harvesting. “Why?” I asked. The answer wasn’t a direct one, “because it is tradition.” I did some research on the advantages and disadvantages of the burning of land for agriculture. Below are some things I found.

Agricultural burning (slash and burn) is carried out to clear the land for planting, and control pests, disease and weeds. There are few advantages to burn the land. Burning reduces pest invasions after planting. The reason is that the weeds that may have attracted the pests are killed. Weed seeds are also destroyed and do not rejuvenate. The ashes from the residues are rich in potassium and calcium; this adds value to the soil and benefits the crop.

However these advantages don’t weigh up to the disadvantages of agricultural burning. It’s true that burning kills pests and disease-causing organisms in the soil. But it kills the beneficial and important organisms too. This reduces the biological activity in the soil. The consequences of slash-and-burn techniques for ecosystems are almost always destructive.

Though burning crop residues and grasses is an organic practice, it is not safe. Farmers must be cautious with this practice. Burning damages soil and eventually ruins it. When soil is left bare after burning, there can be a lot of soil erosion. Also, burning residues and grass releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.

The principal vulnerability is the nutrient-poor soil, pervasive in most areas of Ghana Northern Region. When biomass is extracted even for one harvest of wood or charcoal, the residual soil value is heavily diminished for further growth of any type of vegetation.

The nutrients that are released after burning are usually washed away or leached by rain, or eroded by wind. Soil declines in productivity after burning because its nutrients are depleted. Because of this, the ancient farmers who practiced slash and burn had to leave the land for five to 25, even up to 40 years before they could farm the land again.

Using fire to get rid of agricultural debris causes special problems because noncombustible and toxic materials are often burned along with the vegetation. This includes tires (used as fire accelerants) and plastics. Burning toxic materials can release very harmful emissions.

I didn’t take any pictures of the land burning, but on the picture below you can see the black landscape it leaves behind, smoking after the fire has tempered.

Village with burning of the land

The practice of burning crop residues and grass should not be encouraged. There are much better alternatives, but they are more labor intensive than the burning of the land. One is to spread crop residues on the land. Spreading residues in the field stops weeds by a combination of shading and smothering. The residues also stop the sun from drying out the ground. This keeps water in the soil so it’s available for crops.

Mulching improves the soil by attracting and feeding earthworms and other living organisms. The organisms “till” the soil, and their feces are among the best fertilizers and soil conditioners. So, spreading mulch or crop residues instead of burning them should be encouraged. It builds the soil, and improves its structure and fertility.

Farmers can make holes in the residue layer and plant their crops. Or they can simply spread organic mulch by hand around plants after they emerge. The crops get nutrients from the decaying leaves.

When we went to Zabzugu last year, a friend of us wanted to show us his store there. The store was full of chemical pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Instead of receiving our admiration, both Umar and I frowned and looked at the store with some disapproving look. “Why?” our friend asked. “Oh, we are against chemicals” Umar replied. Our friend didn’t really understand.

I asked him why he was selling the chemicals; “it is poison, don’t you know that?” “Yes, but it is good business.” he said. “So you know it is poison and that you are killing the land and your people by selling it, but you still sell it because it is good business?” His reply was “But I have a license …” I couldn’t stop myself and said to him: “So you have a license. Does that make it less worse what you are doing? You are still killing your land and your people! But because you have ‘a license to kill’ it is okay?”

We discovered that there were no alternatives in Zabzugu area for the chemicals sold there, so we asked our friend if he didn’t want to become the first in the area to start selling organic products. It could also make him good business and at least he was selling something positive; something that would not kill his people nor the land, but would actually do something good for them.

Chemical shop

Not only in Zabzugu, but actually in whole of Northern Ghana chemical farming is the usual practice. There are hardly any alternatives, nor organic seeds or crops for sale. One of the farmers we are currently working with is a brother who I met two years ago. At that time I asked Umar what was wrong with his brother and advised him to go to hospital with him. In hospital they found out that he was actually ill and the farmer himself believes it came from spraying his land with Glyphosate based pesticides. This is not illogical, because the spraying does not happen with the protection required to do it safely. (Also see my writing on Glyphosate).

Most aid programs in Ghana are chemical based and the World Health Organization doesn’t oppose to chemical based farming. There are two possible reasons I’d like to address: 1. Chemical based farming can lead to quick short term positive effects and 2. The fertilizer market is a multi-Billion market – primarily for Western companies – of which organic fertilizers occupy only a few Million.

Last year the farmer who became ill due to chemical farming came to us, sharing that he wanted to stop using chemicals, but didn’t know how. He was desperate and asked us for advice and help. This was how we started to get involved in organic farming.

We did field research in Ghana and the Netherlands and I did some research on chemical/organic pesticides (See the article on Glyphosate) and chemical/organic fertilizers.

A chemical fertilizer is defined as any inorganic material of wholly or partially synthetic origin that is added to soil to sustain plant growth. Organic fertilizers are substances that are derived from the remains or byproducts of natural organisms which contain the essential nutrients for plant growth.

There are few advantages of using chemical fertilizers and I will mention those below. However our conclusion still is that use of organic fertilizers is much more sustainable. We believe that organic farming actually is the only realistic option for the future of farming in Ghana Northern Region in the long term. If you wish to live in harmony with nature and make a lasting improvement in your own patch of earth for generations to come, organic fertilizers outweigh chemicals by far.

“When you view soil as a living organism, (it is and we should), you can easily see why it might matter what type of fertilizer we choose to use: Chemical fertilizers, in effect, “kill” the soil while organic fertilizers improve and sustain the soil.” ( )

One of the distinct advantages of chemical fertilizers over organic fertilizers is that chemical fertilizers are rich equally in all three essential nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. In the short term one needs more bags of organic fertilizer than one needs bags of chemical fertilizers to bring the necessary nutrients into the soil. However there is a large risk of adding too much when using chemical fertilizers and, when using organic fertilizer, in the long term one needs to add less and less fertilizer because the fertility of the soil is growing in a natural way.

One of the main disadvantages of chemical fertilizers is that, in contrast to organic fertilizers, several chemical fertilizers have high acid content like sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid. This high acid content results in the destruction of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which is helpful in supplying the nitrogen to a growing plant. In contrast, organic fertilizers support the growth of nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

A few rarely known disadvantages of chemical fertilizers are that chemical fertilizers encourage plant disease and that they produce fruits and vegetables with lower nutritional value and less flavor. Citrus grown with large amounts of soluble nitrogen has lower vitamin C than those grown with organic fertilizers. Corn grown with the soluble nitrogen of chemical fertilizers contains less protein.

Organic fertilizers have many advantages. With organic fertilizers soil crusting is reduced. Organics may improve water movement into the soil and, in time, add structure to the soil. Organics feed beneficial microbes, thereby making the soil easier to work.

Chemical fertilizers and organic fertilizers - advantages and disadvantages

Organic farming in general is more labor intensive than using chemical pesticides and fertilizers while farming. This is also a reason why chemicals are so popular in Ghana Northern Region. One needs to sow only once and after there is little work needed to maintain the crops because the chemicals do all the work. But, as one can imagine, the price to be paid in the long term is high. Recurrent drought in Ghana Northern Region severely affects agricultural activities and is worsening; soil erosion is increasing rapidly; water pollution has serious impact on farmer’s health; and supplies of potable water are inadequate and decreasing rapidly.

But we had more practical reasons to get involved into organic farming.First of all several farmers in different communities approached us with the question how to return to farming without the use of chemicals. We also realized that the food we are eating ourselves most likely is produced using chemicals. We wanted to produce, eat, and supply our communities with food that makes our people more resilient and less prone to diseases such as cancer, strokes, and skin disorders.

We were also thinking of the future generations in the region. With the land becoming less and less fertile and the increase of large scale (chemical based) farming next generations will not have a better future than the current one. This also is one of the reasons why more and more young people move away from the area and try to find a better future in Accra or abroad.

ATMA Farm - weeding the land

Chemicals might be cheaper in the short run, but on the longer term it actually is more expensive for many reasons. Organic fertilizers ensure that the farms remain fertile for decades and a farmer who practices organic farming for many years will require far less fertilizer, because his soil is already rich in essential nutrients. And chemicals contaminate the land and the water, which is a major cause for diseases, poverty and the extinction of a number of plant, animal, and insect species. Organic fertilizers are easily bio-degradable and do not cause environmental pollution.

And finally an important reason for us to start organic farming is that it creates employment within our local communities. Since we don’t use chemicals, weeds and grasses are also growing on our land. It needs to be removed at least twice during the growing period of the crops. That is labor intensive because we have it done by hand. It costs us some money and some food, but it also provides a growing group of farmers income, food and skills.LiL Purpose and Principles - june 2015

Leap into Life is about preserving nature, tradition and at the same time building a future for next generations by introducing change mechanisms and social dynamics that strengthen the communities to become more resilient in the 21st century. The production of organic fertilizers and pesticides brings employment into our communities; because the land needs extra attention and weeding, more farmers have work and farmers have more work; the organic seeds we have found and some of the technologies we use are original and local; and the seeds and crops we produce can be shared to provide healthy food to a growing group of people and/or to scale up the practice of organic farming in the region.

“License to kill” is becoming a well-known term in the region and is used by a growing number of communities to address their desire for more long term solutions that bring both health and wealth for their community members.

So how did we start with organic farming and where are we now? Our first priority was to find proper seeds. The land wouldn’t be so much of a problem for us, since we are well connected and deeply integrated in the traditional Dagomba communities. That actually also ‘saved’ us with the seeds. There wasn’t a place where we could find proper organic seeds, meaning seeds with an official certification as organic. I tried finding them, using my international network of experts. But even within the diverse group of people I know in Ghana who are involved in sustainable landscape development, organic farming or community development I couldn’t find the seeds for the crops we wanted to grow. We wanted to start with mais (corn), but the seeds we did find were either grown with chemicals or were treated with chemicals, probably GMO. The latter is extraordinary because Ghanaian government officially has banned GMO seeds and GMO crops from Ghana. But they are here and used by both local farmers and international companies.

Chemical seeds Pannar

We did find the organic seeds by going deep into the rural areas, there were the farmers are very remote from external influences and are too poor to purchase seeds or chemicals for fertilization or pest control. We did find the seeds we wanted, organic mais, though without a certificate.

Our first plot of land was a small plot of 6 acres close to Tamale. It was offered to us by the farmer who we had helped when he was ill and who had come to us with the question to help him getting off the chemicals. We planted mais, but the crops failed. Not because of the organic techniques or because of pests/insects; it was the effect of Global Warming that made them fail. The rain came 3 weeks later than it normally does and I learned through research that it was partially caused by El-Nino, the change in current in the oceans that brings extreme drought to Africa. Eastern Africa (Somalia/Kenia), Central Africa (Sudan), Southern Africa (Zimbabwe and South Africa) and the Savannah area (Ghana Northern Region) are according to analysts the most affected by this year’s El-Nino. (

A second sowing also failed because of the same reason. Since water is scarce and we do not have any form of irrigation available, we are completely depending on Mother Nature and natural rainfall. This time there was too little and it came too late for our first attempts as organic farmers.

It didn’t stop us, on the contrary. In agreement with local chiefs and in collaboration with several farmer communities in Yendi area we ‘knocked down’ around 40 acres of land to start farming on a new plot. The land there is more fertile than where we first started and the rain started to come. On this plot we have planted mais again and that is growing now to become a good harvest. The 6 acres near Tamale we are now using as a ‘practice field’ to gain experience with new crops. Currently we have black eyed beans, soybeans and tigernuts growing there. Again we are using seeds from remote areas of which we are sure that they haven’t been affected by chemicals. Though our first sowing of black eyed beans failed – this time due to extreme heavy rainfall that washed away the whole field – the crops there are now growing well and can be harvested soon.

On both plots we work with local community farmers and we do that in a specific way that is aligned with the ancient traditions of farming and the Dagomba tradition of Family Sharing. We have given the farmers some of ‘our’ land and provided them with seeds, manure and pesticides to work with. The harvest is theirs to keep and in return they help us to maintain the land where our crops are growing. That is the basis from where we work with most communities – the sharing principle is important to us – but not sufficient to cover for all the work that needs to be done. We also pay for the work in food and with cash money.

The local farmers in Tamale area were curious to see how we preserve and plough our land in a different way. Instead of burning the failed crops we had left them there as manure to feed the land. We also waited a bit longer than the other farmers with sowing, which gave them the opportunity to see the difference in fertility between our land and theirs. The difference already is significant; some farmers approached us to ask if they could use our land for their crops.

The farmers that are helping us on the larger plot had automatically concluded that we were going to use chemicals on the land. Normally a plot of the size we have – or any size above 3 acres – is used for chemical farming, so they were assuming that we were going to do that too. When they learned that we were going to use a different approach, they were surprised and curious. Now they are inspired by our approach and very happy with our presence there. We not only provide extra work, food and resources. We also help them to rediscover older techniques for pest control they can also apply to their own land.

We use organic manure and Neem based pesticides; partly purchased from our business partner in organic products, partly hand made from Neem leafs and Neem seeds from the trees that grow there in abundance. We have been trying to setup an infrastructure for the collection of Neem seeds that provides the women direct income for each bowl of Neem seeds they bring to our office and are still working on improvement of that. It is not running as we would like to, partly because the women are unfamiliar with the qualities and value of the Neem seeds.

We have learned how to make manure from cow feces, rice shells and a mixture of other local ingredients and we apply that in combination with certified organic manure. A few weeks ago we had some trouble with insects eating the roots of our mais (corn) and cutting our crops down. Fortunately we found a traditional natural medicine (a leaf powder) that kills the insects and protects the crops and the land for more than one season.

guide to nutrient value of organic materials

We expect to have good harvest on all our current plots. But we also expect to have inspired others for organic farming. Since there are hardly organic seeds available we have decided to provide them ourselves. We are sharing not only our gained experience with the communities; we will also provide those who want to farm without chemicals in the seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. We are preparing to open a small store in Tamale and we have found several people in the communities who want to sell the products in their region. Ghana northern Region has a short time where farming is possible, it is very seasonable, so we expect to start slow and small with the objective to expand our activities next season.

In future we also want to grow vegetable crops, but irrigation – or better: access to water – is a serious problem for all farmers in Northern Region. In order to be able to grow vegetables we need a borehole and a form of irrigation that makes us less depending on natural rainfall.

Our next step is to expand the growing of organic tigernuts. Experts from Louis Bolk Agro Eco will be visiting Tamale soon and will be joining us to the communities we have chosen to work with for that project. We are excited about the invitation to become part of the tigernut program and thrilled by how we see the farmers and communities grow in health and wealth. We have thrown a little stone in the lake and are grateful to see the circles it has created expanding.


Alain Volz

Tamale, August 2016


About Alain B. Volz

Alain Volz M.Sc. (1969) - Social Economy Entrepreneur, founder and director of ATMA - has studied Business Administration and Organizational Psychology. He started his career with Royal Dutch Ahold and has worked with IPMMC and TC&O. For 10 years Alain has been working with Twynstra Gudde Consultants and Managers as senior consultant Human Talent & Change Management. He was responsible for Competency Based Human Talent Management. He is co-founder of the Center for Human Emergence in the Netherlands (CHE), a former member of the CHE alignment circle and founding director of CHE School of Synnervation (currently Synnervate). In 2011 he held the position of partner with the RnR Group in Maarn. Alain is Strategy & Alignment Officer at Dipaliya Women's Association in Tamale, Ghana. In the Netherlands he is board member of the committee for the position of women and minorities in the Dutch Democratic Party (D66 Thema Afdeling V/M Sociale Innovatie). As such he represented D66 in the PVO; a cross party National committee consisting of represents from 6 different political parties (CDA, CU, D66, Groen Links, PvdA, VVD). The office of ATMA is located at the ImpactHub Amsterdam & the ImpactHub Accra.
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2 Responses to License to kill

  1. Jan Griffioen says:

    Keep up the good work you are doing Alain. I wish you all the luck and success! Saluts Jan Griffioen

  2. Pingback: Abandoning pesticides – a harsh reality | alainvolz

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