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Ordeals of Ghana’s tomato traders

One prominent item which is almost indispensable in majority of Ghanaian delicacies is tomato. The love for tomatoes could be attributed to how often Ghanaians use it, or its numerous benefits.  Tomatoes according to health experts is a great source of vitamins, protects the heart, improves vision, boosts digestive health, helps with diabetes management, improves skin texture and prevents cancer, among others.

There is also the argument, as to whether tomato is a fruit or vegetable. This article won’t focus on that argument for now, but rather throw light on the “behind the scenes” of how tomatoes gets on the Ghanaian market.

Tomatoes are always available on the market because of the relentless efforts of people in the sector who ensure that the consuming public get it all the time.

Just imagine the country without a single tomato for only one month. It’s possible not to have vegetables like garden eggs, kontomire, cucumber, carrots, and so on, for several  months and people will not miss them much, unlike tomatoes which is used to prepare favorites like jollof rice, gravy, light soup, mixed with ground pepper, salads among others.

Tomatoes are easily noticed on the market; however the product goes through a winding, difficult route to get on the market.

Most often, shoppers go to the market or tabletop businesses to argue about price of tomatoes and bargain for reduction of prices, but what hasn’t crossed their minds is the hustles the traders go through to get tomatoes on the market, where they get if from, how much it costs them to bring it to the various markets, and the potential risks they face when transporting them.

Very few tomatoes are commercially planted and harvested in the country. This actually leads the country into the importation of about $99.5 million worth of tomatoes from Ouagadougou annually since Ghana does not have the capacity to grow all year round tomatoes.

According to the Head of programmes and Advocacy at Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, Charles Nyaaba, in 2018 alone, Ghana imported $99.5 million worth of tomatoes. He said the country produces over 200 tons of tomatoes in season, however,  about 60 to 100 per cent goes to waste due to various reasons.

“What I know we import from Burkina Faso is $99.5 million, in 2018 alone. It does affect the country because when you go to the Upper East which is closer to Burkina Faso, most farmers travel to Burkina to rent land and produce tomatoes there. So it means you can create jobs for them, you can create jobs for the youth who are looking for quick money because tomatoes is quick money. So it’s actually affecting job creation in the country,” he said.

He enumerated various challenges both farmers and traders endure in their quest to stock the market. Some are the hardships the traders who travel to buy the fruits go through.

A middle aged widow from Bolga, who gave her name simply as Awumaa has been sleeping at the CMB market for over a month. Her determination to trade in tomatoes to look after her four fatherless children, has put her into this situation. With no roof over her head, she is at the mercy of the weather whether rain or shine.

She is a trader who has been engaged in the tomato business with her husband for over two decades until she lost the husband eight years ago at Kintampo in a road accident while on his usual tomato business.

In order to sustain the business to be able to take care of her family, she continued the business but the numerous challenges have pushed her into debt.  She doesn’t know how to pay the children’s school fees or how to feed them because of her situation. She currently owes her debtors in Burkina Faso 5.5 million CFA, which is equivalent to over GH¢50,000. Due to fear of being arrested by her Burkinabe debtors, she has absconded from her home at Bolga to Accra where she brings her goods. With no money to rent a decent place to live, she now sleeps and lives at the market, exposed to the elements.

This is not the first time she has fallen into debts. The first time she was lucky because her brother and uncle’s piece of land was available, so they sold it to defray the debts. Her father’s millet farm was also sold in addition. But now she has sold all her valuables, even including her cloths just to survive so she has no choice but to go into hiding.

“This is where I sleep because of debt, this is where I bathe, this is my bed, I am from Bolga and I can’t go home because of debt. I can’t sleep and my BP is even worrying me,” she says, adding: “I owe the farmers and I can’t pay. last year I had a terrible accident and all the tomatoes were destroyed but luckily for me, I survived. So this year I decided to put myself together and start the business again, and now look at the debt on me now, CFA 5.5 million, how can I pay, and I can’t go home.”

This debt, according to her was accumulated within just four weeks.

Her family members are not in the position to help because of their financial status.

“My father is dead, and my mother is an old lady now so she can’t help. My children are also young, two of them are in school, it is only one who has completed school but doesn’t work, so she can’t help me. So for about a month now, this is where I have been sleeping.”

That is the story of Awumaa, one of the numerous tomato traders who are susceptible to debt, accidents and jail.

The story of another trader was told. Her debtors captured her and put her behind bars for several months in Burkina Faso before bringing her back to Ghana to face the law. Known as Imaa by the traders, is said to owed interpreters and farmers millions of cedis according to the traders who narrated the story. Luck eluded her and she was arrested when she went to the country to trade again.

There are many more similar cases according to the women. They say, those who are not able to withstand the pressure and debts commit suicide or die as a result of high blood pressure.

How they incur debts

There are no laid down rules in place for traders to follow. All the association members bring in the tomatoes any day they feel like, as a result, there is abundance  and glut on the market, more than they need to supply; hence, they are compelled to reduce the prices drastically for buyers. One crate of tomatoes costs between GH¢400 to GH¢420, but they are forced to sometimes reduce it to about GH¢150 or less. Sometimes, they have to throw the rest away because they rot. And this happens often because there are no ways to preserve tomatoes.

“If they allow us to arrange the lines, it will help so that if these groups go on this day, the next batch can go another time, in that order. Sometimes by the time you get back, there are several trucks already at the market, about 10 or more, so we don’t get buyers, and that is what happened to me,” Awumaa narrated.

The poor condition of the vehicles they use to transport the tomatoes from Burkina Faso to Ghana is also a major contributor to their problems. The trucks sometimes breakdown at the middle of nowhere and takes days to repair, and by the time they are done, the tomatoes are already rotten.

“If you don’t get a good truck, it breakdowns on the way so by the time you arrive, it has all gone bad. You may even throw away all the tomatoes you brought,” one of the traders, Oheneba told ghanabusinessnews.com.

Unavailability of customers to buy. There are a lot of leftovers most of the time. Each person brings about 100 crates of tomatoes and about six traders hire one truck to go with, so if the truck breaks down, about 600 cartons will be destroyed. In the event the tomatoes become very soft, they sell to food vendors who buy them at ridiculously low prices which may only cater for the cost of the empty carton which is GH¢20.

“I have lost because most of my tomatoes were rotten. I had to sell them at GH¢350, but if I am not lucky, I would have to reduce the price further to GH¢50 or throw the rest away,” Oheneba said.

Language barrier is also another challenge for the women because they have to seek the assistance of interpreters. They hire the services of the interpreters who charge them high sums to be their middlemen when they go to the farmers. The interpreters charge CFA3,000 on each carton, so if one trader has about, 100 crates, he or she will pay the interpreter about GH¢5,000.  Sometimes the traders from Ghana borrow money from the interpreters to buy when they have used all their monies for other expenses.

There is also the exchange rate problem. When the CFA franc goes up, they have to deal with it.

The drop in the cedi rate to the CFA franc always affects their purchasing power. For instance the estimated cost to buy 100 cartons of tomatoes is affected when the CFA franc appreciates against the Ghana cedi.

As the CFA franc rises, the debts also go up.

Arrest of traders in Burkina Faso

According to the women, most of the trucks get arrested because they owe. Some of them owe as much as GH¢200,000 to farmers and interpreters. When they impound the trucks, the tomatoes go bad.

“People are owing as much as GH¢100,000, GH¢200,000 because we credit from farmers and interpreters,” another trader added.

Extortion at barriers

The traders say they also have to pay at various barriers on the road before they get to their destination. They said, they are unable to tell whether the charges are illegal or not.

“Sometimes the cost you will incur on the way before you arrive in Ghana is sad. For instance, I spent GH¢4,000 on this trip,” Oheneba said.

Road accidents

Accidents also contribute to their misfortunes. They lose their lives, become incapacitated or lose the tomatoes.

Accidents which sometimes result in death, robbery attacks among other horrifying situations during their journeys

Impact of difficulties on traders

“I started the business with GH¢40,000, but now I am left with only GH¢10,000,” one of the traders lamented.

Asked why she hasn’t stopped, she said there is no other work available, besides, she always goes with the hope that she will recover her money.

“I go with the hope that I will get some profit to defray the costs, but I come back with more debts.”

Some of the traders say they suffer severe depression, high blood pressure, especially when they incur debts.

Just like Awumaa, they become fugitives, leaving behind their families and going into hiding because they don’t have money to pay their debtors.

Economic impact

According to the traders, they lose about GH¢1 million at CMB alone because of the challenges they face, especially due to the absence of cold stores to keep their tomatoes.

“Tomato traders have destroyed Ghanaian money. We incur a lot of cost. We lose a lot of money at Burkina which is supposed to be here. Look at this truck; we can lose about GH¢1 million from it, so imagine if 10 cars come to this station, if you calculate it, how much will it be? And this does not only happen in this market, go to Makola, Agbogloshie, Madina, Dome and the rest, the problem is the same, so calculate GH¢1 million each day at all these markets, how much have we destroyed in this country? it is all gone and we will not get it back. As for tomato money, we lose a lot of it in this country,” Oheneba says.

Some people migrate from Ghana to Burkina Faso to farm there, they rent the lands, houses, buy equipment, pay workers and so all these monies stay in that country. All that money stay there as Mr. Nyaaba earlier said.

Difference between tomatoes from Ghana and Burkina Faso

Relatively, it is cheaper for the traders to buy the tomatoes from any of the areas where it is produced in the country because they travel less, pay less charges on the road, unlike exporting from Burkina, however, they can’t always buy from Ghana because the variety of tomatoes produced in Ghana cannot withstand the weather throughout the year, hence Ghanaian farmers are forced to produce only from November to February. Some areas where tomatoes are planted in Ghana are Tolon, Akim Oda, and Tuobodom among others.

The variety produced in Ghana is said to have high water content; has many seeds, and isn’t as red as the variety produced in Burkina Faso . This makes the life-span of local tomatoes shorter than the Burkina Faso variety. The traders explained that the high water content makes the tomatoes to rot faster.

“The Burkina tomatoes don’t spoil early, but if the truck delays and there’s heat in the car, that is when it starts to rot. As for the Ouagadougou tomatoes, it is very good, but the cost involved is the problem,” Oheneba.

Why Ghana imports tomatoes and can’t export

Traders export tomatoes from Burkina Faso because Ghanaian farmers do not have the resources and capacity to grow all year round. While the landlocked country has developed irrigation systems which provide farmers with adequate water supply, farmers in Ghana mainly depend on rains to produce.

Ghana does not produce good quality tomatoes to meet the international market.

”The quality is not good, and just like I said, the transport facility, the kind of transport system to be able to take the tomatoes in those areas in good quality, we don’t have that, even those we bring from Burkina Faso, you can count the number of trucks that get accidents within the season, it’s not easy for the women,” Mr Nyaaba said.

Proposed interventions

Mr Nyaaba outlined some interventions that can help the farmers. These include:

Cold stores for preservation of tomatoes should be built at vantage points, at markets, farms and other places to freeze them, provision of cold vans to transport tomatoes, warehousing to cater for perishable goods in the urban areas, producing centers and all major markets where they can keep the tomatoes across the country

Government should create irrigation facilities to make water available to farmers in tomato producing areas.

Government should invest in research to come out with tomato varieties that can be grown all year round

Feeder roads should be constructed and all road networks linking tomato producing areas should be improved to enable fast and easy access to farms and markets.

According to Mr Nyaaba, if government is able to cater for these and other essential things, the country will be able to provide enough for the public and export as well.

“We don’t produce enough to meet our domestic consumption, for now we are importing, what we are producing is not enough for domestic consumption, but unfortunately even the small that we produce a lot go wasted because of post harvest losses,” he said.

Mr Nyaaba also appealed to government and policy makers to create a conducive environment for farmers to deal directly with the private sector. According to him, most of the policies and initiatives they implement are not what those in the sector need.

“What I always say is that most governments and policy makers do not understand farmers. They sit in the offices and conclude that this is what farmers want. Farmers want subsidized fertilizer. No, that is not what we want. We want government to create the conducive environment and just leave us with the business people.”

Traders’ plead

The traders are extremely frustrated with the situation and they feel that they have been neglected by stakeholders. They claim that three people have already died this year due to the pressure associated with the business.

They have threatened to commit suicide if government doesn’t come to their aid.

“We are wallowing in debts so we beg Nana Akufo-Addo to help us because we are dying. If care is not taken, by the time we return from Ouagadougou on our next trip, if you select 100 people you will only get 10 because the rest of the 90 will drink poison and die because all our money is gone to the extent that we have to borrow money from interpreters before we can do business,” the traders pleaded.

By Asabea Akonor

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