Historical models show that Ghana’s climatic patterns are getting increasingly drier. The average temperature increased at about 0.21°C per decade and 1.0˚C per annum, with rainfall declining at an average of 2.3mm per month (or 2.4% per decade) since the 1960s. The northern savannah ecological zone experiences the most rapid and intense climatic changes and variabilities compared to the forest and coastal savannah zones. The exposure to climate change in the northern savannah is intensified by the predominantly sparse wooded grassland of varying heights with severely eroded and bare lands in some areas.
Subsistence production is the primary food source among a sizeable number (about 84%) of households in the northern savannah. The most commonly grown food staples are millet, maize, tomatoes, and groundnuts. About 90% of these food crops are produced under rain-fed, labor-intensive, smallholder agricultural system. Most farmers harvest once a year (June to September) because of the unimodal rain season. In addition to subsistence production, households rely on purchased foods and food aid. The consumption of purchased foods is common in the lean season when households have finished eating up their food harvests and must rely on the market for food. Food aid only becomes available in times of major disasters.
In light of these realities, Balikisu Osman, a recipient of the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for 2020, will conduct research on the climatic risks and household responses for sustainable food security in the northern savannah areas of Ghana. Accordingly, while the country has a climate change policy with strategic priority focus on developing climate-resilient agriculture and food systems, a major challenge is the paucity of research identifying indigenous knowledge and best practices to achieve the policy goals. Further, while several studies have explored the link between climate change risks, household responses, and food security in northern savannah, there is limited knowledge on how climate change is extending the length of hungry months – the time when households have finished eating up food harvests and must rely on other sources. Specifically, there is a lack of understanding of the experiences of vulnerable food insecure subsistent smallholders in responding to and surviving the hungry months.
“My research is premised on the principles of community participation, knowledge exchange, experience sharing, and communication through extensive partnerships and collaborations with smallholder farmers, local researchers, community-based organizations, and government and non-governmental agencies to facilitate the research transparency, credibility, and applicability,” says Osman. In particular, “the research will ensure maximum involvement of the communities and empower the target smallholder farmers, especially women,” she adds.
Osman’s interest in making the world a better place for the poor is inspired by her lived experiences. She was born into a subsistence farming household, her dad a sharecropper, who barely harvested enough to meet the nutritional needs of the family. Striving to make a significant contribution to society, Osman is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the UK Commonwealth Shared Scholarship. She is currently a volunteer Mentor with the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission’s Mentoring Programme and advises incoming and current scholars to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to achieve their development impact goals.
The research will explore how smallholder farming households implement coping, adaptation, and insurance practices against climatic shocks and impacts, and how they shape their food availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability throughout the year, especially during the hungry months.
“I intend to share stories of my lived experiences of the social impacts of climate change and food insecurity in the Offinso, where I grew up. Sharing these experiences with the research participants is a way to establish a strong rapport and trust to encourage full participation in the research.” she points out. Osman plans to work with the Youth Harvest Foundation Ghana and IFAD-Ghana during her fieldwork. Partnerships with these local and international development agencies will accordingly facilitate the institutionalization of knowledge and motivate the long-term application of the findings of this research.
The research is expected to contribute to knowledge on how poor people use their creativity, rationality, and strengths to sustain their livelihood goals in times of shocks – specifically those relating to improving food security and reducing vulnerability. In the long run, this will help support the Government of Ghana, development organizations, and private sector investors in developing resilient innovative solutions to climate change and food insecurity challenges.
Osman hails from Ghana and is an international doctoral student at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. Before starting her PhD, she worked for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome, Italy, and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Myanmar, mainly on food security program implementation and agricultural risk management policy analysis, knowledge mobilization and dissemination. She also has experience with community development, water and sanitation, gender awareness training, rural research, and advocacy. She holds a BA in Geography and Rural Development and two master’s degrees, one in International Development, Poverty, and Inequality, and the other in Sustainability Management. Professor Patricia Perkins will be mentoring and supervising Osman on her doctoral research.