A Potato Named Kofi

Earlier this week, Ghanaian scientists announced they plan to name a new sweet potato variety after fellow countryman Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General who died on August 18 of this year.

The primary investigator overseeing the sweet potato project, Dr. Ernest Baafi, told reporters the naming was in tribute of Annan’s work with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), a multi-million dollar initiative of the US Agency for International Development, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Department for International Development.

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A Ghanaian farmer shows Kofi  and Nane Annan his sweet potato vines (source: GhanaWeb)
Dr. Baafi, AGRA and other funders hope that the new potato variety, AGRA SP-19/CRI-Kofi Annan, will be a hit, despite lackluster results last year:

The production of sweet potato in Ghana is less than 20 percent of targeted production levels, mainly hindered by perception that the crop is food for poor people.

At the core of this report is tension between development professionals, their efforts, and those they purport to serve. It a tension that underlies agricultural development generally, wherein production, yield and calories underline the development planner’s agenda, leaving socio-cultural considerations of food and agriculture behind.

It is a tension that underlines discourse that circulates through international circuits that, as a report by AGRA recently stated, considers “agriculture on the continent [as] backward[s]” (author’s emphasis).

But with tension there is also possibility, and I’ve been following sweet potato efforts in Ghana for a while now — from the failed GM potato to this — with a curiosity on the designation of “poor people[‘s]” food. My thoughts are still forming, but the possibility out of such tension is this: the choice for farmers not to adopt a new technology — such as that of the sweet potato — is an expression of agency, a momentary disassociation with an international system that so often fails to value African farmers, their knowledge or self-determination.

Rarely are these moments of agency recognized as such. Instead, officials condemn farmers who choose not to adopt an “intervention,” labeling them as “very difficult people.”

It is hard to imagine a potato named Kofi might help bridge this gap between development planners, farmers and consumers, but I hope I’m wrong.

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