Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ghana: take 70,900 metric tons of frozen chicken, add politics

A billboard advertising chicken in Accra, Ghana.
By alew on Flickr
By Jim Sumberg and John Thompson

The well known expression – that [something] is 'as likely as turkeys voting for Christmas' – makes an intriguing and to date poorly understood link between poultry and electoral politics. But in some parts of the world, poultry has a wider political – and psychological – significance for how voters and politicians behave.

During some recent field work in Accra, Ghana, while researching pathways to sustainability in the poultry sector, we took the opportunity to conduct a series of rapid, opportunistic 'interviews' with taxi drivers. Our focus was on chicken consumption: the last time they ate chicken; the way it was prepared; the origin of the chicken; how often they eat chicken etc.

The 'sample' was 24 male taxi drivers aged between approximately 25 and 50 working in the nation's capital. We obviously make no claim that these respondents are in any way representative of consumers at large. Nevertheless, a number of interesting points emerged:
  1. While nearly all the taxi drivers reported eating chicken, and some several times a week, nearly two thirds of our informants expressed a preference for fish. They also noted that fish had become more expensive in recent years.
  2. Most had fairly well developed views and preferences in regard to the different qualities (price, flavour, texture, 'hardness' or 'softness') of different kinds of chicken (e.g. frozen imported, 'fresh local' or 'village'). While many expressed a preference for 'fresh local' or 'village' chicken, the relatively low price of imported frozen chicken (which can be less than half the price of local chicken) weighs heavily in its favour.
  3. Most expressed a preference for a particular chicken 'part', with thighs being the most commonly identified. One young man explained this choice by saying: 'that piece is a heavy meat'. (Thighs seem to account for a large proportion of the estimated 70,900 metric tons of frozen chicken imported into Ghana annually). Only one said he had no preference and could not tell which part he was eating.
  4. A number of taxi drivers highlighted the fact that when they were children they consumed chicken only very occasionally: one told us that in those days in the village his family ate chicken and jollof rice only once in a year – at Christmas. This shift in consumption appears to be specific to chicken as opposed to all forms of meat. Few of the taxi drivers mentioned either recently eating or having a preference for other kinds of meat (beef, goat, pork, etc).
  5. The 'turn to chicken' may have an important generational element, with young people giving chicken a central place on their plates. In the words of our research assistant, a recent university graduate, 'I cannot even remember the last time I ate beef''. He frequents 'chicken and chips' shops and other fast food eateries, as do his friends.
  6. Health and safety concerns were very apparent. The fact that you could never be sure where the frozen chicken came from or how long it has been frozen arose several times. A number of our informants linked their preference for local or imported chicken, and particular chicken parts, to fat content. They also mentioned radio, newspaper and internet stories about foreign operators having purchased sick and dead birds and dressed them for sale in Ghana, or chicken parts being injected with preservatives or water before being imported.

Our field work coincided with the final weeks of campaigning before the December 7, 2012 presidential election. We took the opportunity to ask each of the taxi drivers whether they intended to vote. With only one exception (he did not have the proper identity documents), everyone came back with an immediate and emphatic, 'Of course!' and most responded in a way that implied: 'Why would you even ask such a silly question?'

Frozen chicken on sale in Ghana. By ethanz on Flickr
Which brings us back to the link between poultry and politics. Colleagues in the Future Agricultures Consortium are exploring the effects of democratisation on the political economy of agricultural policy in Africa. One of their concerns is to understand in what situations policy processes result in outcomes that are favourable to smallholder agricultural development. How do the distinctive features (social, political, institutional and agro-ecological) of individual African countries influence the incentives for agricultural policy making and implementation? And how do these incentives lead to divergent 'politically feasible' policy actions?

Our interviews with taxi drivers in Accra point to another dimension of the story of democratisation, agriculture and food. How is the vibrant, multi-party electoral environment in Ghana affecting food and agricultural policy, and how does this link to the lives of politically aware, informed urban citizens with rising incomes and expectations (such as our taxi drivers)?

Simplistically, policy processes around poultry in Ghana can be conceived of as dealing with a set of trade-offs between the interests of four groups: small-scale maize and soya producers; commercial poultry producers; urban consumers; and politicians.

The massive increase in the importation of frozen chicken over the last decade would suggest that, despite much rhetoric about support for the domestic poultry industry, policy makers have consistently favoured the interests of urban consumers over those of domestic poultry producers.

Put another way, policy makers seem to have prioritised food policy (i.e. to increase the supply of inexpensive, protein-rich foods to consumers) over agricultural development policy.

Three-storey KFC in Accra.
By sportivetricks on Flickr
Part of the reason may be that chicken meat has become a much more central part of everyday food consumption, particular for town and city-dwellers. Indeed, chicken meat may be becoming what has been termed a 'psychological staple', associated, particularly among the younger generation, with self-identity as part of a modern, middle income country.

If this is indeed so, it would be a brave (or foolish?) politician who would make any move likely to result in a significant increase in the retail price of chicken meat. Chicken might be thought of as a 'politically charged' food (along with, for example, rice), with important implications for policy processes and electoral outcomes. Just as sensible turkeys don't vote for Christmas, politicians may not risk making chicken more expensive for consumers – even if local agriculture might benefit in the long run.

For more information about the STEPS Centre's project on poultry in Ghana, visit the Livestock project page on their website.

  • SRID. 2011. Agriculture in Ghana: Facts and Figures 2010. Accra: Ministry of Food and Agriculture (full report - pdf)
  • Iwasaki, I. (2004) Rice as Psychological Staple: The Role of Rice in the Creation and Maintenance of Individual and National Identity. Unpublished MA thesis. University of Sheffield, Sheffield