INTERVIEW: Justice Baidoo, 2017 Food Sustainability Media Award Winner

by Zeina Najjar
Thursday, 29 March 2018 11:27 GMT

Justice Baidoo working on a story in Central Ghana. Credit: Crosby Desouza.

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Where does your interest in food sustainability come from, and what was your main motivation for entering this Award?

I came into journalism mainly with a background in development advocacy. I studied journalism amongst a group of young people in Ghana who were interested in promoting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on a radio programme called ‘Curious Minds’ some ten years ago, and what we did was use radio as our platform to educate the public on why it was so important for countries like Ghana to take these goals seriously. One of the key aspects of the MDGs then was how to eradicate poverty. For me, coming from a country like Ghana, where around half of the population is employed in agriculture and agri-related activities, it was impossible to beat poverty without factoring in agriculture and, in that sense, food security. And so since I came into journalism professionally about 7 years ago, the issue of food security and nutrition has been one of things that I’ve covered most. If you go on my YouTube page, you’ll find that more than half the stories there are on food, land, farming systems, nutrition. It’s something I’ve covered extensively across the length and breadth of Ghana.

I heard about the Award literally a week before it closed when my editor just sent me the link. Of course I was interested in getting recognised by winning, but I was also interested in showcasing the work that I’ve been doing over the years and exposing to the rest of the world, and in this case the Barilla Center, which is a huge research organisation, what sort of challenges food systems in Ghana continue to face. In doing so, we would hopefully be able to get some form of support or partnership from organisations to help the Ghanaian government and civil society organisations working in the area of food security to change the story of the farmers of this country.

How did you get interested in producing your winning entry on food waste?

We got to this small community around the central part of Ghana to film for a documentary – my main focus at Joy News is to film long-form documentaries – on toxic smoke that was killing a lot of women working in agro-processing. Research has shown that up to 16% of all deaths in Ghana are a result of inhaling polluted air, the majority of which is smoke from household cooking. We were interested in looking at the dimensions of clean cooking and how to ensure energy sustainability. That was why we had traveled to this community to film women frying cassava, which is a very popular Ghanaian staple food. 

Usually around 200 women at a time would come in to fry cassava in the factory we visited. On that particular occasion, there were just about ten women there. We were shocked.  Then the women told us that there was no one there because they didn’t have cassava to work with. That literally had grounded the activity at this factory, which employs about 200 women and, by extension, 200 families. 

I was then told that the farms that produce the cassava are just 5 kilometers away, so I decided we’d go have a look and see why the cassava wasn’t there. The road that connected the factory to those small communities was horrible, as I’m sure you’ve seen in my video. It’s basically a walking path the community has tried to expand for cars, so when it rains, no one can come out and the trucks can’t go pick up the cassava. Huge amounts of it were rotting away on the farms, the farmers were losing money because they couldn’t bring them to the market centres to sell, the women at the processing centres were idle because they didn’t have raw material to work with. The markets were also empty because there was nothing to sell.

Are the issues that you highlight in your winning entry larger problems across Ghana?

Yes, this is a huge problem. The issue of roads standing between farmers and markets especially. A recent study has shown that up to about half of all food produced in this country does not get to the end consumer. One of the main reasons for this is that the state of the roads does not allow food to be transported from the farmer to the market and, by extension, to homes. I just returned from a filming trip this week and we are still seeing stories of farmers not able to sell because they can’t get their produce to market.

The government has recently launched a programme called ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’, which is basically to boost agriculture and make farming lucrative for young people. That programme is supposed to impact the lives of about 700,000 farmers across Ghana. Even though it has huge potential of transforming the country, one of the challenges again has been the roads and lack of essential access.   

 

Have you seen any reaction from your video, such as any move to try to improve roads to get crops to market?

This is not the only story we have done on food security and particularly on roads. At Joy News, the biggest and most influential news organisation in Ghana, our journalism has seen a huge amount of results in terms of getting some roads fixed, especially in tribal communities. The new government has just announced an official plan to get close to about half of all roads that go into farming communities fixed – a lot of this is because of the pressure that we have brought to bear through our story-telling around some of these issues.

The issue of roads in Ghana is so enormous though that the efforts of the government are like a drop in an ocean. It seems like it’s going to take a long time before we can say that a lot of farming communities have decent roads that are usable all year round, and that farmers are able to get produce to the market at any time of year, even during the rainy season.

Have you seen rainfall patterns in Ghana change in recent years?

Yes, rainfall patterns have changed drastically. Weather patterns generally have shifted so much that in many parts of Ghana, especially the northern part where we have about three months of rain, we have just one now. In Ghana, the weather patterns are split in two: farmers have two farming seasons a year in the south, and just one in the north because there’s a lot of sunshine. The problem now is that there’s a lot more sunshine so farmers are not getting enough rain. It’s also now raining at times in the year when previously you’d expect sunshine. That has thrown farming and agriculture in Ghana all over the place, especially because in Ghana farming is mainly rain fed.

What role do you think journalists can play in addressing the challenges within our food systems?

Journalists are really crucial in putting the issue of food security and nutrition generally at the forefront. In developing countries, we do not have a choice. I said this when I received the Award in Milan last year. Especially in countries like Ghana, we do not have a choice.  We in developing countries have such basic problems that we cannot afford to relegate issues of food security to the background. We need as journalists to be at the forefront of bringing the issues to the government consistently and ensuring that we bring them evidence of what is happening on the ground. Journalism is absolutely crucial – with the age of digital and social and the tools we have at our doorstep now, we should be able to do even more hard-hitting journalism that pushes duty-bearers to act and change the situation.

What are the main obstacles you or others might face in reporting on these challenges?

Having the resources to be able to really do compelling journalism is one of the biggest issues. I work in a media environment where partisan politics are the order of the day – that is what sells. Every day your editors are looking out for breaking news and beats. The sort of journalism that I do is very expensive. I sometimes travel for days, weeks and come back with one story. You wouldn’t have many editors who would push you to do that kind of journalism. We need the resources, which are virtually inexistent in our part of the world. In short: funding, resources, training so journalists are better able to use the cutting edge of journalism to bring these issues to light.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience since winning the Award?

Winning this Award has been one of the game-changing moments in my career as a journalist who has been working in food security. As I indicated at the ceremony in Milan last year, this is my first major career recognition outside Ghana and Africa since I began about seven years ago. So for me, it’s huge. What this has done is to open new doors for me. There are lots of organisations and communities out there facing problems with food security who are reaching out to me and asking if I can come and put their story at the level of the one that won. It has also added to my credibility as a journalist. Recognition from notable organisations like the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition gives you clout.

What’s next for you and your food sustainability coverage? Do you have any plans to cover any other related issues?

Winning this Award has boosted my resolve to focus on some of these issues that are neglected by mainstream media. The prize money enabled me to buy the tools and resources I need to continue to do compelling journalism of a standard that enabled me to win this Award in the first place. I’m going to keep going, and even going to go a step further to put my stories to policy makers in Ghana to ensure that I help find solutions to boosting food security in this country and on the continent.

You can reach Justice Baidoo and follow his work on Twitter @Justice_Baidoo