Compound farming system in semi-arid Ghana: a socio-ecological production landscape in decline



  • Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science (IR3S), The University of Tokyo; University for Development Studies (UDS)


  • 25/08/2016

  • REGION :

  • Western Africa


  • Ghana (Northern Region)


  • In rural semi-arid Ghana, individual families and households deliberately use lands and plots around their homesteads or family compound homes as farms through the effective combination and interaction of cropping, livestock, poultry, and agroforestry schemes. These farms, known as sambankoli (local Dagbani), represent an integral component of rural agroecosystems in this socio-ecological landscape. For centuries, these spaces have been an essential source of provisioning ecosystem services such as food, medicine, fuelwood, and more latterly income to supplement household needs. Compound farms have also served as the ecological space for various cultural, supporting, and regulating ecosystem services necessary for maintaining local livelihood systems in the harsh semi-arid savanna ecosystem. Against the backdrop of challenges linked to rapidly changing socioeconomic, cultural, political, and environmental conditions in semi-arid Ghana and beyond, this once-resilient agroecosystem is vulnerable and threatened. This study documents the current state of compound farming systems in semi-arid Ghana based on a 3-year in-depth field survey of six communities in the Tolon district of the Northern region. The present study examines the defining characteristics, functions and values of compound farming systems in semi-arid Ghana. Current threats and challenges as well as recommendations for the sustainability of compound farming systems is discussed.


  • Compound farms, Households, Semi-arid Ghana, Ecosystem services


  • Yaw Agyeman Boafo (IR3S), Romanus Ziem and Abdallah Alhassan (UDS)

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes and Seascapes in Africa“.]

Natural and social background Ghana’s semi-arid landscape consists primarily of three autonomous administrative and ecologically homogeneous regions namely Northern, Upper West, and Upper East. Located in the Guinea and Sudan Savanna agroecological zones, the regions account for approximately 41% of Ghana’s total land area (238,539 km2). Generally, human population density appears to be the lowest in this semi-arid savanna landscape among other parts of Ghana. Semiarid Ghana is characterized by harsh physical environmental and high poverty levels, resulting in a large disparity with the rest of the country in terms of economic development and human well-being. These conditions prevail despite the substantial socio-economic growth and reduction in poverty experienced across Ghana’s other regions over the past three decades (Songsore 2011; Ghana Statistical Service 2013). Thus, this socio-ecological Socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS) in Africa production landscape is regarded as one of the most climatically and ecologically vulnerable regions in sub-Saharan Africa.

The focal study area is the Tolon district in the Northern region (Figure 1). In Ghana’s local governance structure, districts represent the second-level administrative subdivisions in its decentralization system (Institute of Local Government Studies and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Ghana 2010). Tolon Figure 1: Map of Tolon district showing the survey villages in relation to semi-arid Ghana Source: George Senyo & Yaw A. Boafo district lies between latitudes 10 and 20° N and longitudes 10 and 50° W. It was formerly part of Tolon-Kumbungu, until it was carved out in 2012. The district capital, Tolon is an approximately 20- min drive from Tamale, the regional capital. The Tolon district shares borders with Kumbungu District to the north, Tamale Metropolitan Assembly to the east, North Gonja to the west, and Central Gonja to the south (Ghana Districts 2015). Dagombas are the dominant ethnic group in the area.

Figure 1: Map of Tolon district showing the survey villages in relation to semi-arid Ghana. Source: George Senyo & Yaw A. Boafo

The area has a peculiar sub-humid and semi-arid climate marked by a distinct wet and a dry season. Rainfall usually commences in May and ends in the latter part of October. The peak period is from July to September, though it is highly variable. The rest of the year is dry. The average annual rainfall is 1,000 mm. Characteristics of the rainfall are great variability, patchy pattern, and uneven distribution, often leading to farmers planting more than twice because of intermittent drought that impairs plant growth. Temperature is warm, dry, and hazy around February to April. It is cool and moist with high relative humidity between May and October. The harmattan (a dry and dusty northeast trade wind emerging from the Sahara Desert) is experienced between late November and January. It is generally hot during the daytime, with nights being cold with a wide range of temperature.

The vegetation of the district is Guinea savanna, characterized by tree species including locust (“dawadawa”) (Parkia biglobosa), shea (Vitellaria paradoxa), kapok (Ceiba pentandra), baobab (Adansonia digitata), and whitethorn (Faidherbia albida). Such perennial grasses as Andropogon gayanus are ground cover vegetation. The geology that supports the growth of these trees and grass and other agricultural crops is the Voltaian sandstone, which produces light soils prone to concretions and hardpan (Runge-Metzger & Diehl 1993). However, the natural vegetation has been severely depleted as a result of anthropogenic factors such as wild bush fires, illegal logging of trees for charcoal and fuel wood, hunting, farming, and construction. The only exception in the district and the communities is the protection of sacred groves, which still maintain a diversity of plant species (Boafo, Saito & Takeuchi 2014), but remain under threat from farming activities encroaching into their boundaries.

Farming is the foremost socio-economic activity of households in this predominantly rural landscape. Over 80% of residents are involved in farming, which is a mix of food crop cultivation and animal rearing (Ghana Statistical Service 2013). Despite this activity, chronic food security is one of the biggest challenges facing rural populations in semi-arid Ghana. Smallscale trading and youth outmigration to urban centers in southern Ghana are also important livelihood strategies among the population. Farming is predominantly on a smallholder and rainfed basis. Some irrigation with water from small-scale dams is undertaken in most communities. Most smallscale dams dry up almost completely during the dry season with its associated drought conditions. The most widespread small-scale farming system is the bush fallow system with a mosaic pattern of land ownership and land use. This system is characterized by rotation of fields rather than of crops, the use of fire for clearing vegetation, the use of simple hand tools for cultivation, mixed cropping for domestic consumption, and the use of fallow to restore the nutrient balance (Gyasi 2002). Compound farms, which are established around settlements, are important sources of food and income for households. Although extensive fieldwork for this study was performed in six villages (Zagua, Kpalgun, Yoggu, Cheshagu, Fihini, and Daboshe) (Figure 1) in the Tolon district, compound farming is not restricted to this area. It is widely practiced across households and communities in semi-arid Ghana.

Major crops cultivated by farmers across farming systems include maize, yam, groundnut, cowpea, pepper, millet and sorghum, tobacco, rice, and Bambara bean. Livestock and poultry rearing are common in most households. The main livestock and poultry are cattle, sheep, goat, guinea fowl, and chicken. The adverse climatic conditions across semi-arid Ghana are the largest challenge to farming and other livelihood sustenance strategies, all of which are related to the provisions of the local savanna ecosystem. Seasonal extreme shocks and disturbances such as flooding of farmlands and prolonged drought, bush fires, water shortage, and declining soil fertility with the removal of shade trees in the area are evidences of this condition. Some of these disturbances can be blamed partly on human factors, including poor environmental management associated with inefficient farming practices, hunting for fuelwood, and shea butter and groundnut oil extraction.

Characteristics of compound farming systems

Compound farms are intensively cultivated fields found around or close to homes or compound houses in semi-arid Ghana (Photos 1 and 2). Among the Dagombas in focal area, compound farms are popularly called Samban Koli (local Dagbani). As one of the oldest forms of land use forms, compound farms are known differently in other regions of the world. For example, they are called home gardens in India, Nepal (Kumar & Nair 2004), Kandyan forest gardens in Sri Lanka (Landreth & Saito 2014), and Pekarangan in Java, Indonesia (Marten 1986). In semiarid Ghana, compound farms remain an important subsystem of traditional agricultural farming systems and have been part of the local physical and sociocultural milieu for centuries. Compound farms are normally under permanent cultivation. However, in sparsely populated villages, small patches may be left fallow for tethering livestock during the farming season. Compound farms integrate various arable and tree crops with livestock and poultry.

Photo 1. An illustration of the interrelationships found in compound farming systems.
Photo Credit: Yaw A. Boafo, Abdallah Alhassan, 2015

Major arable crops found on compound farms in the Tolon district consist of cereals: maize (Zea mays) and millet (Pennisetum glaucum); pulses: cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) and groundnut (Arachis hypogaea); vegetables: chili (Capsicum annuum), tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum); and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum). Examples of indigenous tree crop species on most farms include baobab (Adansonia digitata), neem (Azadirachta indica), and kapok (Ceiba pentandra). In semi-arid Ghana, the above tree crops are sub-spontaneous and are protected by locals. Exotic trees such as teak (Tectona grandis), cashew (Anacardium occidentale), moringa (Moringa oleifera), and mango (Mangifera indica) have increasingly become integral components of compound farming systems. Examples from the livestock and poultry component are sheep, goat, cattle, guinea fowl, chickens, and pigeons. Arable and tree crops are essential components of compound farming systems.

Photo 2: A typical compound farm planted with maize, with neem trees dotted around at Kpalgun village Photo credit: Yaw A. Boafo 2014

Primarily, compound farms serve as the main source of livelihood sustenance through the provision of critical ecosystem services such as food, medicine, building materials, soil improvement, drought regulation, recreation, and aesthetic experiences. Soil fertility on the compound farms is maintained by addition of house refuse as well as droppings from livestock such as sheep, goats, and cattle. This is performed more effectively in the long dry season when areas around the homestead become bear with almost no vegetative cover (Photo 3). Dung beetles also aid in converting some of these animal wastes into organic material. Crop sequencing by farmers, which involves a deliberate inclusion of legumes such as groundnut and cowpea on farms, greatly improves soil nutrients. Composting has lately been an essential means of improving compound farm soil fertility.

Photo 3: Compound field in the dry season in Fihini village. Livestock graze on these fields, generating manure as dung and urine. Photo credit: Yaw A. Boafo 2015

Regarded as a legitimate agroforestry subdivision, compound farms vary considerably in size and shape. In Tolon, the average area of cultivation on a compound farm is one half acre per household. Cultivable area is significantly influenced by sociodemographic and economic characteristics such as family size, diversity of income sources, and land ownership systems being major determinants. The main farm implements used by farmers include hoe, machete, and ax. Labor for compound farms comes from individual households despite the variety of activities engaged in by members at stages of production. Although mainly men are in charge of land preparation and weeding, women often help in sowing, harvesting, and marketing excess produce. Children also help by taking care of animals or making ridges and mounds as well as transporting food from home to the farm for consumption, where applicable. Elderly members of household also help by preventing stray animals from consuming or destroying farm products. Farmers usually work on their compound farms in the early morning before going to their bush farms as well as in the evening when they return.

Functions and values

Compound farms provide multiple essential functions needed for directly and indirectly improving human livelihood and sustaining the natural ecosystem of the semi-arid landscape. The farms contribute significantly to household food supply. In an area known for its high level of food insecurity (World Food Programme 2009) and poverty, the variety of food obtained from compound farms contributes significantly to daily household food needs. Compound farms supply households with both staple and non-staple food sources when needed, in contrast to bush farms farther from the homes. Further, products of compound farms are sold by households for income to supplement food needs or acquire ancillary assets including farm implements and fertilizer. Other socioeconomic and cultural obligations are fulfilled with proceeds from the sale of crops or livestock. For example, most households who cultivate tobacco in the Tolon district on their compound farms do so mainly for its value in income generation. Exotic fruit trees such as Mangifera indica, commonly found on most of the compound farms, are important components of household diet, providing vitamins. For a majority of households in the Tolon area, parkia biglobosa is a condiment that promotes good eyesight.

For most farmers, compound farms serve as testing grounds for new crop varieties. It is also common to see well-developed compound farms being used as nurseries for seedlings before they are planted on bush farms. As a result of their subsistence nature for many years, compound farms serve as ideal locations for maintenance of wild plant species and traditional crops. As a field survey found, traditional healers are cultivating scarce and critical medicinal plant species, particularly shrubs and browsers otherwise found in bushes on compound farms in order to ensure quick access to herbal medicine when necessary. Compound farms thus provides an avenue for ex-situ conservation practices. Linked to this is the low level of application of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides on compound farms, promoting microorganism diversity (Birol, Bela & Smal 2005).

In villages where compound farms are well developed, tree crops such as Ficus trichopoda, Ceiba pentandra, and Mangifera indica help control soil erosion and are used as windbreaks. With their characteristic richness in genetic diversity, compound farming systems promote pollination. Tree crops and surroundings of compound farms provide essential cultural services to community members including recreational, spiritual, folklore, and religious uses. Compound farms thus form part of the culturally constructed spaces within rural communities (Eyzaguirre & Linares 2004). Several sacred groves identified during field surveys in Yoggu, Kpalgun, Daboshe, Fihini, Cheshagu, and Zagua villages are surrounded by compound farms.

Threats and challenges to sustainability

Despite the centuries of resilience shown by compound farming systems, rapidly changing socioeconomic, cultural, environmental, and political conditions threaten the contribution of compound farming systems to both human livelihood sustenance and healthy ecosystem functioning. Four main closely related factors are discussed.

Climate change and variability effects

Climate change and variability remain one of the greatest threats not only to farming systems but also to ecosystem resilience across many regions of the world. However, as research has confirmed, much of the effects will be felt by poor, rural farmers in semi-arid regions, owing to their high dependence on the natural ecosystem (WRI 2005). In many communities of semi-arid Ghana, changing rainfall and temperature patterns are increasing water scarcity and severely hindering rainfed agricultural production. Compound farms that have always served as a primary source of staple food crops are becoming uncultivable. In cases where they are cultivated, soil fertility is low, resulting in poor yields.Infertile soils can also be attributed to erosion of soil. Low rainfall and prolonged drought are causing drastic changes in local vegetation, implicitly affecting genetic diversity. Common plant species and microorganisms on compound farms, which contribute to sociocultural, economic, and ecological functioning of the local ecosystem, are expected to disappear.

Prevailing poverty

A majority of rural communities in semi-arid Ghana are faced with poverty and limited access to critical resources needed for livelihood improvement. The prevailing poverty leads people to use and manage unsustainably the bundle of services provided by the semi-arid ecosystem. With the lack of money to buy food, cultivate, and/or acquire the necessary inputs to improve bush farms, compound farms are becoming the only source of food crop production for locals. Most rural farmers are unable to adopt to improved farming practices. They are unable to buy drought- or disease-tolerant seeds because such seeds are sold at prices beyond their purchasing power. Deepening poverty means that people are becoming more vulnerable to the expropriation of their land by both local and foreign investors for large-scale agriculture. When people become overly dependent on the compound farms, they are forced to abandon traditional knowledge systems and practices that have been associated with and have contributed to the resilience of such farming systems. For example, pressure is now being placed on tree crops on compound farms, as they are being harvested for firewood (Boafo, Saito & Takeuchi 2014). In the past, most firewood was collected from woodland areas. With the increasing scarcity of firewood, restrictions as well as rules and regulations regarding the collection and utilization of the tree species found on compound farms are not being strictly enforced. Compound farms are therefore changing their critical function of maintaining biodiversity to that of degrading it.

Population pressure

Expansion of households as result of increased human population growth is placing greater demand on resources including land for settlements. In rural communities of semiarid Ghana, land is generally considered to be in abundance. Much of the land, however, is regarded as too infertile for crop production. With increasing family sizes comes high population density, thus making it impractical to leave enough space around settlements to use for cropping. The tree component on the local landscape is also declining with increasing population. Linked to this is the increasing change in the traditional political structure and land tenure arrangements. Labor outmigration is accelerated with the lack of space for farming, inevitably affecting compound farming.

Increasing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides

Although soil fertility can be improved with the application of chemical fertilizers, transitioning to their exclusive use instead of combining them with organic fertilizers, as is currently occurring in semiarid Ghana, is expected to degrade micro-organismal and biological diversity. Chemical fertilizer compounds and salts that are not absorbable by plants contribute to changes in soil chemistry that are detrimental to plant growth. Similarly, pesticides endanger both plant and human life if not used properly. Theincreasing use of these elements on compound farms across Ghana’s semiarid ecosystem thus poses a major risk to efforts at safeguarding ecosystems.

Going forward

As a subsector of the agriculture production sector in Ghana, compound farming systems, from our investigation has not been received the needed attention from key stakeholders despite the significant socio-economic and ecological benefits associated with this farming system. There appears to be a general lack of knowledge, awareness, and appreciation of the ecological functions and values of compound farms beyond serving as a hotspot for food crop production and income for rural households.

Generally, intervention strategies and efforts by relevant stakeholders to help address the many threats and challenges facing Ghana’s agricultural sector range from providing advisory or extension services to smallholder farmers on farm preparation and management practices to subsidizing or offering inputs. These efforts have often aimed at helping poor rural farmers to cultivate more land and harvest more, especially in the case of semi-arid Ghana. Whereas existing efforts such as intensive use of agrochemicals on farmlands may be helping to increase productivity in the short term, the long-term implications have been found to be undesirable. Ample evidence indicates that the continual application of modern techniques such as tractors for ploughing coupled with the intensive use of agrochemicals including fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides negatively affect the ecological functioning of agroecosystems. Degradation and loss of genetic resources and diversity, excessive erosion, reduced soil fertility are some of the widely discussed negative effects. In the case of compound farming systems in semi-arid Ghana, the ongoing trend is worrying. The loss of genetic diversity, particularly where poor farmers in rural semi-arid Ghana communities is concerned, is associated with reduced food security, increased economic uncertainty, increased vulnerability to pests and diseases, reduction in the possibilities for adaptation and for future generations and accelerated loss of local knowledge about diversity.

In the face of the existing and looming threat of climate variability and change, conserving genetic diversity is critical for building resilience and adaptability in socio-ecological production landscapes in vulnerable semi-arid regions. Sensitization programmes on the importance of compound farms as a mean for promoting healthy ecosystems and improving the livelihood of households should be undertaken. Such programmes need to promote climate smart agriculture practices, agroforestry schemes in addition to prioritizing the integration of resilient traditional knowledge practices and systems of communities associated with farming and ecosystem services utilization and management.


Much of the primary data collection for this study was made possible through fieldwork activities as part of the interdisciplinary research project in semi-arid Ghana known as ‘Enhancing Resilience to Climate and Ecosystem Changes in Semi-arid Africa: An Integrated Approach (CECAR Africa).” This project is being funded by the Japan International Cooperation (JICA) and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).


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