Agro-entrepreneurs. An intriguing word for those like myself entering the business world and being enthralled by realities of nonstop work-education. So far today, I have been talking to 12 agro-entrepreneurs on the four-hour bus ride through stark Sahel countryside in northern Ghana, and I have come upon a meaning for this word. For these women, today, and everyday, it means: leader remade. Meet the GROW women: 12 Lead-Farmers who represent over 20,000 women agro-entrepreneurs who have chosen to remake their gruelling hours tilling the fields to work to their benefit - and in the process, revolutionize the idea of the women business leader.
I feel bonded to these remarkable business leaders through our collaborations on the GROW project. The acronym stands for Greater Rural Opportunities for Women and today we ride to the city of Tamale for the 2016 Annual Pre-Season Conference: a semi-annual business expo for agro-entrepreneurs, equipment suppliers, soybean processors, and financial backers. As we pass anthills the height of single-storey buildings, my thoughts keep returning to how best to do something I have not yet attempted and which just so happens to be my prime task of the day: marketing for agro-entrepreneurs.
We pull up to the University of Development Studies campus early morn and file past dozens of private enterprise tents, NGO tents, and John Deere tractors to establish our stead among over 900 other business-ready agriculturalists. Our message is simple: GROW empowers over 20,000 women farmers all over the Upper West region to plant, harvest, and sell soybeans - creating a thriving women-led agro-business market in the process. After prepping our folding tables, info-banners, and GROW pamphlets, traditional drumbeats began to intensify around the entrance to the conference hall, marking the entrance of the conference dignitaries and city chiefs. Along with representatives of major financial and corporate interests, they would be making the opening remarks and keynote addresses. My manager instructs me to take notes on the proceedings which I do after snapping a shot of her pep talking our group of Lead Farmers:
Inside a packed hall, I take a seat among entrepreneurs and simple farmers, many of whom are women. After giving brief presentations on last year's yields, the town chief entered and gave an impassioned speech on the necessity of using government-certified quality seeds to ensure national nutrition standards are met. That would be the theme of the conference: Use Certified Quality Seeds to ensure a modern and sustainable agricultural sector in the Upper West Region. He focussed on the importance of certified seeds not only in ensuring better crop yields, but as instrumental in the health development of young children in the Upper West region. He spoke paternally as if he were among his own family - pointing out instances of success and how it was gained and what needed to occur for to face new challenges on the field. Many attendees warmed to his approach while others sat back in their chairs skeptical. How did the chief believe that crop yields were going to increase this year solely based on quality seeds, what for the decreasing and sporadic rainfall due to climate change, and poor soil quality in many areas? And for better or worse, I discovered that agro-entrepreneurism in Ghana, whether led by man or by woman, was a product of a complex patriarchal social and political structure based on one key factor: land ownership by chiefs.
All the arable land in northern Ghana is collectively owned by village chiefs and their families in a long hereditary tradition. A man who wants to farm has to obtain a loan on the chief's lands before he can plant crops. The chief lends a allotment of land exclusively to the man, which he farms alongside his wife, who is also expected to raise the family and supplement their meat-based diet with vegetables and anything else they can grow. As such, the daily burden of manual labour falls disproportionately on the women. The GROW Project has successfully convinced male farmers to lend portions of their allotted land to their wives in order to farm, provide the necessary food supplements needed for their children, and increase the family profits by farming soybeans. GROW women agro-entrepreneurs keep their profits and save them in rural banking collectives, which in turn provide financial coverage and insurance to their farming operations. Our challenge is grow the soybean crops they are farming into a sustainable and growing market system all while encouraging male farmers to recognize the work of their wives and assist in home development.
After a long day of networking with seed, equipment, and financial insurance providers, we pile back onto the bus for our debrief at the field office. I am content at the number of contacts I've made and my GROW women seem enthused at the new seeds they will be experimenting with this growing season. Our debrief was marked by group congratulations, recounts of who we will be doing business with, and spirited reflections on lessons learned. We all know our mission for this year: to get all GROW women farmers to use quality seeds, continue to expand their businesses... it is these agro-businesses which are their vehicle to economic self-determination, land ownership, and social liberty. But these agro-entrepreneurs face the challenge of carving their own path through the sometimes complex maze of cultural and male dominance. And do they look unequal to this challenge?
I think not.
This blog was orignally posted on LinkedIn on May 5, 2016.