Empowering women soybean farmers to improve food security and nutrition in Ghana

Funded by Global Affairs Canada, MEDA Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) initiative was six-year, CAD $20 million project, which empowered over 23,000 women soybean farmers in northern Ghana to improve food security and nutrition for their families by growing and selling soy. Soy was selected as the primary crop because of its high nutritional value and large and growing market demand among individuals and agro-processing companies.

To support the effort, Amplio provided Talking Books, which MEDA distributed to 1,016 women’s groups. GROW’s Talking Book content was produced and deployed in partnership with Amplio’s affiliate, Literacy Bridge Ghana. Content included technical information and key messages for five main categories: farming practices, market linkages, finances, nutrition and health, and gender equity.

When GROW came to a close at the end of 2018, a close-out survey showed that Talking Books were an important source of information across all of the GROW communities.

You can read about it here.

We recently caught up with Karen Walsh, Country Program Manager for GROW, to get her take on Talking Books.

Amplio:  Would you recommend the Talking Book to other organizations?

Karen:  Yes! I’m a 100% supporter of the Talking Book and I have introduced it to everyone, including UNICEF. I truly think the Talking Book provides something that we can’t replicate. It’s like having your own technical helper that you can use any time to get your message out. Talking Books help to expand our reach and the duration in which we are able to talk to people.

Amplio: Why did MEDA decide to use Talking Books for the GROW project?

Karen:  How do you get people with low literacy and low numeracy to incorporate new practices into their everyday life? During a meeting with a community agent, people might see a demo on how to make Tom Brown, a nutritious porridge made from millet, corn, and soybeans, but they may not remember how to recreate the recipe later. With a Talking Book, they can replay the message again and again, until they understand what to do.

For GROW, we had lead farmers for each of our 1,016 groups. But even the smartest farmers need a refresher about how much space to leave between rows, when to put in fertilizer, or how to measure a field. For these farmers and others, the Talking Book is like an extension agent in their hands.

Through training and outreach, we changed how people eat. We added a way to incorporate soybeans morning, noon, and night. Soybeans are a currency by way of which people barter. Because women grow and sell soybeans, they can pay for food, healthcare, and education for their families.

MEDA distributed Talking Books to over 1,000 lead women farmers. (Photo by Christian Kuder)

Amplio: MEDA refers to the Talking Book as a “technical support tool.” Do you also talk about social and behavior change?

Karen:  We say “technical” because MEDA  used the Talking Book for five different categories. One was nutrition, which the Talking Book usage statistics showed was the number one topic — the most listened to category. We talk about social and behavior change in the context of teaching people about health and nutrition, or gender equality. For the GROW project, we provided nutrition messaging in context with technical information on how to grow food.

The benefit of Amplio’s Talking Book is that, after a field agent visits a community, the device continues to share and reinforce your program’s key messages, whether it’s technical information about how to rotate crops, or social and behavior change messaging about women’s rights.

Amplio: Now that you’re used Talking Books, what would you do differently? 

Karen:  Had we had more time, we would have included messaging about women’s land rights, about how women in Ghana can access and own land.

There are so many creative, engaging ways to produce content. One organization did a three-part, audio drama about open defecation. I wish we had done that!

For GROW, it would have been good to figure out why the least popular message was about value chains, which we could see in the analytics. Why didn’t people listen? Was the message poorly executed? Incorrect? But we just didn’t have time.

One thing we know, especially with non-literate families, is that unless a print handout has a pictorial guide, very few people can understand or do what’s on it. So, it would be great to have picture books to use with Talking Books.

[Editor’s note: Centre for Behaviour Change and Communication, Amplio’s affiliate in Kenya, designs and uses beautiful picture books and other visual tools in tandem with Talking Books. Watch for a story on that soon!]

A field agent leads a Talking Book meeting with GROW farmers. (Photo by Literacy Bridge Ghana)

GROW at a Glance

MEDA’ s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project focused on improving food security for families in Northern Ghana by assisting women farmers to grow more soybeans and forge market links to increase their incomes. Soybeans offer multiple advantages: Market demand in Ghana is strong, beans are a good source of protein in the family diet, and the nitrogen-fixing action of this legume helps build soil fertility.

Recognizing that many factors contribute to food security, MEDA provided training and technical assistance to help women make sound nutritional choices for their families. Financial literacy training helped the women manage their resources and savings opportunities. Messaging also inspired women and men to communicate and collaborate in new ways, to improve gender equity and outcomes.

Project quick facts

Goal: Families in northern Ghana have nutritious food throughout the year, by helping women increase agricultural production, strengthen their market links, diversify the food they produce, and understand nutrition.

Reaching: 23,000+ women farmers and their families

Funding: Global Affairs Canada and MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

Project length: 2012-2018

WHAT IS FOOD SECURITY?

Food security exists when all people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for a healthy life. 

FOOD SECURITY FACTS
  • Agriculture is the largest source of income and jobs for poor rural households.
  • Investing in smallholder women and men is an important way to increase food security and nutrition for the poorest, as well as food production for local and global markets.
  • If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, the number of hungry in the world could be reduced by up to 150 million.

Source: United Nations

Amplio: What are some of the top benefits of using Talking Books?

Karen: With the Talking Book, people can access information in their own language, on demand. How else do you achieve that level of outreach, unless it’s one-on-one? To be able to train an entire village at their leisure is incredible.

Another benefit is that the Talking Book is a dedicated device. It’s not like radios, which get stolen all the time, but it’s so valuable in the community. Actually, a man in one of our GROW communities did steal a Talking Book, but the women hunted him down, found it, and said, “You can’t take this away!”

The Talking Book was the number one tool besides our GROW field agents. Everyone loved it. The women looked forward to listening, and the Talking Book was part of their group culture. At the weekly VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association) meetings, they always started with a Talking Book lesson. Participants also shared and listened to Talking Books individually and with their households. 

As a technical aid, the Talking Book helped the women understand and remember what they needed to do. Quarterly content updates kept people on track with seasonal farming practices. Talking Book messages reminded them when school or planting season was coming up, to set aside money for education or seeds. Now it’s time to plan your budget — how much are seeds going to cost?

GROW empowered over 23,000 women farmers to improve food security and nutrition for their families. (Photo by Christian Kuder)

Amplio: You recently recommended Talking Books to MEDA Nigeria. Why? 

Karen: Nigeria seems to be getting more and more strict. There’s a huge push to introduce conservative Islam. The top reason for using Talking Books in Nigeria is that so many women are in purdah, behind closed doors. I think the Talking Book is one of the only ways we can get information into their hands, so they don’t lose touch with what’s going on.

There are literacy and numeracy issues, which the Talking Book can help overcome, because people can listen to messages in their local language. Hausa is Nigeria’s lingua franca, but there are more than 350 ethnic groups, with over 500 languages.

I can imagine using the Talking Book to help women connect and stay in contact with other women, in communities where they may not be allowed out of the house unless they’re accompanied by a male figure, if at all. Talking Books are convenient. There’s not a set time or place to use them. You can be hidden and adjust the volume, if you don’t want anyone to see or hear that you’re listening. 

With access to knowledge and resources, African women can produce enough soybeans to feed their family and pay for healthcare and education. (Photo by Christian Kuder)

Amplio: Why is it so important to educate women farmers?

Karen: With access to knowledge and resources, our GROW women can grow about 400 kilos of soy on one acre. They keep 100 kilos to feed their children and sell 300 kilos, and with that they’re paying for better food, nutrition, healthcare, and education. Women re-invest into their families.

Women are changing the status quo with only 400 kg of soy. Why is Africa poor? Why have men not done this? Men make far more, sometimes five to ten times more than women, so what is happening?  What is men’s role in the household? If this is not a global conversation, then it’s why women are perennially poor.

You can connect with Karen Walsh on LinkedIn and read about MEDA’s programs here

Interested in knowing what GROW participants say about Talking Books? Check out Amplio’s GROW Project Update.