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Q&A with Karen Walsh on Women Farmers, Soybeans, Talking Books, and Economic Empowerment

Updated: Mar 17, 2022

An Interview with Karen Walsh, Country Program Director for MEDA's Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) Project in Northern Ghana

Funded by Global Affairs Canada, MEDA's Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) project used Talking Books to help economically empower over 23,000 women farmers in Northern Ghana. The women improved food security, nutrition, and income for their families by growing and selling soybeans. Soy was selected as the primary crop because of its high nutritional value and a large and growing market demand.

MEDA partnered with Amplio to reach low-literate communities. The project was implemented by Literacy Bridge Ghana (now Amplio Ghana). Talking Books were distributed to 1,016 lead women farmers to share with their VSLA groups. For the GROW project, Talking Book content covered five main topics: farming practices, market links, health, nutrition, and gender. In a close-out survey, both women and men respondents cited the Talking Book as a top source of information for all topics covered.

We recently caught up with Karen Walsh, GROW's country program manager, to get her perspective on using Talking Books to reach and engage women farmers.

Amplio: Karen, would you recommend the Talking Book to other organizations?

Karen Walsh: Yes! I’m a 100% supporter of the Amplio Talking Book. It’s like having your own technical helper that you can use any time to get your message out. Talking Books helped expand our reach and the duration in which we were able to talk to people.

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

Karen Walsh: 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, 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 having an extension agent in their hands.

Amplio: Talk about soybeans.

Karen Walsh: Soybeans have a high nutrition value and there's a growing market demand. Soy is a nitrogen fixer, which helps improves soil. Through training and outreach, with the help of Talking Books, we changed how people eat. We added ways 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 other types of food, healthcare, and education for their families.

MEDA distributed Talking Books to 1,016 lead farmers to share with their VSLA groups.

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

Karen Walsh: MEDA used the Talking Book to share information about five different subjects. One was nutrition, which Talking Book usage statistics showed was the number one topic, the most popular. For GROW, we provided nutrition messaging in context with technical information on how to grow food. We also shared social and behavior change content in the context of teaching people about health, nutrition, and gender equality.

A benefit of the 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’ve used Talking Books, what would you do differently? 

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

We could have dug into the Talking Book usages statistics to identify issues and trends. For example, it would have been good to figure out why GROW's 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: In Kenya, Centre for Behaviour Change and Communication, used illustrated flipbooks, posters, and other visual tools in tandem with Talking Books.]

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?

Amplio: In your opinion, what are some of the top benefits of using Talking Books?

Karen Walsh: 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 their weekly VSLA meetings, they always started with a Talking Book lesson. Women also listened to Talking Books individually and with their households. 

Talking Book content was updated quarterly, with seasonal farming practices.

As a technical aid, the Talking Book helped the women understand and remember what they needed to do. We updated the content on a quarterly basis, which kept people on track with seasonal farming practices. Talking Book messages reminded them when school or the 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?

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

Karen Walsh: Nigeria seems to be getting more and more strict. There’s a huge push to introduce conservative Islam. So many women are in purdah, behind closed doors. I imagine the Talking Book as a way to get information into their hands, through a household rotation model, so they don’t lose touch with what’s going on.

Also, 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, women farmers like Assibi Sumani are growing enough soy to feed their families and also pay for healthcare and education.

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

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

Women are changing the status quo with only 400 kg of soy. Why is Africa poor?

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.


See MEDA's GROW Learning Series. Connect with Karen Walsh on LinkedIn.


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