Be part of the CowTribe- A veterinary services company in Ghana that uses mobile technology

First published here at the Africa Institute at Western University 

The ‘Uber’ of animal health

Animal production is critical to rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the semi-arid drylands, such as northern Ghana where water scarcity, more erratic rainfall and a shortening growing season due to climate change make crop production acutely challenging (Codjoe et al., 2012). Animals often function like a family’s savings account- they are an emergency resource available to overcome climatic and market shocks, such as drought and food price hikes (Scoones, 1995). Animal production can also be essential for crops, as manure adds back essential lost soil nutrients, and fertilizes more sustainably than chemical alternatives. They are also often the only adequate source of protein in areas with high malnutrition and serve as important symbolic gestures and gifts in customary ceremonies (Kristjanson et al., 2001).

In Ghana, animal production is low and has remained stagnate for the past 10 years because of a lack of monitoring systems, high incidents of parasitic infections among other reasons (Ministry of Food and Agriculture, 2016). Worryingly, in 2015, there was an outbreak of the avian flu (HPAI) killing 17.6% of all poultry in the country (CDC, 2016). There are also 28 livestock diseases in Ghana, which are killing millions of animals, and many are infecting people at alarming rates. For example, brucellosis is a zoonotic disease that when it spreads from cattle to women, can kill unborn babies. This is acutely affecting the Fulani in Ghana, a nomadic tribe commonly responsible for cattle grazing. Parasites, tics, tuberculosis are all tormenting school-aged children in particular. Fortunately, many of these diseases can be prevented with vaccines and this is recognized in Ghana’s national agri-food policy strategies. Unfortunately, the animal health systems, like clinics, drugs, tracking etc. are woefully underfunded and underserved by public, private and not for profit actors, and there are less than 100 veterinary technicians graduating each year in the country. Hence, in some communities, animal mortality rates are between 30-60% and could be reduced to 5% with simple vaccines and care.

Picture5Video filmed by Siera Vercillo in northern Ghana during the dry season

That is why I want to tell you about a new company in northern Ghana called CowTribe which was founded in 2016 to deliver life-saving vaccines, drugs, and emergency veterinary care in a reliable manner using mobile technology like databases, hotlines, SMS, and voicemails. Think of CowTribe as the Uber for animal health. Farmers subscribe to CowTribe’s services for only $5 via their mobile phone, they build a profile about their animals and CowTribe creates a health care schedule tailored to their needs, sending them reminders, information about disease outbreaks and risks. Farmers can also request for preventative assistance and emergency care, while home visits to administer drugs and conduct surgeries are coordinated.

CowTribe has already served 29,000 farmers in 119 communities in the Northern and Upper East Regions of Ghana. For 2018, their major partnerships are with the Cattle Farmers Association where they plan to directly provide animal health services to 8,910 farmers (and an expected 1 million farmers in upcoming years), as well as the Presbyterian Agriculture Station in Garu, Upper East Region to send multimedia to 4000 farmers.

Picture4CowTribe’s services

There are a few reasons why I am proud of CowTribe and their services. CowTribe is,

Delivering essential animal health services that are woefully underfunded

According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), globally 30% of farm animals die due to preventative outbreaks and diseases by using simple vaccines. For every US$1 spent on a vaccine, more than $US100 is saved in treatment and potential mortality. Many farmers cannot adequately monitor their animal’s health, nor do they know what to do when their animal is sick or who to call to figure it out. In 2011-2012, I worked with overburdened veterinarian extension officers at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture who could not provide sufficient care to the thousands of farmers they were responsible for. CowTribe can fill in a much-needed service gap while using new communication technology to reach more farmers.

Reaching the most vulnerable farmers and respecting their needs

I had the opportunity to advise CowTribe while conducting my doctoral research in 2016-2017 on how to design tailored made care for farmers in remote communities who tend to be left behind by the public and private agriculture sectors. Using participatory research, we asked farmers important questions about their animals, their barriers to veterinary care and what they are willing to pay for. CowTribe reaches farmers in remote communities for their services, which most companies in Ghana say they do, but do not do so in actuality. Agribusiness, NGO, and government programs tend to work with farmers close to urban areas, middlemen, or educated, business elite and not the smallholders in remote areas that CowTribe works with.

Supporting women leaders and creating employment for youth

The co-founders of CowTribe, Peter Awin, and Alima Bawah are Ghanaians who have close relationships with farmers and the rural communities where they come from. Many of their staff are recent graduates who are looking for work opportunities in a context where youth unemployment is among the highest in the world (at 60%) and people are abandoning rural areas at unprecedented rates. I have introduced CowTribe to a number of recent graduates from the Animal Health and Production College in Ghana who are building their network of farmers and need financial support mentorship to launch their careers. This is a Ghanaian youth-led initiative intended to build a prosperous future for rural areas and who have not given up on agriculture.

I began working with CowTribe as a Veterinary Officer last year after I completed my education in 2016. My work is to vaccinate and deworm animals for farmers and give them information to register with the company using the mobile app. I help the farmers take details about the flock size, work with them to create a schedule for the treatment and prophylaxis and provide further extension. I am delighted to be pioneering CowTribe and that we are recognized internationally. As a young man, I had trouble starting, and had many problems and issues. I am very hardworking and ready to learn new things which was appreciated by the company. -Abdul Latif Sulemana

Follow CowTribe on Facebook or Twitter


Ghana’s new agriculture policy is leaving behind its smallholders

In a recent meeting at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Ghana, we were presented with the designated Minister, Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto’s plans for what the new government is going to offer its farmers: Planting for Food and Jobs, a Campaign for Rapid Growth.

The plan makes grand claims to promote growth in food production and create 750,000 new jobs through a focus on five areas: seed, fertilizer, extension services, marketing and e-fertilizer. The growth will come from five main food crops maize, rice, soybean, sorghum and vegetables and in the north of the country where I work, the focus will be entirely on the first three: maize, rice and soy. Notably, yam, millet, livestock and other animals are not included, as well as other natural resources like shea.


Women’s shea production and processing group, Ghana


African yam mounds

The campaigns focus on getting every Ghanaian to grow food for the country is reminiscent of the 1970s Operation Feed Yourself policy that focused on Green Revolution development approaches only without the focus on mechanization and a renewed emphasis on seed and fertilizer. A novel feature is that local district assemblies will have a main coordination role alongside the local Ministry of Food and Agriculture units. We will wait to see what support to strengthening local government systems will be provided beyond hiring new extension staff proposed. The National Buffer Stock (NAFCO) will be reinvested in, operating as the market, storage and processing option. We also wait to see if support for operations is budgeted for and not just infrastructure maintenance.

Most worryingly is that the government is only registering ‘lead farmers’ those who have 10 acres or more of one of the targeted crops. In a place where virtually all farmers are smallholders who grow many crops to meet a diverse diet and reduce risk, government extension have expressed concerns about who the government is targeting and how their services will shift. As one extension staff said in the meeting, “I bet we won’t even get up to 100 farmers registered for the entire district”. Since farmers are registered for where they are farming and not where they live, it is likely that most of the farmers registered will not be those in the rural communities, but business men from the city or government staff who have the capital to rent and prepare land, hire labour and access inputs on a medium scale. Moreover, it is likely that women (especially those who do not inherit land) and the ‘teeming youth’ will not have the ten acres needed, leaving them behind.


The extension staff I work with perceive their jobs to be about developing smallholder livelihoods and rural communities and in the meeting, they began strategizing about how they could register them so they are included. One suggestion was through the registration of groups of smallholders (farming based organizations), like cooperatives where they could aggregate land. But, no, individuals are only allowed. Others suggested registering smallholders with plots next to each other, but under one name. I can’t help but think about the deep mistrust between smallholders and government and the potential community conflict that could arise because smallholders’ land, rented tractors and hired labour are already being monopolized by these business men who can afford to pay more at the necessary time. Now the government is supporting them, not the smallholders.


This campaign for rapid growth is worrying because where there is rapid growth, there tends to be rapid inequality and rapid environmental degradation. There seems to be a mismatch between what the government, NGOs and the private sector sees as the future of agriculture in Ghana and what smallholders themselves want. Chemical fertilizer for example is being widely adopted by smallholders, and government (with pressure from farmer lobbyists) have subsidized the cost from around 100 GH cedis to 85 GH cedis per 45 kg bag to reduce costs. However, smallholders have issued concerns to me about the impact this fertilizer usage has on soil health and the quality of food produced. Those both near and far away from town are reluctantly adopting fertilizer because of desperation and they perceive themselves as being addicted to these expensive chemicals. The improved, shorter varieties of seed provided produce more in times of erratic rainfall, but the quality of produce and ability to withstand drought is also a problem perceived by smallholders. We will also wait to see what kinds of seeds are encouraged in the future and perhaps the renewal of hybrids and other non-open pollinated varieties smallholders are not willing to adopt will make its way back in the name of growth. Moreover, the focus on e-extension and e-fertilizer was tried and failed last year because of the technical and literacy problems across the country. We await to see what new innovations are provided to combat this.


After all, it is the medium scale farmer who is willing to invest and depend on these inputs year after year to generate surplus, moving on when the soil is dead, but not the smallholder who needs to think about sustaining her subsistence and existence first – food quality, diversification and environmental sustainability.


Smallholder farmers in Ghana

Development concentration: When non-profit and for-profit efforts in agriculture converge

With recent talks about the impact of corporate concentration in the agro chemicals and seed industry sparked by the move of Monsanto to Buyer, I have been thinking about what the potential impacts of ‘development’ concentration could be for smallholders.

In case you did not hear, the seed company Monsanto was recently taken over by Bayer, a large pharmaceutical company. Monsanto is commonly associated with GMOs, but also environmental degradation and lack of business ethics in the way their products and services impact family farmers. One way Monsanto’s products, research and services plans to break the poor brand and reputation is to morph into a larger corporation with the hope to change the image of GMOs. This is discussed in a CBC The Current podcast here.

But, what do seeds and chemicals have to do with each other?

A lot of the seeds developed by Monsanto require pesticides. Monsanto has been trying to partner (as mentioned in this article at The Guardian here) firstly, and unsuccessfully with Sygenta. Dow and Dupont is another example of a company, which controls 40% of the corn and soybean market in the US. Related, ChemChina has also purchased Syngenta giving it the largest handle on the agricultural chemical market. The reality is that mega-mergers like this are happening because of low interest rates and cheap borrowing since the financial crisis.




What is the big deal about these corporate mergers? – It will negatively affect smallholders

Corporate consolidation of input agribusinesses also concentrate power, where they can lobby governments to shape the political economy. Government favouring large scale, industrial agriculture will disenfranchise the smallholder who prefers to save their seed, diversify farms and practice agro ecology.

Smallholders in northern Ghana where I am doing research have explained a reality that they haven’t told their government policy makers or civil society groups because of the lack of trust and perceived poor representation: They don’t want to use chemicals or hybrid seed (especially not GMO) that these corporations are providing or funding, whether foreign or locally bred. Smallholders claim that the chemicals make their physical health and soil sick and reduces the quality of their food.

These smallholders felt pressured to adopt chemical inputs and are now addicted to using them because of the lack of fertility in the soil and lack of alternative agro ecological practices and technology resulting from land and labour pressure. Shifting their open pollinated variety of seed to hybrid seed, where they can no longer save their seed each year makes them further dependent on corporations that their government is supporting. This is all something smallholders have been resisting for decades, but articulate to me that they have been left with little choice for alternatives.

The Second African Green Revolution

 There has been renewed interest in what has been perceived as the failure of the first Green Revolution in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, where farmers refused to adopt ‘modern’ technologies, such as improved seed and chemical inputs to intensify their farms. However, in northern Ghana the 1980s was the height of the agriculture sector where the country was producing enough food for self-sufficiency and export. I have been told that even smallholders owned assets, were producing on much larger tracts of land and used many best planting practices, such as dibbling and spacing. But with the onset of Structural Adjustment Progammes and the liberalization of agri-food markets (including cheap food importation), allowing for foreign investment and privatization of inputs that have been increasing prices and consolidating good quality land, the Second Green Revolution in Africa is perceived as even more problematic by smallholders then the first.


So, what are ‘development actors’ doing exactly? – Private sector growth

Something that became apparent to me on my last visit to Ghana and has sparked my reflection by the recent corporate mergers is the uniformity of agriculture development efforts. Governments, non-profits (like USAID’s Feed the Future programmes), and agribusinesses like Wienco (Masara N’Arziki) seemed to be doing the same thing in similar ways. They are striving to intensify smallholders through Green Revolution technology provision and market integration. As explained in this webinar here by IFPRI and Rockefeller Foundation on the importance of intensification of smallholders for food security. The Government of Ghana has recently established the national fertilizer subsidy program and set up a number of public seed research units (CSIR / SARI) supported by USAID to improve varieties. USAID focuses their efforts on the agriculture value chain connecting all types of agribusinesses to provide inputs to farmers. Wienco imports new kinds of technologies and provides them to farmers and does so in a viable business model.




I have been told the only difference between what is being done now to support farmers in comparison to the 1980s or the first Green Revolution is that there is a strong focus on market integration and that all efforts are led by the private sector, even if government is involved. This is communicated as an improvement, as development, but the costs of inputs are perceived to be too high and the loans impossible. Undoubtedly, there have been improvements, hunger rates have been decreasing as people have access to cheaply, imported food and storage has greatly developed with a lot less food wastage.

Although in theory sustainable intensification practices that account for a triple bottom line in agribusiness: environment, social justice and growth are proposed, this is not what is happening in practice in northern Ghana. Especially since, from what I have seen, none of these actors directly support agroecology. For example, by developing manure markets or subsidization as opposed to just chemical intensive ones. To be fair, the intercropping of soya is proposed as a nitrogen rich alternative that is more nutritious, but this does not actually address the inequitable power relations within an agri-food political economy by depending on an unregulated input market, cheap grain imports, labour migration and land consolidation. It kind of ignores the problem.

I have also been told by different staff at all three of these organizations that they find it difficult to work with smallholders. Smallholders often do not fulfill contracts or promises and ‘abuse’ their partnership by diverting inputs to other plots, lying to them about their yields and practices and sometimes go as far as burn their fields. I am told they are unreliable and reliability is the most important thing in a business model and value chain.


Artificial flavours imported that are cheaper and easier


Dawadawa – is a preferred spice, which comes from  a tree, but I have been told it is being dropped in favour of imported ones because of cost and ease with related negative health consequences

We need to ask why are smallholders resisting the Second Green Revolution (as with the first)?

Perhaps it is because the smallholders feel what is on offer (Green Revolution technology) is not useful and might actually create more harm than good to their environments –it’s not really that green (unless you count drought resistance?). This might also not meet their farming mental model, which differs than the business one. Perhaps it is because they do not like the terms of the agreements set by the unregulated private sector. Perhaps it is because they see the corruption of both the public and private sector through the catering to the business men and not the family farmer. At least this is what they are explaining to me.



Justice for whom? – Court fines community protestors against multinational’s land grab in Sierra Leone


I practically spat out my coffee at breakfast this morning while listening to BBC Africa (podcast found here). The story was about a ‘landmark case’ in Sierra Leone where a court’s decision to fine six people $10,000 or serve up to six months’ in jail for vandalizing a palm oil plantation that is owned by the French company, Socfin. The court says the ruling is an attempt to intimidate people who resist the activities of multinationals across the country, perhaps across the continent more generally.

Socfin says it acted within the law when it obtained the land, and the government says the plots were unused, thus justifying planting a highly productive cash crop. Let’s be clear, this is no ordinary plantation and I believe those who have told me that it is one of the largest plantations in Africa, maybe even the largest. It looks more like untouched rainforest was cleared and replaced with uniform and orderly trees, than it does a stereotypical plantation.

I have written about Socfin’s activities in this earlier blog post. In 2014, I spent several months working in Pujehun district, including the Malen community where Socfin’s plantation activities operate. I have visited Malen many times to work on community farms, listen to community’s needs and develop agriculture extension services to meet those needs. A major part of my work has been to get around the displacement and disarray that Socfin’s plantation has caused. Instead of the larger scale cassava farming and processing that the community relies on, different farming groups ask me how to plant swamp valley rice. All of the land that they typically grow cassava on now has trees on it and is no longer available to use for growing food for their community. The only thing left are the swamps that they know less about.


I have been warned about the ‘uneasy calm’ in the district since the first day I arrived in the country. Not wanting to alarm me, but this description does not explain the community conflict and disruption that this land transition has had to my work, the service providers who visit the communities on a weekly basis, market functions and other community activities. Although I was supposed to live and stay in Malen (as well as other communities) to provide more direct, technical support to farming, simply visiting the communities safely was a challenge. We had to travel in a large truck, on differing, clearer routes, only during the afternoon. As we drove towards the community, women on the side of the road with wood stacked on their heads would see our vehicle and jump into the bush, terrified –of what, I am still not entirely sure (and I never ask for fear of causing more panic). Our community meetings and farm visits are often disrupted by discussions about the land and their relations with Socfin. They seemed genuinely worried about their livelihoods, access to food and explain that things are different than before, they are getting worse. The company promised jobs, infrastructure and other benefits, but taking away their ability to grow cassava is like switching from one job to another without any training or support and still expecting them to do well. Only in this situation it means that the community might not have enough food to eat.

What the BBC Africa news story does not tell us is about the violence that this displacement of livelihoods and land has caused. Every couple of weeks I hear of a ritualistic murder, of women resorting to prostitution and family’s selling and shipping their children away. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I used to wonder about how a tight knit community with nothing to lose could let a foreign company come in and take their only leverage -land. After reading, spending time and interviewing people I now realize how naive those thoughts are. My social and historical analysis tells me a different story. This is a community that was once occupied by rebel forces in a civil war that happened only one or two generations prior. In times of conflict, people isolate themselves and instead of rising together, they actually do the opposite and keep to themselves. The displacement caused by this land grab is in a way a resort back to old coping strategies of not being able to trust your neighbors and those who are part of your own kin, your own family. The village that is needed to raise a child (or rise against an unfair land contract) becomes dislocated.


I should mention that the story is complex and multifaceted. That there is more going on than what community members tell me. Perhaps this is why we need more gold standard research conducted to capture the whole story, such as this study by my colleagues here. Socfin did not just come in and put palm trees down. They did so legally. They went to the government and rented the land for just over $12 per acre for the next 50 years. I also assume that there was some community consultation during these negotiations. After all, land is owned and controlled by community leaders. However, it is in this negotiation where some people win and others lose. In this case, someone has benefited and continues to benefit from the plantation, and it does not seem to be the community members who uneasily jump at any strange vehicle they see.

When I found out this morning that the court ruled against community protestors who vandalized the plantation I wondered: is this justice? Justice for whom? What makes this court case such a landmark? Is it that the community was finally fed up enough, empowered enough to lash out? Or that a multinational was still able to win and have power over them, despite all of the other crimes that are indirectly attributed to their activities. Perhaps it is the fact that courts are trying to silence their citizens. Six community members versus a multinational hardly seems fair. It is sort of like the David v. Goliath story only in reverse- this time Goliath seemingly won.


Land Grabbing for Agriculture is Causing Conflict in Southern, Sierra Leone

Something I have been hearing about since the day I arrived in Sierra Leone is about the conflict or ‘uneasy calm’ that has arisen from land grabbing for large-scale agriculture by foreign companies. ‘Land grabbing’ simply defined is when governments, banks or private investors buy up huge plots of land to make profits. In the particular case of Sierra Leone an estimated fifth of the country’s arable land has been leased since 2009 to industrial farming, many of them foreign companies producing biofuels from crops, such as oil palm and sugar cane.

On the way to the communities

On the way to the communities

Where I am working there is one particular land grab contract for arguably the largest oil palm plantation in Africa under the company Socfin Agricultural Company Ltd. The local farmers I have been working with in this Chiefdom have explained that this plantation is directly causing uneasiness/conflict, threatening their physical and nutritional security. This report published in 2013 provides evidence towards this ‘uneasy calm’ as a result of the land grab. I had the opportunity to witness this uneasy calm first hand, as I am working alongside three farming based organizations based within two of the communities within the effected Chiefdom.

Socfin Agricultural Company Ltd (SAC)
SOC is part of Belgian Socfin Group. It is leasing 6,500 ha and seeking to lease and plant an additional 5,500 ha with expansion to 30,000 ha in the Malen Chiefdom, Pujehun District, Southern Province. This has been sub-leased from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Services for the next 50 years at a rate of US$12.50 per hectare per year for the purpose of oil palm (crude palm oil) and eventually rubber.

There is an estimated 9,000 people effected across 24 communities.

According to SAC its promise to give back to the communities includes three roadwork projects and has built eight water wells, one ambulance, a primary school, some footwear and jerseys for a friendly football match, a generator and paint for the police station outside SAC’s operational area. To date, SAC has no intention of investing in agricultural programmes, nor has it looked at how local people who have lost their livelihood can be compensated.

The palm oil plantation referred to extends for as far as the eye can see

The palm oil plantation referred to extends for as far as the eye can see

Response from smallholder farmers
Farming based organizations (FBOs) I work with have expressed their ambition to build large scale farms to generate profit. No smallholder I have spoken to wishes to remain small scale, but their vision of large scale is something entirely different from a plantation. Many have expressed a desire to cultivate large areas with a range of diverse crops that service different purposes, such as for community/home consumption or for exports. Almost every farming based organization I work alongside is producing food crops for consumption and sale (rice, cassava, vegetables), despite the Ministry’s push for non-consumable commodities (palm oil).

With the situation in Sahn-Malen, people are extremely dissatisfied with the company SAC. SAC’s plantation has resulted in “loss of farm income and produce from the bush and tree-crop areas, the impact on food and nutritional security, new social ills and discord in the communities, and the limited and short-term employment opportunities available with SAC.” There is also dissatisfaction with the wages provided by SAC to those labourers who work on their plantation. Wages of Le 10,000 [about US$2.30] per day cannot compensate them for their lost farm income and produce. Moreover, due to the loss of local food production, the cost of food has risen with the staple, fish for example rising to between 15,000-20,000SL per unit from LE1,000-2000 prior to SAC’s plantation. The qualities of the meals have also deteriorated with cassava and sweet potato meals now missing meat and fish, vegetables (okra, garden eggs), beans and wild fruits resulting in lower nutrition.

Worst of all, the promises made by traditional leaders, politicians, company representatives and respected local people to agree to SAC’s investment have not been met and people are now angry and afraid. Expressions about the land include ‘It is for our children’ and they prefer the ‘freedom’ they enjoy as an autonomous independent farming community not to work under a company as a labourer.

I am meeting with farmers effected by the land grab situation

I am meeting with farmers effected by the land grab situation

Land is the social glue
As the above report rightly claims, land is a kind of social glue. FBOs and their respective communities have developed social groups that work together on communal pieces of land and share the harvests and profits from their sale. Land is the source of rural livelihoods and in Sierra Leone the farming systems and land use patterns are extremely complex, with different land types used for different purposes. Farmers have in the area have asked for my advice on what to do with their business because due to this land grab, there is a shortage of land with the greatest perceived loss being the upland farms, where people cultivate upland rice,
 as well as fruit and medicinal trees.

Now that people’s land have been taken away for palm oil, the sources of livelihoods have changed. The most important sources of income, such as sale of farm produce, value added farm products and farm labour have been either greatly reduced or gone altogether, which makes the work we are doing much more challenging. This lack of income is resulting in higher rates of poverty —the intended opposite effect of business or/ agriculture development. People often express to me that they are having more trouble paying school fees for their children.

It is also impacting the social context with an influx of ‘strangers’ that have moved to their communities to find work – so the assumption that the company is hiring local people is (might) also be false. There is also expressed concern about the potential risk of water contamination from chemical fertilizers and herbicides being used on the plantation.

The above report mentions that SAC’s plantation has resulted in less sharing and trust within the community, increased poverty which is resulting in conflict, teenage pregnancy (as families cannot afford their daughters), increased borrowing and debt, theft, sex work and divorce. There have been multiple murders over the past month, making the place unstable. Staff I work with can no longer travel alone, making service provision that much more difficult to provide and coordinate. After 4pm, people fear any vehicle on the road, and I have witnessed women jumping into the forest as we drove by. To be clear, this is not a security threat to me, as I do not live in the area, but a big challenge to our work, to people’s livelihoods and the well-being of those living in these communities.

Agricultural sector development is meant to improve the wellbeing of its communities. It is supposed to provide strong livelihoods, competitive markets, food and nutrition and all of the other benefits that come with development NOT instability, fear, mistrust, poverty, and violence.

Christian Aid (2013). ‘Who is Benefitting?’ Found at:

Grain. (2014) Sierra Leone farmers reject land grab for oil palm plantation. Found at:

Women’s Farmer Organizations as a Collective Action Strategy for Food Security

The majority of the farmer based organizations (FBOs) I will be working with in Sierra Leone are women’s groups. Here, I argue that these FBOs are more formalized strategies of collective action where assets, decision-making and resource control is maintained by women. This contributes to their individual and collective empowerment needed for food security.

There is a tendency for development planners and policymakers to forget about women, what we call ‘gender neutral’ development. Fortunately, the project I am working on has not. Half of the implementing staffs I am working with are women field staff and many of the FBOs are comprised mostly of women. This is important as the diverse needs and challenges that are unique to women need to be accounted for in order to address inequality in access to ‘food entitlements’ or the different components that contribute to food security.

These unique needs and challenges are socio-cultural because they are dictated by a cultural construction of gender ‘women’. This culture interacts with economic and political issues. For example in Sierra Leone, if I am responsible for purchasing, cooking and distributing all of the food in the household because I am a woman, but do not have independent control over the budget allocated to me (because I am a woman) than that is a gendered issue that will effect nutrition. As those who control the major budget (who are not women) might not have interest in spending it on food as it is not their responsibility. Below I also argue that women’s roles, assets and agency beyond the domestic sphere or household in West Africa are integral to meeting food and nutrition security.

One way to build off of the power women have is through collective action or coordination. This means that people (women and men) come together to use their diverse strengths to overcome the barriers they face (Kania & Kramer, 2011). Women in West Africa in particular are well connected in markets, communities and networks of households/compounds in relation to food. This is why it is not surprising that most of the FBOs involved in this food security project are women’s groups and that implementing staff express the importance of working with them.

Meeting with the implementing staff on strengthening FBOs in Sierra Leone

Meeting with the implementing staff on strengthening FBOs in Sierra Leone

The Implementing staff I am working with in Sierra Leone

The Implementing staff I am working with in Sierra Leone

However, It is Insufficient to Simply Target Women in Agriculture

Those in development who focus on advocating for women’s rights often classify rural women as female farmers, branding them as the major contributors to subsistence agriculture (the production of food for household consumption). They enlist statistics to support their cause, stating that women make up roughly 70-80 per cent of the world’s agricultural labour force, but in many places only having access to one meal per day (World Bank, 2009). This advocacy is meant to justify targeting development efforts on the household or domestic space, such as home gardens, branded as women’s issues to tackle the problem of food insecurity. The focus on women in agriculture strategy as highlighted by the World Bank etc. is comparable to the women in development theory (WID), whereby the strategy is to target women.

However, to address the socio-economic challenges of food insecurity and malnutrition there is a pressing need to consider the gender dimensions and unequal social structures as an integral element of food security in and related to agriculture. For example, you can give a woman a fish to eat or even teach her how to fish, but if her socio-economic environment does not permit her/discourages her from using the fishing skills or eating the fish herself than we have not solved the problem. Instead, we need to address the socio-economic environment. There is insufficient understanding of how the social roles and responsibilities, access to resources, and control over decisions related to food production and allocation exists across various spaces.

Moving beyond this, I would argue that women in West Africa have important roles and strong assets beyond the household and have traditionally had power across many spaces that should be leveraged to tackle food insecurity. The iconic ‘Market Queen’ image depicting women in specific West African markets is an example of women who have gained economic and political power. Market women are well organized and successful in generating income. I think a key strategy for development would be to leverage these strong trading and business skills, which have existed in the region for hundreds of years.

This is also why I get frustrated when those in development speak about women in West Africa as if they are powerless – as if rural women do not know their own problems. The most common phrase I hear is that ‘We need to empower women!’. This does not reflect reality as empowerment comes from within. A more correct strategy would be to facilitate empowerment or unlock potential across various spaces that women themselves identify with.

One way I hope to facilitate empowerment and leverage the legacy of West African ‘Market Queens’ is by fostering open, safe and inclusive communication across FBO meetings between members and extension service providers. Focus group discussions, matrix scoring, key informant interviews and women leaders are shaping the monitoring plan I am developing to try and capture the strategies and ambitions local women have for the FBOs. Hopefully this information can inform future development or investments made.

Market Women in Sierra Leone - my host mother and her business

Market Women in Sierra Leone – my host mother and her business

Women’s FBOs
FBOs are one form of collective action that have traditionally focused more on group formation and mobilization, and the provision of technical and financial inputs via groups. This translates to charities and governments formally creating groups by registering them and giving them free products. After the registration and free products the groups usually stop functioning. This is where I hope we can adapt current efforts in development to move above and beyond the technical provision and formal to actually overcome gender-specific barriers in markets, group governance and the wider policy environment. This might be overly ambitious for a three-month pilot, but I will continue to think BIG, work hard and ask tough questions.

The Evidence So Far
Women’s participation in informal savings groups, alongside their formal participation in mixed groups have been found to be correlated with greater benefits from formal group participation since this strengthened their capacity to exercise leadership, and enabled them access credit. The evidence suggests that these same women were able to retain control over incomes from their participation (Baden, 2013). These findings are also supported by Fischer and Qaim (2011) who found that when both men and women from the same household are group members, women are able to exercise greater control over income. In this particular case, income resulted in better nutritional outcomes at the household level. I would label this ‘economic empowerment’ as women are participating in decision making, and having authority and control over assets in market activities.

This increase
 in economic empowerment of women through formal and informal FBOs is also associated with benefits beyond income, such as improved self-confidence through,
•Group participation and expansion of social networks (I now have more power and a wider network to negotiate across);
•Enhanced decision-making ability due to exposure to new ideas and increased knowledge (I can now begin to think outside the box to make decisions);
•Increased mobility through attending group meetings (I can also leave my community more which will allow me to interact with the network);
•The acquisition of new skills, which can be transferred to household management (I can take this knowledge/skills and convince those within my household to listen to my decisions);
•And increased access to credit (I have the money to improve my business).

According to Kepe and Ferguson (2011) women members in FBOs claimed to have improved their confidence, their negotiating skills, the ability to be of service to their communities through transferring skills to others, and the ability to take control of certain household decisions when dealing with men after they became members of an FBO. They conclude that these social benefits could be enhanced if women were fully acknowledged as important by ‘agents of change’-perhaps development practitioners in general.

What is Needed for FBOs to be an Empowering Space for Women
•Transparent internal governance and strong leadership;
•Support of men and community authorities;
•Leverage market opportunities in growing sectors – better business and opportunities for more profit and other negotiating assets;
•Utilize new technology with training to facilitate women’s participation in new activities;
•Formal membership alone is insufficient it needs to be complimentary with the socio-cultural context;
•Link informal women-only groups to mixed men and women formal groups – larger umbrella FBOs;
•Provide direct support to particular groups of women, such as youth who have less authority or power.

Meanwhile, I hope to promote interest in improving the efficiency of women in pre and post harvest activities as buyers, processors and traders through FBO development. According to Christine Okali, women’s engagement in post-harvest activities in West Africa, such as processing is more organized and powerful than in production, particularly in the production of food where women are often quoted to have the most activity. The focus of women as only actors in domestic spaces, such as subsistence agriculture is too simple. Recognizing and supporting other important roles they might have, such as processors is critical for having a positive impact towards food security.

View of the school in Pujehun Village near where I am living

View of the school in Pujehun Village near where I am living

Baden, S. (2013) ‘Women’s Collective Action: Unlocking the potential of agricultural markets’ [Online] Oxfam International DOI: 978-1-78077-299-8. Available at: [25 July 2013].

Ferguson, H. and Kepe, T. (2011) ‘Agricultural Cooperatives and Social Empowerment of Women: a Ugandan Case Study’ Development in Practice, 21.3: 421-498

Fischer, E., and Qaim, M. (2012) ‘Gender agricultural commercialization, and collective action in Kenya’ Food Security vol. 4. Pp. 441-452.

Kania & Kramer (2011) ‘Collective Action’ Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Pandolfelli, L., Meinzen-Dick, R., Dohrn, S. (2008) ‘Gender and Collective Action Motivations, Effectiveness and Impact’ Journal of International Development
J. vol. 20, pp. 1–11

World Bank. (2009) Gender in Agriculture Sourcebook, Washington: The World Bank.

The Varied Roles of Extension Services Provided to Farmer Organizations for Food Security

It is official, I am moving to Pujehun district located in southern, Sierra Leone for a few months. I will be consulting on a project that aims to improve the food security of people living in poor, rural communities in West African countries to ensure that they have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

I will be consulting on one part of the overall system to contribute to,
a) Increasing the effectiveness and use of agricultural extension services (government, NGO) by training extension staff in planning, implementing, and monitoring and,
b) Provide business support services to farmer organizations, and strengthen them for the adoption of good agricultural and livelihood practices.

Here, I want to explain the value farmer organizations have for food security and the importance of the different roles extension services have.

Why Agricultural Extension?

Agricultural extension historically has been about technology transfer, through an extension staff transferring knowledge from research stations to farmers by using individual, group, and mass media methods. Farmers gain this knowledge and improve their practices to produce greater yields. The obvious link between this to food security is: an improved and greater yield of food crops, such as rice leads to more food available.

However, making more food available in communities is only one part of the food security story. Mostly because you cannot grow everything you wish to eat. Also, there is often times enough food available, but the most hungry cannot access it. Food can be inaccessible because of,
•Poor infrastructure & natural disasters (I cannot physically get to the markets where food is sold);
•Food is too expensive (I cannot afford / have the cash to buy food);
•Social/cultural norms (I cannot leave the house alone or I can only interact with certain actors in certain markets);
•Violence and corruption (I do not feel safe when buying food because of potential threats from others);
•Poor health systems (I am too sick to get food and process it);
•Lack of information (I do not know where or when the food is sold or what the standards/rules are);
•Inadequate support institutions (I do not have the capital needed etc.)
Source: Angela Mwaniki, ‘Achieving Food Security in Africa: Challenges and Issues’

The goal of improving productive yields is only one dimension of food security. I would argue, more importantly, access to food, varied markets (not just food markets, but also agricultural markets) and overall livelihood development (employment generally) is critical for food security. Bearing in mind the issue of nutrition is much more complex as this requires improved health, water and sanitation systems beyond agriculture or livelihoods.

More recently, agricultural extension has varied roles to improve availability and access to food, markets and overall livelihood development. Some of the roles include,
Human Resource and Empowerment role: help farmers and rural communities organize themselves and take charge (empowerment) of their growth and development.
Community-Organizing role: understanding the structures, by-laws, rules will help leaders to plan, implement, and monitor their own livelihoods. Helping communities to build, develop, and increase their power through cooperation, sharing, and working together to negotiate and interact with other markets.
Problem-Solving and Education role: helping farmers and their communities to identify problems and seek the right solutions by combining their indigenous knowledge with other knowledge and by using their resources properly.
• And most commonly…Technology Development role: by linking research with community group needs and helping to facilitate appropriate technology development
Source: Shankariah Chamala and P. M. Shingi. FAO. Chapter 21 “Establishing and strengthening farmer organizations” in Improving Agricultural Extension. A Reference Manuel

Extension staff learning from farmers about their technology, not just the other way around

Extension staff learning from farmers about their technology, not just the other way around

Rice Sheller - simple technology, but critical for agribusiness development

Rice Sheller – simple technology, but critical for agribusiness development

Why Farmer Organizations?

Farmer organizations give farmers bargaining power in the market place, enable cost-effective delivery of extension services, and provide a space for empowered members to influence policies that affect their livelihoods. Private sector organizations establish farmer organizations to reduce the cost of dealing with farmers, enhance the volume and quality of farm produce, and improve credit recovery from farmers. Governments establish farmer organizations to improve rural service delivery. National policies aimed to help rural people become organized even provided blueprint structures in the form of cooperatives and commodity organizations.

Problematically however, extension staffs traditionally have never had training in the theory and principles of community organization or skills in the process of establishing these organizations. As a result, many farmer organizations were established overnight on paper and remained only active during the period that government subsidies were distributed and not beyond this. Today, the elite tend to capture the services and resources, while the poor and marginalized are left out. Very few attempts are made to develop the management capacities of farmer organizations leaders, their members, and extension staff. This is where my work comes in.
Source: Wilhemina, Quaye; Ivy, Yawson; Tawiah, Manful John; Joseph, Gayin. (2010) ‘Building the Capacity of Farmer Based Organisation for Sustainable Rice Farming in Northern Ghana’ Journal of Agricultural Science 2.1 :93-106.
Source: Salifu, A., Lee Funk, R., Keefe, M., and Kolavalli, S. (2012) ‘Farmer Based Organizations in Ghana’ Ghana Strategy Support Program. IFPRI Working Paper 31. August

Extension Staff & Farmer Group Training Session

Extension Staff & Farmers Training Session, where everyone role plays being a women in a women’s farming organization. I made the real life female farmers the decision makers for 2.5 hours and you should hear them challenge others and make difficult decisions for planning a business!

Rural bank account application example

Rural bank account application example

What I hope to Accomplish

My aims are to build the capacities of farmer organizations: rice farmers can actively create cooperatives, partnerships and mobilize local resources independently.

I also hope to strengthen the varied roles agricultural extension staff have in strengthening the potential for community empowerment, human resources and problem solving. I will be training extension staff in modernized techniques for engaging with farmer organizations that are based on learning by doing, visual educational techniques, and participatory action and facilitation. This includes understanding the rules and governance structures needed for sustainable and functional collective action through farmer organizations.

Why In Sierra Leone?

When people think of Sierra Leone, the not so comforting images of Blood Diamond spring to mind (where Leonardo Di Caprio was heard coining the term TIA –This Is Africa- remember?). But it has been 10 years since the end of the civil war, and the country has made progress. This is why the Government’s focus has shifted towards agricultural sector development. In 2010, the Smallholder Commercialization Program was launched to support smallholder farmers’ linkages to markets through farmer organizations, subsidized inputs and infrastructure rehabilitation. Rain-fed upland rice dominates food supply and tree crops supply the bulk of Sierra Leone’s agricultural exports and domestic palm oil consumption, but many trees were destroyed during the war.

This agricultural focus has come out of the destruction from the civil war when significant proportion of the rural population became marginalized from productive land. Institutional structures were destroyed, including much of the road networks, input materials etc. It is hard to imagine a place with no national water supply, sewage system or electricity grid, where everything runs on a generator, but that is Sierra Leone today.

I have had the opportunity to travel to meet the staff in Sierra Leone for initial needs assessment. I was amongst several organizations that pitched different tools for change and it was what I had to offer that the staff opted in for and thought was worth investing in. I will keep you posted on any progress made.
Source: Binns, T., and Maconachie, R. (2005) ‘Going Home in Postconfilct Sierra Leone’. Geography 90. 1: 67-78.

Project Staff & Farmer Group Representatives

Project Staff & Farmer Group Representatives