The piper calls the tune: changing roles of Northern Ghanaian women in agriculture


Eileen Nchanji



Gender and social inclusion expert, working towards a society where women not only have a voice but are able to change the situations for themselves and the society where they are.


Even though men make most of the decisions in relation to access to land and productive technologies, the increasing role of international organisations, especially those who push for gender equality and policies, have provided an avenue for women to be able to access these resources in the non-traditional sense.

When the government irrigation schemes were created, the idea was to redistribute land to individuals within and external to the community who could grow crops that would meet the food demands in the different communities and regions amidst the changing climate. Having irrigation meant there was a supply of water to be able to farm more. It was also an entry point where farmers could be provided with access to inputs, like fertiliser which was in most cases subsidised by the government, probably resulting in good yields and high productivity that could meet the food insecurity issues in the region.

However, when these irrigation schemes were created, thought was not given to how inclusive and gender responsive they were going to be. By giving land to those they took the irrigation land from and to those who were interested, in a community like Northern Ghana which is patriarchal, it was the men who got the land.

Later, when there were more interactions with international organisations and a demand for the place of women in agriculture, a gender policy and plan was developed. Irrigation officials in these areas and the farmer associations sat down and discussed how to get women to be part of the land which was considered government owned. In most cases this meant that women got land on the outskirts of the irrigation sites, or land around the irrigation sites which was not meant for farming.

Key Findings

Only male heads of the house had access to the land, so women had to negotiate with the men to be able to have access, not necessarily to farm but as harvesters or buyers of the crops to generate income and meet their food provisioning roles. In Tamale, chiefs are the custodians of land, and traditionally men can access land not women, so women have to access or buy land through their male household members.
Women were able to negotiate access to resources and able to make income within the situation that they found themselves. In addition to the women who were given a piece of land on their husbands fields off irrigation sites to grow vegetables for the households, there were few women who grew vegetables on their husbands land on the irrigation sites.
Other women who were not involved in the day-to-day activity of the land would harvest. If a women harvested from land that was not from their husband’s plot, the women would be paid with some of the crops she harvested and could sell that for income. This was another way of providing food for their family and getting income for other household needs without necessarily having a plot of land.
Some women who couldn’t have access to the irrigation sites, would also grow vegetables at the edge of the husband's plot that are out of the irrigation sites. However, these were dependent on climatic conditions that could not be controlled.
Women were also very much the ‘market queens’ and the ‘middlemen’. Men would not sell crops from the irrigation sites in the market, instead women would buy the vegetables and sell them in the market. Interestingly, a man's wife would not be the one buying his vegetables, instead it would be a woman that is related to him or completely out of the family circle.

How to use

There is a need to move beyond gender sensitisation to more gender educational programs with men and women in each family in the community. The importance of working together, making decisions together, getting income and deciding on where that income goes to as a team. This can help to move away from individual farming to family farming, where the male as the head of the household is not the only one with the control, but instead the woman and man have different roles to play on the farm.
The women’s role should be made visible – so if the woman is weeding then that is an important activity or if the woman is the one who is looking after the irrigation, that is an important activity. The aim should not be to create new roles, but to tap on the strengths that both men and women have.
To support women, we need to build their capacity to invest in the value addition of their perishable products to increase the shelf life for better income.
Get the women who are marketers to create a cooperative, so they have a standard market price they can sell these goods for, have a fair economy, and make more money. With family farming, this income could be reinvested on the farm and used on inputs to increase productivity.
We need to engage with the private sector. Build linkages with different markets like hotels and supermarkets. To do this, we need entrepreneurial training on food safety and contamination to ensure that when these crops are grown, men and women are knowledgeable on food safety.

Want to read the full paper? It is available open access

Eileen Bogweh, Nchanji. (2017). The piper calls the tune: changing roles of Northern Ghanaian women in agriculture. Agriculture for Development, 32. 13 -18.  

About this research

This research was funded by an external organisation, but detail has not been provided.

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About this research

This research was funded by an external organisation, but detail has not been provided.

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What it means

There were many reasons for why women were the buyers and sellers: the man would not want the woman to know exactly what he’s making, and it led to a very clever tracker system of who is in charge and who makes decisions on certain things. However, the advantage was that women were able to really negotiate within the market.

Presently there is a lot of talk about transformative gender approaches. This is something which is being pushed by the CGIAR gender platform and others. The whole idea of gender transformative approaches is moving from just including men, women, or youths in an activity to providing a space where people can make decisions on their life choices, whether it’s what they want to do or how they want to spend the money. It also touched on breaking down structural barriers. Most importantly how to turn these evidence into projects that benefit the people.


It was ethnographic work. The study took place from 2013 to 2015. Used qualitative methods, including separate focus group discussions for men and women, key informant interviews with irrigation officers and chair people of the different groups. Informal discussions took place after the focus group discussions to validate the information. Also worked with experts in the project to quantify whether agricultural land in the urban areas were increasing or not, and to carry out a sustainability analysis on open agriculture.


Women’s identity and roles
How women’s identity and roles were constructed in the society – defining what women were expected to do and not do, and how this affected their social interactions.
How people change their behaviour and evolve after they have interacted with other people.
Power imbalance
The land provides certain power relations between men and women as it is men who own the land and decide who has access or not. As a result of gender agricultural policies, women are able to get access to land they don’t technically own by being part of an interest group the government has to work with. This shifts the power balances in the household, because women have opportunity to generate income and hence increases their bargaining power.

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Jasmyn Spanswick prepared this research following an interview with Eileen Nchanji.