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Dr. Gina Rico Mendez works with survey team members in a village in Ghana’s Northern Region. (photo by Kathleen Ragsdale)

By Alan Burns, Kathleen Ragsdale, & Mary Read-Wahidi

A five-year project that focused on gender equity in the Northern Region of Ghana has been extended for another three years of research. The Socieconomic and Gender Equity Research Team seeks identify gaps and improve gender responsive development in Africa.


A five-year project on gender equity in Ghana’s Northern Region, which was set to finish this year, has been extended by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for an additional three years. This research is being conducted by two Social Science Research Center (SSRC) researchers, Dr. Kathleen Ragsdale, an associate research professor, and Dr. Mary Read-Wahidi, an assistant research professor.

Funded by USAID, the Feed the Future Soybean Innovation Lab is one of 23 Feed the Future Innovations Labs located at premier U.S. universities who work with institutions in developing countries to tackle global challenges in agriculture and food security. The Soybean Innovation Lab is focused on addressing this issue by improving soybean production among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi lead the Lab’s Socioeconomic and Gender Equity Research (SGER) team. The SGER team focuses on gender and socioeconomic impacts of soybean production, which are two of the ten research areas being addressed by the Lab. Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi conduct research for development (R4D) that seeks to identify gaps and determine entry points to improve the Lab’s efforts to effectively implement gender responsive development into the Lab’s agricultural activities and trainings for men and women smallholder farmers.

Smallholder Farmers’ Importance to Global Food Security

Smallholder farmers are considered those with less than five acres of farmable land. According to the United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization (2012), “eighty percent of the farmland in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is managed by smallholders,” and it is these men and women smallholder farmers who “provide up to eighty percent of the food supply in Asian and sub-Saharan Africa.”

Ragsdale explained that “By assisting men and women farmers with increasing their productivity and their access to markets, R4D can help feed a world population that the U.N. predicts to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and nearly 10 billion by 2050.

Identifying Empowerment Issues

In order to identify gaps and determine R4D entry points in northern Ghana, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi first established baseline data on topics such as gender and economic barriers in soybean farmers’ access to land, credit lines, and markets for their soybean crops.

The SGER team began by implementing Wave I of the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) in 2014, which they adapted by adding soybean modules to produce the WEAI+. The original WEAI was developed through a partnership between USAID, Feed the Future, the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. According to Feed the Future (2014), the WEAI is the first index to “directly capture women’s empowerment and inclusion levels in the agricultural sector.” The original WEAI is designed to systematically capture and men’s and women’s decision making power across important agricultural domains, such as what crops to plant on their own farm land.

The WEAI+ includes soybean modules to collect additional baseline data on soybean production in Ghana’s Northern Region. The SGER team administered Wave I of the WEAI+ to 675 farmers across northern Ghana, of whom the vast majority were husbands and wives.

Their WEAI+ results showed that both men and women farmers are participating in the soybean value chain in northern Ghana. The results also identified specific areas where women farmers lacked decision making power as compared to their husbands – such was what crops to grow on their own land. This is noteworthy because such decisions can directly impact women’s soybean yields, their ability to generate income from growing soybean, and their ability to save part of their crop to feed their children.

This last point is important in terms of increasing protein intake for undernourished children because soybean is both a cash crop and a nutritious food crop, as soybean contains amino acids essential for children’s growth and development. In northern Ghana and other parts of the world where some farm families are extremely poor, soybean can help provide needed protein to malnourished children.

Through the WEAI+, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi found that men were 17 times more likely than women to have decision making power over purchasing, selling, or transferring land and other assets. Men were five times more likely than women to have decision making power over agricultural issues, such as what crops they grew. And men were four times more likely than women to be empowered to speak up in public, including to ask Extension Agents about ‘best practices’ to improve their horticultural knowledge.

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Women soybean farmers participate in a focus group on land tenure. (photo by Kathleen Ragsdale)

Digging Further into Empowerment

After reviewing the WEAI+ results, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi moved towards a more precise understanding of empowerment issues among men and women farmers in northern Ghana that could be used to develop tools and trainings to increase gender responsive agricultural development in this region and beyond. Towards this goal, they developed and administered several large surveys and conducted farmers’ focus groups in Ghana in 2016, 2017, and 2018.

As Read-Wahidi stated, “We started by looking at men and women’s empowerment with the WEAI+, which defined the areas where women lack empowerment compared to men. Our adapted version also collected soybean specific data – that’s why we added the “plus.” With the SUNS [the Soybean Uptake and Network Survey], we wanted to see how those empowerment differences translate into measurable issues faced by men and women soybean farmer.”

In 2016, Ragsdale and her team administered the SUNS Wave I to 832 men and women farmers in 12 villages. The SUNS collected data on soybean production that could be analyzed across genders, villages, and regions. From this data, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi found that although women were similarly engaged in soybean cultivation, men were significantly more like to have planted more than one acre of soybean, to have produced higher soybean yields, and to have earned higher incomes from selling their soybean crops.

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Drs. Kathleen Ragsdale and Gina Rico Mendez with CRS/Ghana staff and survey team members. (photo by CRS)

Building on the WEAI+ results, these SUNS results provide clear evidence of how agricultural disempowerment among women farmers plays out under real world conditions and has tangible outcomes. These combined results resonate with USAID’s (2016) statement that women could increase their farm yields by 20-30 percent if they had the same access to productive resources as men.

During that trip, Ragsdale and her team also implemented focus group discussions using the guide they developed, Information and Communication Technology for Agricultural Development (ICT4AgD). For this study, 35 men and women farmers were divided into separate focus groups to collect qualitative data on mobile phone ownership and what information farmers most needed. Although nearly twice as many men owned mobile phones as women (93% versus 55%), all participants voiced an urgent need to be able to access up-to-date information on local weather and on fair soybean market prices on mobile phones.

Ragsdale explained, “We are committed to combining quantitative data collected through large surveys like the WEAI+ and the SUNS – with qualitative data collected during focus groups with men and women farmers – to help us gain a more complete understanding of how empowerment in agriculture plays out in traditional farming societies where gender and cultural norms can restrict women farmers.”

In 2016, Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi developed the Gender Responsive Agricultural Development Assessment (GRADA) with input from USAID and Save the Children colleagues. Launched that December, the GRADA is an internal audit to gauge how Soybean Innovation Lab researchers and implementing partners consider gender equity in their trainings/activities. Fewer than 50 percent of participants had gender-responsive strategies built into their activities, such as steps to ensure that more equal numbers of men and women farmers receive key agricultural inputs like fertilizer.

This pinpointed critical needs that should be met in order improve gender responsiveness in all the Lab’s activities, including a need to increase awareness of how gender constraints can limit women farmers’ participation in extension outreach and trainings.

Wave II Data Collection

During 2017, Dr. Gina Rico Mendez, then a SSRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow, traveled with Ragsdale to northern Ghana to collect the WEAI+ Wave II among 984 men and women farmers in the same 12 villages where the WEAI+ Wave I had been collected. While the data is not yet fully analyzed, preliminary results indicate specific areas where women farmers lack decision making power as compared to men. For example, men are significantly more likely to report having input into most or all agricultural decisions, while women are more likely to report having input into few agricultural decisions.

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CRS’ Philip Atiim (center) with survey team members in Karaga District. (photo by Kathleen Ragsdale)

On this trip, Ragsdale and Rico Mendez also conducted separate focus groups with 72 men and women soybean farmers on Gender Equity and Land Tenure (GELT). They chose to explore this area of research based on the lack of information on how gender equity impacts land use and inheritance among men and women farmers in northern Ghana. Through the GELT focus groups, Ragsdale and Rico Mendez learned that complex cultural practices – such as communities various social structures, farm land allotments, and polygamous marriages – can severely limit women farmers’ rights to land, which in turn, can negatively impact women farmers’ agricultural decision making.

For example, Ragsdale and Rico Mendez found that women farmers can be reluctant to use their small and hard-earned incomes to purchase expensive fertilizers to improve their farm land because they do not have secure rights to their plots. For many women farmers, investing in increasing their land’s productivity is a risky economic gamble, as a plot can be taken away from them by their husband or other male authority with little or no recourse or compensation.

In 2018, Ragsdale and her team returned to northern Ghana to administer Wave II of the SUNS. With the assistance of SSRC research assistants, Kelly Lower and Taylor Yarbrough, the team collected 904 surveys among farmers in the Northern Region. During this trip, the team also conducted Wave II of the GELT focus groups in the same villages where the GELT Wave I focus groups were conducted. The purpose of these focus groups were to follow up on particular land tenure issues that were identified during analysis of the GELT Wave I results.

Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi anticipate that Wave II of the GRADA will be administered this December. They plan to use the combined results from the GRADA Wave I-II to assist the Soybean Innovation Lab in its R4D goals by 1) ensuring that the Lab’s practices promote gender responsive agricultural development, 2) developing trainings, tools, and resources to support gender responsive agricultural development among the Lab’s researchers and partners, and 3) developing trainings, tools, and resources to support gender responsive agricultural development among the broader development community.

Future of the project

Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi describe their plans for SIL 2.0 as having three distinct goals, including 1) expanding gender equity analyses to other Feed the Future countries such as Ethiopia and Malawi, 2) working directly with Soybean Innovation Lab partners to design and integrate tailored gender equity plans into their activities, and 3) providing sociocultural and gender equity support services to in-country partners and other development actors.

Ragsdale stated that, “One of the most important takeaways from working in Ghana is the importance of community buy-in. We couldn’t have accomplished so much during the few short weeks we are able to be in Ghana each year without the incredible assistance from the dedicated staff of our in-country implementing partner, Catholic Relief Services/Ghana. It is their ‘boots on the ground’ ability to build community buy-in across multiple sectors – from village chiefs to directors at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture – that allow us to accomplish so much research during our trips to the amazing country of Ghana.”

Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi are currently gearing up for the next three years of the Soybean Innovation Lab, which will be focused on using R4D results to expand the Lab’s impacts to other countries. One way that Ragsdale and Read-Wahidi will contribute to this process is by using their combined survey and focus group results from Ghana to further inform tools and trainings as they move forward with the Soybean Innovation Lab 2.0 mission of ‘Scaling for Success’ across sub-Saharan Africa.


For more information on the SGER and related projects, visit soybeaninnovationlab.illinois.edu.

Gender Equity in Northern Ghana