Like many of the world’s largest cities today, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana continues to experience rapid urbanization. Accra is the most urbanized city in Ghana, a factor that continues to place significant pressure on its local food system. Since before the colonial period, city dwellers in Accra have participated in what is known today as urban agriculture, growing fresh fruits, vegetables, and staple crops as well as animal and forest products for local consumption. Today urban agriculture produces over 90 percent of leafy greens and much of other vegetables consumed by residents in Accra. Ghanaian women participate in urban agriculture in a number of ways, but mostly as market women. Although few in number compared to men, women farmers also contribute to the production of vegetables grown in open-spaced farms and sold in local markets. Through my research, I have been able to meet many of these women who continue to cultivate the city’s vegetables despite major labor challenges.
Yesterday, I set out with my research partner, Madame Alberta, to meet some of the women in the Ga-East Municipality of Greater Accra who are growing food for the city. So far, the women farmers I have met are diverse in every way. Some have large families, limited education, or were born into urban agricultural livelihoods in Accra. Others live on their land, harvest and take their produce to the market or process their crops into sellable products. However, there is one thing they all have in common: they all agreed that they were born farmers–born with the endurance, intuitiveness, and vigor needed to develop and sustain a farm that constantly proves challenging on many economic, environmental, and socio-political levels.
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to talk and learn more about urban agriculture in Accra from Farmer Nancy. Farmer Nancy works on an urban farm in the Kwabenya district. Her farm covers a 10-acre span of cultivated land that stretches around the bottom of a large hill, with fields of cabbage and sweet peppers the creep almost vertically up the hill. Based on her look, it’s obvious that Nancy spends a lot of time traversing the sides of this hill. Yet, as she walks up the smaller hill to the door of her farmhouse, settled in her worn rubber boots, muddy jeans and colorful head wrap, she lacks any visible evidence that this work and that hill make her tired. Instead, she smiles at me—a big Ghanaian smile— and holds her hands out to catch the raindrops falling from a clouded sky, telling me that I have brought blessings to the farm.
Based on what we know about Farmer Nancy, Alberta and I have rightfully decided instead to call her the “Woman Bulldozer”. Nancy is, as reflected in her nickname and her energetic stature, a force of nature. She is very different than many of the other women farmers I have interviewed, especially in regards to her family and household description. She is divorced and has only one child. And although she only finished a middle-school level education many years ago, Nancy speaks almost perfect English with strong Ghanaian accent, of course. Through our conversation, I learned about how she came to be a farmer in Accra. Like many women farmers in the city, Nancy migrated during her childhood from the beautiful and rural Volta Region of Ghana and continues to call herself a “Voltarian” (sounds like something straight out of Star Trek, right?). Nancy’s first attempt in the workplace, like many young women in Ghana, was through seamstress training. She quickly realized that this wasn’t the kind of work she wanted to do, and consequently entered into the business field –but even this only lasted a short while until she realized what she was really made for.
Nancy insists that farming is the only kind of work she was born to do. And based on my experience with her and in watching her work, I have no reason to suspect otherwise. She, not surprisingly, was able to successfully lobby for land in Kwabenya and eventually leased land from the local Chief. Her description of the land during the first few years of farming paints a much different picture than what I saw yesterday. After developing the land with limited hand tools, rice and other similar water-loving crops were much of the only crops she could grow because of the marsh-like topography of the farm. The farm lacked any available drainage for heavy rainfall, but Nancy (hence the nickname “bulldozer”) took it upon herself to manually alter the land and, with some help—but not much—she dug a 400 meter drainage ditch towards the base of the hill. From then on, she evolved her farming practices and began cultivating vegetable crops for herself and Accra’s city dwellers. Today she has developed irrigation systems for her farm and grows a variety of cabbage, green peppers, cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, plantains and other vegetables you would commonly find in typical Ghanaian dishes.
Throughout her 20-some years of farming this land, she has experienced a number of challenges. Partly due to Accra’s increasing urbanization, she experiences difficulties due to land encroachment for development, and with squatters who sleep on her land or build small structures on her crops. Today, she has fewer problems with squatters because of the now existing government-owned high-tension structures that drape like a ceiling above her farm, banning any development of buildings or other structures. However, many of her problems with pests and disease continue to consistently affect portions of her crops. Farm input prices continue to rise and keep her from staying on top of the some of these ecological issues. Watering in times of little rainfall also proves to challenge her. Although she has a simple irrigation system set up throughout most of her cultivated land, she must often water crops by carrying heavy buckets across the farm. Despite her productivity and the 10-12 hours she spends working on the farm each day, these problems result in significant losses of income. Most concerning for her and her profit-margins is the losses she incurs through marketing. Middle-women negotiate prices with farmers like Nancy prior to planting and often they set prices very low—much lower than the costs of labor and inputs that Nancy must cover. In the end, Nancy typically loses out, especially when drought, pests, and diseases decrease her amount of available produce for sale.
I asked her how she deals with such serious loses. She said that sometimes she tries to grow products that are already scarce on the market and she’s also tried to connect with the exporting of local crops. Somehow she keeps managing and continues to work. Mostly, she says as she smiles her large and comforting smile and points to the ceiling, she trusts God will take care of her. Like many Ghanaians, she attributes her ability to sustain a livelihood on the farm to the power of her greatest love. She continues to wake up at 4:30 every morning to clean her house, cook her breakfast and start another day on the farm.
Before leaving the farm, Nancy took Madame Alberta and I around the farm and together we harvested a few bags of produce to take home with us. We exchanged mobile numbers and I promised to call and visit again before heading back to the States. Farmers like Nancy continue to inspire me in my research on women’s livelihoods in urban agriculture and the local food system in Accra. Her work in open-space farming, along with other urban farmers, continues to help sustain the ever-growing population of urban dwellers in Accra, and will hopefully continue to do so for many years into the future, despite the threats of increasing urban development.