From schoolyard to the rice paddies - a child of farmers grows to appreciate the importance of farming
As a child growing up in the rural north region of Ghana, Janet Altimoliga dreamed of becoming a doctor.
But the demands of taking care of her 6 younger brothers and sisters after school while her parents sowed and reaped the maize, rice and groundnuts (peanuts) on their small farm eventually pointed her in another direction.
At 15 she started helping her parents plant their crops and began to understand how important a role farming played in her family’s life. Aside from feeding her large family, each crop produced enough extra to sell so that her parents could afford to give their children an education.
“I realized that the food I grew took care of me,” she said. “That made me feel happy, and free.” But it also quickly became clear that her parents would never earn enough to send her to university or medical school.
She then set her sights on farming, and finding ways to help herself and other rural farmers – especially women – get support from the government and other groups to not only survive, but thrive in the farming world.
Now 48, Janet has raised three children of her own, and runs her own 14-acre farm where she raises the same crops as her parents – rice, maize and groundnuts.
She is also a fierce activist for the female farming community. She chairs the Women in Agriculture Platform in her region’s Municipal Assembly and is an active member of the national Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana (PFAG).
She says the women farmers have had a big problem for a long time – it’s their fellow male farmers.
Fertilizer Subsidy Scarcity Provokes Conflict - How Violence Birthed an Activist
Although the Ghanaian government overspent its budget on the fertilizer subsidy program by an average of 144% between 2017-2020– the actual subsidized fertilizer for that same period was underdelivered by nearly 17 percent. That’s because the government is heavily indebted and consistently making back payments to the importers of fertilizer. The government’s inability to settle their obligations to the importers constrains the ability of fertilizer companies to bring in enough fertilizer in time and in the right quantities.
That sets back all Ghanaian farmers and creates competition for scarce subsidies–with women farmers left holding the short end of the stick.
While the subsidy applies to both men and women, Janet said women farmers have always had difficulty accessing government-subsidized fertilizer and the tractor services so vital for planting their crops. “Men see us as competition,” Janet says. The male-dominated fertilizer sellers and tractor owners give priority to male farmers and women often risk violence when they try to buy the fertilizer that is so crucial to producing a good crop yield.
“We’ve faced it many times,” Janet said. “We hear the fertilizer is in and we would get in line, but the men would push us down on the ground and then buy the fertilizer.”
Janet was not daunted, though. “I fell down, but I didn’t give up,” she said. Still, she felt badly for the women farmers who were not as aggressive or strong. “I knew that if I fought, I would get one or two (bags of fertilizer), but what about all the other women?” she said.
In that moment, the activist in her was born. “I got all the women farmers (nearby) to join PFAG because women’s voices were not being heard,” she said.
Women Farmers Highlight Inequities - "Wake-Up Call" For Greater Input from Women
In 2021, through help from PFAG and IBP, Janet was able to secure nearly 700 bags of fertilizer for her community of 43 women farmers. What she didn’t realize at the time, however, is that the women were entitled to much more.
Janet was one of 20 women farmers from around the Kassana region to attend an event IBP helped coordinate with PFAG and the government’s Women in Agriculture Department (WIAD). It was the first event that gave women farmers the opportunity to share their unique experiences and struggles as peasant farmers.
What the women told the organizers shocked them.
The government is supposed to allot women farmers 30 percent of all of the fertilizer subsidies for peasant farmers as stipulated in the fertilizer subsidy policy guidelines.
That was news to the women farmers.
“We had no idea (about the 30 percent allotment)!” Janet says.
Janet and the other women explained to the Women in Agriculture Department that in addition to the violence they face from men while trying to buy fertilizer, they are further discriminated against by male tractor drivers, who till male farmers’ lands first.
“We normally plow our fields last because the tractor operators are men, and favor other men,” Janet says.
Farming is time-sensitive, adds Godson Aloryito, IBP’s budget credibility officer for Ghana. “This kind of discimination affects their ability to till their lands and get ready for planting.”
While IBP has been instrumental in helping bring ordinarily centralized fertilizer supplies to remote regions, and supporting the peasant farmers on the ground to monitor the challenges in distribution, the meeting with the women was a wake up call.
“This was a major revelation for us,” Aloryito said.
Gender Equity Championed as Essential - A Woman Farmer Looks Forward to Brighter Future
Going forward, IBP will support PFAG with an assessment of the current financing arrangement for the fertilizer subsidy program to better understand the structural bottlenecks that are keeping the government from delivering adequately. It is also clear that there are systemic issues that are driving gender inequity in the management of the subsidy.
The women farmers need a champion who can ensure they are treated fairly. Yet, the Women in Agriculture Development remains woefully underfunded. IBP is working with PFAG to improve budgetary allocations and disbursements to WIAD. IBP has also engaged the Crop Services Directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for the subsidy program, to bring WIAD to the table to protect the interest of women along the value-chain. The aim is to ensure WIAD has the resources and wherewithal to ensure women farmers are given their due.
Paulina Addy, Director of the WIAD, noted that gender equity is not only right, it makes practical sense. “Her argument is that women farmers produce subsistence food that ensures food security for everyone,” Aloryito said.
Addy committed to alerting her colleagues and leaders across the region that the 30 percent quota is not being enforced. She will organize gender sensitization workshops at the local level, which will include fertilizer retailers and companies and WIAD officers in the districts. The hope is to end the discriminatory practices against women farmers and ensure that next planting season they will receive their quotas and timely tractor services.
“First there must be a change in attitudes,” Aloryito said. “This practice has been going on for who knows how many years. It’s about time that women have their fair share.”
IBP is also working with the government and PFAG to get women farmers more involved in the planning process for government programs and at the local level. At PFAG’s annual meeting following the March event, they elected more women farmers onto their board, including their new vice president.
Longer term, IBP is working with PFAG and the government to consider color-coding the fertilizer bags allotted to women pink. “Then if you see a man carrying a pink fertilizer bag, you’ll know that something is amiss,” Aloryito said. Janet also has a suggestion. “Divide the fertilizer before it gets sold,” so that women get their 30 percent share, she told a local news crew covering the issue.
For Janet, farming season means waking at 5 am, walking 100 yards to fetch water, and preparing a breakfast of bofroat (Ghanaian donuts) for her 3 adult children, her husband and granddaughter. From 8 until 4 pm she works on the farm with her husband, who she met at school long ago. “He was very kind, a handsome boy who liked to read,” she says with a laugh. Afterwards, she takes a bath, eats dinner and then goes to sleep.
But before, during and after the planting season, Janet is busy working with and for her fellow women farmers, relentlessly determined to make sure they get the support they deserve to cultivate and grow healthy crops, without the roadblocks set up in the past by a culture that favors men. She looks forward to a day when women can own their own tractors and men no longer have the upper hand.
“Men may have pushed us around in the past, but they won’t be pushing us again,” she said.