When the Market System is Not Gender-Neutral

Alaine JohnsonLeland, Updates

Above: Women from the Langzenlanoba Shea Butter Processing VSLA dancing at International Rural Women’s Day. 📸 12th Class Leland Fellow Alaine Johnson, placed with the Ghana Market Systems Resilience project of ACDI/VOCA.

The northern regions of Ghana are the fufu basket of the country. Ghana’s food security depends on agriculture in the north, which faces water shortages, temperatures beyond 41º C, and rural-urban flight. The aim of my project – Ghana Market Systems Resilience – is to strengthen the agricultural market system and make agriculture a profitable, attractive livelihood and stymie the disappearance of youth from agriculture. The Northern regional capital, Tamale, has been my home for the past six months as a Leland Fellow. It is the fastest growing city in West Africa but lacks the amenities and development to keep pace with its population growth. At the core of the market systems approach is a focus on bolstering local agribusinesses to provide better services to customers. Then you let the market sort out the rest.

During my first months in Tamale, I took the theoretical learnings of the market systems approach with me to the field. I trained myself to see communities of thatched huts in terms of their assets, like access to inputs and agricultural extension services, while taking mental notes of kwashiorkor in children that weren’t in school, and the absence of power lines and toilets. We weren’t a humanitarian project, I’ve been told. We must develop agribusinesses and play our part.

One of these agribusinesses was run by Amina Mumuni, who started her own tombrown1 processing company. I asked her about her business relationships and she told me she purchases her inputs of dried maize, soybean, and wheat from the open market.

“Why don’t you have direct relationships with farmers so you can buy wholesale?” I asked. It looked like a classic market system inefficiency to me.

“Because I’m a woman. The men don’t take me seriously.”

I tilted my head. “How so?”

She then told me a story that my colleagues confirmed is a fact of business in northern Ghana.

Amina did have an agreement with a farmer to directly buy his maize. When harvest time came around, he claimed a bushfire had destroyed his maize and he wouldn’t be able to deliver on the maize she had already made a forward purchase for. She went to visit his farm. There was no fire damage and Amina could only conclude that he had sold to someone else. Disputes like this are settled by the local chief in northern Ghana. The chief is always a man. When Amina brought her grievances to the chief, the only reprieve she received was “to give her brother some time” for him to repay her. Amina had to give up the case. She felt that if she had continued pursuing it, the farmer would become resentful of her pressure and bad juju would get cast on her. She stated this as a fact, not as a possibility. It wasn’t worth it. Since then, Amina doesn’t take on the risk of working with men in the market system, preferring to pay a higher price for the maize right in front of her at the market.


Caption: Alaine Johnson (MSR) discussing Amina Mumuni’s tombrown business. 📸 Gifty Akapule of MSR


I was reminded of what a woman told me at an event for International Rural Women’s Day in my first week. The durbar, or festival, commemorated the integral role of women in rural economies. The atmosphere was infectious, and the official programming was punctuated by dancing and music. Women representing Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) wore matching outfits. Booths sold regional products by women-run MSMEs2. I mingled with a woman named Zulfawu Mahami and asked her what the company name on her shirt meant. Langzenlanoba Shea Butter Processing Group. Langzenlanoba translates to “when we sit together as women, we have peace.” Zulfawu told me how happy she was that her hometown of Nadowli-Kaleo in the Upper West region was chosen for the durbar, and that it’s rare to gather together and come out and speak like they could at the event. I asked why and she said in very few words that they’re afraid. Because of the men.

Fast forward five months. I’m at a three-day climate finance conference hosted by USAID in Accra. Day after day there are panel discussions on agriculture, carbon credits, climate change adaptation and mitigation practices. Only three of the panels include women, and just two of those include Ghanaian women (including the panel I hosted). To the panel, and to the audience, I posed the question – If women are the backbone of agriculture in Ghana, why are they not being included in these conversations?

The agricultural market system is not gender neutral. So long as women are constrained from being able to make the same decisions and engage in the same partnerships as men, the market systems approach will be handicapped. If women’s choices are directed by fear and patriarchy rather than planning for their futures, they are not market actors that can strengthen Ghana’s agricultural development. Development organizations must understand that women operate their businesses under different conditions, and focus on strengthening their capacities. At the very least, women should feel confident to gather together and speak, in spite of other market actors who – in the words of Amina – don’t take them seriously.


A cyclist and a truck on a dirt road in Ghana. 📸 Alaine Johnson



  1. A porridge of soybean, maize, and wheat flour. For more on tombrown, see Leland Fellow Sara Higgin’s “Tom Brown Supplementary Feeding Program: An Implementation Guide,” created for Catholic Relief Services. []
  2. Micro, small, and medium enterprises. []

About the Authors

Alaine Johnson graduated with her Master's at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies focusing on Development, Climate, and Sustainability in South and Southeast Asia. As an agrarian scholar, her work focuses on organic agri-food systems, conservation, and regenerative agriculture. Alaine grew up in Seattle and then lived overseas for 12 years in Singapore, India, Indonesia, Eswatini, and Thailand, and worked in carbon accounting, coffee production and research, and before that in a tech startup and as a journalist. She's part of the second graduating class of Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where she majored in environmental science, and before that she was a Shelby Davis Scholar at the United World College of Southern Africa. Fun fact: her pandemic hobby was endurance cycling and she cycled 180km in a day!

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