Hunger eradication? Look no further than Mahama Yamig

Mahama is a living example of how simple support for women farmers - in things like tools, seeds and know-how - can help eradicate hunger and change women’s lives.

Mahama lives in Namgodi village in the north of Ghana. 

She has a tough life.  Mahama lost her husband to illness 3 years ago.  Like 1 in 3 households in Ghana her household is headed by a woman. 

She is 45 years old, and has 4 children, 3 girls and one boy.   Getting up at 3am in the morning, she starts cooking ‘Kenkey’ – a mashed-potato-like food eaten with soups and sauces and made out of ground corn.  She sells the Kenkey at the village market at around 7am, supplementing the family income with the proceeds. 

At around 10 am, she goes to her farm, working there until about three in the afternoon, after which she makes her way home to cook the family meal and prepare things for the next day’s Kenkey-making.

Producing a good crop from her farm enables her to feed her family, sell any extra produce and buy the ingredients necessary to make the Kenkey that she sells.  It also enables her to send her daughter to school and make sure her children can see a doctor if they become ill.  But in past years, with poor crop yields, she and her family have struggled and often gone hungry. 

It was desperate.  We just lived hand to mouth.

All her children except her youngest girl, who is 14, dropped out of school, as the family didn’t have enough money to keep them going beyond junior high - they needed to work in order to ensure the family had enough food.

“We would have to go to forage for firewood to make some money quickly.  When we had to do this it meant that we weren’t working on our own farm as well.  Leaving the farm meant that we would have a worse crop later on.  It meant that things could get worse and worse.  It meant that any money that I had to buy ingredients to sell Kenkey had to go on food for ourselves, so I had to stop selling Kenkey.”

But in recent years Mahama has turned her situation around.  Assisted by an ActionAid partner called BONATAADO who helped with some simple tools and advice, Mahama was able to produce and sell enough food so that the family isn’t persistently hungry, and so that her youngest daughter can attend school, and so that she can sell Kenkey in the market.

“In a year of good harvests now we will eat from the farm from one end of the year to the other.  But in the past, with poor yields we might have only 7 months of food from the farm.”Mahama farms 3 acres of land on which she grows Maize (corn), groundnuts and Millet.  She received advice from BONATAADO on how to produce compost to increase her yields.

“We used to just burn the remaining stalks from last years’ crop.  Now I go to the farm gather the stalks from the previous season and we store them so that they decompose, compost them then spread them on the field. Then when it rains we sow. “This has made a significant difference to how much she can grow.

“We used to produce 2 bags of groundnuts, now we produce six. My maize has grown from 1 bag to 5 bags.  It can mean the difference between us having enough food, sending the children to school or not.  The increased yield enables my youngest children to go to school.”

The tools that she was provided with - hoes, cutlass, fork and rake – as well as some support with ploughing with a bullock – have also made a big difference.“Having these tools has made things much easier.  The work is very hard.  But the tools have made things a lot easier. “However, Mahama is exceptional in receiving this sort of help.  

Despite the fact that women like Mahama are responsible for producing around 70 per cent of the country’s food, and do most of the planting, weeding, harvesting and transporting of food produce, agricultural supports and services tend to miss them out completely.

Only one very small budget line appears in the Ministry of Agriculture budget that specifically targets women farmers - just 0.4 per cent of the total.

And schemes run by the government to assist farmers with subsidized fertilizer aren’t getting to farmers like Mahama.

“The government system didn’t supply fertilizer in time last year to help us.  We had to get a coupon then travel to the next town to get the fertilizer.  By the time we got it, it was too late for the season.  If fertilizer was available earlier and if we could get it closer to home- that would make a big difference to us.”Other major schemes run by the government, such as subsidised tractors, where farmers have to raise a big deposit to take part – the equivalent of thousands of dollars - are beyond the reach of small holder farmers like Mahama, even where villagers get together to pool their resources.

The deposit for the tractor scheme would make it very difficult for us.  The money is so huge.

Smallholder farmers also need the know-how to help them become more productive.  ‘Extension officers’ – experts in farming who work for agriculture departments – can visit rural communities and make a world of difference, giving advice on methods like composting which has benefitted Mahama so much. 

But Ghana has poor extension services with only about 1 in 10 male and 1 in 50 female-headed households having access to one.But if more resources could be put into supporting farmers like Mahama, the results could be incredible.

Research suggests that current maize, cassava and yam yields in Ghana (the main food crops) are at least three times less than what is achievable with modest investments.  Yet most faming households like Mahama’s still lack enough food for 3-7 months in any year.

The north of Ghana where Mahama lives is especially prone to hunger - a region far from the country’s capital where extreme poverty persists despite the economic growth in other parts of the country.

Getting rid of hunger and poverty in Ghana means supporting food crop farmers, who are mainly women, and targeting Ghana’s northern regions where poverty is deepest.

Wealthy countries have a role in this too.  The leaders of wealthy countries pledged $22bn to support smallholder farmers like Mahama at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009 – a pledge made at the height of the food crisis.

But little of this money has yet come through, despite the fact that again in 2011, food prices are so high that they are pushing millions of people over the edge.

Mahama dreams of a time when farmers like her could get better support so that they could become even more productive and prosperous. 

“If the president were here I’d ask him to make bullocks available to us women – and the tractor service too!  If we could get those things we could get so much more yield from the farm.”

So what are we waiting for?