Women & Tractors: A love story

What worked for women in WWII, works for women farmers in Ghana today.


It was an earth-shaking moment. Leticia Brenyah was helping rural women in her Ashanti Ghana village to improve their lives with classes in personal hygiene, money management, and healthcare when it suddenly occurred to her that what they really needed was a break. These women were farmers, like 60% of Ghanaians, and like most smallholder farmers, they spent hours in the fields plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting by hand, using tons of harmful chemicals, exhausting themselves and the soils.

Farming & watering by hand is back-breaking labor.

So Leticia decided to teach these women how to drive tractors. Initially, the women resisted –thinking Brenyah was insulting them by trying to get them to “act like men.” She finally won them over and voila! From their perch atop a tractor, suddenly life was a lot easier: women could sow and harvest more quickly, carry more produce to the market (up to one ton a trip) and earn more money.

The old way to market.

“It gave them self-confidence that they can try anything after having driven a tractor,” Leticia says. “The women have their own income and can spend it on their children, send them to school, and see their lives changed.”

Since the women couldn’t afford to buy tractors on their own, Leticia organized them in groups to take out loans and buy collectively. And those women went out and trained other women. To date, Brenyah, her 10 PALMS employees, and scores of volunteers have trained 250,000 women in five of the 10 regions in Ghana – and they’re planning on reaching 250,000 more with the award of $300,000 in the 2010 Exxon Women, Tools & Technology challenge.

New tools & technology can change her life.

As a woman, scientist, and math & communications high school teacher, 28-year old Leticia Brenyah clearly has an unusual perspective on the role of women in Africa. But she comes by it honestly: her father is Joseph Brenyah, founder of PALMS (Productive Agricultural Linkages and Marketing Systems), a non-profit that teaches Ghanaian women farmers to use updated technology and more sustainable farming practices to improve crop production and distribution.

The incredible, edible Moringa plant!

For Joseph, this had to do with introducing moringa (not to be confused with merengue, DWTS fans), a miracle plant that it’s impossible to describe without sounding like an infomercial. A drought-resistant and fast-growing plant that thrives in a variety of poor soils, moringa has more betacarotene than carrots, more protein than peas, more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and as much potassium as bananas. But wait! There’s more! It can also be processed into a food-fortifying supplement, used as a tea, added to maize, turned into biodiesel, or used as a disease-resistant, natural growth-hormone compost to produce healthier, more robust cash crops.

Solar-powered drip irrigation at work.

A few years ago, Ghana had no moringa farms. Through the work of PALMS since 2005, Ghana now has 100,000 acres of moringa plantations, and those farmers are seeing a 100-300% increase in income. Joseph has also pioneered the use of drip irrigation to use water efficiently and effectively, powered by solar panels.

Crops grow up to 3x bigger with moringa compost.

In short, by giving women farmers access to training, capital, and technology, PALMS has given them more power, control and influence in their community –and enabled them to improve the economy of the entire country. And from atop a tractor, the future always looks brighter.

To give more women this vantage point, I’m donating my $100 to PALMS today!

*Ashoka is the granddaddy of all associations of social entrepreneurs, working since 1981 to support men and women around the world who have developed system-changing solutions for the world’s most urgent social  problems. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to feature a few of their incredibly diverse visionary entrepreneurs–like today’s Ashoka Changemakers, Leticia & Joseph Brenyah.