Akosua Kyerewaa Yeboah-Ghansah has all the charisma you’d expect from a former pageant contestant—she’s confident and articulate, with a winning smile. As a participant in the 2016 Ghana’s Most Beautiful Pageant, she competed with other young women from across the West African nation, emerging as the second runner up.
But since she hung up her sash, Yeboah-Ghansah has found another passion: helping young women build empowering careers in a field that impacts every Ghanaian. She is the founder of Miss Agriculture Ghana, a national pageant that crowns winners based on their farming, not their figures.
Despite that, many of the Miss Agriculture Ghana contestants are newcomers to agriculture. The program intends to do more than bestow crowns and sashes to its young participants: it builds careers, through an intensive 13-week training program.
Yeboah-Ghansah’s passion for agriculture started in childhood. Her father, Osabarima Asare Oduro, is the traditional leader of Adeiso, a small town about two hours from Accra, Ghana’s capital. Her mother is also a powerful local force, having formed an activist group called the Chamber of Women in Agriculture. The family supports several of the town’s plantations, and as Yeboah-Ghansah is quick to credit her parents with giving her leadership skills. “I learned a bit from both of them,” she says. As to her interest in pageantry, she recalls that “When I was a kid, I used to line up other kids in front of me and talk. No surprise I went into pageants!”
During her time in the pageant world, Yeboah-Ghansah noticed that most of the young women around her were primarily interested in makeup and beauty. But her concerns were more practical—“we need to eat!” she remembers thinking, while other contestants compared notes about lip gloss.
Yeboah-Ghansah’s concerns have large-scale implications in Ghana. While the country has made tremendous strides in the last 20 years, 24.2% of the population still lives beneath the poverty line and about 5% are food insecure, with another 2 million vulnerable to food insecurity. In addition, climate change is altering rainfall patterns in the nation’s agricultural regions, so innovations in farming will be increasingly important to help individuals and nations improve food security.
Yeboah-Ghansah’s work tackles these issues by tapping into the intellectual power of Ghana’s young women, though she admits the fashion component of the program also has its allure for participants. “That was the bait to attract young women into agriculture—I know they love the pageantry and the fashion, but they’re also learning a trade.”
Each year, her organization selects one or two young women aged 18-30 from the nation’s 16 regions. After a period of classroom training, each is assigned a plot of land. Working with the Ghanaian Food Ministry and local agronomists, participants are trained in agricultural production.
Pride shines through in Yeboah-Ghansah’s voice as she talks about what the program achieves: “Some of these young women never even imagined they could become land owners!” Yeboah-Ghansah is delighted to teach them otherwise. “I open their eyes to opportunities in the sector.”
The work has its challenges. For example, land ownership is traditionally reserved for men in Ghana. As the daughter of a chief, Yeboah-Ghansah has easy access to arable land, “but some ladies don’t have this opportunity—I wondered, ‘how best can I support them?’” As older leaders have seen the dwindling interest in agriculture among Ghana’s young people, gender barriers have begun to fall out of necessity. As a result, Yeboah-Ghansah has found support among some members of Ghana’s traditional leadership.
Another barrier has been public perception of agriculture, especially among younger people. “There are agricultural colleges in Ghana,” says Akosua, “But they are looked down upon. Some feel it is a field for the aged. And of course, you can’t dip your hands in the soil if you are a young lady!”
Yeboah-Ghansah is quick to tell participants that not everyone who works in agriculture gets their hands dirty—the Miss Agriculture program also provides training in marketing Ghana’s agricultural products, designing packaging and considering new ways to export them beyond West Africa.
Whatever their chosen path, the program’s participants are supported in the long term. They’re offered training, career placement, and guidance for as long as they need it, through the United Women for Agricultural Development Foundation.
Yeboah-Ghansah is optimistic about professional prospects for women in Ghana, and even though studies show that the country has made progress, the picture is complicated. The World Economic Forum found that Ghana is approaching gender equity in health and education, but that the nation is the bottom 25% globally for female workforce participation. This points to a gap for young women in particular, who are educated alongside their male counterparts but still struggle to find professional fulfilment in the next stage of life.
With nearly 30 million people to feed, and more than 157,000 square kilometers of farmland, Ghana will have plenty of work for a new generation of agriculturalists. As young women gain confidence and expertise, more and more of them may take center stage.