MEDA’s Karen Walsh talks about food security in Ghana

Empowering women soybean farmers to improve food security and nutrition in Ghana

What’s high in protein, fiber and other essential nutrients? Would you have guessed the humble soybean?

This adaptable legume can be used in anything from tofu to soy flour. Due to its many uses and nutritional value, this legume is paramount to food security around the world. Northern Ghana is no exception.

Funded by Global Affairs Canada, MEDA’s Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) initiative was a six-year, CAD $20 million project, which supported over 23,000 women smallholder farmers in northern Ghana to improve food security and nutrition for their families by growing and selling soy. Soy was selected as the primary crop because of its high nutritional value and the growing market demand among individuals and agro-processing companies.

However, GROW faced a challenge: few farmers knew about the nutritional or financial benefits of soy cultivation.

To help facilitate closing the knowledge gap, Amplio provided Talking Books, mobile information devices to MEDA for distribution to each of GROW’s 1,016 women’s groups. Content included technical information and key messages on five main topics: farming practices, market linkages, finances, nutrition and health, and gender equity. Information on these topics was pre-recorded in local languages and produced and deployed in partnership with Amplio’s affiliate, Literacy Bridge Ghana.

When GROW concluded at the end of 2018, a close-out survey showed that Talking Books were an important source of information dissemination across the GROW communities. You can read about it here.

We recently caught up with Karen Walsh, Country Program Manager for GROW, to get her take on Talking Books.

Amplio: Would you recommend the Talking Book to other organizations?

Karen: Yes! I’m a 100% supporter of the Talking Book and I have introduced it to everyone, including UNICEF. I truly think the Talking Book provides something that we can’t replicate. It’s like having your own technical helper that you can use any time to get your message out. Talking Books helped us to expand our reach with information about soybean cultivation, business practices and gender equality, and the information stayed with them as long as they needed it.

Amplio: Why did MEDA decide to use Talking Books for the GROW project?

Karen: How do you get people with low literacy and low numeracy to incorporate new practices into their everyday life? During a meeting with a community agent, people might see a demo on how to make Tom Brown, a nutritious porridge made from millet, corn, and soybeans, but they may not remember how to recreate the recipe later. With a Talking Book, they can replay the message again and again, until they understand what to do.

For GROW, we had lead farmers for each of our 1,016 groups. But even the smartest farmers need a refresher about how much space to leave between rows, when to put in fertilizer, or how to measure a field. For these farmers and others, the Talking Book is like an extension agent in their hands.

Through training and outreach, we changed how people eat. We added a way to incorporate soybeans morning, noon, and night.

Soybeans also became a local currency that women could use to barter for other needed goods. When women grow and sell soybeans, they have a sustainable income that can pay for food, healthcare and education for their families.

Amplio: MEDA refers to the Talking Book as a “technical support tool.” Do you also talk about social and behavior change?

Karen: We say “technical” because MEDA used the Talking Book for five different technical topics. Our most popular topic was nutrition; which we can tell because the Talking Book collects statistics on the number of times people listen to specific recordings. We talk about social and behavior change in the context of teaching people about health and nutrition, or gender equality. For the GROW project, we provided nutrition messaging in context with technical information on how to grow food.

The benefit of Amplio’s Talking Book is that it stays in the community after a field agent finishes their community visit. After they leave, the device remains, and continues to reinforce key messages, whether it’s technical information about how to rotate crops, or social and behavior change messaging about women’s rights.

Amplio: Now that you’ve used Talking Books, what would you do differently?

Karen: One of the main learnings from our GROW project was the impact lack of land access has on women’s ability to grow and sell soybeans. Had we had more time, we would have included messaging about women’s land rights – how women in Ghana can access and own land.

There are so many creative, engaging ways to produce content. One organization did a three-part, audio drama about public sanitation and latrines. You can do so much with audio programming!

For GROW, it would have been interesting to figure out why the least popular message was about value chains, which we could see in the analytics. Why didn’t people listen? Was the message poorly executed? Incorrect? We just didn’t have time to do the analysis.

One thing we know, especially with non-literate families, is that unless a print handout has a pictorial guide, very few people can understand or do what’s on it. So, it would be great to have picture books to use alongside Talking Books to reinforce information.

[Erin’s note: Centre for Behaviour Change and Communication, Amplio’s affiliate in Kenya, designs and uses beautiful picture books and other visual tools in tandem with Talking Books. Watch for a story on that soon!]

Amplio: What are some of the top benefits of using Talking Books?

Karen: With the Talking Book, people can access information in their own language, on demand. How else do you achieve that level of outreach, unless it’s one-on-one? To be able to train an entire village at their leisure is incredible.

Another benefit is that the Talking Book is a dedicated device. This is good for us because radios are valuable and get stolen all the time. The Talking Book I would argue is equally important, but it doesn’t have the same “resale” value that radios have. We actually had a man in one of our GROW communities steal a Talking Book, but the women hunted him down, found it, and said, “You can’t take this away from us!” That was pretty great to hear about it.

The Talking Book was the number one tool besides our GROW field agents. Everyone loved it. The women looked forward to listening, and the Talking Book was part of their group culture. At the weekly VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association) meetings, they always started with a Talking Book lesson. Participants also shared and listened to Talking Books individually and with their households.

As a technical aid, the Talking Book helped the women understand and remember what they needed to do. Quarterly content updates kept people on track with seasonal farming practices. Talking Book messages reminded them when school or planting season was coming up, to set aside money for education or seeds.

Amplio: You recently recommended Talking Books to MEDA’s Nigeria WAY project. Why?

Karen: Nigeria seems to be getting more and more strict – especially for women in the north of the country. There’s a huge push to introduce conservative Islam. The main reason to use Talking Books in Nigeria is because many women are in purdah kept behind closed doors. I think the Talking Book is one of the only ways we can get information into their hands, so they don’t lose touch with what’s going on.

There are also literacy and numeracy issues, which the Talking Book can help overcome because people can listen to messages in their local language. Hausa is Nigeria’s lingua franca, but there are more than 350 ethnic groups, with over 500 languages. The Talking Book would be an incredibly useful tool to disseminate information to women that are traditionally denied access.

I can imagine using the Talking Book to help women connect and stay in contact with other women, in communities where they may not be allowed out of the house unless they’re accompanied by a male figure, if at all. Talking Books are convenient and flexible based on the environment these women are living in. There’s not a set time or place to use them. You can be hidden and adjust the volume, if you don’t want anyone to see or hear that you’re listening.

Amplio: Why is it so important to educate women farmers?

Karen: With access to knowledge and resources, our GROW women can grow about 400 kilos of soy on one acre. They keep 100 kilos to feed their children and then sell 300 kilos. With that new income they’re able to pay for better food, nutrition, healthcare, and education.

Women are changing the status quo with only 400 kg of soy. They’re empowering themselves and each other. That’s truly inspiring.

Want more information on our GROW project? Visit our Learning Series page, which features documents on nutrition, women’s economic empowerment, conservation agriculture and financial inclusion. Documents are available in English and French.

You can connect with Karen Walsh on LinkedIn and read about MEDA’s programs here. To learn more about GROW, visit

Interested in knowing what GROW participants say about Talking Books? Check out Amplio’s GROW Project Update.



  • MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

    MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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