For this article, put aside any notions of women’s pageants being about beauty queens and statements on world peace.
In Ghana, the Miss Agriculture contest led by the United Women in Agriculture Foundation and the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture is a stage for young women with creative projects that have the potential to shake up the status quo of sustainable agribusiness – and to inspire more of their peers to take up the trade, too.
Here, Landscape News spoke with the current title-holder, Afriyie Obeng-Fosu about why oyster mushrooms are great for cities, how entrepreneurs can monetize industrial waste and the challenges facing West African agribusiness at large.
How did you earn the title of Miss Agriculture Ghana?
I applied with an oyster mushroom project that I had started in Accra.
Very often, the issue people face when they want to go into agriculture is that it’s difficult to find land in urban areas where most of the population lives. But with oyster mushroom production, you can grow in bags, so you don’t need land; all you need is a humid environment in which your mushrooms can germinate.
The main materials that we use are by-products of agriculture, such as sawdust, wheat bran, oyster meal and rice bran. You can also use cassava canes. In Ghana, people don’t use sawdust for anything. After the wood is processed, the sawdust is industrial waste. But it’s one of our main inputs; it’s about 70 percent of the material we use. So if this kind of idea were promoted and expanded further, imagine the amount of waste that could be recycled and used to grow something healthy rather than creating all of this chaos in the environment.
The mushrooms are also a healthier food choice than meat – they have antioxidants and low cholesterol. Also, when you look at the value chain for oyster mushroom production, every step can become a source for employment. Someone might decide to be a sawdust supplier for mushroom farmers. They can get the sawdust for free — they just go to the site where it’s produced and pick it up.
Apart from the oyster mushroom production, I’m also employed as an extension officer in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. I’ve been working there since 2012.
How has being named Miss Agriculture impacted your life?
After the pageant, my market for the mushroom business was boosted. People now knew about what I did, and they were more interested in consuming mushrooms because they knew the benefits of this healthy alternative to meat.
What do you see as the key issues for sustainable agriculture in Ghana in 2019?
As I said before, access to land is very difficult in the urban centers, so if you want to do large-scale agribusiness, you have to go outside Accra. But then the market demand is in Accra, so the cost of transportation makes the price of the foodstuffs very high.
What’s more, the road network is very bad, and sometimes you’re blocked entirely from the urban market where you can get higher prices for your products.
The costs of labor are high too, because the work is very labor-intensive: here in Ghana we don’t have many advanced technologies — transplanting, weeding and harvesting is all done by human labor.
What would you say to young women considering a career in agriculture?
Whatever they are thinking to do, they should try it out and do their market research before they start production. They have to think, who are the people who will buy the products? That’s one of the reasons why agriculture is not very attractive to the youth here in Africa: people are not making money, because we do not do our market research. So please, spend quality time to know your market before you start, otherwise you’ll be frustrated. That’s a topic very close to my heart.