UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In rural Ghana, where most rely on farming for survival, families face many challenges, including scarcity of food, running water and electricity.
Women carry a hefty workload because they are responsible not just for child-rearing and household tasks but also for farm chores. Though their contributions often leave women with less free time than men, their work is undervalued, and most women are not equal partners in financial decision-making, according to Kaitlin Fischer, a doctoral degree candidate in rural sociology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Fischer wants to give these women a voice, so she is spending the next several months in Ghana to advance that aspiration, thanks to a Fulbright Research Award and Africana Research Center grant.
The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government's flagship international educational exchange program. Fischer was one of several Penn State alumni and graduate students selected from a competitive, nationwide pool of applicants to receive the award.
A key purpose of the Fulbright Program is for participants to be cultural ambassadors while living abroad, noted Fischer, who is pursuing a dual-title degree in international agriculture and development through the college’s Ag Sciences Global program.
“My research is designed to employ feminist research methodology that is implemented with and for women and is attentive to my role as a researcher and the research process itself on the study’s participants and findings,” she said. “I am grateful for this opportunity to expand my knowledge while supporting women in Ghana.”
Since arriving in the country in early September, Fischer has studied the effects of two ongoing interventions to assist Ghanaian farmers. The first, which is led by the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute, introduces various technologies and production techniques intended to advance women’s participation in the peanut value chain by saving time and reducing labor needs.
The project also sponsors gender-focused training and discussions intended to encourage men to assist their wives in household and farm responsibilities. The three-year study is part of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut Research at the University of Georgia.
The second intervention, led by the nonprofit Project Peanut Butter, sources peanuts from northern Ghana for a peanut-based dietary supplement, which then is distributed to Ghanaian schoolchildren by Pennsylvania-based Hershey Co., one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world.
Fischer explained that the project uses purchasing power to incentivize upgrading the peanut value chain. Farmers are offered higher prices, inputs and training to produce a large supply of contaminant-free peanuts.
The creation of value chains — or the linkages between a product’s production and consumption that add value to a crop and garner a higher price — increasingly is equated with international agricultural development, noted Fischer.
“However, although women typically provide much of the needed labor in peanut production, processing and marketing, men tend to take control over agricultural production when it becomes more economically valuable,” she said.
Fischer came to Penn State in the fall of 2019 on a University Graduate Fellowship, having earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental policy, institutions, and behavior, and a certificate in American politics and public policy from Rutgers University in New Jersey. She also holds a master’s degree in food systems and society from Marylhurst University in Oregon.
She said she was drawn to the College of Agricultural Sciences' rural sociology program due to her interest in the interconnectedness of local, regional and global food systems.
“What I appreciate about the rural sociology program at Penn State is its emphasis on the value of rural people and places in our collective past, present and future as societies continue to change,” she said.
During her first year at Penn State, she assisted Daniel Azzara, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education, with the creation of a new undergraduate course that focuses on corporate social and environmental performance.
Her participation in peanut and gender-related research in Ghana came by way of her faculty adviser, Leland Glenna, professor of rural sociology and science, technology, and society. She credited him and Edward Martey, head of the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute Socioeconomics Division, for helping her acclimate to Ghana.
“They have been invaluable in introducing me to farmers, researchers and local resources needed to carry out my research,” said Fischer, whose future goal is to effect social change through a government position.
Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs for the college, is confident Fischer will make an impact no matter where she lands. “We are grateful that Kaitlin chose Penn State for her graduate education,” she said. “Her work will inform and be integrated into our Gender Equity through Agricultural Research and Education initiative, which is designed to promote food security, resilience and improved livelihoods around the world.”