The Learning Post: insights from UK Aid Direct and UK Aid Match

Breaking down cultural and structural barriers in projects: an interview with Opportunity International

Episode Summary

In this episode, we hear from Lydia Baffour Awuah for UK Aid Match grant holder, Opportunity International, on breaking down cultural and structural gender barriers in their livelihoods for rural women farmers project in Ghana.

Episode Transcription

Lorna Power (00:10):

Hello, and welcome to the Learning Post, a podcast dedicated to sharing insights from the UK Aid Match and the UK Aid Direct funds. My name is Lorna Power and I'm the Senior Performance Manager for UK Aid Match and I'm your host for this episode. In this episode we speak to Lydia Baffour Awuah, Senior Programme Manager for Opportunity International. This is an organization working to end global poverty by providing people living in poverty with access to loans, financial training and savings, so that they can actually work their way out of poverty and build sustainable livelihoods. I've invited Lydia to talk to us today about the organization's recently ended Roots of Change Project implemented in Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of UK Aid Match. Particularly want to look at how it was able to break down cultural and structural gender barriers in its target communities. Just to start off, could you give the listeners a quick overview of the Roots of Change Project and what it was trying to achieve?

Lydia Baffour Awuah (01:07):

Thanks so much, Lorna, for having me. So the Roots of Change programme has spent the last three years helping thousands of rural women farmers and entrepreneurs in Ghana to improve their productivity, build assets and increase their household income. Smallholder farmers play a crucial role in the economy of Ghana and in the Democratic Republic of Congo; yet without resources and training, many of these smallholder farmers operate at 40% or less of their capacity. Female farmers in particular are disadvantaged due to cultural and socio-economic barriers that stop them from growing a sustainable livelihood, and this is where this programme comes in. In partnership with the UK government and Opportunity International's local partners in Ghana - that is Opportunity International Savings and Loans Limited, and Sinapi Aba Savings and Loans Limited in Ghana, and in DRC we have a Vision Fund that we are working with. We work with these partners to support these rural farmers and the community to help break down the barriers for women financial inclusion.

Lorna Power (02:19):

The project was really successful. Over 15,000 women benefited against an initial target of 12,000. Central to that success I think was really breaking down the cultural and structural gender barriers. Can you explain to the listeners how you went about doing that?

Lydia Baffour Awuah (02:33):

Changes have been quite phenomenal, and we realized that before we can actually break down some of these socio-cultural barriers, it was really important for us as an institution to look home. As they say, charity begins at home. So the first thing that we try to do is to look at each of our downstream partners, so we work with external gender consultants, and they try to review the policies and procedures of each of our downstream partners that I've mentioned, reviewing their policies including their HR policy, their credit policy, just to understand the state of their gender inclusivity at a point in time, and also help us to map them up on the gender mainstream spectrum. So we wanted to see whether the way they designed their programme and processes; whether it was gender aware or whether they were gender blind or whether it's gender transformative.


The findings from this assessment really helped us to develop institution specific actions plans to just support each of the institutions, and as I said, the assessment has brought two key dimensions for each institution. We look at their institutional change management, how to enhance their recruitment process, their performance, and also to learn more about whether they can achieve more gender aware equitable workplace. So that was one aspect that we did, and also at the client level, we wanted to see how they were working with women, and rural women in particular to see if we can make that business case for growing their women portfolio, and see how best they can actually optimize the way that they serve women in terms of their credit decisions, how they market their programme to women, the outreach and design product for them. And following on from that, we design gender-awareness training workshop, starting again from the board level up to the field (branch) management level.


All these people were taken through the gender training just to see how that impacts upon the way that they work with women, and once that aspect was done, then we came back down to the community level. Most often we do work with women, but we realize that we cannot really address the issue of gender without also bringing on board the men. So we designed this gender awareness training to work with the community leaders, those people who hold power in the community, the chief, the group leaders, as well as their spouses and other male family members in the community, for them to really understand the need for us to work with the women as well. And so far, I think that particular aspect of the programme really helped us to achieve the target that we set for ourselves.

Lorna Power (05:27):

Thank you, Lydia. I think that was a really comprehensive answer. For me, I think the work that you did with your downstream partners was really especially interesting. It's really unique. Something I haven't seen on Match before, and I think it's something hopefully that other grant holders will be interested in learning more about. Did you encounter any particular challenges for trying to break through these barriers?

Lydia Baffour Awuah (05:47):

Yes. As you know, gender issue is quite sensitive, especially in the communities and the areas that we were working with. So I remember even at the institutional level when we started, people have their own preconceived ideas about what gender is and what gender is not. So we have to actually spend a lot of time at the institutional level to help give each of our staff the language that they need, a common language that they need. For example, common things like what is the difference between gender and sex? So they can really be able to distinguish between this. What is the difference between equality versus equity? So this really was very useful because when we started it looked like it was a more of a foreign concept that we were trying to introduce at the institutional level but, as we break it down and then we try to relate it to how that is more applicable to the work that we are doing and the mission that each of the organization’s has set for themselves and particularly in terms of working with our women clients, it was really, really useful as well.


So I think one of the key lessons that we learned from this programme was that you have to create that safe space right from the beginning, especially at the institutional level, for people to voice out their own preconceived ideas about what they think gender is, to unlearn so they can try and learn the new things and, the approach that we used really helped it to become more successful. Again, we knew that we needed the gender champions within the institutional levels as well. People who have really gone through the training and understand so they can help break it down for other staff and colleagues who were not really on board with it. In terms also at the community level, it was really quite interesting when it comes to the gender training for the spouses, for the husbands, for the men and the community leaders, I think when we were going, we're not so sure whether the spouses will attend it, because they think why is it that we were only working with the women and not working with the men?


But one thing that we made clear from the onset was the fact that this was actually a project for women, but we also will not forget about the men. So we kind of adapted that two-pronged approach that some of the programme activities were for both men and women, especially the gender training, the financial literacy training that we are organizing, but we did also have women's specific programme (activities) because, the whole idea was to help bring the work of the women that were almost often at the background, they were not having access to financial services so we wanted to bring their work at the forefront so that people will see that their work is also worth, in terms of us bringing them into the financial landscape.


And one story that I actually remember, it happened in one of the communities we're working with in Ghana, one of the spouses was not so happy, does not understand why we are always meeting with the wife, but when we invited the spouse to the gender sensitization training, he said, oh, he did not have enough time, but can you believe that when this man came, after going through the training process, we wanted to do just one session with them and move to the next community. Almost every time he hear us doing it in a different community, this man will show up. He is now one of our gender advocates in the community as well. So it is really, really important again to really look at the whole ecosystem. These are norms and cultures that has been there for generations and generations, so to be able to penetrate through it, you really need the power holders to engage with it and to be on board to be able to break these barriers down.

Lorna Power (09:32):

Thank you, Lydia. And what do you think are the biggest successes of the project?

Lydia Baffour Awuah (09:35):

There were number of successes. First and foremost, when we are doing programmes like this, it is for the client, it's for the target beneficiaries, but we have to first and foremost look in-house and see that we are walking the talk. So it was really important for us from the beginning to get onboard the senior managers, board of directors to engage with the programme. The rest of the implementation was much easier. They were really willing to not just do business as usual but go beyond their everyday things to really look at, not just counting on the number of women they are serving, but actually doing a deep dive to see how they can break some of these socio-cultural norms to be able to work with the women and men so they can create that harmonious household for the people that they are working with.


The second thing that also contributed to the success of the programme, as I have said, is the gender awareness training. Looking at the whole ecosystem, it's really important to engage with the men and the boys on the gender issue, because that really helped us to be able to counter any potential backlash that we will have encountered. 

The third thing also was designing for the women. When we design programme for men, it is so difficult for us to retro-fit it for women. However, if you try and design with women in mind, some of the barriers that we encountered, they were useful for people with disability, for the youth and other things so, I will say these three aspects actually help us to be very successful.


Last thing I will say is that, also being aware of the culture sensitivity, the areas that we were working with,. When we were doing the gender training programme, we try to use local gender experts in the community. In Northern Ghana where we have most of the clients being Muslims, we try to engage with the gender consultant who is also a Muslim so she can actually relate some of the examples and the case studies that she’s using, using the Koran and some of the cultural stories that they’ve heard in the community. That actually helped them to really understand and engage with the discussions that were going on. So then taking advantage and using expertise within the local community was really helpful to help drive the success of this programme.

Lorna Power (11:56):

Thanks very much for your time today, Lydia.

Lydia Baffour Awuah (11:59):

Thanks so much Lorna for having us. It's great sharing our learnings with you.

Lorna Power (12:04):

To find out more about Opportunity Internationals work, please head over to their website at Also, don't forget to subscribe to The Learning Post so you don't miss any future episodes, and if you haven't already, please do go back and listen to all our previous episodes. Thanks very much for listening.