Men, Women, and Cotton:
Contract Agriculture for Subsistence
Farmers in Northern Ghana
In this chapter, I examine the reasons why people contract to grow cotton in northern Ghana. Using the framework of cultural economics, I illustrate the point that the net benefit of growing a crop cannot be defined solely in terms of yield and price (less costs), but must be conceived in broader terms.
As a crop, cotton is widely reviled for ecological, political, and economic reasons. It is considered a stripper of soil fertility, an example of the penetration of the global economy in the most disadvantageous terms, and a diversion from the growing of food crops. It has been described as the mother of poverty and the mother of hunger (Isaacman 1996).
Yet half of the farmers in the study village in Mampurugu, in the Northern Region of Ghana, 1 planted at least a half hectare. 2 of cotton in 1994 and 1995, and 16 percent of the cultivated farmland was planted with cotton, all under contract for one of the three cotton companies operating in the village (Table 13.1). The crop was popular with both men and women; one in three cotton growers was a woman, and women controlled one-fifth of the crop. Under the contract, the cotton companies provide seed, fertilizer, insecticide, and plowing assistance to farmers who grow the cotton on their own land. After harvest, the cotton company buys the cotton for a preestablished price linked to its quality and quantity and deducts the cost of inputs from their payment. 3 Cotton is grown as a sideline cash crop by most farmers: no farmer planted more than 1.5 hectares in 1994, and the majority of farmers (69 percent) planted only half a hectare. Even so, in 1994, a year with fairly good rains, the gross and net cash returns to the farmers were pitiful: the mean cash payment by the company per unit of cotton was equivalent to approximately two months food for a conjugal monogamous household before the cotton company