The Kayayee Conundrum; A Situation That Requires Urgent Fixing

The human resources of a nation, not its capital or natural resources is what ultimately determines the character and pace of a nation’s economic and social development (Todaro, 1997). Legal luminary and teacher, Ace Anan Ankomah has always argued that ‘brains develop a nation, not resources’. This is a widely accepted point of view.

“Kaya” is the business. It refers to the act of carrying loads on the head for a fee and the women (the dominated gender in the business) who are engaged in this activity are called “Kayayei” (Kayayo for singular). Kaya is a term in the Hausa language which means luggage, load or goods. Yoo in Ga, the language of the indigenes of Accra, the capital town of Ghana means woman.

According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the majority of the girls and women who engage in the kaya business or head portage are mainly from the Mamprusi, Gonja, Kotokoli, Mossi, Frafra, Bimoba, and Dagomba ethnic groups which are all located in the Northern parts of Ghana, with a few of the Kayayei from other neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin.

The areas they hail from in Ghana and the other places are commonplaces of abject poverty and they migrate to the major cities in search of greener pastures to escape poverty. A survey by Plan Ghana and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shows that the girls and women engaging in this trade are between the ages of 10 and 35 years. About 90% of them have limited to no knowledge in formal education, thereby receding their prospects of employment in the formal sector in the two major cities, Accra and Kumasi. This is one of the reasons why most of the girls and women who migrate down South engage in the Kaya business.

This arduous and strenuous task exposes the practitioners to physical strains and reproductive health risks, especially, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS. The girls and women are predominantly found in high risk working and living conditions. Most are susceptible for gender based violence, rape and with little to no information on their physical and reproductive health.

The mass of the Kayayei live in makeshift and cobbled-together structures, majority being wood and tent with few being cement block structures as their accommodation. These accommodation structures of the Kayayei are clustered principally in slums and shanty towns, surrounded by a lot of filth. These structures lack facilities such as toilets, bathrooms and potable water.

Another factor that expose the Kayayei to health-related problems is poor eating habits. Many kayayei do not cook due to lack of cooking space in their makeshift structures. Also, due to the nature of their work, thus, working through the greater part of the day they do not have time to cook. Most resort to buying food from the roadside that isn’t bad in itself; instead, the problem emanates from the unwholesome conditions and environment in which these foods are prepared, purchased and consumed.

Some efforts have been made by past and present governments, cooperate and social organizations and Non-governmental Organizations (NG0s) to help resolve some of these health-related concerns. The National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) which was established in 2004 to provide affordable health care for people is one of them. It is also instructive to note that not all essential drugs and treatments are covered under the scheme. Also, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Society for Women against AIDS in Africa (SWAA), Ghana, have trained and educated some Kayayei on life skills along with sexual and reproductive health education.


  1. The training and provision of capital for kayayie is not enough. The agencies superintending over these schemes do a holistic review of the current and past modules and ensure the majority of kayayie are not back on the streets.
  1. As a student and proponent of public policy and advocacy, a long term comprehensive national development blueprint is needed to bridge the infrastructural gap between the Northern and Southern sector of Ghana. The blueprint should also capture a strategy on national human resource development.
  1. Metropolitan, Municipal, and District Assemblies (MMDAs) of areas that witness the frequent exodus should team up with NGOs, civil society, chiefs, community leaders and the people to identify, plan and effect change. Laws governing Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) for instance must be enforced to the latter. Incentives like sanitary pads, learning materials and scholarships amongst others can all be factored in to keep and attract the girl child in school.
  1. The government should consider expanding the net of the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) to cover majority of the kayayei. It will go a long way to lessen their burdens.

The kayayei situation is a big blot on the conscience of this country. The status quo is not fit for purpose, judging by their standards of living and in some cases, their innocent babies. #KayayeiLivesAlsoMatter, Ghana and her leaders should look at them.

Writer: Eugene Osei-Tutu

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