Saffiyah Coker’s Market Research

A trip to a shopping district in Ghana prompted her study of the inequities faced by the migrant women and girls who work there

When Saffiyah Coker, A24, traveled to Accra, Ghana, for a study abroad program in 2022, she accompanied her host family to an open-air market, where she spotted young women toting groceries on their heads. The international relations and economics major was struck by the porters’ industriousness and sense of community. But how were they treated? 

With funding from the Anne E. Borghesani Memorial Prize, she began to research their working conditions and wages, culminating in a paper that illuminates the inequities in pay and benefits for the women in this informal labor market. 

How did you get involved in this project?

I first saw these women and girls when I went to the market with my host mom at 6 in the morning on a Saturday. The open-air markets are full of life, full of people, full of trucks—and I struggled to keep up with my host mom as she expertly navigated them. 

When my host mother was looking at a stalk of plantains, I noticed a young woman standing behind me. I kept moving out of her way, thinking that she also wanted to buy plantains, but every time I moved, she moved. Suddenly, my host mom handed her groceries to put in a tin pan upon her head. Next thing I knew, the three of us were moving through the market together, with my host mom in the front, me behind her, and the young woman behind me. 

I was awed by the woman’s skill and the speed. Once we were back at the car, my host mom explained that the girls and women are kayayei, who work in the markets at low wages carrying goods for customers. 

Female porters, or kayayei, in Madina Market in Accra, Ghana.

Female porters, or kayayei, in Madina Market in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Saffiyah Coker

Immediately, I thought they should be paid more because their labor isn’t easy. As I did more research, I came to understand that the girls and women are economic migrants primarily from northern Ghana who come to the city centers to work in markets. A lot of their conditions are unfavorable and they are paid less than the male porters. However, they can often have a very strong community.

My research highlights that gender pay gaps exist globally, as is already known, and that multiple things can be true at once: The girls and women are filling a need in the open-air markets, which should allow them to be paid more as they are providing a service. At the same time, many girls and women potentially wouldn’t travel if there were more opportunities in the northern parts of Ghana, where they’re from. 

Why was this project important to you?

I’ve always been inspired by women around the world and the roles that they fill. As an economics major, and an individual who cares deeply about and studies race and gender, I find the girls and women’s positionality within Ghanaian society to be quite interesting. They’re a group that’s often spoken about in policy but rarely receives promised benefits. My interest comes from the intersection of the classes that I’ve taken in economics, race colonialism, and diaspora studies, as well as my personal care for Black women.

How do you hope your research will affect others?

I hope that my research continues to shed light on kayayei, garners them higher wages, and adds to the literature outlining ways government intervention may improve their lives. 

After graduation, I hope to return to Ghana to continue research and support Ilmiha Lab—a local behavioral lab that seeks to improve kayayei access to bargaining strategies and quality of life. I strive to have a future in economic development, focused on the progress of women and girls globally. 

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