Fonio: An Ancient Grain at the Center of Women’s Economic Inclusion  

By Akua Mensah


Accra, Ghana – Two key phenomena intersect in the rural areas of the north – both of which are detrimental to women.

Nearly 35 percent of land in Ghana is under threat of desertification, with much of it located in the north. As households in these areas depend heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods, desertification and degradation pose real threats to financial stability and food security. Meanwhile, patriarchal customs deny women land ownership. Land inheritance is patrilineal—men own land, while women can only work on it.  

Together, they restrict women’s access to agricultural production, food security and income generation. AMAATI Co. Ltd., led by CEO Salma Abdulai, set out to address the issue of women’s marginalization through empowering women who do not own land in northern Ghana.

“Our approach is a deliberate attempt to respond to the unique needs of rural women to advance sustainable development for themselves and their communities by addressing their limited rights to land, credit and natural resources that compromise their income and food security,” says CEO Abdulai.

Established in 2014, AMAATI also pioneered the revival of the cultivation of fonio, a drought-resistant crop that also regenerates degraded soil. “AMAATI addresses women’s marginalization by facilitating access to abandoned marginal lands through their community leaders, supporting them to cultivate fonio on these poor soils for food and income,” she adds.

Through USAID/Ghana, the West Africa Trade & Investment Hub awarded AMAATI a $742,000 co-investment grant to develop a 1,000-acre nucleus farm in Mion District in the Northern Region and to support 6,000 women farmers to produce fonio. The Trade Hub’s grant also helps the company to secure $4.5 million in private investments to modernize the factory and generate $4.6 million in exports to the United States and Europe.  

With operations primarily in Chereponi, a USAID Zone of Influence in the North East Region, AMAATI negotiates with local chiefs to lease abandoned or degraded land to the company’s name. The company registers and trains women farmers, who are then allotted plots to cultivate fonio.

USAID Trade & Investment Hub grantee AMAATI Co. in Ghana, processing fonio. Photo by AMAATI.

Prior to AMAATI’s program, these women would typically have only been given one or two acres of their fathers’ or husbands’ farms on which to cultivate subsistence crops. With AMAATI’s intervention, they can lay claim to an additional one to three acres on which to cultivate a burgeoning export crop. 

To protect their incomes, AMAATI pre-finances the farmers’ seeds and ensures a buy-back of 80 percent of the fonio produced, while encouraging them to retain 20 percent for their own households. This buy-back arrangement guarantees year-round financial stability and food security for these female farmers.

Additionally, as fonio has become more of a household staple as the crop’s acceptance grows in the region, many of the women’s husbands have also begun cultivating fonio on their own farms.  

From its inception, AMAATI has put the welfare of women at the forefront of its operations. Co-founded and led by a female CEO, the company ensures that women are represented in leadership throughout the organization. Today, 75 percent of AMAATI’s workforce (factory and administrative) is made up of women, and female farmers comprise approximately 80 percent of their outgrowers.

“We create dignified and sustainable livelihoods for women, both at the factory (women processes) and on the field (women farmers), to reduce their social and economic power inequalities and compensate them for living up to their social responsibilities,” she says.

To date, AMAATI has successfully onboarded 5,508 women farmers (91 percent of their target) to the fonio outgrower program.  The women farmers use their proceeds from their buy-back agreement with AMAATI to repair their homes, set up small businesses, plant other crops or selling provisions, and even to save towards paying for their personal tertiary education fees.

In the future, AMAATI seeks to encourage more of their outgrowers to open bank accounts and plans to work with financial institutions to establish arrangements for the farmers to repay future loans on a schedule that coincides with their fonio sales. This would allow their women farmers more financial independence and the capacity to fully participate in the local economy.  

AMAATI’s work in providing a pathway to economic inclusion for women is invaluable in the bid to support women in the smallholder agricultural economy. Given access to the necessary resources, women would be able to substantially reduce the nation’s food insecurity and import dependence, as AMAATI successfully demonstrates. Working with women who are disenfranchised from land ownership, on plots that would otherwise be abandoned, AMAATI is not only restoring agricultural land, but also the livelihoods of these women and their families.

Equally important to social inclusion and the growth of household income are the production results. “We have also increased our production capacity to 3.5 tons/day from 500kg/day, and we hope to upgrade to 10 tons/day by April 2023,” says CEO Abdulai.

Akua Mensah is a West Africa Trade & Investment Hub Communication Specialist.

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