<![CDATA[When asked why she does what she does—working with women from poor rural backgrounds to grow and sell a little-known West African cereal crop—Salma Abdulai begins to tear up and pauses to dab at her eyes.
seed 2016-women“The women come up to me and say they can now afford to pay their children’s school fees,” the petite lady says, hiding her tissue in the sleeve of her bright yellow patterned traditional Ghanaian dress. “There are many more stories, but those are the best.”
The entrepreneur, who grew up in Ghana’s impoverished, drought-prone north, is enthusiastic in talking about the 512 farmers, 80 per cent of them women, whose lives have been changed by Fonio, what Abdulai calls “the lost crop”.
Fonio is a highly nutritious crop that had previously only been grown in small batches in backyards, used as an indigenous remedy for sickly children or the grief-stricken at funerals. It takes only eight weeks to mature, and is drought-proof and flood-proof.
No one had thought to market Fonio as a cash crop, despite its obvious advantages in harsh climates and degraded soils. This was partly because Fonio is difficult to process.
But Abdulai had a brainwave. She drew on her masters in agricultural science and nine years of experience to set the project in motion, partly motivated by her personal background. Her mother was a grains trader, and worked hard to single handedly put Abdulai and her five siblings through school and then university after she was widowed.
Abdulai worked with agricultural institutes and non-governmental organizations to test the market, and began looking at how she could use Fonio to improve the lives of women who had been struggling.
“I started with 10 ‘landless’ women,” she says, explaining that, in Ghana, women didn’t own land, but they were often responsible for household expenses and that of raising children. “I had to go and talk to their chief. He gave us an acre of land— it wasn’t great land, but, still, we managed to produce 500 kilograms of Fonia.”
From such humble beginnings, her company Unique Quality Product Enterprise, has gone from strength-to-strength.
The business grows 15,000 kg of Fonio each week and generates an annual income of $US1200 per farmer, with knock-on effects on food security and the environment—the project has transformed 500 hectares of degraded land, leading to soil rehabilitation and sustainable land management. Thirty retail stores in the north and ten in the south of Ghana carry it, and the company has just arranged for Total Petroleum Ghana to have it placed in their pump station stores throughout the country.
Abdulai says the training she provided also extended beyond how to grow the crop, teaching the women to use profits to buy animals that they could sell to pay school fees and feed their children better.
It is little wonder that the company was one of 20 SEED Award 2016 winners crowned this week. She and the rest of her fellow entrepreneurs will join a community of SEED award winners chosen over the last eleven years. The winning enterprises from eight African countries will receive technical assistance and six months of free, tailor-made support to develop their business.
Abdulai’s story is familiar to SEED, which has found that financing is as important as access to knowledge, expertise, networks, capacity building and guidance when it comes to nurturing and developing thriving micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) that thrive.
After 11 years of spotting and grooming talent, SEED has shown it picks real winners.
Where many conventional start-up enterprises fail after only two years, 88 per cent of former SEED winners still operate, a large majority performing well or better than expected. In comparison, only 41 per cent of MSMEs in the United Kingdom are still in business after five years; that figure is 42 per cent in South Africa.
“We work with MSMEs that focus on environmental and social issues, because they have a tendency to come up against even more barriers than conventional start-ups,” said Rainer Agster, Director of Operations at SEED. “They are pioneering new business models that challenge conventional perceptions of business.”
SEED is a global partnership for action on sustainable development and the green economy, founded by UN Environment, the UN Development Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2002.

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