Sesame: the new 'cocoa' for Northern Ghana


Step aside Ghana cocoa, there’s a new crop rising in the dryland savannah of Northern Ghana.

SNV and smallholder farmers are creating new opportunities with a crop better suited than cocoa to the semi-arid region of Ghana—sesame. Farmers are calling it their “new cocoa” due to the economic value it brings to families.

Since 2013, SNV Ghana has focused on helping farmers, especially women, understand and embrace cultivation of this new cash crop. The drought-tolerant plant has higher yields and contributes to better nutrition for farm households.

"The introduction of sesame has come as a big relief," says Elizabeth Peter Ngisah. "There could not have been a better alternative to our already existing cash crops. Otherwise, last year's drought would have pushed me and many like me to migrate to the southern part of the country to seek greener pastures."

Like her neighbours in the Tombu community, Elizabeth farms. The 48-year-old mother of 8 had always counted on maize, cowpeas, cassava, fonio, and millet to feed her family. To pay for basic necessities such as water, medicine, education, and foods not grown by the Ngisahs, she grew soya and cotton as cash crops.

"But the returns from the cultivation of these cash crops was very low," Elizabeth said. "In 2012, for example, we cultivated one acre of cotton and made a marginal profit of only 50 Ghana cedis(GHS, about 20 Euro) despite the heavy investment our family committed."

Seeing few other viable, sustainable options in this rural area, Elizabeth decided to learn more about sesame seed production. And it has transformed her life. Increasing the net income gleaned off one acre of sesame to 360 GHS is a real asset to the wellbeing and nutrition of her family. Sesame is a source of protein that adds to and diversifies her children’s daily diet. Sesame and its oil are also useful in helping damaged tissues heal more quickly, boosting oral health, reducing blood pressure, and promoting heart health—all important benefits for Elizabeth and her family.

Selling 100 kg of sesame seeds can buy 7 maxi bags of maize, sorghum, or rice – foods that diversify local diets. Smallholder farmers cannot readily harvest these foods off 1 acre without spending a lot on fertiliser, herbicide, and insecticide—which also can have direct impacts on health.

The extra income from selling sesame seeds also gives Elizabeth new buying power to feed her children and make her home safer and more comfortable. "We replaced our home’s dirt floors with a layer of concrete. And I was able to repair our roof after part it was ripped off by a storm. Instead of thatch, we were able to afford aluminium roofing sheets this time." smiles Elizabeth.

Experiencing the benefits of this new crop first hand, Elizabeth now advocates it to others.

"I encourage women especially to look beyond the traditional crops and consider new ideas," Elizabeth says. "For women, better cultivation and alternatives like sesame are helping solve many of our household problems and bringing about respect, peace, and love between ourselves and our husbands, as we now have more money and we’re not leaving all financial burdens to them alone. In fact, this makes us assets, not liabilities in their eyes."

Issahaku Zakaria, SNV sesame seed project manager, says there are two goals to this initiative: Improve food security in rural communities and empower women with the skills and knowledge necessary to improve productivity, processing, and marketing of sesame seeds. Sesame also helps smallholder farmers build resiliency to climate change by diversifying their other crops with this drought-resistant one, an important factor since 40% of Northern Ghana is a semi-arid zone.

"SNV had already created market linkages. As we worked along each link in the value chain, SNV helped new sesame farmers such as Elizabeth gain an equitable foothold into it," explains Zakaria. "SNV Ghana promotes agriculture as a business and our experience proves that market-based solutions through value chain and inclusive business development bring about sustainable improvements in smallholder farmers' lives."