Mali farmers plant seeds of hope

Malian farmers, tired of struggling to produce crops that have been introduced from other parts of the world, are turning to growing fonio, an indigenous grain. (Toujours Passages/Flickr)

Malian farmers, tired of struggling to produce crops that have been introduced from other parts of the world, are turning to growing fonio, an indigenous grain. (Toujours Passages/Flickr)

Camille Lavoix in N’Gountjina

In N’Gountjina, a village in the Koutiala region of eastern Mali, a group of farmers sit under a tree, their pickaxes resting on the ground.

One, Dramane Dembelé, wears a blue shirt that loudly proclaims: “La terre ne ment pas. (The earth does not lie.)” It is advice that more and more Malian farmers are beginning to heed.

Most farmers in this region plant cotton, because the state guarantees the price of their harvest and gives them discounts on fertilisers. But cotton is not indigenous to this soil. It’s a precarious crop, prone to failure, especially given the increased frequency of drought in this part of the continent. When the cotton crop fails, these farmers are left with little or nothing to feed their families.

That’s why these farmers have gathered under the tree. They are discussing the possibility of planting something else: a crop more suited to local conditions that would withstand drought and flooding. Something the earth around here likes more than cotton.

They are talking about fonio, a species of millet that has a nutty flavour and has been grown in the dry savannas of West Africa for thousands of years.

Farmers in the region used to grow fonio, although it’s been long enough that the name is nearly forgotten.

It is easy to farm without chemical fertilisers and tolerant of drought. Economists call it an “underutilised” crop: although it is still harvested by millions of Africans, it has the potential to become much more popular.

In the field, fonio looks like weeds, and like straw when harvested. On the plate, fonio most resembles couscous, and is especially tasty when served under a hearty peanut stew.

The discussion in N’Gountjina is being led by Amadou Sidibé, a researcher with the Institute of Rural Economy. Sidibé and his team have been travelling around Mali’s rural areas. They think fonio, and other local, underutilised crops, could be the key to tackling hunger, climate change and poverty.

Basile Boulay, an economist from the University of Nottingham, agrees with the Malian researchers.

He said that politics plays a major role in what is grown in rural African fields — and, ultimately, what ends up on people’s plates. Most agricultural investment and research grants tend to focus on the “big four” crops of wheat, rice, maize and soy — an approach mirrored by aid agencies such as USAid, which tend to promote industrial-scale monoculture of products that can be easily exported to the West.

Why should African farmers grow plants that exhaust the soil and need more water and nitrogen than is available, if not for export to European and American supermarkets?

Instead, Boulay is exploring alternative crops that would take into account a region’s unique diversity — solutions such as fonio in Mali, or bambara groundnut in Tanzania. In the right conditions, the bambara groundnut is not only resilient, it also feeds nitrogen into the soil, which then helps to cultivate other crops.

Demand for crops like these would be local, which removes the hazards associated with voracious middlemen and foreign currency fluctuations.

Although untiring in his efforts to promote indigenous crops, Boulay has a clear and concise view on their limits: “They can only be useful if they can serve as a lever to promote a new, fairer commercial circuit and a different agricultural model. It is not just about introducing them to the mainstream productivist system. We have to use them to change it.”

But encouraging change from slow-moving states is proving tricky. One example: only one village growing fonio has been included in Mali’s national agricultural plan, and that’s only thanks to the efforts of Sidibé and his team. Another: Switzerland, a major donor to agricultural development in Mali, invests less than 1% of its funding into underutilised crops. The rest goes to better-known crops such as rice and potatoes.

Farmers themselves can be resistant to change. Anne Angsten, a German economist, works for MyAgro, a nonprofit organisation that financially supports 30 000 farmers in Mali and Senegal. She recognises the potential of indigenous crops but describes herself as a realist. She says that farmers prefer crops with yields that are profitable in the short-term, hence their preference for state-subsidised cash crops.

In Mali, as elsewhere in Africa, these subsidies were put in place more than 30 years ago following structural adjustment programmes imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These programmes, which were meant, among other objectives, to reduce the debt of African countries, often led to privatisation and the reduction of budgets for health, education and social issues.

On an agricultural level, it meant that priority was given to export crops, because they allowed for an influx of foreign currency.

Beyond policy, other factors — inertia, traditions, soft power — explain why the benefits of underutilised crops are often ignored.

Surveying farmers from the southern region of Mtwara in Tanzania, Boulay found that some taboos are associated with indigenous crops. In some places menstruating women are still forbidden from touching the bambara plants, lest they damage the crop.

There is also a belief that sowing the crop too early could prevent rain from falling. As a result, certain farmers plant in secret — but if such behaviour is discovered, neighbours may uproot the plants.

Despite these difficulties, progress is possible. Patrick Maundu knows, because he’s made it happen. Maundu works with the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and has fought tirelessly for 15 years to promote the cultivation of the spider plant (Cleome gynandra).

Kenyans call it sagaa and use the leaves in meals. It’s also believed to have medicinal value. Key to Maundu’s success was a strong emphasis on the health benefits of the plant, which is rich in iron and vitamin A. This crop is now readily available in the markets of Nairobi.

Maundu is also part of Bioversity International, which helps to lobby for the use of underutilised crops worldwide, and was in Rome recently to share his experience with other African agriculturalists such as Sidibé.

Although his fonio project is still in its early stages, Sidibé is already seeing its effect in the six Malian villages he works with, including N’Gountjina.

A dozen varieties of fonio are now being grown throughout the year, and every week farmers visit the trial fields set up by his team. Here farmers can smell, taste and observe dozens of varieties of underutilised crops — allowing them to decide for themselves what they want to grow and eat. 

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