Mon, Jun 10, 2019 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Benin farm trains green entrepreneurs


Doryan Kuschner, an architect who specializes in natural materials, works at an “agro-bootcamp” in Tori-Bossito, Benin, on April 16.

Photo: AFP

Machetes in hand and wearing a straw hat against the sun, the participants of an “agro-bootcamp” in the farmlands of the west African nation of Benin harvest corn, cowpeas and rice.

“Cut at the base,” says Oluwafemi Kochoni, an organic farming teacher who runs the agricultural workshop to prepare young people for a future sustainably working the land. “Then leave the plants in place, we will bury them — they will decompose and fertilize the soil.”

It is beginners’ advice, but the program in Tori-Bossito, just outside Benin’s economic capital, Cotonou, aims to teach basic, traditional ways of agriculture to those who have forgotten or never known a life on the land.

In Benin, a poor country next to oil giant Nigeria, about 80 percent of its 11 million people depend on agriculture, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Most are subsistence farmers eking out a living growing crops on small plots where a lack of infrastructure and flooding that can wipe out harvests and seed stocks are key challenges, the FAO says.

However, the “agro-bootcamps” — the name is borrowed from the intensive training US army recruits go through — take place close to the suburbs of the city and are aimed at a different market.

They are part of a wider movement to encourage self-sufficiency on the continent, which has about two-thirds of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land, but spends US$64.5 billion a year importing food, according to the African Development Bank.

For 27,000 west African CFA francs (US$45) a week, agro-bootcampers learn agricultural techniques, follow marketing courses and can network with successful agro-entrepreneurs.

Like in traditional farming, the agro-bootcamp way of life is communal on the 3 hectare plot of land put at its disposal for the week by a family in exchange for baskets of vegetables.

On the edge of the fields, a border hedge of moringa plants and grasses are grown to help stabilize the soil.

There is also a fish farm in a pond and another area to grow mushrooms.

Behind the scheme is the Gardens of Hope, an organization promoting sustainable ways of farming.

“The advice usually received by farmers is based on the use of chemicals,” said participant Rachidi Idrissou, an agronomy student in Benin. “We think of quick yields and not sustainable production to preserve our land.”

Benin is a youthful country, with nearly two-thirds of the population aged under 25.

Camp organizers want to show young people struggling in the crowded cities looking for a job that working the land can offer an alternative and successful livelihood.

Originating from Africa and Europe, the 25 participants in this third agro-bootcamp are mostly men and of eight different nationalities, but they share a vision of an ecological and sustainable way of farming.

They sleep in tents and are kept busy from dawn until long after dusk.

“Our belief is that to solve the employment problem in our countries, young people must create their businesses with awareness of ecology of the climate,” coordinator Tanguy Gnikobou said.

Of the 85 people who have taken part in the past two bootcamps, 10 have already launched new agricultural activities, farms or enterprises, organizers say.

Social networks mean that participants and organizers can stay in touch for support as they develop their farms and small businesses.

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