In a strikingly green corner of Mali, one man is leading an agricultural revolution, using organic farming methods to get the most out of the land — and pass his techniques on to others in west Africa.
Oumar Diabate has established a reputation for raising chemical-free vegetables, fruit and medicinal plants at his small farm about 30km from the capital, Bamako.
In a vast nation where two-thirds of the terrain is desert, Diabate, 47, lovingly tends his 2 hectares, nudging tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce and beetroot from the ochre soil.
He and five permanent employees also grow fruit trees and plants required for traditional medicine, while dairy cows and sheep graze nearby and chickens fuss about in a separate enclosure.
Diabate acquired the small farm in the village of Satinebougou in 2005, after years away from home doing his veterinary training in Moscow.
A big man with a boxer’s build, Diabate was inspired by French environmentalist and farmer Pierre Rabhi, the pioneer of techniques known as “agroecology.”
By mixing Rahbi’s methods with lessons from his studies in Russia, Diabate was soon bucking the trend in a nation where agriculture usually means subsistence farming with low yields.
“The land that I had bought here was very poor. Even grass would not grow,” Diabate said.
However, he had more than the soil to win over, because local farmers did not believe in his project.
“At the beginning it was not easy to show other farmers this; they thought I had something — a magic potion — that I was using,” he said.
Diabate rejected using chemical fertilizers and pesticides on his farm — a widespread practice in Mali. Instead, he sticks to compost and manure, while rotating his crops to maintain the nutrients in the soil.
He feeds weeds to his cows to improve their manure, a natural fertilizer.
He also cultivates a range of special plants that help ward off potentially damaging insects, worms and parasites, in place of using insecticides.
“Marigolds attract destructive insects to their flowers,” Diabate said. “It means that the tomatoes can grow without being bothered. At the same time, the marigolds produce a nematicidal agent in the ground and repel parasites that attack the roots of the tomato plants.”
Tapping his veterinary background, Diabate has experimented with breeding cattle.
He mixed local varieties with two European types — black-and-white Holsteins and red-and-white Montbeliards — to produce what he says is an animal more resistant to disease.
“This cross also allowed us to boost milk production,” he adds. “Instead of 2 to 3 liters per cow, we have 10 to 15 liters per cow per day.”
Diabate now collects about 30 baskets of fruit and vegetables a week for direct sale to consumers, just as other organic farmers increasingly do in Europe and the US.
The aim is to support small farms and avoid losing money to middlemen.
So far, Diabate has 29 regular clients in Bamako and the surrounding area, to whom he delivers once a week, on Saturdays or Tuesdays.
The baskets, prepared by Diabate’s wife, Fatoumata, cost 5,000 CFA francs (US$9.40). Diabate said he takes home 40 percent of this — a critical return in a nation where the average monthly salary is 50,000 CFA francs.
However, his other goal is to share his knowledge in a land-locked nation that ranks among the world’s 25 poorest and where 80 percent of the labor force works in agriculture — primarily in small-scale traditional or subsistence farms.
Diabate has built several huts and a classroom and since 2007 has welcomed trainees from inside Mali and abroad, such as Cheikh Ndour from Senegal who came to learn his techniques last year.
The pioneering farmer has established a Sahel Center for Training and Research in Agroecology (CSFRA), backed with a little financial support from Urgenci, an NGO that promotes community-supported agriculture around the world.
Diabate has a seat on Urgenci’s committee and has joined forces with another Malian activist, Ousmane Camara, to promote agroecology and sustainable development.
Diabate’s methods have aroused some interest, but organic production is still marginal in Mali, where subsistence farming accounts for nearly 40 percent of GDP.
Government authorities have slowly introduced reforms over the past few decades, he said, and last year announced that they want to make the country a regional agricultural force by 2017, in a document that resonated with some of Diabate’s principles.
The goal is to create jobs and revenue “following the logic of sustainable development and respect for the environment,” a Malian government statement said.
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