An organic garden of plenty in Mali's arid soil

Dec 06, 2014 12:00 AM

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 30 kilometres (19 miles) from the capital Bamako.

In a vast country where two-thirds of the terrain is desert, Diabate, 47, lovingly tends his two hectares (five acres), nudging tomatoes, courgettes, 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 "agro-ecology".

By mixing Rahbi's methods with lessons from his studies in Russia, Diabate was soon bucking the trend in a country where agriculture usually means traditional subsistence farming with low yields.

'Even grass wouldn't grow'

"The land that I had bought here was very poor. Even grass wouldn't grow," Diabate recalls, but he had more than the soil to win over, because local peasants didn't believe in his project.

"At the beginning it wasn't easy to show other farmers this, they thought I had something, a magic potion that I was using," he said.

Diabate rejects using chemical fertilisers 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 and in addition to their manure, a natural fertiliser, he cultivates a range of special plants that help ward off potentially damaging insects, worms and parasites, in place of insecticides.

"Marigolds attract destructive insects to their flowers," Diabate explains.

"It means that the tomatoes can grow without being bothered. At the same time the marigolds produce a nematicidal agent in the ground and so repel parasites that were attacking the roots of the tomato plant."

Huts for trainees

Tapping his veterinary background, Diabate has experimented with cross-breeding cows. 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 two to three litres (quarts) per cow, we have 10 to 15 litres 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 farmer increasingly do in Europe and the United States.

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 FCFA (about 7.6 euros, $9.4). Diabate said he takes home 40 percent of this -- a critical return in a nation where the average monthly salary is 50,000 FCFA (76 euros, $94).

But his other goal is to share his know-how in a land-locked nation that ranks among the world's 25 poorest and where 80 percent of the labour force works in agriculture -- mainly 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.

Government reforms

The pioneering farmer has established a Sahelian Centre for Training and Research in Agro-Ecology (CSFRA), backed by a little financial support from Urgenci, a non-governmental organisation promoting community-supported agriculture around the world.

Diabate has a place on Urgenci's committee and has joined forces with another Malian activist, Ousmane Camara, to promote agro-ecology 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.

Authorities have slowly introduced reforms over the past few decades and last year announced 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, an official statement said, is to create jobs and revenue "following the logic of sustainable development and respect for the environment".

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