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Ensuring the sustainability of organic cotton production in Mali

Mali is one of the largest cotton producers in Africa (© Trevor Leighton, Mali 2010)
Mali is one of the largest cotton producers in Africa
© Trevor Leighton, Mali 2010

Mali is one of the largest cotton producers in Africa and about 40 per cent of rural households depend on cotton for their livelihoods. But with world cotton prices having plummeted since the 1970s, and organic Fairtrade cotton selling for up to 50 per cent more than conventional cotton, the Mouvement Biologique Malien (MoBiom), an organic farming cooperative, has been supporting its 8,000 members to produce cotton organically since 2002.

By growing organic cotton, farmers no longer use agrochemicals, which are often expensive and can harm the environment and health of the farmers. But as organic production has increased, so has the exploitation of local plant species used to control pests. Realising that their increasing exploitation of useful pest control species from the wild was becoming unsustainable, farmers from Yanfolila (a MoBiom community) approached the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) to help them domesticate a number of the natural pesticide species they use.

Pesticide plants

Through training and the improvement of local facilities for seed storage and wild plant cultivation, the MSB has been working in Mali since 2003 to conserve useful plants and build the capacity of communities to successfully store and propagate species that are locally important. "Seed banks are depositories of precious genetic diversity of value to agriculture, forestry, horticulture and medicine," explains Moctar Sacandé, MSBP international coordinator. "They play an increasingly important role in helping communities find new ways of conserving and using natural resources sustainably."

The farmers are trained in nursery techniques to raise the pesticide plants (© Moctar Sacandé)
The farmers are trained in nursery techniques to raise the pesticide plants
© Moctar Sacandé

In 2008, the MSB helped the 55 Yanfolila farmers establish a useful plants garden. One thousand plants of ten useful pesticide species, including Carapa procera, Lannea microcarpa, and Securidaca longepeduncalata were planted. These wild native species, which produce by-products that repel or kill pests, are spread on plants several times during cultivation to protect them from pests. "We know that these plants are at least as good, if not better, than chemical pesticides because organic production is efficient and does not suffer from pest infestations," Sacandé adds.

The community provided the land and invested their time and effort in planting and raising the seedlings. A number of community members stated that this activity was important so that their children would also be able to collect and utilise the useful species in the future.

By growing plants with pesticide properties, this community is able to produce organic crops which can be sold at a premium, enhancing livelihoods. "Families no longer have to get into debt to buy expensive fertilisers and pesticides," Sacandé says. "Farmers now have enough to live on and no longer expose their skin and lungs to chemical products." The extra funds also allow the villagers to send their children to school, improve their standard of living and re-invest in organic fertiliser and compost storehouses.

News of the model garden has spread quickly and over 70 MoBiom communities (3,500- 4,000 people) from the Sikasso region of Mali have now asked for help to set up their own gardens. To support these additional communities, MSB has requested extra funding from bilateral donors and also the government. MSB is also planning to do further research to determine the optimum dosages and mixture proportions to maximise the potential of these pest repelling plants.

Organic growth

The Yanfolila community provided the land and planted the seedlings (© Moctar Sacandé)
The Yanfolila community provided the land and planted the seedlings
© Moctar Sacandé

With support from the Swiss NGO Helvetas, MoBiom is continuing to offer farmers training, organic certification and a minimum price guarantee to help them increase their incomes. Through Fairtrade labelling, markets for organic cotton are growing, particularly in Europe, and farmers are receiving higher prices for their products. This has resulted in a decrease in rural poverty and increased employment, particularly for women who usually process the cotton ready for sale. The environment has also benefitted from organic production with improved soil management and increased conservation of biodiversity.

Beginning with 174 farmers, MoBiom has grown to include 73 cooperatives with 6,500 members, of which 30 per cent are women. Due to their success with cotton, MoBiom is now moving into other cash crops that are selling well in international export markets, including organic sesame, mangoes, groundnuts, and shea butter.

Due to the fluctuations in the cotton trade and risks associated with climate change, MoBiom is also actively promoting diversification into other markets. MoBiom is also exploring Fairtrade certification for shea butter and fonio and has plans to install sesame oil processing plants and construct a spinning mill, which would add significant value to the farmers' raw products and provide more jobs, particularly for women.

With contributions from: Moctar Sacandé, MSBP international coordinator

Date published: February 2011

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