How a “seed library” is helping Ivorian farmers diversify their crops
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New ideas are sprouting from ancient seeds in Ivory Coast. In 2015, a seed library was founded in the city of Sangouiné. Traditional seeds are stored in the library, which has also become a space for young farmers to learn about eco-friendly agricultural techniques. But this small agricultural movement rooted in ancient practices runs counter to some of the policies that the Ivory Coast is adopting. Notably, authorities just gave the green light to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Daniel Oulaï, 27, grew up in Sangouiné, a town in western Ivory Coast. He is passionate about integrating ecological processes into farming, a field called agroecology. Daniel founded this seed library in October 2015 with the help of Libraries Without Borders. Earlier that year, the NGO had called for applications from young people who had innovative ideas for how libraries could be re-imagined to better serve Africa. Daniel’s seed library project was one of the proposals chosen for sponsorship.
“Local seeds are in danger because of the industrialisation of agriculture”
We set up our seed library at the city’s regular library and a local farmer runs it on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Our project has actually given the library a new lease on life because locals weren’t using it very much.
Our main goal is to preserve local seeds, which are threatened by the industrialisation of agriculture [Editor’s note: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, about 75% of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000]. In Africa, we are using more and more genetically modified seeds. This is creating an increasing homogenisation of seeds, which is, in turn, impoverishing our diets and limiting the nutrients we get.
Ivory Coast hasn’t escaped this trend because, in March, the government authorised the use of GMOs. No one saw it coming because many farmers here are illiterate and there aren’t influential consumer organisations in our country, even though it is incredibly important for people to have a choice when they buy food.
Our other aim with the seed library is to make traditional seeds available to farmers. One of the good things about these seeds is that they germinate, meaning that farmers can replant the seeds’ offspring the next year. Farmers who use GMOs, on the other hand, have to buy new seeds each year.
This makes farmers dependent on the multinationals that sell these seeds. Moreover, using GMOs go hand in hand with using chemical products like pesticides, which can affect the health of the farmers themselves as well as having negative effects on the environment.
Daniel Oulaï’s seed library is supported by the NGO Libraries Without Borders.
“We already have about 50 different varieties of local seeds”
We already have about 50 varieties of local seeds on site. One of the seeds we have in stock is mucuna [Editor’s note: also known as a velvet bean], which is a plant that has been used for years as a natural herbicide because it suffocates all the other small plants that grow around it. We have jatropha seeds. The oil that can be extracted from jatropha seeds can be used as an agrofuel. The neem seeds that we have are useful because neem can be used as a fertiliser for vegetable gardens. We also have peppers, corn, okra, and amaranth seeds on stock.
Farmers who want some of our seeds have to bring in a new type of seed in exchange, in order to continue to grow and diversify our seed library. If they don’t have any new seeds to bring us, they have to make an effort to really apply themselves to learning while they are at the library.
“We show farmers that they can produce just as much without chemicals”
We think it is essential to teach local farmers techniques in line with the ideas of agroecology. Back in April, we started teaching 20 farmers – between the ages of 25 and 35 – how to compost and reuse waste effectively. We’ve been showing them that it is possible to produce just as much without using chemicals. We have three educators on staff who are leading the training. Soon, we’ll start a second training course for 20 more farmers. We’ve also brought more books about agriculture into the library, which has helped bring people in.
Books that might be of interest to farmers are also available in the seed library.
“We’re going to start collecting seeds across the country in the next two months”
Right now, we are developing a web platform that will provide more useful information to farmers, such as weather alerts as well as information about plant diseases and natural methods to cure them.
We also want to develop traditional granaries in the seed library as a better way to preserve food produced during seasons of plenty and to avoid waste and shortages in later months. Moreover, we are planning to collect seeds from across the country in the next two months. We’d also like to expand our project to other libraries. For now, we set up a similar operation in Treichville [Editor’s note: a commune in the capital, Abidjan], where there are already 13 varieties.
This seed library was the first in the Ivory Coast but it exists in other countries. The Sangouiné seed library was honored with a prize from the COP22 Climate Initiative Trophies.