Author: Gabriel Lombard
Every Tuesday, a crowd gathers round the distribution kiosk in front of the French school, the Lycée Montaigne in Cotonou, seat of government of Benin. Dozens of families come to fetch their basket of vegetables. Weighing about 8 kilos, the lightest ones contain carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, pears, courgettes, lettuces, spinach, sweet potatoes, green peppers, onions, turnips, white cabbage and several varieties of aromatic herbs. Depending on the season, the baskets of fruit are packed full with pineapples, papayas, bananas, limes, oranges, mangoes, avocadoes and bread fruits - products that are totally organic and grown just a few kilometres away. Thanks to AMAP-Bénin, the first organic box scheme in West Africa, organic agriculture is experiencing a fast rate of growth in this region. (Photo : baskets overflowing with produce – and sometimes difficult to carry!)
The adventure began in 2008, and it owes a great deal to the perseverance of one man: Edgar Déguénon (picture), 41 years old and a graduate in English. In 2003, Edgar, the offspring of a farming family, became an instructor to the market gardeners of Cotonou. He takes part in seminars to improve the precarious situation of the small farmers and travels all over Africa in search of solutions. In July 2008, with the support of the French ambassador to Benin, he left for France to learn about organic agriculture in Dijon, Pertuis and Albi, where the associations committed to preserving small-scale agricullture - AMAPs (Associations pour le Maintien de l'Agriculture Paysanne) - are now booming. Via a shop that they run themselves, the small farmers make direct contact with their customers, who commit to buying baskets of vegetables all year round. AMAP promotes low food miles, and guarantees fair prices and stable incomes for the producers. Edgar – a man with a "horror of the vicious circle that impels us to consume products transported from afar and of doubtful origin" was captivated by this model. Back in Cotonou, he decided to launch La Ferme du Bien-être, the former name of AMAP-Bénin.
The challenge was huge. "We started from scratch - we had to learn everything," Edgar explains. Until then, the only products available from organic agriculture were pineapples, fresh or dried and destined for export. The land where their first experiments took place - located just outside Cotonou as you leave on the road to Porto-Novo - is sandy, and the soil is very poor. It had to be watered twice a day and they also had to bring in massive amounts of organic matter that was difficult for them to acquire. What’s more, the land titles belonged to the state, that looks kindly on the project from a new deep-water port and free trade zone! Also, Edgar lacked materials for training the farmers who showed an interest – about 20 at the outset. The French ambassador financed some booklets, and the Fondation de France, still involved in the project today, financed the first training sessions. The 17 expatriate families who signed up to buying the first baskets also played an equally decisive role. (Picture: Expatriate customers of'AMAP)
A turning point came at the end of 2009, when Edgar undertook to acquire some land along Lake Toho at Pahou, 30 kilometres to the west of the capital. This supplementary land measured one and a half hectares, and it was financed in part thanks to refundable subscriptions by the families involved in AMAP and in part by Edgar’s own money. The clay soil is of much better quality and it retains moisture and organic matter for much longer. From the beginning of 2010, technical progress and the conversion of new land has already made prices fall by half. By then AMAP had more than 50 member clients. (Picture: The farmers of'AMAP. On the right, wearing a cream shirt, Edgar Déguénon)
Today, the association ensures new opportunities for trade and incomes for around 100 farmers, of whom half employ at least one agricultural worker. The majority of them work on organic land (a total of 12.5 ha) that belongs to third parties and is located in the south and centre of Benin. Through the box scheme, AMAP-Bénin commercializes about 1.3 tonnes of vegetables and 460 kg of fruit every week. The produce is distributed twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) from two points of sale. The Swiss NGO Helvetas helps the farmers who have joined AMAP-Bénin to obtain certification through the so-called Système de Garantie Participatif. The first officially certified organic fruit and vegetables should be supplied in March or April 2013. (Picture: Harvesting lettuce at Pahou, a local variety of tomatoes and a pineapple field)
This certification is essential to gaining the confidence of the Beninese people who joined the association in 2010. Today, they are in the majority (130) compared with 72 expatriate families. "Some Beninese are very conscious of the risks of consuming any products they can get their hands on," Edgar explains, "but they’re resigned to it because they don’t have alternatives". Admittedly, the members of AMAP are still families with a certain purchasing power. However, Edgar believes firmly in the democratization of organics by means of AMAP. The smallest baskets of vegetables on Fridays, the majority, have been conceived in this spirit. They contain varieties of leaf vegetables like amaranth, great morel mushrooms or long peppers, adhering more to local eating habits and also "less difficult to produce in organic quality," according to Edgar. They cost 2,500 francs CFA, or 3.80 euros for 6 kg. A reasonable price, given a per capita income of about 48 euros a month in this country, that is among the poorest in the world. "But if we succeed in multiplying the distribution points and in mastering the supply of organic inputs, we could even have packs costing only 1,500 or even 1000 CFA consisting of 2 or 3 widely consumed vegetables. That would really mean natural products for everyone." (Picture: Orange trees, field of spinach, Gbotakin peppers, peppers associated with red salad)
Still applying to an extreme minority in Africa, the issue of organics is gaining credibility, because AMAP-Bénin is spreading all round. In 2010, a similar project was launched in Lomé, the capital of neighbouring Togo. Another AMAP is being set up in Djougou in the north of Benin. Edgar is overwhelmed by requests for training, but he can’t cope with them all because of lack of resources. In 2012, a straw hut was built to provide shelter for thirty or so people undergoing training. Throughout the year, Edgar also receives trainees from Benin, France or Belgium, pupils from schools of agriculture and students from the faculty of agronomy, who he trains and who help him in return to carry out market research and to think about how to make improvements. (Picture: Training session in the market garden village of Sèmé-Podji)
The model of AMAP is doing well, attracting interest abroad, but it is still built on a fragile foundation. At any moment the state could take possession of the land titles and grant them to multinationals, and the project would collapse. This phenomenon of land-grabbing «is growing apace in Benin and everywhere else,» according to Edgar, who shares the view of the NGOs. Only the land at Pahou is secure for the moment. By buying five hectares already being cultivated organically and by creating an access fund for five more hectares, AMAP will secure its future in the form of an autonomous cooperative. Edgar is also seeking to raise funds to buy a truck and to build two manufacturing units for organic fertilizer and five new distribution kiosks. And he harbours a dream: to create a permanent training centre for organic agriculture, with accommodation for trainees, new huts for training and other activities, breeding units, etc. The land at Gakpé is already available, the project has been costed, and all that is needed to implement it is the money: 49 million francs CFA or 75,000 euros. (Picture: Training in composting in partnership with the Fédération Agro-Ecologique du Bénin)
For further information on AMAP-Bénin or to offer your support, contact the director, Edgar Déguénon: firstname.lastname@example.org. With Quentin Testa, a former trainee at AMAP, they are finalising the financing of the land: email@example.com.