How the Green Innovation Centre in Mali backs women in the San lowlands
In 2014, 15 Green Innovation Centres were established in Africa and Asia on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to establish efficient cultivation and create new structures along the value chain. But how are these goals put in practice on the ground in Bamko, the capital of Mali? A report.
In the courtyard of her family compound, sixty-year-old Coulibaly Kadia Traoré is busy. Standing beside her, a young woman’s arms are immersed in a large tank. She is washing paddy rice before moving it to another basin, filled with hot water. This is the first phase of the steaming process. Rice is a staple food in Mali, strategically important for both food security and the economy. In 2009, the government launched a rice initiative to make rice farming more productive and more competitive. It has been a success. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), rice production almost doubled between 2008 and 2018, from 1.6 million to 3 million tons a year.
Kadia is a bit of a pioneer in the lowlands of San, the rice growing area in the Ségou region of south-western Mali. Steaming rice is something she has always been doing. “I used to work at a domestic level, using rudimentary methods. It wasn’t easy. The Green Innovation Centre trained us and also helped with equipment”, she recalls with a broad smile, keeping an eye on her co-worker’s execution of the same process.
The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is a showcase project for the Green Innovation Centre, or CIV, in Mali. “SRI is a new rice farming methodology that lets farmers use less water, seed and fertiliser on organically fertilised soil, while also increasing productivity,” explains Djiguiba Kouyaté, rice value chain coordinator at the CIV. The method involves six key principles. After earlier transplanting, which already transfers rice seedlings to fields within the first ten days instead of the usual 25-30 days, the farmers now plant seedlings single file in rows. The rice plants can grow longer and stronger roots and produce higher yields. In addition, rice cultivated using the SRI method is irrigated periodically, consuming up to 50% less water. The method also uses organic fertilisers (one ton per hectare) and regular weeding.
“Our acreage that you see here, is irrigated by a pumping station that runs on electricity. Our bills used to be 16 million CFA francs (around €24,400) a month. With the SRI system, they are now no more than 12 million CFA francs (around €18,300). That saves us of over a quarter,” explains Aly Sanogo, agricultural consultant at Corpasovon. One of the largest in the region, the cooperative has worked with the Green Innovation Centre on consulting and advice for over six years. Its members count around 5,100 producers, 300 of whom are women. 75% of producers use at least three of the SRI principles, half of them follow all six basic principles
In addition to lower energy costs, the quality of the rice has also improved.
“Aside from more volume, the rice Kadia produces is much better. The grains are larger and better formed,” explains Goïta, technical consultant for rice production at the CIV. “We were able to measure what researchers refer to as the 1,000-grain weight. This figure is significantly higher for SRI grains than for conventional rice. We also use organic fertiliser. CIV taught us how to make it. The factory-made fertiliser we used to use is more expensive and far more aggressive,” explains Kadia. She is one of at least 1,200 producers who took part in SRI training in the first business year.
The rice Kadia steams in the massive 180-kg steamer in her courtyard comes from her own fields. On top of her own shop, she owns seven hectares of farmland in the western lowlands of San. “We used to harvest between 55 and 60 sacks; today we collect more than 90 sacks. My field has become a demonstration plot. Trainees from the Green Innovation Centre come by to see how using SRI can change rice production.” But it’s not only farmers’ lives that are changing; the intensive rice farming system is too. Djiguiba Kouyaté is pleased that new techniques – for example, using sowing technology – are also part of the SRI package. Labour-intensive steps, such as planting seedlings in rows, can be done in less time, with less effort and at lower cost.
Some of these machines are made in the ADP Sénékelaw Djigui workshop. Moussa Traoré, known as “Balla”, and his cousin Souleymane Théra transformed the former family forge into a modern company that employs over 20 people. Other than sowing technology they produce parboiling kits used to steam rice: “We modified the rice kit to make it easier to operate and handle. In 2018 that won us the national innovation award”, says Balla, who is already optimistic about the future. “Collaborating with the Green Innovation Centre has opened up many new horizons for us. We are thinking about making our sowing equipment universal so the machines can sow all kinds of different grains.”
The idea could also be of interest for mangoes and potatoes. The Green Innovation Centres promote producing, processing and marketing these crops. Oumar Assarki, who works as a technical consultant for the mango sector at the CIV, explains, “Mangoes play two roles. First and foremost, they fill gaps in diets. They are also our second most important agricultural export after cotton.” The CIV supports mango farming in the Sikasso and Koulikoro regions, the Bamako district, and most recently Kita in the Kayes region.
The centres also promote potato farming and planting fruit and vegetable gardens in these regions. Potatoes are the third most important staple after rice and maize. “They used to be a luxury item, only for special occasions. Today they are part of Malian families’ meals – from breakfast to supper”, explains Péfoungo Konaté, responsible for potato farming at the CIV. Despite the potential, demand still far exceeds supply. Meeting it would mean growing around 500,000 tons of potatoes each year. Current production volumes only manage around 300,000 tons.
Back to Kadia and her steamed rice. It’s a popular product and considered Mali’s “white gold.” To celebrate the country’s third National Rice Day in December 2020, Minister of Agriculture Arouna Niang described steamed rice as “a value chain that is currently forming.” In fact, Kadia not only produces for her shop in Bamako, but also for customers in northern Mali and Guinea.
Despite this success, Mali still struggles to meet its demand for rice. The national rice farming strategy calls for production capacity to reach 5.5 million tons of rice by 2025 to ensure the country’s self-sufficiency. “Our only way out is intensification,” says Djiguiba Kouyaté at the CIV. “Spreading the technology is important, but more importantly, state structures will have to make lasting changes.” The National Directorate of Agriculture is therefore collaborating to create a nationwide “package” of measures for training and consulting as well as investments in equipment and infrastructure that will allow national rice production to increase by a further ten percent by 2030.
Besides further measures, the country also needs a change of thinking in society.
It is still far from common for women in Mali to farm their own land. “In the beginning I received a lot of criticism,” says Kadia. “Especially from men, who said that a woman’s honour lies in taking care of her home and not spending all her time on a field. In the beginning, my husband wasn’t happy either. He would call for me while I was in the fields and ask me to come home and look after the children,” she remembers. Thanks to the income from her acres and the steaming process, Kadia has been able to buy land for her seven children and build several houses in the past ten years. “A working woman is an asset to herself and her home,” concludes Kadia, adjusting her headscarf. Today, her husband relies on her and admits, “She really has become the breadwinner for us, and I know I can count on her. Kadia is the pride of the community.”