Harvest is underway in Mali. Large seed heads of pearl millet and sorghum are nearly ready to collect. The peanut crop is being harvested and fresh peanuts sold in the markets. In the south, in Sikasso region, cotton is being picked and bundled for export. Two minor crops—fonio and Bambara groundnut—are also ready for harvest. Fonio is the first cereal to be reaped and it breaks a long lean period the communities face in waiting for the crops to be ready.
Despite its key role in traditional food security strategies, fonio has been marginalized in production systems in Mali because of difficult de-hulling, seed shattering losses, low yields, and the promotion of competing crops such as cotton in Sikasso, which is pushed by government subsidies. The native legume, Bambara groundnut, has also declined in Malian production systems in large part due to competition from peanut, which was introduced from the Americas in the colonial period. The IFAD-EU NUS project is promoting re-introduction and scaling up these native crops, which have great potentials to support climate change adaptation and better nutrition through diversification of farm and food systems (see Project webpage).
This summer, diversity fields of fonio and Bambara groundnut were planted in six villages in Mali– three in Sikasso region and three in Ségou region. Some of the varieties came from the national genebank of l’Institut d’Economie Rurale and others came from the six communities targeted by the Project, who exchanged seeds of both crops. Around 12 varieties of fonio and 12 of Bambara groundnut were planted in each village, including a mix of improved and local varieties. The farmers have been evaluating their performance and have identified some favorite varieties that have more branches and longer seed heads. Many of the fonio varieties came from Bolimasso in Ségou region, where a stronger culture of growing fonio remains, compared to other villages. Fonio has been nearly completely abandoned by the participating villages in Sikasso region, so the diversity fields organized by the project have been an important occasion to discuss and teach younger farmers about the value of this traditional crop for food security and cultural heritage. The farmers were happy to have access to new varieties of these crops. In Somo village, farmers described how they used to only have 2 varieties of fonio and now they 14, which they can choose to plant depending on the weather and when the rains start. If they plant a mix of early, late and medium maturing varieties, some are bound to succeed. Each village showed off bags of fonio and Bambara groundnuts of different varieties they had harvested from the diversity blocks that will be used as seed for next year and which represent a starting point for building up production and commercialization of these crops.
Both women and men cultivate Bambara groundnut, although women are responsible for its processing. Women sell roasted and boiled Bambara groundnut in local markets for a small income and a tasty snack. In most of the communities, men are in charge of cultivating and harvesting fonio. The men harvest the fields together, working side by side, singing and chatting while they reap (see video). Women are responsible for processing and cooking fonio, which involves a laborious process of de-hulling by pounding.
In the spring, women from the six villages were trained on recipes and safe processing techniques for fonio and vegetables that they have instructed to other women in their communities. This training and the diversity fields have raised awareness among the farmers on the value of traditional crops and have encouraged the farmers to continue to grow and upscale commercialization of fonio and Bambara groundnut. . For this to be possible, however, the six communities expressed the need for processing machinery for fonio to facilitate the arduous de-hulling process. Closer studies on the value chains of these crops are being undertaken to provide the full picture of constraints and opportunities faced by farmers and other value chain actors in the sustainable conservation and use of these strategic resilient crops in Mali.