Augustin B. Laourou | August 22, 2017
Réné Ahouanse is a 48-year-old farmer in Togoudo, about 50 kilometres south of Cotonou, Benin’s biggest city. He has a 10-hectare field where he grows mainly pineapple, maize, and papaya. For years he used chemical fertilizers, just like many other farmers in Benin.
But in 1999, he turned to ecological agriculture and started producing his own compost. He wanted to revive his land and increase production.
Mr. Ahouanse looks back at this turning point: “My parents left me several hectares of land. Over the years, I found that the soil was deteriorating. There were no more minerals and organic matter in the earth. The yield was very low. So I stopped using chemical fertilizers and switched to organic farming. It’s a way to take care of the land, and also contribute to the health of the population.”
Mr. Ahouanse wanted to take advantage of increased global demand for organic products
For months he prepared for his transition to organic farming by applying cow manure on his fields, before he began producing his own composted manure.
He used to burn weeds, but now uses them in his compost mixture.
In the middle of his field, two large sheds house the production unit for his compost. Small enclosed spaces surrounded by bricks serve as containers for cow and poultry manure mixed with straw. Almost every day, the farmer and his employees turn the mixture and sprinkle it with water.
After three months, the two units produce an average of sixty tonnes of organic fertilizer between them, which is enough for Mr. Ahouanse’s crops. Producing his own fertilizer ensures that he always has enough, and no longer has to worry about shortages that could affect his crops. This has improved his productivity.
Mr. Ahouanse describes the difference in yield: “With the composting system, I can harvest three or four tonnes of maize per hectare, compared to 800 kilograms or at the most a tonne when I was using chemical fertilizers. If someone asked me today to decide between the two practices, I would choose organic farming because the difference is clear.”
The pineapple and papaya harvests also increased and the fruit sells well. In an average month, Mr. Ahouanse receives international pineapple orders worth about 20 million CFA francs ($36,000 US). Selling papayas brings in an average of 30,000 CFA francs (US $54) each week, twice as much as when he used chemical fertilizers.
Mr. Ahouanse wants to share his experience and his passion for organic farming with younger farmers. Mohamed Gbadamassi is 22 years old. He has about 1,000 square metres of farmland in Sèmè-Kpodji, 10 kilometres from Cotonou. Specializing in market gardening, Mr. Gbadamassi says he’s the only one of the more than 400 farmers in his region who doesn’t use chemical fertilizers. Some of his colleagues don’t approve of his choice.
Mr. Gbadamassi says he also sometimes feels pressure from retailers: “The real problem is the retailers coming to my plot to buy my products. They are in such a rush [that] they ask me to use chemical fertilizer to make the plants grow faster. But I don’t give in to their pressure. The most important thing for me is to be proud of what I do.”
Carlin Mauro is a consultant in biodynamic agriculture. He says small producers in Benin who want to try organic farming face several challenges, primarily related to training and support. He also thinks organic farming needs quality controls.
Mr. Mauro says: “Even if the state does not take charge of this, we could have private quality control systems. But that does not exist. The farmer should agree to a set of specifications and must respect those specifications. This may eventually be reinforced by law.”
A quality assurance system may also help persuade Benin’s consumers to pay more for products that are free from chemical fertilizers.