(Originally published June 24, 2013)
Roger Awana carefully plucks leaves from a vine and deposits them in a basket. Mr. Awana is a farmer in the town of Obala, about 30 kilometres from Cameroon’s capital city of Yaounde. The vine is known locally as okok. With the income he earns from selling this plant, Mr. Awana built a new house.
Okok is a climbing vine that grows naturally in the forest. Its leaves are eaten for food, and used to make local, natural medicines. Mr. Awana started his okok business back in 2009 after attending a farmers meeting. A visitor taught the farmers that domesticating okok is a way of ensuring its survival. He remembers: “We all laughed at this news. We asked him, ‘Why should we waste time and money to domesticate a plant that grows naturally in the forest?’”
Mr. Awana was taught how to grow okok through a program funded by the Cameroon Ministry of Agriculture. Pierre Ayissi Nanga is the coordinator of the project, which is known locally as PAPCO. He says, “We found that the consumption of okok was quite high and the reserves available in the forests were decreasing.” The PAPCO project was created to protect wild okok by increasing farm production, thereby boosting farmers’ income and creating employment.
Mr. Awana already had a fruit tree orchard, but decided to give okok a try. He describes the process of domestication: a farmer finds a container with a clear lid. The farmer plants cuttings from the okok vine, with two to four leaves, in the container. Every morning, the grower sprays the cuttings with a little water until the vine starts to produce roots, which takes about 40 days. The farmer then transplants the seedlings into plastic bags containing soil and placed out of direct sunlight, in a shed or in the shade. The seedlings are watered twice a week for about 50 days, when they are ready to be planted in the field.
According to Mr. Nanga, the average annual yield increases from one tonne per hectare in the first year to seven and a half tonnes in the second. Mr. Awana began planting okok on one-tenth of a hectare. Today, he has tripled that area.
He chose not to intercrop his okok with other plants. He says: “Once we plant the okok, the plant does not require fertilizers or pesticides. At harvest, we pick only the leaves, taking care not to touch the bud.” He explains the dramatic increase in yields over time by saying, “If you only pick two leaves [from a young plant], four to eight leaves will grow [next season].”
Mr. Awana sells 90-day-old okok seedlings to farmers interested in growing the crop. The selling price is negotiable, but Mr. Awana will not take less than 400 CFA francs (80 US cents) per plant.
The business is spreading. Farmer Marie Bernard Messi started growing okok recently. He explains: “I was waiting to see the results from Mr. Awana’s field before committing myself. His results have encouraged me to try.”