Mali: Changing their diet can help people with chronic illness find health

| October 11, 2020

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Adama Tangara used to grow millet. The 55-year-old farmer from Sognèbougou, a village in southwest Mali, changed what he eats—and what he grows—after he was diagnosed with diabetes. This chronic illness can be managed with good nutrition, in addition to other care. So Mr. Tangara started to grow fonio, a grain whose nutrients are absorbed slowly and therefore doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar. To manage diabetes, other farmers have started to process rice by parboiling it. Chronic illnesses can change many aspects of a person’s life, but Dr. Issa Benzagour says they can be managed with balance—in dietary habits and in exercise.

This story was originally published in April 2020.

It’s midday and 55-year-old farmer Adama Tangara is in his field in Sognèbougou, a village in southwest Mali, 15 kilometres from Ségou. Sitting under a big tree, he relaxes after long and hard work in his field, where he grows fonio.

Mr. Tangara used to grow only millet. Most of his harvest was for his own consumption, and he sold a small amount to pay for family needs. But after he was diagnosed with diabetes, a chronic illness, his doctor told him to change his diet.

Chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease are common in Mali. To manage these ailments, patients must change their eating habits, in addition to receiving other care. Nutrition plays an essential role in treating and caring for people with chronic illnesses.

To change his diet, Mr. Tangara decided to change what he grows. He abandoned millet for fonio. He explains, “When I [was diagnosed] with this illness, I discussed a lot with my doctor. He let me know that fonio is recommended for people with diabetes.”

The nutrients in fonio are absorbed slowly, so they don’t cause spikes in blood sugar like many other grains. People with diabetes have difficulty managing their blood sugar, so it’s important that they watch what they eat. But Mr. Tangara didn’t change many other things in his diet. Other than consuming fonio, orange is his fruit of choice and he avoids eating too much sugar.

While he preferred to change what he grows, other farmers choose food processing to manage their chronic condition. This is the case with Mrs. Djeneba Traoré from Zancourabougou, a village 20 kilometres from the town of Pelengana, also in the Ségou region. She produces parboiled rice.

Several organizations help farmers process foods by providing training and equipment. For example, Mr. Tangara benefited from the support of Lux Développement, an agency of the Luxembourg government that has been promoting rice, fonio, and sesame. He learned good farming practices related to soils, seeds, and crop production.

Mrs. Traoré also benefited from training. With her husband’s help, she processes rice, fonio, and sesame in order to better address the dietary needs of diabetics. She explains, “After harvest, I process white rice into parboiled rice because, according to specialists, it contains less sugar and is rich in nutrients.”

Mrs. Traoré also feeds these foods to her family because her husband’s father is diabetic. These days, she processes a large volume of rice because her clientele—mostly other diabetics—is willing to buy it.

Modibo G. Coulibaly is the focal point for FOSCAR Mali, the forum for agricultural and rural advisory services in Mali. He explains that parboiling rice is a method of pre-cooking paddy rice that ensures good nutritional value. He says, “This means four times more vitamins in the grain. With parboiled rice, we help improve the nutritional quality of rice.”

Mr. Coulibaly advises farmers who process their harvest to respect hygienic practices. He explains, “If hygienic standards are not respected during crop processing, this can cause other illnesses.”

People diagnosed with diabetes sometimes feel they need to change many aspects of their lives. Dr. Issa Benzagour is the head doctor at the Famory Doumbia Health Reference Centre in Ségou. He says that what is important is balance. He adds, “Illnesses like diabetes are chronic. Changing dietary habits helps to balance the patient’s health.” He also suggests that patients find a good balance through exercise—such as playing sports.

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.