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Mali: Women grow okra for extra money

This story was originally published in May 2017.

Madou Terry sets down a bag of okra by the side of the road, just outside of Mopti. Market gardens of different sizes line the road heading east from Mopti towards Sévaré. Farmers grow okra along with carrots, cabbage, chilies, spinach, cucumber, tomato, lettuce, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peppers.

Market gardening is popular in this area, and the local mayor assigned 20 hectares of land to a co-operative of market gardeners called “Nieleni.”

Okra is a favourite crop in these market gardens, and is grown particularly by women farmers because it’s a reliable source of income. Okra is an important ingredient in many dishes in Mali, featuring in almost every sauce. Another benefit is that, once it starts to bear fruit, okra continues to produce for several months.

The market gardens look peaceful and tranquil from a distance, but as you approach, you can see the men and women farmers working hard.

Mr. Terry walks through the two quarter-hectare plots where he grows okra. He says, “The activities of growing okra are shared between men and women, with the possibility of each helping the other.”

To plant, farmers prepare the soil and make small planting holes. They place three seeds in each hole and cover it with soil. In the dry season, they water the holes daily, a task often done by women. Both men and women plant okra, but women take over many tasks after planting.

Mr. Terry says, “Okra takes 45 days in total from planting to harvest, both in the dry season and in winter.”

For the first 15 days after planting, the farmers thin the number of shoots in each hole, usually keeping just one. During this time, women farmers add manure to the soil.

In the next 15 days, the shoots grow and flower. Then it is time for the women to remove weeds. During this time, okra is vulnerable to pests. The farmers manage pests with pesticides or traditional methods, although farmers say that traditional methods can be more time-consuming.

In the final 15 days, the okra continues to grow. Women generally harvest the plants, hanging a bag around their necks to collect the okra. They harvest every two days at first, then, as more plants mature, they harvest every day. They use small knives or their hands to pick the long, green pods. The women are careful to protect their hands with gloves or plastic bags to prevent itching, since the pods are covered in tiny spines.

After the harvest, the women dry the okra before selling at the closest market.

Brehima Djiguiba is an agronomist who is in charge of training market gardeners. He says that okra does not like cool weather, and grows better during the rainy July “winter” season and the March—April dry season. Farmers generally plant in July and in March, harvesting in August and May. In the winter, some varieties of okra can mature even faster than 45 days.

For Mr. Terry, okra is a good way of earning income. He harvests okra for four months. During the two months of peak harvest, he can earn 17,500 CFA ($30 US) every two days from a single quarter-hectare plot.

For the many women who sell okra, the crop provides a little extra money to contribute to their family’s needs for vegetables, grain, clothing, caring for children, and school fees. As many farmers in Mopti agree, okra, “is the farmer’s bulwark against poverty. It regularly ensures money in the pocket.”

This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from Save the Children and with financial support from USAID Technical and Operational Perfromance Support (TOPS).