West African farm 'bootcamp' gets green entrepreneurs into shape - GulfToday

West African farm 'bootcamp' gets green entrepreneurs into shape

Benin

Living quarters for the participants of an "agro-bootcamp" are see in Tori-Bossito.

Machetes in hand and wearing a straw hat against the sun, the participants of an "agro-bootcamp" in the farmlands of the West African nation of Benin harvest maize, cowpeas and rice.

"Cut at the base," says Oluwafemi Kochoni, an organic farming teacher, who runs the agricultural workshop to prepare young people for a future sustainably working the land.

"Then leave the plants in place, we will bury them they will decompose and fertilise the soil."

It's beginner's advice but the programme in Tori-Bossito, just outside Benin's economic capital Cotonou, aims to teach basic, traditional ways of agriculture to those who have forgotten or never known a life on the land.

In Benin, a poor country next to oil giant Nigeria, some 80 percent of its 11 million people depend on agriculture, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Most are subsistence farmers eking out a living growing crops on small plots where a lack of infrastructure and flooding that can wipe out harvests and seed stocks are key challenges, the FAO warns.

But the "agro-bootcamps" the name is borrowed from the intensive training of the US army take place close to the suburbs of the city and are aimed at a different market.

They are part of a wider movement to encourage self-sufficiency on the continent, which has some two-thirds of the world's remaining uncultivated arable land but spends $64.5 billion a year importing food, according to the African Development Bank. 

Ecologically-aware businesspeople

Like in traditional farming, the agro-bootcamp way of life is communal on the three-hectare (seven-acre) plot of land put at its disposal for the week by a family in exchange for baskets of vegetables.

On the edge of the fields, a border hedge of moringa plants and grasses are grown to help stabilise the soil.

Benin 6
Tomatoes are grown at an "agro-bootcamp," in Tori-Bossito, just outside Benin's  economic capital Cotonou.

There is also a fish farm in a pond, and another area to grow mushrooms.

Behind the scheme is the Gardens of Hope, an organisation promoting sustainable ways of farming.

"The advice usually received by farmers is based on the use of chemicals," said participant Rachidi Idrissou, an agronomy student in Benin. 

Benin is a youthful country; nearly two-thirds of the population is aged under 25. 

A philosophy

Of the 85 people who have taken part in the last two bootcamps, 10 have already launched new agricultural activities, farms or enterprises, according to organisers.

Social networks mean that participants and organisers can stay in touch for support as they develop their farms and small businesses.

Participants farm in ways farmers did before the massive movement of people to the cities.

"Initially, it was an alternative to conventional farming, to return to ancestral methods with the respect of the environment," said Kochoni.

"Then it became a way of life, and a philosophy." 

"With nature, you have everything at your fingertips," Bass said, enthusing about how manure means chemical fertilisers are not needed.

"I have made a great discovery," he added.

Agence France-Presse

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