Agriculture Training Center
After a few years of providing a small number of micro-loans and mini-grants to a handful of Malian farmers, we were able to obtain grant funding from LUSH Cosmetics that made it possible for us to purchase some land and set up a permanent field office and training center. We considered several locations, but one spot stood far above the rest as THE best place for ECOVA to establish a permanent foothold in Mali.
In 2008, while working on the production of an episode of the History Channel's "Digging for the Truth" as Location Fixers, we were introduced to the village of Ternabogou, by Lassana Kamissoko, the head of the Malian Griot's Association. It is in the Koulikoro region, near Siby in the heartland of the fabled Mande Empire - an area steeped in lore and legend and characterized by stunning rock formations. There we found a 6-acre plot near the entrance to the village with over 50 mature cashew trees and a seasonal stream that forms its western boundary. We purchased this land from the village, and every household in the community received a portion of the proceeds.
We quickly began the process clearing the land of overgrown underbrush, preparing for the construction of some basic housing, a latrine, and a suitable spot for the garden. We pruned the long-neglected cashew trees restoring them to greater health and productivity. Before digging for a water source, we were counseled by the locals to hire an old man, who lived in the hills nearby, to identify the best spots to place the wells. After giving each other all the customary greetings and numerous blessings, he reached into his well-worn leather satchel, and what did he pull out?... a dowsing rod! - just like the kind used by an old Vermonter at a farming workshop we had attended a few years prior. It was a memorable scene to witness this kindly old Malian meandering the grounds, tuning into the subtle cues and nuances of the land's topography with the aid of his dowsing rod, all-the-while quietly uttering a stream of prayers and incantations.
In the weeks that followed we built the first of several structures for housing and storage, as well as a latrine and bathing area.
We held a big celebration to dedicate the opening of the ECOVA MALI Training Center in May 2009, during which attendants planted dozens of fruit trees, many of which have now grown enough to bear fruit!
Since inaugurating our Training Center, this site has served as a hub for a wide variety of workshops, hands-on training sessions and community meetings that have included topics like:
community grain banking
small animal husbandry (poultry, rabbits, sheep, and goats)
Improved shea butter production techniques
Optimal crop spacing
Locally-available traditional, herbal medicines
Production and use of natural pesticides
Health workshops emphasizing the critical importance of proper hand washing, clean drinking water, and regular use of mosquito nets
Market scale onion production and storage
Fruit tree grafting
Solar drying for food preservation
Community Grain Banking
Repurposing recycled tires for container planting to optimizing soil fertility at the root zone
Community Grain Banks
Community Food Banking Success
Somewhere between 65-75% of the Malian population depends upon subsistence farming to survive. Occasional bumper crops can bring a windfall of bounty to communities, but is generally shortlived. Alternatively, a meager harvest means that families do not have enough staple foods to last them until the next year’s harvest. This creates a very precarious situation in which people do actually go hungry. In order to feed their families when their granaries go empty, people begin to sell what few valuable things they may possess, namely livestock, in order to buy millet, sorghum, rice, beans, etc. For many, their livestock is, in fact, their bank account and represents their economic safety net. At best, this safety net provides a thin layer of protection from crises (e.g. food shortages, medical treatment, etc.), however livestock takes time to replenish, and also requires inputs of time, energy, food, water, and occasional veterinary care.
In 2012 ECOVA MALI piloted a Community Grain Banking program based on a "village granary" model that has been functioning in Niana-Sobala (the village where Greg served as a Peace Corps Volunteer). In Niana-Sobala, every household that participates in the association sets aside 1/3rd of their annual crop to be stored in the village granary. The weight of these "deposits" are recorded by the designated treasurer. If and when families deplete their own store of grain, they can "withdraw" grain from the village granary to meet their needs. The weight of the grain withdrawn is deducted within the grain bank ledger. When the new crops from following season are harvested, any grain remaining from the previous year is dispersed among the participated families based on ledger balances, or sold collectively and the proceeds allocated proportionately to families with postive "balances". In times of dire need, families are permitted to withdraw grain on credit, but are required to pay it back in-kind with the next harvest.
In 2012 ECOVA MALI supplied 42 households, comprising 3 villages near to our training center, with 50kg of sorghum (a traditional staple grain) to help get them through the pressing food shortage in the form of a loan. The agreement made at the time of donation was that these families would “repay” this food loan – not to ECOVA MALI, but to their own community food bank with interest to be paid in kind.
What started 9 years ago with 7 sacks of grain has developed into a thriving system that has grown organically over time to an astounding 35 sacks of grain! There has been a remarkable 100% repayment on every grain loan year after year. These communities now have a built-in, self-sustaining food bank to help them through lean times long into the future.
When launching this program, we hired Bakari Coulibali, my host father and president of the village grain banking association from Niana-Sobala, to teach the participants how the system functioned and how to manage it. This meeting served as an incredible workshop while remaining within the context of traditional community meetings, and epitomized the concepts upon which ECOVA MALI was founded - grassroots, peer-to-peer training around agricultural development.
Partnering with Trees for the Future
Last year we partnered with Trees for the Future (TFTF), an international NGO that shares our vision of increasing food security and promoting economic development through sustainable agricultural practices. Their primary initiative in the region is focused on "Forest Gardens", an approach to farming that combines orchestrated tree planting efforts in conjunction with gardening.
Trees for the Future sponsored our Head Farmer / Trainer, Seydou Togola, to participate in a week-long workshop at their training center in eastern Senegal. There, he was taught the concepts and practices of "forest gardens" and received training on how to effectively instruct others in this regard.
In January 2020 ECOVA MALI hosted a weeklong workshop at our training center on forest gardens that included over 50 participants, 20 of whom came from other regions of the country to attend.
This event marked the launch of TFTF's forest garden initiative in Mali. Subsequently, Seydou served as the point person for follow-up with all the participants and distribution of all the seeds and potting bags needed for phase 2 of the forest garden initiative.
We are thrilled to report that this partnership with TFTF has resulted in the planting of over 40,000 trees in less than a year!!!