In Niger, a social enterprise is using local plants that are resistant to the arid climate of the Sahel to produce nutritious food. The result is better incomes for farmers and a preserved environment.
The nutritional value of the leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds of some 15 wild plants are being promoted to help strengthen food security and to combat malnutrition and desertification in Niger. Sahara Sahel Foods uses plants indigenous to the region to produce highly nutritious food, while providing additional income to rural populations.
The company was officially launched in 2014 with initial funding of €1,200 in personal savings from its founder, Josef Garvi. Its industrial unit is located in the Zinder region, in the south-east of the country, and the products are sold in shops across the country. The company currently produces a range of 35 products – including fruit juices and pulp, oils, almonds, confectionery and teas, all derived from natural plant species grown in the Sahel.
The plants, which include Balanites aegyptiaca, Mearua crassifolia and Boscia senegalensis, grow naturally in cereal and legume fields and produce fruit, leaves and gum. Traditionally, they were picked and eaten immediately, or used in medicine. The plants also prevent soil erosion by water runoff, and their perennial nature makes them all the more valuable for combating desertification.
Initially, communities approached by the company to help harvest the fruit, leaves and gum of the plants did not believe the project could be profitable. Today, however, Sahara Sahel Foods works with 1,500 women across Niger’s three regions (Diffa, Maradi and Zinder). They now have an income from harvesting and are replanting family fields with neglected indigenous plants using modern seeding techniques, such as natural regeneration and direct seeding. According to Garvi, “The company’s employees earn more than FCFA 100,000 (€152.45) a year.”
Local communities were won over by discovering the additional income generated by the harvest, but also the nutritious food produced by Sahara Sahel Foods from the wild plants. The company’s success with the local population was such that, by the second year, the company harvested 50 t of fruit, leaves and gum – double the 25 t initially expected. “We knew that some of these natural trees could produce food for local consumption, but we didn’t realise they could provide us with a substantial cash income, even during a poor harvest,” says Mamou Rabia, a farmer in the Maradi region. “Thanks to Sahara Sahel Foods, we now have a permanent profitable activity. Even better, we have become permanent local forestry agents,” adds Barira Safiatou, another woman from the same region.
“The seeds are sown in grids. After 1 year, we start thinning out the plants that have germinated in a grid, keeping the strongest seedlings. A direct seeding grid usually produces a mature tree,” explains Garvi. His aim is to set up collection and processing units for harvested products in the other regions of the country, but above all to reproduce the model in other countries where the same varieties of indigenous trees exist.