The secret life of seeds: Saving sorghum from the brink in Mali

September 30, 2019

Fanta is a mother of eight, grandmother to 13 and guardian to one very useful grain that everyone had thought lost for good.

Fanta Traoré is a farmer with a secret.

Of course, she didn’t know it was a secret at first – it wasn’t until she got together with dozens of other farmers from her region that she realized.

With support from SeedChange donors like you, the farmers gathered for an audit of what seeds they save and what ones they’ve lost, so they can work together to conserve and grow their local seed diversity. The audit begins with farmers gathering together and listing all the seeds they save.

As it turned out, Fanta is the caretaker of a very rare seed indeed: n’guéné sorghum, a traditional local grain.

N’guéné sorghum, a traditional local grain, growing on Fanta Traoré’s farm. (Photo: CAB Demeso)

During the gathering of local farmers in her village of Zorokoro, Mali, she revealed to everyone that she was still saving the sorghum seed.

Her peers were shocked and excited. They had thought the sorghum lost for good.

“When I showed I had the seed, there was a sense of relief among many of the women who believed the variety had completely disappeared from the community,” says 56 year-old Fanta, who has been involved with SeedChange since 2002. Five women asked to borrow n’guéné seeds from her right there and then.

Fanta Traoré, a farmer in Mali, in her onion field with her grandchild, Moriba Traoré. (Photo: CAB Demeso)

This scene is a familiar one. Pressure to grow export crops, adoption of industrial farming practices, and climate change make losing seeds – even treasured local varieties – all too common. Seeds, and the unique crops they grow, go extinct all the time.

But this time, while the n’guéné sorghum fell out of use in her community and beyond, Fanta grew and saved it, year after year. She liked its knack for producing grain earlier than other types of sorghum. Even with the climate changing around her she could depend on it to provide her with an early harvest.

Plus n’guéné sorghum had always proven a yummy, nutritious, easy-to-prepare daily meal for her family – no insignificant factor when you have 13 grandkids for whom to make food.

“Since I have more than a dozen grandchildren, I kept growing this variety to keep up with their growing demand for dinner!”

Fanta’s grandchildren aren’t the only ones who depend on her now. With support from donors like you, she planted the very Baobab trees she now stands among. She and other women from her village and as far away as the capital, Bamako, harvest the thin green Baobab leaves to sell at market. At the beginning of the rainy season when food is most scarce, these leaves provide a steady income.

She never had the chance to go to school but, with your support, she has received training, gained new skills, and farms good, diverse food in a difficult region. With her expertise, Fanta is now a teacher to budding new farmers. Fanta even founded a farmers’ association in Zorokoro which helps its 43 members source good seeds.

Through all this, she earned enough income to put all eight of her children through school.

“The support of the program has greatly improved my living conditions.”