Atacora Essential recently welcomed Inspector Barro from the international certifying agency, Ecocert to our home in Boukombé, Benin. He works in their office in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and took the all-day bus ride to Natitingou, about 35 miles from Boukombé, where we picked him up in our rough road-proven, trusty Toyota pick-up truck. At the small city’s edge, pavement turns to red dirt and rocks, and the scenery gets better and better all the way to Boukombé. There are a few villages along the way, but mostly it is just wooded savannah and some sorghum, millet, corn and bean fields. Massive Baobab trees dot the landscape. We are at the tail end of the rainy season, and the bush is lush and the crops are tall. When we reached Koussoukoingou, the beautiful escarpments of the Atacora range and the verdant valley below came into view. Always a nice welcome to Boukombé.
If you are not familiar with the process of Organic or other such certifications, there is a whole lot more to it than saying that the Baobab, Neem and Moringa trees grow under natural conditions. Every minute detail of our operation needs to be structured, charted and documented correctly. Every relationship, right down to each of our 200+ individual producers in remote villages must be contractual. The history of the soils around every tree must be documented for this and the previous three years. Transformation, cleaning, storage, transport, sales and training records must be kept for at least 5 years. In addition to being a necessary part of certification, this process has helped us become a highly organized, well-oiled Baobab machine!
We assembled our team bright and early at our office in Boukombé and nervously prepared for the Inspector to get things started. In attendance were myself, Executive Director Jacob, President Antoine, Technical Consultant Abel, and our three primary field extension agents Boniface, Fiacre and Véronique. We were expecting an older, rather distinguished looking, sharply dressed individual, and were surprised that Barro was maybe 35 years old and did not exhibit the rigid formality typical of educated, well-positioned African white collar workers or bureaucrats. In fact, when Antoine, saw him for the first time, he told him that he could be his kid! Barro laughed.
The session started with greetings and proceeded right away with a revue of our documentation. We were off to a fairly good start, but it was evident that there was considerable work yet to be done. We had divided our production zones according to the Communes where the villages were found, and the site inspections started with the Commune of Boukombé, where we operate in 8 villages such as Koudahouongou and Kousétiégou. The Inspector used his computer to randomly select 10 individual producers whose parcels were to be inspected. We piled in the truck and went to work. The rainy season meant that to get to the parcels, we had to walk through fields of tall sorghum, wade streams and sweat in the humidity, hoping that the producers (who we notified) were there or nearby. It is harvest time for fonio, a nutritious indigenous grain, and people are busy. It is best to catch them early in the morning. We managed to get 6 visits in given our late start, and the inspector gave little clue as to his conclusions after asking many pointed questions about farming practices, storage locations, contractual relations, baobab harvest and much more. We were nervous. Things definitely started to relax when the Inspector, Jacob, Abel and I sat down to eat a delicious meal prepared by Jacob’s lovely wife, Céline.
We work in 4 villages in Natta, including our top producer village for Baobab fruit, Koukouentiégou. We managed to bury our truck in a mud hole good and proper, and had to round up some young men from the market in Kouporgou to get unstruck. Luckily we had a couple of motorcycles with us to move the inspection forward. I decided to be much more proactive with the inspector, which helped us all capitalize on the inspection as a training as well. He was much more open once we initiated dialog in the field, and liked what he saw.
The village of Dikon-Hein is remote and gorgeous, and there are tons of Baobab trees there. Rarely would a farmer use fertilizer on his corn (a no-no if the nearby Baobab is to be certified). The villagers raise a lot of animals, and use manure to enrich the soils around their Tata houses. Looking good!
As in all of our production zones, we have one or more relay agents charged with frequent surveillance and support duties for all of the individual producers. Certainly, our small team cannot be in 200 places at all times! Our main relay in Tabota is Papa Lambert. He’s an older guy who always wants to be in the lead and set an example for other producers. We need dynamic people like him! This was another great day of mogging around tiny villages and checking out majestic Baobabs. We had really started to get to know Barro by this point, and we were all quite good pals. He’s an intelligent, well rounded guy who knows a lot about forestry, agriculture, global and African politics and much more. I do love my job on days like this!
Like Boukombé, Cobly has its own Mayor and administration, and we work in two villages there, Cobly Center and Nanagadé. This is our primary Neem collection zone. There is a lot of cotton farming there, which can pose a problem for organic certification because they use fertilizer and pesticides for this cash crop. Therefore, we carefully choose producers with trees that are not adjacent to similar fields. There needs to be an adequate buffer zone between certified harvest zones and zones that have non-compliant inputs. These buffer zones are determined by distance, slope, interceding vegetation and the direction in which crops are planted according to slope. This was definitely a learning process for us all, but we’ve got it, and are busy visiting all the producers as our own inspectors! We also met with a NGO promoting organic cotton production, and hope to sell them lots of Neem oil as a natural pesticide, as well as press cake as green manure. We even managed to catch up with the few Boukombé producers we missed the first day, so the field inspection was complete.
This day, we inspected our transformation and storage centers in Kouporgou and Boukombé, where we make Baobab Fruit Pulp powder and press Baobab oil and Neem oil. In Kouporgou, we also have our plantation of Moringa trees which was inspected. The inspections were very detail oriented to insure no risk of mixing up conventional and organic stocks. Tons of documentation involved at this level. We did great! Our final recap meeting with the inspector was a relief after a pretty tough week of long hours, lots of walking and night meetings. Boniface, Fiacre and Véronique were exhausted because after our daily site visits, we sent them out at night on motos to the next day’s villages to make sure the producers would be present. Barro gave us his final report, and we signed off on the amendments we were to make to obtain final certification (which is what we are fervently doing as we speak). Barro told us that for a first-time applicant, what we had already achieved surpassed many long-certified operators, and that he was very pleased! He also celebrated the team’s dynamism and capacity, thanked us for our hospitality, and said he felt that he was among family. That really warmed our hearts. Look for Atacora Essential’s Certified Organic Baobab, Neem and Moringa products in 2013!!