We support almost 3000 farmers in growing organic cotton and have helped these farmers to establish cotton co-operatives and to engage in local and national cotton forums.
All organic cotton is sold to the Beninese government with a guaranteed premium (currently 20%).
Of the participating farmers, 40% are women, which is four times the number in conventional cotton farming in the region.
Women are supported to develop other means of income. They use new milling equipment to grind neem seeds to make and sell biopesticides. They also use the mills for grinding maize, which is a time-consuming and laborious job to do by hand. We hope that the time saved will allow girls more time to go to school. Extra income from the mills is paying for extra teachers, increasing the school’s capacity.
We have worked with farmers to develop a food spray, made from local, low-cost ingredients which they can use to encourage beneficial insects into their cotton fields, helping to keep pest numbers in balance and avoiding the use of pesticides.
Cotton makes up 80% of Benin’s export income, supporting at least 50% of the country’s population. Farmers tend to be dependent on a highly controlled infrastructure for their seeds, fertilisers and pesticides provided on credit. Use of agrochemical inputs has risen as farmers try to cope with increasing pest problems and declining soil fertility and can account for up to 60% of production costs in smallholder conventional cotton farming.
We work alongside The Benin Organisation for the Promotion of Organic Farming (OPEPAB), a non-governmental organisation founded in 1996. With funding from the Big Lottery Foundation and TRAID, the project supports organic cotton farmers by providing extensive training and technical support. With a special emphasis on involving female farmers, we aim to increase and diversify smallholder farmer incomes, eradicate pesticide-related ill health and promote sustainable farming.
Phasing out Highly Hazardous Pesticides (HHPs)
Many pesticides used in cotton farming are highly hazardous in nature. Farmers are rarely provided with proper training in pesticide use and very few farmers ever wear any form of personal protective equipment. Episodes of sickness after each round of spraying are common. Farmers are spending, on average, 10% of their cotton income on medical treatment for health issues related to pesticides. Research by OBEPAB and PAN UK revealed that exposure via contaminated food, water and re-use of empty pesticide containers also forms a major exposure route for farming families and was responsible for numerous fatalities.
OBEPAB’s painstaking documentation of acute poisoning incidents in the country’s cotton zones, and their identification of endosulfan as the most frequent culprit, was influential in persuading the government to announce a national endosulfan ban in 2008.
A survey in Benin, in 2016, revealed that 42% of conventional farmers experienced symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning in the previous year and almost half of this group had lost days of works as a result. A shocking 17% of conventional farmers had experienced symptoms of pesticide poisoning 6+ times in the previous year. In addition to skin and eye irritations and headaches, a high proportion of farmers experienced systemic reactions such as blurred vision (51%), tremors (34%), memory loss (3%) and convulsions (2%).
Children are much more vulnerable to the impact of pesticides due to their smaller body mass and lowered ability to process toxins. Children are often involved in the pesticide application process and are also at risk, along with their parents, when empty pesticide containers are used for storing drinking water and foodstuffs. Results of the survey showed that 48% of farmers had spent an average of £28 over the year on medication for pesticide-related illness – a significant amount when most farmers earn less than £600 per year from cotton.
Protecting the environment
Farmers often regard all insects in their fields as pests that need to be controlled with insecticides. The reality is that a large proportion of these insects are beneficial to the farmer, preying on pests and helping to control their numbers. Even insects that are deemed to be pests often only cause damage when found in large numbers.
Over ten years ago, PAN UK began working with Integrated Pest Management (IPM) expert, Robert Mensah, of the Australian Cotton Research Institute, to develop an alternative pest control tool for African smallholder cotton farmers. The result is a yeast and sugar-based food spray. The food spray is made using cheap and locally available ingredients and enhances the populations of beneficial insects, ‘farmers friends’, in cotton fields. Working with PAN UK and OBEPAB, Robert set up experimental trials in Benin to test the effectiveness of the food spray and to teach the Beninese farmers the correct application techniques. Farmers began achieving higher yields and incomes. Farmer Field Schools were set up to teach farmers how to make and use the food spray, as well as other IPM techniques.
In addition, farmers are given training in soil conservation techniques and use organic manures, composts and oil palm cake to improve soil structure and fertility.
In this way, farmers are able to work with nature to keep pest levels low, improve the fertility of their soils and increase the quality of their water. According to Simon Ferrigno, a specialist consultant on Sustainable & Organic Farm Systems, OBEPAB has the ‘best extension and farmer support services in Africa.’
Training through our Farmer Field Schools on organic pest management techniques reduces input costs by as much as 75%. Organic cotton systems are based on crop rotations and intercropping. Our project is currently testing ways of adding value and extra income to farmers’ chosen cotton companion crops, such as cashew and shea. All organic cotton is sold to the Beninese government with a guaranteed premium (currently 20%).
Empowering women and children
Neem seeds provide the basis for an organic pesticide, but they take a long time to grind by hand. Women are taking an increasingly active role in their cotton farming communities and neem mills have been provided by the project to cut down on the amount of time women and young girls spend on labour. The mills are being managed by women’s groups. They grind and sell the neem, as well as other foodstuffs for the community members, at a small fee. The profits contribute to village development projects, decided by the village committee. One village, for example, is using the extra profits to finance four more teachers for the locally understaffed school. The decreased time spent on labour, as well as the extra teachers, is allowing more children, especially girls, to attend school. Women are also taking an increasingly active role in the cotton co-operatives and in decision-making within their communities. Our project is helping to educate the community about the needs and potential of women farmers.