Our boat moved through the brownish water, following the edge of a mangrove forest whose stilt roots form a protective grid along part of Benin’s 121-kilometre coastline. Watched over by herons, crabs and turtles, ours was the only boat around on this bright and sunny June afternoon. We were at the centre of Bouche du Roy, consisting of 10,000 hectares of marshes and lagoons from where the Mono River flows into the Atlantic in the southwest of the country.
Designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2017, this spectacular site is where 90% of Benin’s mangrove forests are situated. “Because of its strong capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, this ecosystem is crucial in the fight against climate risks,” explained agronomy engineer Moïse Koumassa, project manager at the NGO Eco-Benin and my guide during this trip. “This ecosystem is also a barrier against rising waters and flooding, as well as a reservoir of biodiversity.”
Yet mangrove forests have been reduced in this country, which stretches 700 km perpendicular to the coast. Despite prohibitions, 30% of mangroves have been cut down by local residents over the past 25 years. Living in poor conditions and earning income mainly from fishing and salt production, they transformed this free resource into firewood used to smoke fish and cook food. Deforestation has been harmful for the local residents, as fish, which have been deprived of their spawning sites, have become scarce, and fishers have lost their livelihood.
To reverse this trend, in 2016, Eco-Benin launched a vast restoration campaign and retrained fishers to become mangrove planters. On the day of my visit, there were around twenty of them working barefoot in the grey mud at the nursery north of Bouche du Roy. In three months, the mangrove saplings would be replanted in their natural habitat between the land and sea. And the fish would return, as they have gradually done in the 1,000 hectares where trees have already been replanted.
Mangrove restoration is one of hundreds of measures included in Benin’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP), adopted in 2022 to address climate change. Like most developing countries, this West African nation is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Ranked 166th in the world on the Human Development Index (HDI), the small Francophone country of 14 million inhabitants relies mainly on agriculture (cotton, soy, cashews, rice, etc.), which supports 70% of the population and generates 32% of its GDP. In 2019, intense flooding caused losses and damage estimated at $123 million.
Although famine has not affected the country, food security remains threatened by increased food prices. I observed that, at the beginning of the summer that, in the absence of mechanical irrigation, 95% of farmers rely on increasingly unreliable precipitation. Although the rainy season was supposed to be in full swing, the sun was shining for two weeks, barely interrupted by a few hours of heavy rain.
Benin will have to address a number of challenges in order to counter the climate disruptions. “First of all, there’s pollution,” said Edmond Totin, a sociologist whose specialty is agricultural innovation and with whom I met on the verdant campus of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in a suburb of the country’s economic capital, Cotonou.
“Pollution is everywhere: plastic bags littering cities and the countryside, second-hand clothes and other waste in our waterways, or cars running on fuel that isn’t always inspected,” stated the sociologist. Your lungs can get polluted just from racing through Cotonou’s traffic on one of the thousands of zems (motorcycle-taxis in Fon, the most widely spoken of Benin’s 40 or so languages, besides French). Pollution also comes from homes, as 60% of the population has no electricity and the main cooking fuel is charcoal. This increases the rate of deforestation, which is one of the highest in the world.
According to the National Adaptation Plan, agriculture, especially the cotton industry, also has its shortcomings (Benin is Africa’s leading cotton producer) due to the “uncontrolled and unmonitored use of chemical fertilizers.” The NAP emphasizes that these fertilizers emit “large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, all of which worsen the process of climate change.” Patrice Talon, president of Benin and the richest man in the country, made his fortune in cotton before being elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2021.
There are many initiatives everywhere to protect the environment, including biochar production, recycling, agroecology and biotechnology. “Even if it’s still often on a small scale, this gives us hope,” said Edmond Totin, who collaborated on the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “This fight will most certainly have to include a social justice dimension.”
This is the ambition of countless Beninese and international NGOs working from north to south. “Mangrove restoration could not have succeeded without considering the local people who needed it to survive,” said Charles Mony, founder of the Quebec-based NGO Village Monde, which has been a partner in this restoration effort with Eco-Benin since 2020 and is supported by the Quebec government. “We urgently needed to train them in new jobs that would not endanger the vegetation. In all, some 500 men and women have been retrained in ecotourism, fish farming, agroecology and mangrove planting. The effect on the local economy is visible,” declared Charles Mony.
Salt production and fish smoking have not disappeared from mangrove areas. But these activities are beginning to be carried out in a more environmentally friendly way, especially thanks to less polluting wood-free cookers that were developed with the financial support of Ottawa’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). “We designed a hybrid cooker model that uses a combination of solar energy and agricultural waste,” explained agronomy engineer Elie Padonou of the National University of Agriculture. Together with a local cooker manufacturer, the researcher worked closely with salt producers, the main users of cookers.
For the moment, all 300 cooker users in the 10 villages concerned have adopted the technology, but it should soon be spread throughout the country as part of Benin’s modernization of this kind of production, which began in Benin in 2022. “Cookers using the same technology are being tested,” said Elie Padonou. “Eventually, thousands of people could use it.”
Another advantage of these new environmentally friendly cookers is that they reduce the workload for women, who no longer have to spend long hours chopping wood.
The Centre de recherche et d’expertise pour le développement local [Centre for Research and Expertise in Local Development] (CREDEL), a Beninese NGO, is also interested in the particular needs of rural women, who are often overlooked in climate adaptation policies in Benin. “As they have few resources, they suffer the adverse effects of climate change more than men do,” stated geographer Barnabé Hounkanrin, from the University of Abomey-Calavi.
The latter collaborated on the action research project called Developing inclusive resilience to climate change and disasters (Développement d’une résilience inclusive aux changements climatiques et aux catastrophes (DERICC)), carried out by CREDEL and funded by IDRC. This initiative has taught rural women — and their spouses — techniques to better cope with floods and drought. But it also revealed that women work much harder than men, in addition to carrying out the bulk of unpaid activities, such as childcare, cooking, water collection, etc.
“When husbands get involved, women have more time to acquire new knowledge, which strengthens their ability to make decisions that benefit them,” explained Parfait Blalogoé, who holds a PhD in environmental and climate sciences and is the director of CREDEL.
Despite laws establishing gender equality, Benin is still strongly marked by patriarchy and ancestral customs (forced marriages, polygamy, excision, etc.). Women have little access to land ownership, are less educated than men (69% are illiterate, compared to 46% of men) and are generally subject to the authority of their husbands. “If we have 100 steps to go, I’d say we’re only on the fifth step,” concluded Parfait Blalogoé.
Changing mentalities won’t happen overnight. In reality, many participants are still working hard, like Anagonou Adjizohouin, a mother of six who lives in a polygamous household. I met her with some 30 members of the agricultural cooperative of Adjassincondri, a small village in the Mono department on the border of Togo. “My husband works as a handyman and he’s never around,” she said resignedly. Her co-wife doesn’t share the same field and also works on her own.
With no rain on the horizon on this July morning, the humidity was overwhelming. Yet in the midst of palm oil preparation, the village of Adjassincondri was buzzing with activity. This precious red liquid, used in cooking and sold in markets and by the roadside, enables vegetable growers to increase their income — at the price of intense labour. Carrying a heavy bowl (30 kilos!) full of freshly harvested fruit on their heads, they have to walk for kilometres from the forest to the river, where they wash the fruit, then pick and mash it. However, in the wake of the DERICC initiative, the village men bought a press to ease their wives’ workload, which included crushing the fruit with their feet.
Once needs had been established, the CREDEL team showed nearly 2,000 farmers in eight municipalities inexpensive techniques for better protecting their crops, such as gravel waterways to stop runoff water, drought-resistant seeds and the manufacture of biopesticides.
I met up with Lucas Houndolo, a market gardener in Agouagon, in the lush Collines department in the centre of the country. He was in the agricultural cooperative’s field, at the foot of the new borehole. On this late afternoon, men and women, often with a baby strapped to their backs, were in the middle of an irrigation session. Armed with large watering cans, they strode along the crincrin (green vegetable), okra and pepper plants. One of the women would periodically break into a lively song, to which everyone else then started singing along.
Accompanied by his wife, who was eight months pregnant, and their two-year-old son, Lucas Houndolo got to work. This kind young father was proud to have learned how to concoct organic fertilizers from poultry droppings, beef urine and other agricultural waste. “The chemicals we use contribute to soil and ozone layer degradation. With organic fertilizers, yields are lower at first, but you have to be patient. In the end, the earth will thank you.”
Agricultural waste is also increasingly used to make biochar, a green fuel that replaces charcoal. “It’s an abundantly accessible material, just waiting to be valued,” said Naomi Fagla Medegan, the 30-year-old French-Beninese founder of Gbobètô (“waste collector” in the local language), a social economy enterprise that makes solid fuel bricks from carbonized palm seed shells and rice (husks).
“It’s not easy to change behaviours,” the entrepreneur stated. “Even though our fuel bricks are cheaper, people are used to charcoal, which cooks faster.” Her teams are working on improving the formula to double production to 4,000 fuel bricks a day, which is the equivalent of one tonne of agricultural waste.
This waste comes from the fertile Ouémé valley, just outside the capital city of Porto Novo, where Gbobètô has set up its plant. The company also recovers plastic materials to shred them, then sell them to West African manufacturers. At a rate of around ten tonnes of plastic per month, she is doing useful work in a country where recycling does not officially exist.
After studying political science in Paris, Naomi Fagla Medegan chose to settle in her grandfather’s country in 2019 to launch Gbobètô, which has 30 employees and employs around 20 “women recoverers.”
Having previously earned their living by selling cans, copper wires and plastic bottles from the capital’s open dump sites, these women found themselves penniless when the mountains of waste were disposed of in 2020. Waste management then began to be modernized in Porto Novo, under the leadership of the Société de Gestion des Déchets et de la Salubrité (SGDS SA). At Gbobètô’s request, SGDS has set up three sites for them. “In less than two years, they have collected 300 tonnes of waste, which has thus been diverted from landfills. Their environmental impact is enormous!” Naomi Fagla Medegan said.
The women of the lakeside town of Ganvié, on Lake Nokoué, north of Cotonou, are engaged in a completely different kind of harvesting. Aboard their dugout canoes, they collect water hyacinths, an invasive plant that reproduces very quickly.
Founded in the 18th century, Ganvié first served as a refuge for those fleeing the slave raids by hiding out in the marshes. Now home to 40,000 inhabitants and visited by tourists, the way of life of this city built on stilts is threatened by water hyacinths, which are proliferating as a result of pollution. From August to December, they form thick carpets that hinder fishing and the movement of people, as well as harm biodiversity and the water quality. However, a Beninese company, Green Keeper Africa (GKA), has found a way to make a profit from it.
Africa’s leading producer of industrial absorbents, GKA transforms water hyacinth into bags and cushions capable of absorbing pollutant leaks. “We’ve trained around 500 people, mostly women, to harvest hyacinth,” said Estève Agbota, 34, the company’s CEO. “During the last growth season, they collected 25 tonnes.”
After earning a master’s degree in environmental engineering from Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure (ETS), Estève Agbota returned to Benin in 2019. “I wanted to get involved in a useful project for my country.”
Only the stem of the hyacinth is used to make absorbents, while the rest is recovered for compost and basket-making. Green Keeper Africa also plans to use the water hyacinth to create other products, such as biochar as a fertilizer and water retainer for agricultural soils, ecomaterials for construction, feed for farmed fish, etc.
Besides all these initiatives, one major problem remains: the lack of weather forecasting stations, both in Benin and elsewhere in Africa. “In the United States, a cyclone can be predicted well ahead of time and therefore evacuations can be organized, but we don’t have this technology,” lamented Parfait Blalogoé from CREDEL.
The Beninese NGO highlighted this issue during COP27, held in Egypt in 2022, with an action memorandum for funding for automated meteorological equipment to “reduce disaster risk and strengthen climate resilience.” Yet, as expert Edmond Totin pointed out, even though Africa is one of the continents that contributes least to greenhouse gas emissions, there is still no adequate funding mechanism for the countries concerned.
More and more voices are also being raised in Benin to remind us of the usefulness of ancestral knowledge, connected to the observation of nature and handed down from generation to generation. “We need to make greater use of the intelligent local knowledge of our elders,” said Parfait Blalogoé. “Young people often don’t listen to them enough, as they believe them to be outdated.” Whether it’s about lizards that fight before the rain, ants that leave the river bed before floods, or snakes that emerge before the heat, much of this knowledge remains relevant and can play a role in adapting to climate risks. That’s certainly the view of geographer-ethnoclimatologist Akibou Akindele, 39, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject.
His research enabled him to separate the wheat from the chaff, or, in other words, to reject mistaken beliefs and retain only knowledge based on hard facts. “Of course, these predictions don’t always come true, but neither do scientific weather forecasts!” said this son and grandson of farmers, who teaches in the Department of Geography and Land Use Planning at the Centre Universitaire d’Adjarra, near Porto Novo. Concerned that this knowledge will disappear, Akibou Akindele is working on a “people’s meteorology dictionary,” which will be distributed to rural people.
In this country, the birthplace of Vodun, which is still widely practised, climate adaptation also requires a few small agreements with the gods. In the four corners of Benin, numerous forests have been sanctified to ensure the conservation of resources. “Sacred forests are more respected than reserved forests,” continued Akibou Akindele. “People obey ancestral practices more than regulatory texts.”
In the Bouche du Roy reserve, the divinity Zangbéto watches over the 500 hectares of mangrove forests already sanctified by the NGO Eco-Benin with the support of local communities. To better guide climate adaptation strategies, the geographer believes that “we need to combine scientific data with endogenous knowledge.” For fear of incurring divine punishment, no one ventures out here anymore with a bush knife.
Isabelle Grégoire visited Benin at the invitation of IDRC, which supports the DERICC initiative of the NGO CREDEL, as well as the development of solar cooking for women entrepreneurs in mangrove areas of Benin.
This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of L’actualité.