Research on the effect of climate change in agriculture in West Africa shows that crop mixes will need to adapt in the coming years, as the effects will have a direct impact on livelihoods. A study by Traore et al. [1
] shows that cotton growing in the Sikasso region is likely to be adversely affected by rising temperatures in Mali and changes in rainfall patterns. Looking at sorghum and millet in West Africa, Sultan et al. [2
] evaluated the effects of 35 possible climate scenarios on yields and found negative impacts in 31 cases. In this context, rural populations reliant on rain-fed agriculture are likely to be hit the hardest [3
]. In Mali, the agricultural sector will experience continued soil fertility depletion and water stress, especially in dry areas [4
]. Production challenges faced by smallholder farmers in Mali are likely to be heightened as the effects of climate change amplify in the region, possibly with an additional burden in terms of increased malnutrition and reduced food security [5
]. The former could severely increase and disproportionately affect children, together with rising anemia and stunting rates [6
In this context, the current research focus on a few main cereal crops in agricultural policies seems misguided. On the other hand, marginal crops can become a building block of future strategies while also contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals [7
]. From an agronomic perspective, yields of major crops are expected to decrease in West-African countries, no matter the climatic scenario considered [8
]. A shift of attention away from major crops and towards lesser-known and documented minor crops could prove a key ingredient in the development of sustainable agricultural agendas [9
]. Minor crops deserve attention for at least four reasons: (i) They tend to be very nutritious, (ii) they require few inputs and are often indigenous to African regions, (iii) they maintain unique genetic diversity, and (iv) they contribute to household income [7
]. Furthermore, as women are mostly responsible for the farming and/or processing of subsistence crops in the African context, improved utilization of minor crops could enhance women’s access to supply chains and income-earning opportunities [11
], as well as improving nutritional outcomes at the household level [12
]. In the literature, minor crops are often referred to as underutilized, marginal, and ‘neglected and underutilized species’ (NUS).
In this study, we focus on two such crops grown in Mali: Fonio (Digitaria exilis
(Kippist) Stapf) and Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea
L. Verdc.). Fonio is one of the most ancient indigenous West African cereals and is a major part of the diet in some communities in Mali [13
]. It is an excellent source of protein that is rich in the sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine, which are deficient in rice, maize, and sorghum [16
], and their concentrations are slightly higher than those defined for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) protein reference [17
]. It is also rich in micronutrients, including iron and zinc, and therefore has the potential to improve intakes of these nutrients in deficient populations. The food composition table of Mali indicates fonio as the cereal with the second-highest iron content (8.5 mg/100 g dry matter) after sorghum (11 mg/100 g dry matter) [18
]. Furthermore, fonio has a low glycemic index, and it may serve as an alternative grain for people with gluten intolerance [16
]. Bambara groundnut is a legume crop native to Africa, commonly grown for its seeds by subsistence farmers [19
]. In certain regions, its importance as a leguminous crop is only matched by groundnut and cowpea [20
]. Bambara groundnut is rich in proteins, with content varying between 14 and 24 g per 100 g, and is also rich in carbohydrates, with 28 to 40 g per 100 g [21
]. The crop also provides fatty acids and minerals: A 100 g portion serving of Bambara groundnut fulfils more than half the recommended daily allowance for potassium intake for children and adults and covers the entire recommended daily allowance for magnesium and zinc [22
]. Praised for its agronomic properties, Bambara groundnut is relatively drought-tolerant and requires minimal chemical inputs. Furthermore, it acts as a natural nitrogen fixer and can therefore enhance the yields of non-nitrogen-fixing crops when properly intercropped [23
]. Bambara groundnut cultivation relies on landraces, which are highly suited to local agro-ecologies [24
Despite their excellent nutritional profiles, hardiness and versatility in use, the cultivation and trade of both fonio and Bambara groundnut remain below their potential throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The situation is slowly changing for fonio, however. Regarded for a long time as a minor crop without economic potential [25
], it is attracting renewed interest in urban areas of West Africa for its organoleptic and nutritional qualities [26
]. Recently, the crop has been listed as a priority crop for West Africa [28
]. The pace of change is slower for Bambara groundnut, despite efforts at increasing the visibility of the crop over the past years, such as being branded as one of the FAO’s “traditional crops”. Both these crops could help address key challenges faced by the Malian agricultural sector. For example, the nitrogen-fixing properties of Bambara groundnut can help maintain soil fertility, and its low water requirements can be an advantage in dry or drought-prone areas. Fonio thrives in the semi-arid lands of the Sahel thanks to its low water requirements, an extensive root system that helps the plant to draw water from deep underground, and its fast maturation. Fonio has long been considered a strategic food for rural West Africans, being the first crop to be harvested in the “hungry season”, which is a time of critical shortage before other staples, like sorghum or maize, are ready for harvest [29
]. It is able to grow in poor soils without the use of fertilizers and, hence, is typically planted later in crop rotation cycles, after maize or sorghum.
Among the factors explaining why fonio and Bambara groundnut remain underutilized, weak value chains are a key issue. For fonio, several studies point towards the lack of appropriate technology for harvesting, threshing, and processing [15
]. For Bambara groundnut, trade is often confined to the immediate village boundaries, with little commercialization or processing involved [31
], and negative traditional beliefs are associated with the crop in parts of Africa (e.g., [33
] for Malawi). However, few studies have specifically examined issues of marketing for Bambara groundnut [19
] and little information is available on its value chain in Mali. Similarly, for fonio, most of the studies looking at Mali only focus on specific actors along the value chain in a specific location (e.g., [15
] or [36
] for urban consumers of fonio in Bamako). In this study, we aimed to broaden understanding of factors limiting the use of these crops in Mali by assessing barriers along their value chains.
Using a Rapid Market Appraisal method, data were collected from producers, traders, and consumers in 2017 and 2018 in three areas of southern Mali. Focus groups and individual interviews were conducted to identify the obstacles faced by actors in rural and urban areas. By focusing on several levels of the value chains, we identify the most salient constraints to greater production and commercialization of these crops and propose policy recommendations that help in mitigating them. We paid attention in order to capture the gender dimension involved in the farming, processing, and selling of the two target crops to assess opportunities for value chain development to contribute to women’s empowerment. Our results show that the value chains for both crops suffer from important bottlenecks, even though the chain for fonio is more commercially developed than for Bambara groundnut, and the value chain in the case of fonio includes exports, mainly to Senegal and France, albeit in very low volumes. For the former, weak demand, presence of sand in the final products, and lack of capital for processing and marketing are key issues. For the latter, weak demand, lack of processing units, and lack of promotion prevail.
Our interviews with traders, producers, processors, and consumers point to a series of constraints that limit the consolidation of fonio and Bambara groundnut value chains. Table 4
summarizes the issues for different actors of the value chains. Assessing the constraints along the different stages of a value chain helps understand why these minor crops remain so, despite their nutritional and economic potential [46
]. The development of functional value chains is important to consolidate resilient agricultural alternatives while providing local populations with nutritious foods [47
]. Neglected and underutilized species tend to have bottlenecks across their value chains, including agronomic constraints (low yields, poor access to seeds, etc.), commercialization constraints (poor value chain organization, high transaction costs), and weak consumer demand as a result of low awareness, negative perceptions of the crop, or difficult processing, among other factors [46
]. These bottlenecks can reduce interest in growing and using species, while other crops compete for time, land, and space in local diets and use practices. As Table 4
shows, the value chains of both fonio and Bambara groundnut faced barriers along their value chains that limited their further integration into the Malian food system.
4.1. Overview of Bottlenecks
The lack of a reliable market stood out as a limitation that demotivated farmers to produce fonio and Bambara groundnut commercially and traders to deal with these crops. Farmers sold their harvests within their villages to local consumers, as well as to collectors and mills, but they complained about a lack of a consistent market and good prices. For traders, low consumer demand stood out as a primary constraint for commercialization of fonio and Bambara groundnut, as captured by observations of a “low pace of trade” and “lack of customers”. The consumer interviews confirmed observations of low demand that were raised by traders and farmers. Both crops were used mainly as accessory foods under specific circumstances and were not regular staples of diets year-round. Rural consumers relied on these crops for food security in the lean season because of their early maturation, which is a role that has been well documented for fonio [49
]. Bambara groundnut was used as a snack to hold over the appetites of rural consumers between meals. Fonio additionally held important ceremonial roles for both rural and urban consumers, which traders observed to concentrate demand in a few periods. Fonio was generally held in high esteem by consumers, as is common through several areas of West Africa, where it is appreciated as a superior crop or a diversification product in urban areas [15
]. However, the quality of the processed products, which can often contain sand, reduced their desirability. High prices were also a barrier for greater use of fonio by consumers. In this sense, our results are consistent with prior research that has stressed the detrimental effects of high prices on sustained consumption in urban Mali [27
] and in the West African region [15
]. Bambara groundnut did not hold the same positive esteem as fonio, and it was mainly seen as a backup crop for food security. Subsistence crops can carry a stigma as food of the poor, which poses a barrier to their full integration in food systems, as has been observed, for example, for African leafy vegetables [50
], and this may be a factor holding Bambara groundnut from wider integration in the Malian food system.
For fonio, a clear difference emerged between products with low processing (paddy and whitened fonio) and those with more advanced processing and packaging (precooked and djouka fonio). Producers described the market for more advanced fonio products to be more reliable and with better prices compared to that for paddy fonio. This was consistent with our results from the trader surveys, which revealed more stable pricing of advanced fonio products over the year as compared to products with lower levels of processing. Some women in the rural areas were engaged in processing fonio as an income source, but the scale of commercial fonio processing in the villages was not substantial. Producers across the sites complained of missing threshing machines and other processing equipment. Most of the threshing was still done manually by beating the straw, which is a very labor-intensive activity that often yields poor results in terms of product quality [30
]. A lack of processing equipment has been observed elsewhere as a barrier for fonio commercialization at the levels of producers and processors (e.g., [30
] for Togo). Mills in district centers in the Ségou and Sikasso regions were involved in processing fonio, and numerous women’s processing groups in Bamako were active in sourcing paddy fonio to process it for sale in grocery stores, supermarkets, and other markets. Lack of capital was a general complaint by processing groups and retailers of fonio. These issues connected back to consumer demand, as the presence of sand in the fonio products can be seen as a side effect of inappropriate technology and low capital. This also translates into complaints regarding the high price of the product, which requires a large investment of time, drudgery, or capital to process.
Lack of capital was an equally important constraint for traders of Bambara groundnut, together with poor product quality. Here too, our results largely reflected findings from other studies: The literature on Bambara groundnut stresses the lack of functional value chains for the crop, resulting in irregular markets (see, for example, [32
] for Ghana, or [19
] for an African overview). One aspect we saw in our results that was more specific to Bambara groundnut was the lack of systematic promotion of the crop, which hindered its production and processing by farmers. Bambara groundnut is often considered a women’s crop [33
], and its marketing is confined to the margin of households’ main agricultural strategies [31
]. In the Ghanaian context, the crop is also found to be grown more by females than males [34
]. Because the latter have little interest in expanding production and commercialization of the crop, it remains largely invisible in terms of promotion and advertisement. As such, male farmers and traders are rarely interested in expanding its cultivation and sales. Even though Bambara groundnut is popular as a snack food and was praised for its nutritional properties by producers and consumers, its widespread lack of promotion reduces its visibility. A good example was the absence of Bambara groundnut dishes in restaurants and supermarkets in the study sites, as was anecdotally noted by the research team. Product diversification for Bambara groundnut was also very limited despite the versatility of processing that is possible for this crop, especially by grinding it into flour [52
]. Biological issues, such as long cooking time, may still constitute an important problem in this regard. The required energy to transform Bambara groundnut within the household is often too high to make processing a viable activity [31
There were a few agronomic constraints mentioned in the producer interviews that contribute to the limited production of Bambara groundnut and fonio. Low rainfall reduces yields of both crops. In this sense, although fonio and Bambara groundnut are generally hardy with respect to local conditions, they are not immune to climate change. For example, drought was a factor that contributed to abandonment of this crop by producers in savannah areas of Ghana and Nigeria [34
]. Storage pests were a major issue for producers of Bambara groundnut, which agrees with observations of this crop in northwestern Nigeria [54
]. A poor availability of seed—especially seed of improved varieties—was mentioned for both crops in both regions. This complaint is not surprising given that no improved varieties for Bambara groundnut have been released in Mali. By comparison, several improved varieties of fonio have been released in Mali, but they are not always accessible to farmers, and they tend not to perform reliably better than local varieties [55
Given the popularity of fonio in the region, its importance in traditional events, and consumers’ willingness to consume more of it, the crop can be considered underutilized in the sense that its commercial potential is not realized. The underutilized status of Bambara groundnut is equally clear, if not more. Product transformation is very limited, and roasted seeds are the main product available. Processing is carried out within producers’ households, and trade is confined to local areas due to the lack of promotion of the crop. Strengthening the value chains of these crops therefore requires targeted interventions to alleviate these specific bottlenecks. However, both bottlenecks and policy recommendations need to be analyzed with gender lenses, as there are clear gender patterns observed in the cultivation, processing, and marketing of the target crops.
4.2. Policy Recommendations
To assess the policy interventions required to mainstream fonio and Bambara groundnut, the framework developed in [56
] is a useful benchmark. Concerned with how to improve marketing of marginal crops in a way that directly benefits the poor, the authors argue that three conditions are necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) for successful commercialization of underutilized species. First, demand needs to expand and stay sustained over time. To this end, marketing and promotional campaigns, advertising, and information dissemination are important. Second, efficiency along the value chains needs to be increased to bring consumers a product of quality for a reasonable price. This involves, for example, the organization of farmer groups or cooperatives that help reduce intermediaries’ bargaining power, and the development of processing units. Both these interventions can be addressed through local and national policies. They also entail better communication between different actors of the value chain, as well as decent infrastructure and transport networks to minimize transaction costs. Finally, a situation in which production soars and subsequently depletes prices must be avoided, as it would discourage farmers from continuing to produce marginal crops. One possible way to avoid this is to promote quality-rewarding mechanisms; for example, by specifying necessary quality attributes that a product must have in order to be commercialized through certification labels. The development of certification and labeling systems to support the marketing of NUS products by local communities is a policy intervention that has been poorly explored insofar at both the national and international levels. Simple and inexpensive certification mechanisms linked to on-farm conservation of NUS diversity and to resilience and nutritional benefits arising from their greater use should be more decisively taken up by governments and agencies concerned for the wellbeing of local populations [57
]. Additional national policy measures that could be explored to strengthen the value chains of NUS in Mali include the introduction of these nutritious foods in public procurement schemes (e.g., school meal programs), as was done recently in Guatemala [58
], or the establishment of multi-stakeholder platforms involving all value chain actors, as was done successfully in the case of amaranth in Bolivia [59
4.2.1. Gender Dynamics in Processing and Trading
Even though the value chains for fonio and Bambara groundnut products are quite distinct, several barriers to improved trading are common to female traders marketing both crops. Future value chain interventions should aim at retaining women in the trade of marginal crops while simultaneously helping them overcome the disproportionate barriers they are facing (access to capital, credit, processing units, etc.).
While efforts should target increased visibility of the crop and the creation of processing units outside the household in the case of Bambara groundnut, interventions for fonio would require instead the strengthening of already existing processing structures. This involves securing availability of credit and provisioning of processing materials to these groups on a perennial basis. Investing in second-level processing technologies is also important for traders because processed products are less subject to price variations than raw or barely processed ones. During our surveys with traders in 2017 in the Ségou, Sikasso, and Bamako regions, respondents explained that the price of paddy and whitened fonio varied extensively between the abundance and scarcity seasons, whereas prices for washed and dried, precooked, and djouka fonio did not substantially rise in the scarcity season. Therefore, policy interventions focusing on local development should ensure that the necessary technologies for second-level processing are available to women’s processing groups who supply traders with fonio (as well as restaurants). Given that traders of processed fonio also tend to be females, this would strengthen women’s position along the value chain. Creating well-functioning formal markets is a key condition for the consumption of traditional crops to consolidate and flourish, as shown by [60
] in the South African context.
A further possible issue in the case of fonio could arise as the value chain consolidates: Fonio trade is currently managed by women, who also retain the income earned from this trade. A potential threat lies in a gender-reversal phenomenon if fonio consolidates as a cash crop and heads of households, who also own the land, embrace its production as a new source of income at the expense of women and their autonomy. This possibility is less immediate for Bambara groundnut given its more marginal status, but it exists in principle too, as stressed in [33
4.2.2. Visibility and Knowledge of the Crops
At the trader level, lack of customers was often mentioned as a barrier towards greater commercialization. Demand is usually high during traditional events or festivals, but is not sustained throughout the year. Agricultural extension policies to stimulate demand through enhanced knowledge and awareness of the crops’ benefits would be a useful first step towards achieving this goal. This is the case for both fonio and Bambara groundnut, but the latter suffers from a lack of status and the social stigma of being an ‘inferior food’ (a condition common to many underutilized crops), which further hinders its trade; efforts are thus required to mainstream the crop through advertisement campaigns, promotion of its nutritional properties, dissemination of recipes, and providing appropriate incentives for traders to promote it. There is evidence that crop promotion influences producers’ adoption. For example, the authors of [61
] document the case of adoption of annual legumes (including Bambara groundnut) among maize-growing farmers in central Malawi following promotion campaigns conducted between 1998 and 2004. The issue of visibility for Bambara groundnut is linked to its gender dynamics too, as already explained.
4.2.3. Access to Inputs and Machinery
For fonio producers, a key lever to increase production is to ensure a better access to quality seeds at an affordable price and to enhance access to technologies that can facilitate harvest and post-harvest treatment of fonio. In particular, the unavailability of threshing machines proved to be a key bottleneck for producers. Pilot schemes have been launched to test the efficacy of threshing and dehusking machines in West Africa [62
]. Efforts in this direction should be pursued to assist producers in the development of modern technologies for fonio.
4.2.4. More Resilient Cropping Patterns
Although established cropping patterns are hard to change in the short term, efforts by policymakers in Mali should be made to create more space and opportunities for NUS, such as fonio or Bambara groundnut, and to rebalance crop mixes away from environmentally damaging crops, such as cotton. For instance, currently, in Mali, only cotton, maize, and rice benefit from government subsidies, in spite of the fact that Bambara groundnut is able to enrich the soil by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, and both this crop and fonio can grow on low fertile soils, do not suffer from major insect and disease problems, and can generate revenues for poor farmers in areas where cotton cultivation is no longer feasible.
Land availability was not mentioned as a constraint in the case of Bambara groundnut. Interestingly, producers mentioned that labor availability was not an issue either, contrary to fonio. Given the availability of land, labor, and improved seeds for Bambara groundnut, it is therefore expected that production could easily expand if the processing and commercial features of the crop were developed at higher levels along the value chain, and the right incentives were set up for producers through an enabling policy environment.