Frustrated with the lack of employment options in the capital, Réné Christophe Ouédraogo moved back to the countryside to take control of his future. Recognizing the need for wood products in the city, he launched a tree farm to supply this demand, and convinced other city youth and peri-urban areas to join him. In return for their labor, Réné Christophe offers them young plants to start their own businesses.
The New Idea
Réné Christophe has created an alternative that gives families, particularly young people, a strong and easily accessible economic incentive to continue farming in the widening peri-urban rings around major cities. He began his work two years ago with young people in peri-urban Ouagadougou, and has catalyzed young farmer’s groups in cities as far as Niamey.
Migration from rural inland areas to the Sahel’s inland cities has created horizontal expansion in the diameter of city footprints. For example, as recently as the early 1990s the footprint of Ouagadougou measured 2 x2 miles. Now that diameter has expanded to more than 5 x 5 miles. One reason is the creation of a larger seasonal agricultural laborer work force that moves back and forth between the cities and the countryside during the Sahels inland single growing season, usually September to February.
Counterintuitively, this expansion of the urban footprint has created opportunities for small farmers living in the peri-urban area and the areas immediately beyond that perimeter for a distance of up to 10 to 15 kilometers. The opportunities have stemmed from two new dynamics: An increased demand for food; but, even more importantly, a demand for wood materials suitable for framing and roofing support materials in the city.
Réné Christophe is capitalizing on these opportunities to create an alternative aimed at young people living on farms in peri-urban areas and the 10 to 15 kilometer belt beyond the cities. Rather than have these young people leave the farms, or pressure their parents to sell the farms, his approach gives them an incentive to keep farming the existing family farms, and to expand them. Réné Christophe does this simply by using native tree seedlings as both a form of currency (to encourage adoption) and as a cash crop that can begin to earn significant cash income within three to four years as they are sold to meet the rising need for wood materials.
In inland Sahelian cities like Ouagadougou, Bamako, and Niamey, much of this perimeter land is currently farmed by small, subsistence farmers who have little understanding of the long-term value of their land. The prevailing pattern is for these small farmers to sell, and either wind up landless and poor in the city after living off the proceeds of the land sale, or to take the money, move back to the village, in which case their children often stay in the city, and join the many unemployed. These young people often cannot conceive of returning to the land, as they associate farming with “backwardness.”
Another prominent group struggling to get by is young people who participate in in-migration— coming from deeper rural areas to areas just outside cities in search of a way to make some money during the agricultural off-season. In fact, in the Sahel, the largest density of young people is in the inland peri-urban cities. Many of them have farming skills, but have not imagined the farm as a producer of building materials that could supply cities.
The first step involved obtaining a plot of land by convincing a friend’s father that he, unlike his contemporaries from the city, wanted to return to work on the land. Réné Christophe trained in tree nursing and started a nursing tree business. He then offered his planting tree service to a landowner in exchange for his own plot. Having acquired his first plot, he also planted his own trees while continuing to nurse new trees.
With this model firmly established, Réné Christophe teaches young people to do what he did— to raise seedlings in tree nurseries and use them as a form of barter exchange for land, water, and farming materials. He can do this because Eucalyptus trees can be pruned after three years of the nursery seedling being replanted, and then the tree can be pruned again every year. The pruned branches are used in local building construction, and the economics are such that, at current market prices, each one of these trees can be pruned annually and reap a profit of approximately US$1 to $3 per tree, which adds up to about 2 or 3 times what traditional farmers make in a year. More importantly, tree farming allows the flexibility of cashing in whenever money is needed—you can cut now or later. The trees are adapted to Sahelian conditions, and require very little water after being properly transplanted from the nursery to the farm.
Since much of this land is farmed by recognition of customary practice, and young people have little or no money to begin farming, Réné Christophe creates communities of reciprocal support, e.g. I will grow 100 tree seedlings and then plant them on your farm if you will allow me to plant 100 more seedlings on your farm and harvest them for my use. Or, in the case of a farm that is located a distance from water he may say: You bring me water, and I will exchange that water for tree seedlings from my nursery which you can plant on your farm.
Once Réné Christophe has the young people involved in planting seedlings from his nursery, and has won their trust, he then decides what kinds of crops to plant in the spaces between their trees. Young people, at first attracted to the possibility of earning relatively easy money from the sale of tree pruning, begin to cultivate fruits and legumes.
Réné Christophe is doing research to diversify the kinds of plants he nurses and the type of return he can get from them.
In every step he is pulling in other young people by giving them temporary jobs, training them, and inspiring them and showing how to invest time and work—to be patient and understand if you make the investment, the land will bring you wealth. Thus, in five years, they can set up a very sustainable living, by nursing different types of trees, breeding animals cultivating cereals, to building their own house.
There has also already been official recognition from authorities in Burkina Faso, aware of Réné Christophe’s exemplary project, have given him a well which not only waters the trees but supplies water to the neighboring villages. Banks have also supported his work and others are ready to lend the financial means he needs to continue expanding his model.
With a demonstration tree nursery and farm he was able to create with minimal a cash investment, Réné Christophe has built a network of more than 200 young farmers who are adopting his approach. In the next three years his goal is to create a national network of young farmers using the hybrid “sustainable trees for construction and traditional farming” in Burkina Faso and to spread his idea to the inland cities of neighboring countries such as Mali, Togo, and Niger.
Réné Christophe, 26, is a self-made man. Born into a large family and knowing not what to do after the DFEM exam, he decided to take control of his future by going in the opposite direction of most young people in the Sahel. He left the illusions and opportunities of the big city behind to settle in a small village 30 kilometers from Ouagadougou. Réné Christophe focused all his energy on the land and quickly realized that he could make the best from a bad situation.
Coming from a large family of modest means, Réné Christophe needed nothing more than a push in the right direction to succeed where others had failed. Everyday he demonstrates his ability to adapt, which is proof of his rare enterprising spirit. The impact of Réné Christophe’s courage and determination is prompting imitation everywhere.
None of this would have been possible without prior training in plant production. Réné Christophe’s wife, a young woman from Ouagadougou, whom he convinced to marry him and follow him to the countryside, is also involved in the family business. She also has another business making clothes and their impact on the village is visible.
After this first successful operation where he had some cash money from the trees, Réné Christophe got to work to produce cereals for his family’s consumption but also for breeding sheep, goats, and beef and aviculture. Réné Christophe also acquired a few basic agriculture materials, and convinced young people to work for him by collecting animal droppings to make compost. And in this case, too, he paid them with the compost they made for every five collected.
Réné Christophe’s experience has often led him to create his vision in a way that is simple but meaningful, “I want to be more than someone who just lives in the countryside. I want to be a modern farmer who feeds his family working the land while acquiring goods that improve the quality of my life and inspire young people from rural and urban areas that it is simple and possible to do so.”