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Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Namwaya Sawadogo: the ecologist of Touroum, Burkina Faso [1]



Agroforestry, composting, mixed farming, natural resources, resource management, silviculture


Introducing the practice

Namwaya Sawadogo started as a petty trader. Through great innovative energy and with the support of development agents who recognized his potential, he has managed to establish a highly integrated system of agro-sylvo-pastoralism.[2] He is now a widely known innovator in Burkina Faso and has received many visitors, including the Minister of Agriculture.

Namwaya Sawadogo was born in 1943 in Touroum, a village located in Pissila Department in Sanmatenga province of Burkina Faso. He has three wives and 12 children, but has to feed another five relatives, which means that he supports a total of 20 persons. His farm covers 14 ha, almost three times more than the average farm size in this area. He keeps four cattle, 15 sheep, nine goats, one horse, one donkey and poultry (chickens and guinea fowl) near his home, and owns another 15 head of cattle, which are cared for by Fulani pastoralists. He has therefore become a rich man compared with most Burkinabé farmers, but when he started farming in this area, he had only a few guinea fowl, one donkey and 1 ha of land–not enough to feed a family in this semi-arid climate with only about 600 mm annual rainfall. Namwaya has developed or taken up several new ideas related to land husbandry, but his major innovation is that he has become a forest farmer. Over the years, he has established a eucalyptus plantation covering 4 ha, in order to produce timber for sale. The wide spacing of the trees allows him to grow groundnuts or other annual leguminous crops in between.

For the last ten years, he has not been obliged to buy grain for his household, not even in the years of drought. When he could not produce sufficient grain himself, he would cut down some trees and sell them on the market in order to raise cash to buy food. In a year of ‘normal’ rainfall, Namwaya harvests about 8000 kg of millet and sorghum, which means that he normally produces a substantial surplus. Namwaya has a shop on the market of Pissila, about 10 km from his home, where he sells medicinal plants on the weekly market day. He also earns income from the sale of livestock, cereals and seedlings.

Namwaya’s story

In the 1970s, Namwaya was a small itinerant trader in natural medicines who was constantly on the move. He often did not see his family for weeks or even months at a stretch. However, after he married and became the head of a household, he decided to settle down and concentrate on agriculture, limiting his commercial activities to the village.

In 1982, a government-built dam inundated almost all the fields of the Sawadogo family, which consisted of seven households (‘hearths’), and there was land left for only two of them. Faced with this difficult situation, Namwaya decided to move to the periphery of the village where his uncles gave him about 1 ha of reasonably fertile soil. The chef de terre (the man traditionally responsible for distributing land) granted him the right also to use the uncultivated poor-quality land surrounding this field if he wished to do so. He cultivated this poor land for several years, but never managed to get a good harvest from it. Even with the 1 ha of good land, he could not produce enough food to feed his household. With his back against the wall, he decided to see what he could do to rehabilitate the poor land.

In 1988, Namwaya started to construct stone bunds along the contours on the poor land. He also planted a perennial grass (Andropogon gayanus) along the bunds. Contour bunds made of stones had become a well-known technique in Touroum following its promotion by the Association for the Development of the Kaya Region (ADRK), of which Namwaya was a member. This NGO specializes mainly in savings and credit, but between 1986 and 1998 it was also very active in the field of soil and water conservation. Through ADRK, Namwaya bought a donkey cart on credit, primarily to be able to transport the stones. The contour stone bunds had some positive impact on yields, but still he could feed his family for only nine or ten months of each year.


Content and approach

The real turning point came in 1990, when government forestry agents proposed to train him in techniques of establishing and maintaining a tree nursery. He had already been trying to raise seedlings before this, but he felt that he had not mastered the techniques adequately, so he gladly accepted their offer and attended a short training course. At the same time, he tried to expand his cultivated area by applying mulch to part of his barren, degraded land. In 1990, for the first time since the dam had inundated the family fields in 1982, his fields produced enough millet and sorghum to feed his family for the entire year.

In 1991, Namwaya established a tree nursery next to the dam and produced 3000 plants in that same year. He planted 1 ha of relatively good land with a combination of locust-bean trees (Parkia biglobosa) and Faidherbia (syn. Acacia) albida, and intercropped the young seedlings with millet. On three sides of his field he planted a live fence composed of several local woody species that he could use for different purposes (fodder, medicines, etc.) in addition to protecting his field. This was his start as an agroforester. In 1992, however, most of the planted trees died. He decided to replace them with eucalyptus (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) trees. Also in this year, Namwaya dug his first compost pit. Both ADRK and the government extension service were promoting this technology. He used his donkey cart to transport water to the compost pit from the dam reservoir about 5 km from his farm.

In 1993, Namwaya doubled the size of his eucalyptus plantation, growing the trees in lines about 8 metres apart so that he could grow crops in between. That same year, he also planted eucalyptus on 2.5 ha of ancestral lands in Touroum that had been given to him by his mother’s brothers. In 1994, after having been trained in animal husbandry through ADRK, he started applying what he had learned to his own livestock. He used his own resources to build a shed to store fodder. Also in that year, he took part in an agricultural fair in the regional capital Kaya, where he was distinguished as a model farmer and awarded a certificate of honour. He then decided to buy a plough with credit from ADRK.

In 1995, Namwaya participated in a study visit to the Yatenga region, organized by ADRK. On his return home, he decided to dig planting pits (zaď) in his fields, like the pits he had seen in Yatenga, even though this meant that he would no longer be able to use his newly acquired plough on this land. He started a second compost pit. In 1995, a year of exceptional demand for tree seedlings, his cash income from selling seedlings from his nursery was CFA 600,000 (circa USD 950). This is a remarkable income compared with the estimated average income in Burkina Faso at the time (USD 230). The positive impact of the zaď soon became evident. Two years later, there was a serious drought and Namwaya was the only farmer in Touroum who could harvest enough to meet the food needs of the family. He provided cereals to those who asked for his help, feeling that this would morally oblige them to experiment with new practices, as he had done.

The gradual increase in the size of his household over the last decade has enabled Namwaya to invest in the expansion and rehabilitation of land for agroforestry. With three wives and 12 children, many of whom are of working age, he now has a considerable labour force.

An integrated system

Various agricultural technologies are combined on Namwaya’s farm: contour stone bunds, zaď, barriers made of perennial grasses (Andorpogon gayanus), mulching (with cut wild grasses and lopped leaves of the shrub Piliostigma reticulatum), and composting. He sows millet and sorghum in the same planting pits as a strategy to reduce cropping risks. The quantity and distribution of rains in any one season determines which of the cereals he will harvest.

Namwaya has mastered all aspects of producing tree seedlings, also of local species. His key to success was his close observation of how the seeds germinate. This helped him to develop his own technical knowledge for treating seeds. Through observation, Namwaya also identified which tree species can be multiplied through root suckers. They include Faidherbia albida, tamarind (Tamarindus indica), kapok (Bombax costatum), Diospyros mespiliformis, Balanites aegyptiaca and neem (Azadirachta indica). In his tree plantation, Namwaya prefers to sow nitrogen-fixing annual crops such as groundnuts between the lines of eucalyptus. If he does not grow a crop, he uses this space for grazing. In this case, he just lightly scratches the surface of the soil in order to improve the growing conditions for grasses.

In Namwaya’s view, the purpose of livestock is to support crop production by providing organic matter for the soil. In his words, ‘There can be no cropping without livestock.’ His livestock holdings are diverse: bovines, equines and poultry. His innovations in animal husbandry are of both a technological and an organizational nature. He keeps his cattle, sheep and goats in a stable during the dry season so that he can collect their manure systematically. This means that much extra work has to be invested, especially by his wives and children, in feeding and watering the animals. To be able to feed his livestock efficiently, he has built the large shed for storing fodder immediately next to the stable. This reduces the waste of fodder to a minimum. The two compost pits are immediately next to the stable so that the manure can be diverted easily into the pits. The animals’ urine flows through a drain that leads from the stable directly into one of the compost pits.

Namwaya cuts whatever fodder he can find that his animals are willing to eat. His theory is that most fodder species have complementary virtues. Some are good for nutrition, whereas others are good for animal health. During the dry season he feeds his livestock large quantities of ground pods of Piliostigma reticulatum. He has produced his own concoctions to treat certain animal diseases. He also produces salt-licks himself, using an extract of Hibiscus spp., bark of savanna mahogany (Khaya senegalensis), clay from a salty marsh, and salt (NaCl) and natron, both of which are Sahel products sold on local markets.

The role of indigenous knowledge

Namwaya has progressively integrated a number of indigenous practices into his farm and has gradually developed an agro-sylvo-pastoral system. This development was closely linked to the evolution of his own knowledge and to the level of equipment, labour and financial resources at his disposal. Whenever Namwaya started up a new activity, he always looked carefully at how it could be done efficiently in order to minimize costs and labour energy.

The practices are based in the community and they are part of the socio-cultural values and meanings of the people living in the community. 

Transfer of knowledge

Namwaya is now a widely known innovator in Burkina Faso and has received many visitors. He has been honoured several times, most recently with a medal at an agricultural fair in Bagré in 2000. He has also been awarded cash prizes at fairs, for example in Ouagadougou in 1994, and in Bogandé in 1998.

The knowledge is known to all members of the community and transmitted within the community and through the Institut National d’Etudes et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA) in Burkina Faso.

His neighbours have started using some of his practices, for example a growing number of farmers have started pruning Piliostigma reticulatum. Namwaya also receives many visitors (farmers, agricultural technicians, researchers) and in this way his knowledge and experience is spreading.


Achievements and results

Namwaya’s innovations are an example for other farmers who have poor land and only one source of income. In that sense, this case could be considered as a Best Practice.

Namwaya’s innovations are sustainable (such as the plant seedlings, better natural resource management), cost-effective (Namwaya now produces enough cereals to feed his family), and locally manageable (he was able to work on his innovations locally, with the help of his family).

In Namway’s own words

When assessing the impact of the innovations on his life, Namwaya speaks in terms of his gain in respectability, responsibility and popularity, but also his increased financial capacity and his ability to support those in need. He is proud of what he has achieved and enjoys the higher social status that his achievements bring. His market stall in Pissila, for natural pharmaceutical products, attracts many clients, even from other parts of Sanmatenga province. Namwaya views his trees as a form of life insurance and looks to the future with much confidence. ‘When I am old, I can live from the income and the products of my plantations.’

The recognition and prizes Namwaya has received have inspired him to continue innovating and have allowed him to invest in both livestock and his ethnopharmaceutical business.


Source of inspiration

It would be possible to transfer the practices, but there would certainly be conditions and prerequisites to consider if they were to be transmitted to other countries and regions in Africa.

Namwaya’s practices are emulated in Burkina Faso.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Administrative data

Contact person

Chris Reij

International Cooperation Centre

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

De Boelelaan 1105

1081 HV Amsterdam

The Netherlands

Tel.: +31 20 4449078

Fax: +31 20 4449095

E-mail: cp.reij@dienst.vu.nl


Other partner(s) involved in the practice

Ann Waters-Bayer

ETC Ecoculture

P.O. Box 64

3830 AB Leusden

The Netherlands

Tel.: +31 33 4943086

Fax: +31 33 4940791

E-mail: ann.waters-bayer@etcnl.nl; waters-bayer@web.de


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Jean-Baptiste Taonda

Institut National d’Etudes et de Recherches Agricoles (INERA)

Burkina Faso


Fidčle Hien

Formerly working for INERA and now

Minister of Environment and Water

Burkina Faso


Constant Zango

Namentenga Integrated Regional Development Project

Burkina Faso

[1] This case is an adapted version of an article published in: ‘Farmer Innovation in Africa. A source of Inspiration for Agricultural Development’. Chris Reij & Ann Waters-Bayer (eds.), 2001. Publisher: EARTHSCAN, Earthscan Publications Ltd, London (UK) / Sterling, VA. www.earthscan.co.uk 

[2] A combination of cultivation, tree farming and livestock keeping.


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