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


The promotion of non-conventional food resources: the case of snail and mushroom production in Benin



Animal production, food, food security, forest products, nutrition, resource management, rural women


Introducing the practice

Snails and mushrooms are examples of animal and plant species found in the wild that can make a substantial contribution to feeding a local population. As such, they can be classified as non-conventional food resources. Projet de Promotion de la Filière des Ressources Alimentaires Non Conventionnelles (PP-FRANC) is the name of a project by which indigenous and scientific knowledge are being combined to increase the production of these two food products in five regions of Benin, in West Africa: Atlantique (south), Couffo (southwest), Ouémé (southeast), and Borgou and Atacora (north).

Women, who have traditionally gathered wild mushrooms and giant snails, are now responsible for their cultivation and production. The women involved in the project represent three socio-linguistic groups: Waaba, Adja and Aïzo. This report describes activities among the Databa and Tancaba, which are two sub-groups of the Waaba tribe that live in the Atacora region. These people are farmers, living mainly from the cultivation of millet, sorghum, maize and yams. Millet is used to make a drink known as tchoukoutou, which is much appreciated by the local population. The men also hunt small game.

The Waaba are basically animists although several types of Christians are also found among them, including Catholics and members of the Celestial and Renaissance groups. The Waaba practise fetishism. A head, or chief, supervises the fetishist rites and safeguards the fetish and the entire clan. Generally, the Waaba are polygamous. They live in buildings resembling castles, which are known locally as Tata somba. These buildings are common among the various tribes living in the Atacora region.

The Adja and Aïzo are among the oldest tribes in south Benin. Both are descended from a unique and ancient group that emigrated from Tado (presently Togo). The Adja and the Aïzo were farmers well known for their cultivation of maize, cassava, rice, groundnuts, vegetables, cotton and palm oil. Nowadays both ethnic groups are found in all sectors of life in Benin and both have intermarried with other groups in south Benin, such as the Fun and Gun. It is primarily among the Adja, however, that men have multiple wives and woman are believed to be sacred beings.

The pilot phase of the PP-FRANC project ran from January 1998 to December 2000. The project was expanded and has been in its implementation phase since 1 January 2001.


Content and approach

Women have always gathered snails and mushrooms in the bush and forests and therefore possess considerable knowledge of the indigenous species and how to process them for consumption. The PP-FRANC project is improving the methods for producing and processing these food resources, as well as for marketing them. Local, rural women manage all aspects of production and commercialisation. This is providing them with income.

Besides being food items, some of the mushrooms and snails are widely used for treating certain ailments. There is a strong link between their medicinal and nutritional uses. In fact, throughout Benin as well as in much of the rest of Africa, food and health care systems are closely interwoven.

The practice of cultivating mushrooms and snails is ongoing and will no doubt continue indefinitely. Their production is an activity which fits perfectly in the socio-cultural context of rural communities in Benin.

Known as ‘the noble products of the forest’, mushrooms and snails are gathered daily and form a regular part of the diet of rural communities. The local population therefore has acquired and maintains considerable indigenous knowledge regarding this resource. This knowledge is being fortified through scientific verification of the products’ nutritional and therapeutic value. The PP-FRANC project is aimed at enhancing and perpetuating this indigenous knowledge and at guaranteeing that the products can be harvested throughout the year. The success of the project can be ascribed to the fact that it offers simple, cheap technology which is easily integrated into the daily practices of the population.

The practice of gathering snails and mushrooms originated within the community. Since time immemorial, rural communities have been able to distinguish edible mushrooms from toxic ones and have known how to stimulate their growth by applying farm waste to the ground on which they grow. These techniques have remained much the same, but have been improved with the help of scientific insights. As far as snail-breeding is concerned, the animals are gathered in the forest and then kept in sheds made of clay. Their daily diet was well known to the local population.

The PP-FRANC is a project aimed at raising the level of food security and increasing the income of the community. It enables rural women to establish profitable, innovative and sustainable agricultural activities, thus increasing their economic power.

In order to achieve this global objective, six specific objectives have been defined for the project to increase women’s participation in economic activities at the local level:

·           To confirm the value of these non-conventional food resources for purposes of nutrition, food security and public health.

·           To develop methodological tools for introducing PP-FRANC activities.

The main activities are:

·          Identifying, selecting and training women who are interested in non-conventional food resources production.

·          Helping to produce and commercialise the products.


These activities have been introduced to the project owners; the rural women.

·           To initiate research at CECODI’s (Centre International d’Eco-développement Intégré) experimental centre, in which local producers take part.

·           To develop a self-managed commercial activity.

·           To establish international and regional links for disseminating the practice.

·           To improve CECODI’s capacity for promoting the improved production of non-conventional food resources.

The project is led by CECODI. To guarantee the project’s success, CECODI has joined forces with VeCo (Vredeseilanden Cooperatie; Belgium), SNV (Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers, The Netherlands) and CBDD (Beninese Centre for Sustainable Development) and formed a consortium.

The project is above all beneficial to rural women. The products are generally produced by married women around the age of 35. Some 200 women took part in the pilot phase; their number increased to 400 in 2001. By 2004 some 1300 women are expected to have received training. Men do not profit directly from the project, but they took part by helping to build the production centre. The project outcome is of course beneficial to men, women and children by improving household incomes and food quality.

PP-FRANC projects have now been established in four locations with the help of NGOs, peasant organizations and government technicians. Other parties help to market the products.

The method

The project is based on a participatory approach. The people’s own indigenous knowledge is incorporated into the technical training they receive at the centre (in how to feed the snail with wide leaves, for instance). Local individuals also take part in the production survey.

Women receive a three-day course of training. They learn various techniques for producing mushrooms and snails in their own village environment and for processing them for local consumption and for the market. At the end of the training the women begin as producers. They are monitored closely by a specialized agency, however, which supervises all aspects: technical, organizational, management and marketing.


The role of indigenous knowledge

Of the mushroom species presently cultivated, the women themselves chose the ones on which the project would concentrate. On the basis of their own knowledge, they also helped to produce a list of the 50 species most commonly consumed by the population. These were verified against detailed studies of the edible mushrooms of Benin.

The snail species chosen for cultivation were the indigenous species commonly gathered in the forest during the short rainy season. These species are also used in traditional medicine for treating certain ailments.

Snails and mushrooms also have a place in local beliefs. Many ritual practices make use of snails, which are thought to enhance fertility and manhood. Practitioners of the occult ascribe great power to snails. Snail meat is therefore much in demand, especially during periods of prayer and meditation among Moslems and animist groups. When certain species of mushrooms are found in the forest, they are thought to be special gifts from God. Mushrooms are believed to enhance perception. They play a major role in the local pharmacopoeia.

The transfer of knowledge

Women of a certain age are the keepers of the traditional knowledge pertaining to snails and mushrooms. They pass it on to younger women without any financial reward. Thus far this transfer of knowledge has been entirely oral and informal. The project may well result in the documentation of all the indigenous knowledge regarding food resources in the forest, however. A publication is currently being prepared.


Achievements and results

The PP-FRANC project is creating an innovative and alternative way to increase farmers’ incomes while at the same time conserving biodiversity. The entire project is based on resources and knowledge already available in the local community. Indigenous knowledge and practices are being improved through scientific insights.

Indigenous knowledge and practices are collected during contacts and discussions with local populations. These took place during taxonomic surveys in various agro-forestry regions of Benin. The value of the local practices is therefore increasing.

The production techniques are based on a vertical system that makes efficient use of whatever space is available. Access to land is not necessary for increasing production. Besides only a small amount of space, the system requires few inputs.

Figure 1. Snail vertical breeding system

Atacora is a mountainous region of Benin where rocky soils are too fragile for conventional agriculture. By bypassing the difficulties of practising conventional agriculture, the PP-FRANC project has achieved unexpected but undeniable success. Similarly, women are able to get around the problem of their lack of access to land resources. They can develop their own economic activities independently without having to lay claim to land that could be cultivated.

The practice meets the three criteria of sustainability, cost-effectiveness and local manageability. As already mentioned, the system of mushroom and snail production is based on well-known practices that have been technically improved in collaboration with the local population. The local producers feel themselves to be useful. They are not only beneficiaries of the project but also its promoters. As such, they will help to expand it.

Strong and weak points

The strong points of the practice are the following:

·           The products are known and consumed locally.

·           The production techniques are simple and cheap.

·           Inputs are locally available or produced in situ.

·           Agro-ecological conditions are favourable.

·           A wild gene pool is maintained that could be useful for genetic improvement.

·           There are important local, national and regional markets for the products.

·           The farming system is strengthened through the production of valuable by products.

·           The production of these resources itself contributes to preservation of the forest and biodiversity.

Problems that remain:

·           The PP-FRANC project introduces products and methods with which national decision-makers are not yet familiar.

·           Research is needed on a continuous basis in order to improve the production systems.

·           The channel to the market has not yet been firmly established.


Source of inspiration

These technologies could be easily applied in other contexts where mushrooms and snails are available and consumed. The approach could be used for other forest resources that local people consume, but only for those that propagate relatively easily and are not too specifically adapted to their forest habitat.

The main condition for the project’s success is that the producers’ own capacity for experimentation be appreciated and used. The relationship between them and project workers should be a partnership rather than a teacher-pupil relationship.

If such valuable indigenous knowledge and practices are to be improved and disseminated rather than being lost, it is essential that the data and results are properly recorded. This requires appropriate technical support.

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.


Additional remarks and information

This project is not the only one of its kind in West Africa. There is also the ‘Projet Promotion de l’Elevage dans l’Atakora’ (PPEA), which is supported by GTZ in Germany, and the Centre for Biodiversity Utilization and Development (CBUD), a programme funded from The Netherlands.

Apparently there is plenty of demand for such products. The project shows how natural resources that are on the decline can yield an income-generating activity while at the same time being protected and preserved.

Policy-makers and others who wish to follow this example should:

·           Look for opportunities to ‘cultivate’ wild plants and animals that live in a particular area. This can prevent the species’ extinction in the wild; generate income through the use of simple technology, particularly for women; and make use of indigenous, or local, knowledge.

·           Explore the existing market to identify unfulfilled demand.

·           Take steps to attract the attention of researchers and to raise awareness among policy-makers, scientists, producers and consumers.


Administrative data

Organization involved


01 B.P. 2759 Cotonou, Bénin

Tel.: +229 490511

Fax: +229 306131

E-mail: cecodi@firstnet.bj


Contact person

Jean Claude Codjia

B.P. 2759 Cotonou, Bénin 

Tel.: +229 360525

E-mail: ccodjia@firstnet.bj




Total budget (in US dollars): USD 1,129,312

Period to which the budget applies: 1 January 2001 to 31 December 2005

Sources of funding: Fonds de Survie du Royaume de Belgique, CBDD, SNV, CECODI, VeCo.


Person(s) who have described this Best Practice

Jean Claude Codjia and Boukari Ayessaki

Organizations: CECODI and VeCo

Tel.: +229 324667

E-mail: vecobenin@bow.intnet.bj

To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion

To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

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