It takes a farmer to grow grapes, but it takes an architect to grow grapes in the desert.
That’s what I discovered here in Mali, a landlocked country that reaches deep into the Sahara.
I don’t live in the desert, and neither do most of my fellow Malians, who number nearly 20 million. We live in a more tropical region to the south. Yet we all find ourselves living on the frontier of climate change, trying to make crops grow in a region that seems to become harsher and drier every year.
The vast majority of Malians work in agriculture, raising cotton and grains. I wanted to grow something that nobody had tried to grow before in my country: table grapes.
Behind it all is a story of international relationships—and a lesson about the importance of trade and technology for farmers everywhere.
The tale begins with my training at the Moscow Institute of Architecture—an odd background for a farmer, but one that helped me see an important connection that would pay off as I became an agro-entrepreneur back home in Mali.
African agriculture lags the world in food production, and for this reason I’ve always thought that it could be done much better. We have a large amount of cultivable land, plus abundant sunshine and, in many places, lots of water. With the right kind of knowledge and tools, we could start to enjoy the food security that people in the developed world take for granted.
My travels to North Africa, especially Morocco and Tunisia, convinced me that grapes can thrive in southern latitudes. So in 2008, I imported table grapes from Italy and raised them on a hectare of land. After a year, we harvested a grape with exceptional taste. We proved that it could be done.
Yet we faced big challenges. Grapes in Mali don’t behave as they do in Italy, and we had to learn this through trial and error. The extreme heat can wither them and the rainy season brings swarms of pests. Yet we persevered, taking our inspiration from farmers who had succeeded with grapes in Florida, Australia, and India.
Then came a key piece of technology from Israel and Netafim, a world leader in tropical greenhouses. Here at last was a way to bring together my education in architecture and my passion for agriculture.
Greenhouses come in all shapes and sizes, from sheds to massive factory-like complexes. The essential elements include a transparent covering that lets the sunlight shine through as well as a climate-controlled interior. They are expensive, but in the right hands they make it possible for the Dutch to grow flowers in the winter—and for a Malian like me to harvest grapes in a place where they’re not supposed to grow.
In 2012, I bought a small greenhouse from an Israeli company—a metal structure covered with plastic and surrounded by an insect net. Measuring 320 square meters, it had a successful track record with tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. I liked the results and expanded the next year with a greenhouse of 5,000 square meters. In 2016, I grew again, with a greenhouse of 10,000 square meters and advanced technologies, including better climate control, irrigation, and water recycling.
Access to credit remains a problem for African farmers who have no guarantees to offer commercial banks. For my greenhouse, the loan was secured by the USAID-funded development credit authority (DCA) and Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) which uses risk-sharing agreements to mobilize local private capital to fill a financial gap.
Today, I employ 40 workers to maintain and harvest our grapes and also tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, sweet melons, lettuce and strawberries. More than 80 percent of them are women. They’re good at what they do and they earn a wage that allows them to support their families. In terms of yield per square meter, we’re now inching closer to the productivity of farmers in developed countries.
I’m convinced that soon we’ll catch up entirely. That’s why I’m now planning to build a 15-hectare facility near Mali’s capital city of Bamako.
Not only will this help us fight the urgent problem of hunger in Africa, but also create business opportunities for other agro-entrepreneurs.
The grapes of Mali are an African success story. Because we relied on trade, technology, and farmers willing to share their expertise and firsthand experience from around the world, they’re also a global achievement.