In one of Niger’s driest regions, Rewild Earth is working to transform local agriculture. For the last three decades, the organization has helped farmers conserve wild crop seeds to boost food security and soil resilience in the face of climate change. Instead of storing seeds in conventional seed banks, farmers keep them alive in nature—where all smallholders have access to biodiversity in a living seed bank.
Intrigued by wild plants’ drought-resistance in the region of Zinder, Arne Victor Garvi, founder of Rewild Earth, decided to use wild perennial crops,—plants growing in the wild all year round—to offer people another option to traditional cereal crops that would often fail in an area with about 225 mm of rainfall annually. Wild perennials have been increasingly on the radar of researchers and agricultural experts across the world.
Garvi uses a technique known as wild perennial polyculture—that does not use irrigation, fertilizers, or pesticides. “You don’t have an orchard; you don’t focus on one plant that can solve a problem,” explains Garvi to Food Tank “You pick seeds from different mother trees and you randomly mix between 10 to 20 species in the field and obtain a self-healing system. Genetic diversity already gives resilience; if you mix them, you get even more resilience.”
Garvi started researching wild crops in an area that would traditionally be slashed and burnt to grow millet and sorghum crops. As the wild crops started protecting neighboring fields from strong winds, the farmers recognized their benefits and started asking for seeds. They soon stopped slashing and burning the ground. “We didn’t tell them what to do,” Garvi explains. Keeping tree roots in the ground allowed them to grow bigger and faster; within two years they started producing fruit. “Food security improved,” Garvi says.
Thirty years later, Rewild Earth is now testing about 105 native wild perennials and producing seeds for 74 of those varieties. “We collect them in the wild from different mother trees, so we just keep the genetics going,” Garvi says.
Rewild Earth sells the seeds to about 3,000 farms, while it also instructs farmers in Niger’s more humid regions. “Once the men were convinced that trees are good, the women benefitted,” Garvi says. “There was a change in the entire social structure. Young girls became involved in selling the fruits at the market, and their families started valuing their contribution, allowing them to stay home as long as they wanted and marry by choice.”
After 25 years, Garvi says he has turned polyculture into something that can work in any area, so it is possible to extend the initiative further in the Sahel. “I think that people understand the practice’s benefits; you need them to come in and be motivated to change their habits; some are accustomed to using trees, but more in orchards; they need to shift their approach. Using wild perennials is probably our best option anywhere in the world to adapt to climate change.”