Burkina Faso farmer Wiledio Naboho knows he is one of the lucky ones.
Born into a poor farming family, he was able to secure a secondary school education through the benevolence of his father’s friend and the support of his uncles. Later, after completing a one-year holistic missionary course at Ghana’s Calvary West Africa Bible Institute (CWABI), he returned home with a dream.
“People were saying that you have to stay in the capital. You have position, we will help you because you have learned English. You have to stay in the big town,” he recalled. “I said, no, I have a vision. I will go back to the village.
“So I have seen it, the opportunity that I have,” he continued. “I know how to read, to write. I can use it and help others. Not for my own benefit, no. If it is my own benefit, I can find a job in the office and I can take care of my wife and my children. But I want to be advocate for my people that are suffering in the village.”
In recognition of his advocacy work on behalf of African farmers, and his efforts to improve the lives of Burkina Faso villagers, the Alliance for Science has named Naboho its 2019 Farmer of the Year. The annual award recognizes a smallholder farmer who is striving to advance access to agricultural innovation.
“As a farmer, I know the suffering that we are passing through,” said Naboho, who credits his compassionate determination to his late mother Louise, who taught him the values of hard work and faith. “It’s not easy. You can go in the villages. You can see how farmers are suffering.”
The challenges are widespread, because 90 percent of Burkina Faso’s population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. But farmers in the West African nation have little access to modern technology — a situation that worsened four years ago when the government suddenly banned the use of genetically modified (GM) pest-resistant Bt cotton.
Cotton farmers like Naboho, who also raises maize, peanut, cowpea, kitchen vegetables, sheep, goats and cows, had no choice but to return to growing conventional varieties.
“If you are farming the conventional cotton, you have a lot of things to deal with. As an example, you have to treat the cotton with pesticides, because there is a lot of insects that may attack the plant,” he explained. “So, you have to spend more money by buying the pesticides. And also, when you are doing this treatment of your cotton farm, your health is in danger. We know most of the farmers didn’t go to school. They don’t know how to use the pesticides, and we have seen the damage that brought in some families. You have also to use more people [for farm labor]. And at the end of the day, when you sit down and make your calculation, you may come and see that you didn’t get more money.
“So most of my brothers and sisters that are working hard under the sun, they are suffering. The rain is beating them. At the end of the day, they don’t get anything. And people sit in their offices making decisions. When I see my brothers and sisters suffering, my heart is broken.”
Naboho strongly believes that farmers must be allowed to choose what they want to grow, and they must be united in demanding that right.
“We have to give freedom for everybody to choose what benefits us,” he said. “The farmer that needs the new technology in farming, they will adopt it. Those who also want to work on the conventional one, then leave them to it. Everybody has a choice. So I beg my leaders, policy makers, the scientists, everybody, the consumers and the society people — they have to allow farmers to make their choice.”
Naboho remains bewildered that some continue to oppose technological advances in agriculture while embracing it in other sectors.
“Technology is everywhere,” he said. “You want to talk to somebody, you need a phone. You want to know what is going around the world, you go to Internet. When you are sick, they send you to hospital and you are using medicine. Sometimes I don’t understand people. They want something, and they want also the contrary. It can’t work like that.”
Although the cultivation of Bt cotton has been halted due to concerns about fiber length, Naboho said he appreciates that his government is continuing to conduct research on GM crops, including pod borer-resistant cowpea, which has been approved in Nigeria.
“So, it’s not only Bt cotton that we need. We need other crops, like maize,” he said. “We heard about TELA (a drought-tolerant, pest-resistant variety of GM maize now under cultivation in South Africa) and it may be helpful for us farmers in Burkina Faso. We also heard about Golden Rice. If [the government] can allow other things to get into our country for farmers, it’s good. We need to feed ourselves and to take care of our animals.”
Naboho believes as well in the importance of tending to the spiritual side of life. He is the pastor of the Good News World Mission —or Bonne Nouvelle as it’s known in French, the official language of Burkina Faso — a church he started in the village of Popioho, in the western part of the country.
He has farmland there, as well as in his home village of Koéna, and is a devoted family man. “I’m married to a beautiful woman, Nyagali, and God has blessed us with three kids (two boys and one girl) called Nehemiah, Blessing and God’sgrace,” he said.
As further indication of his dedication to improving the lot of farmers, Naboho left his home, family and church for three months to attend the Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, this past fall.
“When I was selected for this program, all night I cannot sleep because it was like a dream for me,” he recalled. “I saw this opportunity that will help me and my fellow farmers in my country and other countries. Because today, you cannot move forward in a business or work if you don’t have any knowledge on it. Through the Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows, I got more understanding. And at the end, I believe that we can help others in our various countries.”