Arriving in Benin’s capital of Cotonou on a Sunday, I didn’t really know what to expect. Like many international agronomists working in Africa, I’d spent a lot of time in neighboring Nigeria, and lived for several years in Ghana, but Benin – the former Dahomey – had always remained outside my travel itineraries.
What a pleasant and exciting surprise Benin turned out to be. From my first meeting, with Dr. Adolphe Adjanohoun, head of the national ag research institute, INRAB, and Mr. Roland Zoglobossou, head of the national seed regulatory agency, and then with their full teams, to an energized discussion with the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Gaston Dossouhoui, to my time in the field viewing seed production fields of indigenous vegetables, to a fascinating visit to one of the world’s very few oil palm breeding facilities, to our final wrap-up meeting on Friday back in INRAB headquarters, and an enjoyable meal with INRAB leadership at a great restaurant, l’Imprevu, the whole week felt like it was scripted in heaven. I have rarely felt so welcomed as a total stranger as I felt in Benin.
The Honorable Minister, after our brief conversation where I described to him SSG’s public-private model for rapidly increasing seed supply and distribution through private, local seed companies and dealers, turned to his team and said (my translation from French), “We have to move with this. Don’t be conservative. Don’t drag your feet!”
And we were off. With my super-supportive guide, Sylvie Boku, assigned by Dr. Adjanohoun to assist with my movements around the country, I traveled to the INRAB station in Niaouli, to the coastal plain station for seed multiplication in Semé, and to Pobé, near the Nigerian border, where INRAB breeds oil palm, and was just amazed at the commitment to agriculture among the agriculture officers of the government of Benin. These people work hard, and really believe in their vocation.
My favorite moment in Benin came while meeting with Ms. Isabelle Megbleto, who owns several input supply shops. She imports vegetable seed from Europe and hybrid maize seed from Burkina Faso. While explaining animatedly what she was doing to package her seed in better, foil packets, I remarked that she really seemed to love her work. She stopped, put her hands down on her desk, and said, “I will never do anything else for the rest of my life, but seed.” I understood where she was coming from.