One key to our learning so much in Chad was first connecting with Dr. Diego Boilengar. Dr. Boilengar is a former university lecturer in Germany, specialized in agricultural enterprise development. He was serving as a special advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, and from the moment I cold-called him from Nairobi one day in May, 2019, I knew we could work together. He really took time to describe the production systems in Chad. The line was fading in and out, and a couple of times I just pretended to understand what he’d said. But it was clear that Diego was highly knowledgeable, and cared.
I’d been put in touch with Diego by my good friend Abdulaye Sawadogo, CEO of Nafaso Seed Company of Burkina Faso. Abdulaye had been exporting small quantities of seed to Chad, and was invited to produce seed there. Diego had facilitated his discussions with the government, and I can only guess that he caught the seed bug from Abdulaye.
At any rate, coming down to the last moments before my trip and still with no visa to board the flight in Nairobi, I sent a question to Diego, asking if I should buy the ticket, or cancel. He sent a two-word SMS: “Oui, vient”. I like brevity. I like people who are too busy for long explanations. So I went.
I was met at the airport in N’djamena by Diego and a very tall, distinguished-looking man named Ahmed Ngame. We talked seed the rest of the day, and the following day I met the Minister. She listened patiently as I rattled on about the importance of seed to farmers, then said something that really took me aback: “I agree, and will cover the costs of your field visits.”
Chad is a very poor country. It really doesn’t have a lot of public money to spend on random expatriate agronomists coming in talking about seed supply to smallholder farmers. But here the Minister was commiting some of her very limited discretionary funds to ensure that I saw the reality on the ground. I was very touched.
We covered several thousand kilometers in three days, from N’djamena to Moundou and beyond, near the border with Central African Republic. Chad has very hard-working farmers, and endless amounts of fertile land. It could be a breadbasket. But Ahmed explained that the yields they get are so low, and hunger is so rampant, they often don’t have the energy needed to plant.
It was in Chad that I really saw the pain of farmers working so hard, but harvesting so little, mostly because of a lack of high-yielding seed. We visited several cooperatives who had organized to produce several hundred tons of certified seed. It was inspiring effort, but Chad needs at least 20,000 tons of seed. They need, and want, private seed companies that can organize the effort needed to produce and market seed of new varieties at-scale. I hope and pray we can help them do it.