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Onions from Agadez November 1st, 2015 by

9914 red onions for sale at roadside shopWhenever somebody has a monopoly over a certain food crop, or tries to create one, sooner or later other people will pop up to compete.

The red onion variety, Violet de Galmi, originally comes from the village of Galmi, a small community in Niger, about 500 kilometres east of Niamey close to the Nigerian border, where it has been grown for over 100 years. Its pungent flavour and thick bulbs, combined with the vast, informal Hausa trading network, has made this onion popular across West Africa. In fact, onions are Niger’s second most important export product after uranium, making Niger the largest exporter of onions in the entire region.

While companies sell packaged seed of this variety across the USA, India and Southeast Asia, in the 1990s, a private seed company in Senegal, Tropicasem, a subsidiary of the French seed company Technisem, further bred the Violet de Galmi onion and obtained rights to exclusively market it in nine West African countries. When farmers in Niger found out that a company had claimed exclusive rights to their onion, they were outraged and asked their government to act on their behalf in this case of bio piracy. The farmers won.

But monopolies can go beyond seed.

While thousands of farmers across West Africa grow this variety in the dry season, flooding the market with onions and making prices drop, Violet de Galmi is prone to diseases in the rainy season. This reduces the supply of onions, which become a sought after, precious commodity.

Although Violet de Galmi onions do poorly in the rainy season, there is one place in Niger where they thrive: the valley of Agadez, known as the gateway to the desert, some 500 kilometres north of Galmi. In the rainy season, the trade of red onions in West Africa has been in the hands of the Hausa people, all the way from collection at farm gate to the street hawkers in African towns, thousands of miles away from the Agadez onion fields.

9919 cutting leaves from onions at harvestAs more and more people in cities are eager to add onions to their daily dishes, even in the rainy season, the market now faces a huge demand. And innovations love an unmet demand.

While making a series of farmer training videos on onions in northern Ghana, I was impressed once more with the ingenuity of farmers, trying out seed of new varieties, adjusting their planting calendars and cropping practices to fill a market niche. Salifu, one of the farmers I talked to in Bawku, smiled as he told how he travelled as far as Kumasi, 600 kilometres south, to get seed of a new onion variety.

Seeds of new onion varieties are now making their way into West Africa, and more onions are now being grown in the rainy season, spurred by farmers’ ingenuity and their drive to make the most of high prices. With this expanded supply, the trade monopoly of the harvested onions is also bound to be broken.

Food is too precious a commodity to stay in the hands of a few.

Further reading:

GRAIN. 2015. Seed laws that criminalise farmers: resistance and fightback.

Related farmer training videos:

Making more money from onions

The onion nursery

How to make a fertile soil for onions

Installing an onion field

Managing onion diseases

Harvesting and storing onions

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