Assétou Samaké: Teacher, scientist, and defender of Africa’s seeds

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Assetou Samaké and panelists at public event in Ottawa
Assétou Samaké: with fellow panelists at public event in Ottawa.Credit:

It was during a visit to Bamako, Mali, in 2006 that Inter Pares staff member Eric Chaurette first met Assétou Samaké by chance. They struck up a conversation, first about the weather – it was 40 degrees outside – but then onto droughts, plants, food sovereignty, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
According to Assétou, GMOs and industrial agriculture further entrenched inequalities between women and men. It is men who have access to credit to purchase the seeds, chemicals and machinery. Monocultures also displace local varieties of plants, which are most often managed and cared for by women.

These include staple crops such as millets and sorghum and the “condiments” that accompany the staples and ensure a healthy diet: hibiscus, used in juices, and other flowering plants whose seeds are used in sauces, along with trees whose leaves are also used to flavour food.

Assétou was soon called off to a meeting, and Eric was left wondering who this articulate woman was. He later found out that Assétou is a geneticist and a driving force behind efforts to protect biodiversity in West Africa. The following year, Inter Pares invited Assétou and two other members of the West African Coalition for the Protection of Africa’s Genetic Heritage (COPAGEN) to Canada to participate in a debate on the “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” (AGRA). AGRA’s approach was exactly what Assétou feared – the promotion of chemical-intensive agriculture that would bulldoze local knowledge and biodiversity.

COPAGEN argued that any efforts to support agricultural development and food security in Africa should take the lead from African farmers and build on what is there, rather than seek to impose a model of agriculture dependent on foreign seeds and agrochemicals. Assétou shed light on the central role that women play in ensuring food security in Africa, and how this role will be undermined by AGRA.

Assétou can trace her passion for plants back to her elementary school biology teacher. She went on to study biology, and was eventually granted a scholarship to study in Russia. After completing her studies, Assétou returned to Mali in 1997 to teach plant genetics at the University of Bamako. When she joined, she was one of only three women in a faculty of 30, and the only woman to teach plant biology.

Today, outside the classroom, Assétou continues to lead the fight for the protection of biodiversity in Mali. She has helped enhance several seed banks, facilitates participatory plant breeding workshops, and is a leading voice within COPAGEN. Inter Pares is honoured to work with Assétou and support COPAGEN in our collective struggle to build food sovereignty.

Our impact

Inter Pares helped to convene the first ever critical dialogue among African farmers and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, helping to put farmers concerns at the fore.

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  • Lamin Jarju. 5...
    The problem has always been acquiring financial assistance to the farming communities across the continent. Farmers in Africa only need support with financial to buy farming equipment so they can produce for them selves. Because when you look at reality foreign aid is not the Answer for the food problems in the continent of Africa. It is Equipment which is very expensive for farmers in Africa to have. For example, in the western countries, individual farmers have tractors and could plow big farms. Africans farmers did not have those kind of farming tools. If we really want to make a difference within the agrarian communities in Africa, let us take that new direction of providing them with tools and they will rise up. Thanks and I hope I will get response from Inter Pares
  • Asekenye Joyce
    Since women in Africa do agriculture at 80%,but they do not have rights to own & use land. So the best we can do to empower women through capacity building & give financial support to enable the purchase agricultural equipments including seeds.