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Larlé Naaba Tigré, king of jatropha

Text by Thomas HUBERT , in Ouagadougou

Latest update : 2008-12-16

A traditional chief, farmer, businessman and politician has decided to use his prominence in Burkina Faso's public life to promote a miracle plant, which he thinks can revolutionise agriculture in the Sahel region.

In the warm Ouagadoudgou night, the palace of the Larlé Naaba towers over the city. The impressive building, surrounded by high walls, remains open late in the evening: the most famous resident of the Larlin neighbourhood, which was named after him, has a busy schedule.


He proudly tours the compound, which reflects his many-faceted personality. The traditional chief starts by pointing to a small museum dedicated to tribal rituals. His tall body is draped in traditional dark blue cotton cloth and he moves in a slow, confident manner. He then enters a courtyard where a horse – the symbol of Mossi warriors – is falling asleep. There, he transforms into a farmer to describe the plants he is experimenting with in his nursery.


Moving to a large exhibition hall, he turns into a full-blown salesman to promote the produce of his farms. A handful of men who seem to be working for him nod in agreement.


In his air-conditioned office, all the attributes of an international businessman are on display. Three mobile phones, air tickets and recent computer equipment packaging lie near envelopes bearing the logos of major banks – the Larlé Naaba complains about the cost of his loan repayments.


The walls carry political memorabilia: a clock featuring the face of President Blaise Compaoré hangs next to pictures taken at the National Assembly. At the mention of the Larlé Naaba, Emmanuel, a teacher from Ouagadougou, exclaims: “He's the most political of them all!”


Jatropha or 'manna from heaven for Africa'


Victor Tiendrebeogo inherited the title of Larlé Naaba in 1990 – the equivalent of a ministerial portfolio in the ancient Mossi kingdom. He then appended his war name “Tigré” to the appellation and left behind his civilian name as well as a budding career in banking. He soon started to experiment with the growing of new plants on the 500 hectares of farming land that came with his new title.


In the past few years, he has focused on jatropha curcas, a plant he describes as “manna from heaven for Africa”.


The Larlé Naaba boasting about his produce (Photo: Thomas Hubert)


This shrub adapts to the Sahel's arid climate without needing irrigation, fertiliser or pesticides. The oil from its nuts can be used as biofuel and their waste products as fertiliser. Jatropha acts as a fixing agent for erosion-threatened soils and as a natural barrier against animals. Moreover, its leaves are believed to have medicinal properties.


In short, the Larlé Naaba is convinced that “without jatropha, our agriculture is going nowhere”. While international scientists confirm the shrub's properties, they are still investigating its economic viability. “Many non-realistic and too optimistic figures are published in the Internet, just to make jatropha presentable in a business plan”, warns Reinhard Henning, a German expert.


Yet the Larlé Naaba wants to move forward. He says that his objective is to provide local fuel sources for “tractors, grain mills and power generators”. To market his idea, he tours Burkina Faso's countryside and organises VIP visits on his farms, which receive wide coverage in the national media. He claims that he has convinced enough farmers to plant jatropha across 60,000 hectares, sharing the fields with traditional food-producing crops.

Not entirely disinterested

The Larlé Naaba's activism is not entirely disinterested. The produce of his experimental crops is already on sale at his store in Ouagadougou. And he recalls with obvious delight his undercover visits to shopkeepers to enquire about consumer attitudes towards jatropha-based products.


To extract jatropha oil, the Larlé Naaba partners with Deutsche Biodiesel – a German company that also makes donations to Belwet, a rural development charity he chairs.


“His backers in the US, German or Dutch embassies allow him to speed up the implementation of his market gardening or well-boring projects,” writes French historian Benoît Beucher, a specialist of traditional chiefs in Burkina Faso. “In Bantogdo (north of Ouagadougou), Dutch ambassador Hans-Maurits Schaapveld was named 'Managre Naaba', which translates as 'development minister', in July 2006,” he added.


Gossip has it that Belwet's equipment and seed donations to the region's rural communities, often co-financed by foreign donors, helped the Larlé Naaba's election as member of parliament for the presidential party, Congress for Democracy and Progress.


But he shrugs off the suggestion as a an example of his critics' “envies and complexes”. “Here, if you try to move forward, people pull you by the feet. Dumbing down is the rule”, he says.


Date created : 2008-12-16