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Action Against Desertification

Barkissa Fofana is confident that science can tackle desertification

The incredible journey of a young researcher from Burkina Faso


12/02/2019

Djibo, Burkina Faso – Science is key to FAO’s Action Against Desertification efforts in making degraded land green and productive again. Barkissa Fofana believes that microbiology can help and is carrying out research to prove it. An inspiring journey to the frontline of the battle against climate change and desertification.

“Something has to be done to tackle the environmental problems caused by climate change, desertification and population growth,” says Barkissa Fofana on a field just outside the city of Djibo in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region.
Barkissa, a soft-spoken 30-year old micro-biologist at Burkina Faso’s Institute for Environmental and Agricultural Research (INERA), is particularly interested in the role of micro-organisms to solve these problems.

Take the example of nitrogen fixation, she says. There are bacteria capable of transforming nitrogen gas in the air into nitrogen compounds that can be used by plants as a natural fertiliser. Some of these bacteria are symbiotic: they enter a plant through its roots and make nitrogen available for the host plant to grow.

This field is a testing ground. Barkissa is monitoring the development of gum producing Acacias inoculated with different bacteria and fungi. She wants to find out if, and how, they help the trees to grow and produce better.

More than a year into the experiment the measurements are encouraging. But Barkissa cannot give any detail yet. She is preparing a scientific paper on the issue, planned for the end of the year. No data can emerge before that.

Her research is the result of partnership between INERA and Action Against Desertification, which is working in Burkina’s Sahel region to make degraded land green and productive again.

This area is part of Africa’s Great Green Wall, where the challenges posed by climate change and desertification are particularly acute. Rainfall hardly exceeds 400 mm per year and land is often severely degraded.

The research results are meant to reinforce restoration work. Action Against Desertification aims to make the useful micro-organisms available to the local population. Efforts are already underway to train them in how to inoculate their seeds and plants. 

Busy

Asked about her motivation, Barkissa says she opted for studies in agronomy, because she is fond of plants and always wanted to work on the country-side. Her parents have supported her from the start. But sometimes, she misses being with her family.
It’s a long way back home to Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second largest-city in the south, where her father runs a vulcanization workshop and her mother sells condiments in front of the house.

As a child, Barkissa used to help her grandmother sell vegetables on the market. She liked it, she says, because it keeps you busy. And you only worked until noon, which would still leave enough spare time to play.

In 2016, she obtained a Masters in bio-technology, after which she joined INERA to prepare for her doctoral thesis on the use of bio-fertilizers in the rehabilitation of the soil in Burkina’s Sahel region.

For the moment, she has to prepare two additional scientific papers. One on the role of micro-organisms in improving soil fertility. Another to describe the molecular identity of the micro-organisms that have proven to be useful.

It will require more work in the laboratory, she says. She has to perform soil analysis to quantify the effect of inoculation on soil fertility. Also, she needs more time to identity of the useful bacteria.

She has obtained a scholarship and is now in Dakar in Senegal for this, because the facilities are better there. It is the first time she will see the sea.

Eventually, Barkissa expects to put it all together and defend her thesis in early 2020. She is confident that the Sahel can make it. And she will certainly do her part. “I have always tried to do my best to make things work.”

Read an abridged version of Barkissa's story on FAO's corporate website here.