Vetiveria nigritana in Senegal

Some notes by Criss Juliard

The National Ag. Research Institute researchers just returned from the first of three legs of research on vetiveria nigritana in Senegal, and submitted an excellent report with unexpected information and pictures (of poor quality because of a defect in their camera)

As some of you might know, I have been trying to initiate a national vetiver program in Senegal (basing the model a bit on what I did in Madagascar), and was surprised to find very little information on usage and availability of the local variety - v. nigritana which is supposed to grow in West Africa. When we were assembling a "Core group" of dedicated and diverse individuals and associations as a first step to the program (outside of my work), I found that there was almost no knowledge of vetiver except for one researcher from ISRA, the National Ag Research Institute. He and an assistant were introduced to the plant 10 yrs ago when a World Bank Rep. tried to establish a vetiver program, starting with research. Funds were not available, and subsequently very little work was actually done. The chaps, however, were intrigued and convinced me to fund some basic research to document the places where one could find nigritana, and to identify through DNA testing if there were any other species in the region that would behave like zizanioides. I had learned from John Greenfield that I should avoid using nigritana until I could get my hands on some zizanioides. We managed through my project to put together a scope of work for an initial 3 month research (we are a business promotion project - so we stretched the definition of research a bit); we justified this since we want to develop markets for a product and technology that can stimulate rural enterprises. The research has been conducted quite professionally to date. The team visited 6 areas in the North western part of Senegal (coastal, lake and Senegal River region), and each fully detailed using with their specific ecology, soil types, socio-economy, and geo-referencing of sampled vetiver.

Preliminary findings:

1. In the agricultural region North of Dakar (Region des Niaye) with ferolic soils (pH 5.45), they found a few farmers used vetiver as: a) a wind break, b) to line vegetable plots (have pictures), c) separate fields (have been using this for generations - a bit like India) to avoid land disputes, and d) for mulch. Leaves are also used to make mats. Apparently the use goes back several generations!

2. In an Argilo-limoneux region (pH3.2) and where salt crystals can be seen on the soil surface, vetiver is used for thatch, and mixed in clay for making building bricks (have pictures of both). According to villagers, using vetiver in the adobe-type, sun-dried bricks prevents walls from cracking. Vetiver stems are sold in the local market. According to testimony, the presence of vetiver is used as an indicator of a reliable water table. Water found near vetiver is sure to be safe drinking. It is also used as animal fodder. Roots are braided into perfumed necklaces. 

3. In the Senegal River region soils with neutral pH (7.59), vetiver presence has seriously diminished since the 1970's Sahelian drought, although the plant here is referred to as "the plant that never dies." Spotty traces were found, but little utilized.

4. In a classified forested area (Diarra), vetiver is used for brick making and handicraft. (have pictures). Domestic animals were noted eating new leaves of vetiver. 

5. In two regions with sandy soils in the Lake de Guiers area (pH 6.3), vetiver is threatened by large scale irrigation projects and by recent in-migrators who don't know the virtues of the plant. These new settlers uproot vetiver to make way for irrigated agriculture. The indigenous population prefer leaving vetiver in the soil since according to them it "helps fertilize the fields."  In fields that are invaded by Typha australis (horizontal root spreading plant that rapidly colonialize wet growing areas), fields are burned to get rid of the Typha, leaving vetiver, since the people know that vetiver "resists fire, and springs back" soon after field has been scorched.

Interestingly, there are no nurseries in ay region visited, or any attempt to multiply the plant for commercial purposes. People use to sell the "harvest" of an acre of vetiver for about $80 per hectare as the leaves were used for bricks and thatching. On the local market, a clump would fetch $.50. One needs about 20 to 25 clumps of vetiver (about $11) to build a house. This commercial approach of selling the in-ground crop has disappeared.   

It seems thought that contrary to what we have been hearing and reading over the last year, which was that vetiver is not used in Senegal except to purify water and improve its taste, needs to be expanded. At least in one of the country's regions, its use is not wide-spread, but it is used in a variety of applications, although none yet for soil erosion control. There appear to be good prospects to develop the demand if we can promote commercial multiplication nurseries. There has been no sign yet that the variety is fertile.

Mark: DNA: The team collected snippets in 6 areas of N. Western Senegal from three different eco-zones. They are in silicon gel in plastic bags. Do I send to you or Bob Adams? I have not heard from him since your Feb 5 email to me.