In 2016, Ivorian agripreneur Daniel Oulaï founded the Grainothèque (Grain Library), a farm business structure that promotes the use of African seeds through, among other things, a seed bank. The fruit of the labors of a man with a passion for the land. Portrait.
By Issiaka N’Guessan, in Abidjan
With his cowboy hat and slim silhouette, Ivorian Daniel Oulaï speaks passionately about agriculture and livestock, with his eyes fixed on his goal: to be a catalyst for a shift of paradigm in the perception of school dropouts who are in villages. That is why, he founded the Grainothèque in 2016, a farm business structure that promotes the use of African seeds, through a seed bank.
“No one will do it for us. Success and failure depend on the choice each young person makes. The challenge of our generation is on the economic field, not the political one”, says Daniel Oulaï, who has just returned from Montpellier, where he took part in the Africa-France Summit, organized on October 8. For the young 30-year-old social entrepreneur, winner of the 2018 Castel Prize and the 2019 National Award for Excellence in Innovation, this Montpellier Summit was in fact “a framework for exchanges to be encouraged.” This does not prevent him from remaining lucid on certain current shortcomings. “I did not know colonization, my father either. So, what are we doing to move forward?” wonders the agro-entrepreneur, who is teeming with ideas to advance his cause.
« Without seeds, there is no agriculture »
Agriculture is a “historical choice” for this farmer’s grandson, who says he “observed the vicious chain that failed to provide proper conditions for children.” In this sector associated with his family background, he needed to bring something new, to germinate seeds of hope. That’s how he launched the Grainothèque” in 2016. Because, “without seeds, there is no agriculture,” Daniel Oulaï reminds us. Now, his project precisely provides ways to establish an integrated system of local seed production, encouraging a local agricultural approach, which “brings together farmers, breeders and consumers.” He argues that in Sangouiné, in the west of the country – where he is native – a mill buys back unsold grain and legumes that are transformed into cattle feed. The animals’ waste is transformed into organic fertilizer for the land.
However, at the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey, the young entrepreneur admits that he “had a hard time convincing [his] father, a theology teacher and Cartesian. Especially since in his environment, no entrepreneur had prospered. It is only in 2019 that he will receive for the first time the congratulations of the latter, after winning the National Award for Excellence in Innovation, in Côte d’Ivoire.
« A double challenge is required for excellence and obligation to succeed »
This was also enough to silence his former classmates who, for a long time, questioned his choice to become a farmer-breeder. Beyond the laurels and the recognition earned, Daniel Oulaï considers, however, that the challenge has become even greater. “We no longer have the right to make mistakes or fail. A double challenge is imposed for excellence and the obligation to succeed,” admits the owner of the Grainothèque,” who earlier worked for the French company Station Energie and “[refuses] today to be conformist and to find himself within the four walls of an office”. So, inevitably, when you win the Castel Prize, the National Award for Excellence in Innovation, and you find yourself among the participants in the Africa-France Summit in Montpellier, “you tell yourself that you made the right choice,” admits the young man with satisfaction. Just back from Montpellier, fortune smiled on him once again.
The Canadian gold group Endeavour Mining, which operates the Ity gold mines in Côte d’Ivoire, has entered into a partnership with him to restore “degraded ecosystems – in particular soil fertility and biodiversity – and to manage ecosystems and their fertility, adapting this management to climate change. The culmination of his groundbreaking work for an ecologically responsible African agriculture.
Objective: opening the first international office of Grainothèque in 2022
In order to communicate this passion to young people, Daniel Oulaï initiated the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Forum in Man, the regional capital of the mountainous West where he is native. At lunch, Daniel discusses with young aspiring agirpreneurs to tell them his story and therefore fan the flame that smolders within them. For him, it is not necessary to wait for the call of the political authorities, but “to invite ourselves to the table and be a force of proposal because we are in an employment sector.” In his capacity as FAO consultant, he intends to devote two weeks each year to the training of young people throughout Côte d’Ivoire. With the same leitmotiv: “Do a lot in a very short time”. This year, out of the ten planned visits to localities, four have already been completed.
The next objective is to open the first international office of Grainothèque in 2022. But the entrepreneur has not yet chosen the country; it will probably be “between Senegal and France”. In the meantime, Daniel Oulaï is experimenting with a new urban transport project using solar panels in Danané (a city in the west of Côte d’Ivoire, close to Liberia and Guinea) with financial support from Bloomberg. The idea: to facilitate the movement of people with reduced mobility -pregnant women, elderly people- in these areas where access routes to health centers are often very degraded. All these dreams of “making a difference” have attracted the Orange Foundation.
A FabLab to provide rural populations with locally manufactured agricultural tools
The non-profit structure under the French telecom operator of the same name has helped the agripreneur to launch-a FabLab from October 2020-to make locally manufactured agricultural tools available to rural populations. One thing is for sure: listening to this young project leader talk about his passion for improving the conditions for the practice of agriculture makes you lose track of time. The rain has just ended, as if to bless Daniel Oulaï’s still long way.