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ACS News

April 25, 2011
Volume 89, Number 17
p. 41

Burkina Faso

In this landlocked West African country, chemist Mouhoussine Nacro hopes to preserve centuries-old traditions

Kenneth Moore

Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
TRANSFORMING LIVES Nacro (center) and postdocs Adama Héma (left) and Constantin Dabiré discuss data related to their research in natural dyes and nutrition.
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In a village in Burkina Faso, Mouhoussine Nacro watched nervously as a textile artisan slipped some of the dye that he was mixing into his mouth. To Nacro, a natural products chemist, the observation was a bit unsettling. But to the artisan, it made perfect sense. And then it dawned on Nacro: “When I thought about the chemical aspect of what he was doing, I realized that he was checking the pH,” which is important for dye adhesion and color.

Nacro, a professor of chemistry at Ouagadougou University and one of only two American Chemical Society members in Burkina Faso, travels this landlocked country in West Africa to document the craft of local artisans. “A lot of traditional know-how is disappearing,” Nacro says. Traditional products, such as home-dyed clothing, are being replaced by synthetic goods. So, after documenting artisans’ crafts, Nacro goes to the lab to better understand dye extraction, production, and application. He then looks at ways to innovate or improve these age-old traditions through chemistry—adjusting the pH, temperature, or extraction technique, for example.

Having grown up in Burkina Faso, Nacro is intimately familiar with the region and its people. But when he was studying in the 1960s, there were no universities in the country, so Nacro pursued a bachelor’s in biology from the University of Dakar, in Senegal. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in physical sciences from the University of Nancy, in France. In 1977, he returned to Burkina Faso as a professor at Ouagadougou. From 1982 to 1984, Nacro was a visiting biochemist at the University of Georgia, Athens.

When he returned to Ouagadougou, Nacro was “without contacts and without scientific information,” he says. “You can’t do research without knowing what’s happening in your field.” He joined ACS to stay connected to his U.S. colleagues. At the time, one year’s membership cost him a month’s salary.

Nacro also subscribed to the Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry and the Journal of Chemical Education to keep abreast of advances in his field. These days, some students at Ouagadougou refer to his journals for their own research. Upon graduation, many chemistry students find employment as teachers or in mining companies in the region, and a few go into the health field to research plant-based drugs, Nacro says.

Conducting research in Burkina Faso is challenging. Reagents can take three to four weeks to arrive after ordering, and equipment may take several months. Accessing information online can also be difficult. “It takes hours to send a document over e-mail,” Nacro says. Lack of funding is another major constraint, he adds. Most research is funded by grants from philanthropic and international development organizations; the Burkina Faso government provides little money for research.

Disease adds to the strain on resources. When a coworker is out sick for a few days, it’s not a cold or the flu keeping the researcher at home—it’s usually malaria, Nacro says. “It’s a common reason to be out,” and it’s very incapacitating, he adds. “Your colleagues must take care of whatever research you were doing.”

These difficulties don’t stop Nacro from conducting research and maintaining an active role in scientific communities. This year, he is on the scientific committee for the International Symposium & Exhibition on Natural Dyes, a biennial conference that brings together industry and academic researchers from around the world. The meeting is being held this week in La Rochelle, France.

Nacro has also been involved in Burkina Faso’s government: He has served as the country’s ambassador to Canada, as a member of Parliament, and as the minister of secondary and higher education and scientific research.

Even with the impressive array of research duties and offices held, Nacro has also raised a family with his wife, Rosette. He didn’t try to sway their four children to follow in his chemistry footsteps, he says, “because it’s so difficult to do chemistry here; it’s not always rewarding.” But for Nacro, chemistry is the way to solve problems, help people, and improve lives in Burkina Faso.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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International Faculty: Mouhoussine Nacro (second from right) and colleagues from Burkina Faso, Togo, and France wear the official attire of the University of Ouagadougou after jurying a doctoral thesis defense Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
International Faculty Mouhoussine Nacro (second from right) and colleagues from Burkina Faso, Togo, and France wear the official attire of the University of Ouagadougou after jurying a doctoral thesis defense.
Fieldwork: On this research plot, Mouhoussine Nacro's team grows local beans (Vigna unguiculata and V. subterranea) and sweet potatoes for nutrition studies and raises red sorghum, indigo plants, Cochlospermum, and Bixa orellana for natural dye research. The plot is irrigated, so Nacro and his researchers can grow crops year-round instead of relying on the rainy months of May, June, September, and October. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Fieldwork On this research plot, Mouhoussine Nacro's team grows local beans (Vigna unguiculata and V. subterranea) and sweet potatoes for nutrition studies and raises red sorghum, indigo plants, Cochlospermum, and Bixa orellana for natural dye research. The plot is irrigated, so Nacro and his researchers can grow crops year-round instead of relying on the rainy months of May, June, September, and October.
Red Dye: When this red sorghum, Sorghum bicolor var. caudatum, is harvested, the grain and leaf sheaths will be separated, air dried, and stored in sealed plastic bags. To produce dyes for leather and cotton, Nacro's team uses leaf sheaths; the grain is used for making edible dyes and for research on anthocyanin pigments. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Red Dye When this red sorghum, Sorghum bicolor var. caudatum, is harvested, the grain and leaf sheaths will be separated, air dried, and stored in sealed plastic bags. To produce dyes for leather and cotton, Nacro's team uses leaf sheaths; the grain is used for making edible dyes and for research on anthocyanin pigments.
Check Up: Alioune Ouedraogo, a member of Nacro's Laboratory of Applied Organic Chemistry & Physics, examines the red sorghum in the research plot. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Check Up Alioune Ouédraogo, a member of Nacro's Laboratory of Applied Organic Chemistry & Physics, examines the red sorghum in the research plot.
Talking Food: In late 2010, Nacro (third from left) visited several villages in southern Burkina Faso in the region of Leo, along with colleagues from the country's national agricultural research institute and from Helen Keller International, an organization that aims to prevent blindness and reduce malnutrition. Here, Nacro speaks with farmers in the village of Sagalo, promoting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes as a source of vitamin A and antioxidants. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Talking Food In late 2010, Nacro (third from left) visited several villages in southern Burkina Faso in the region of Leo, along with colleagues from the country's national agricultural research institute and from Helen Keller International, an organization that aims to prevent blindness and reduce malnutrition. Here, Nacro speaks with farmers in the village of Sagalo, promoting orange-fleshed sweet potatoes as a source of vitamin A and antioxidants.
Delicious, Nutritious: Nacro met this child during his travels in the region of Leo in late 2010 while he worked to promote production and consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes as a source of vitamin A and antioxidants. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Delicious, Nutritious Nacro met this child during his travels in the region of Leo in late 2010 while he worked to promote production and consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes as a source of vitamin A and antioxidants.
Sample Prep: Postdoc Constantine Dabire lyophilizes flowers, leaves, and grain and stores the freeze-dried material for later research. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Sample Prep Postdoc Constantin Dabiré lyophilizes flowers, leaves, and grain and stores the freeze-dried material for later research.
Test Drive: Postdoc Adama Hema runs the lab's new spectrophotometer with a 96-well microplate reader. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Test Drive Postdoc Adama Héma runs the lab's new spectrophotometer with a 96-well microplate reader.
Processing Data: Graduate student Abel Mbaïogaou processes spectrophotometric data as part of his research on the nutritional value of the Bambara groundnut, Vigna subterranea. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Processing Data Graduate student Abel Mbaïogaou processes spectrophotometric data as part of his research on the nutritional value of the Bambara groundnut, Vigna subterranea.
Labwork: Graduate student Abel Mbaïogaou weighs ground samples of Vigna suberranea, Bambara groundnut, for extraction. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Labwork Graduate student Abel Mbaïogaou weighs ground samples of Vigna suberranea, Bambara groundnut, for extraction.
Researcher: Postgraduate student Moumouni Koala is involved in many of Mouhoussine Nacro's research programs and is in charge of the research plot where the team grows its crops. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
Researcher Postgraduate student Moumouni Koala is involved in many of Mouhoussine Nacro's research programs and is in charge of the research plot where the team grows its crops.
A Good Read: Postdoc Constantin Dabire researches essential oils and regularly reads ACS's Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry. Courtesy of Mouhoussine Nacro
A Good Read Postdoc Constantin Dabiré researches essential oils and regularly reads ACS's Journal of Agricultural & Food Chemistry.
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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