“Cééb bi dox na
de!” Man, that rice really walked!
That’s how I usually ended my meals of fried rice with
thiebu dien, a traditional recipe combining fish,
onions, cassava, cabbage, eggplant, carrots and a habañero
pepper. This is all topped with a sauce of bisap buds from
a type of hardy West African hibiscus that is a staple leafy
green in Senegalese diets. The waxy flowerets are boiled down
to make a deep scarlet beverage with enough sugar added to
make your teeth ache.
There’s no avoiding a stuffed belly—biir
bu fess—when going out to any of the villages where
the Rodale Institute works. Such hospitality -- or teranga
-- as its known in Wolof, is a keystone of Senegalese culture,
and made my internship experience in this west African nation
as rich as the food.
Since it first began working with Senegalese farmers in the
late 80s, The Rodale Institute® (TRI) has promoted its
vision of regenerative agriculture as a means of improving
rural livelihoods with the mantra “Healthy soils, healthy
food, healthy people.” Sustainable farming practices
such as organic matter recycling, seed saving, agroforestry,
intercropping, live fencing and windbreaks, and natural pest
control are central to this philosophy.
TRI’s Senegal program works with farmers and their
cooperatives, women’s groups, non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) and government extension workers. It combines training
in regenerative techniques with economic capacity-building
in the form of skills training in micro-credit and the establishment
of revolving loan initiatives to finance cooperative market
gardening and animal husbandry.
While TRI has worked in all of Senegal’s 11 regions,
it primarily works in the Peanut Basin, the low-lying area
between the Ferlo and Gambia rivers, bordered by the coastal
dunes, or Niayes, to the west and the sylvopastoral scrub
savanna to the East. Much of the native baobab (Adansonia
digitata), African palmyra palm (Barassus aethiopium),
and Acacia species have been steadily cleared over the last
century and a half. Peanut production expanded from the coast
inland from the 1850s onwards, and followed the expansion
of the rail line in the early 20th century.
Exports from this zone were the colony’s largest source
of revenue, and by the 1920s, 60,000 to 70,000 people migrated
to the Peanut Basin each rainy season to work. Peanut exports
peaked in the first few years of independence in the 1960s
until world prices and drought took a toll on production.
The Peanut Basin remains Senegal’s primary zone of
commercial agricultural activity. As a result, soil fertility
has steadily decreased due to cropping intensity and expansion.
Seventy to 80 percent of the soils are locally known as
jóór (Dior), a sandy soil with little ability
to retain nutrients, due to low organic matter (0.3 to 1 percent)
and clay content. These soils are generally viewed by farmers
as the least fertile and are cropped with peanuts and souna
Fifteen to 25 percent of soils in the Peanut Basin are the
more fertile and slightly more clayey and organic deg
(Deck) soils found in bottomlands and are used for millet
and sorghum. Approximately half of the area under cultivation
is cropped with millet (dugub), 40 percent in peanuts
(gerte), and 7 percent in cowpeas (nebbe).
The occasional gargantuan baobab stands sentinel over the
fields, its leaves, fruit, and bark useful to farmers. Small
stands of nitrogen-fixing kadd trees (Acacia
albida) also spot the landscape of the Peanut Basin,
recognized for their ability to improve soil fertility. The
kadd loses its leaves during the rainy season, giving a strange
semblance of winter to the verdure of the rainy season.
Restoring the Peanut Basin
In its effort to tackle soil degradation endemic to the Peanut
Basin and the rest of the country, the Institute has trained
more than 10,000 farmers, technicians, and extension agents
since its office opened in 1987. The office location is Thiès,
Senegal’s second largest city, about 43 miles east of
the capital Dakar. Due to its proximity to the densely populated
Dakar coastal region with about 2.5 million people, Thiès
produces the majority of Senegal’s vegetables. Average
production was about 40,000 to 60,000 tons annually between
1985 and 1995. Much of this production is destined for consumption
in Dakar, where a population density is growing at a rate
of 4 percent, much higher than the national rate of 2.9 percent.
The swelling population of Dakar and the Cap Vert peninsula
will surely continue to have a pronounced and profound effect
on agriculture in the Thiès region and the rest of
the Peanut Basin. Consistent with urbanization trends throughout
the developing world, land surrounding urban areas is taken
out of agricultural production as its value increases and
is sold off for development. At the same time, land still
in production is farmed much more intensively—due to
limited space for expansion, fallow periods are shortened
or eliminated altogether.
Because land-use rights on public or vacant lands are tenuous
on the urban outskirts, farmers invest little in infrastructure
or amendments to improve soil fertility or health. In the
nearby rural areas where soil fertility continues to drop,
farmers clear more land in order to reap the harvests necessary
to feed their families.
Women in regeneration
Rodale staff ran a project sponsored by the Vanderbilt Foundation
from 2000 to 2004 to address the needs of five peri-urban
(urban-edge) and rural villages affected by declining fertility
of the soil and the attendant threat to local food security.
The project focused on promoting regenerative agriculture
techniques and small ruminant husbandry; increasing cereal,
fruit and vegetable yields; and reinforcing the capacity of
local women’s groups to manage their organizations and
Four of the five villages are in the Thiès region.
Keur Sa Daro Fam, only 8 miles from Thiès, is in the
Notto arrondisement (a regional administrative sub-division)
and is the most closely tied to the nearby urban economy.
Keur Banda and the neighboring Diouffène are several
kilometers off the asphalt road east of Thiès in the
Thiéneba arrondisement, down a sandy track that cuts
through the peanut and millet fields. Taiba Ndao is a little
farther down the highway. Finally, the village of Thiawène
lies farther east near Bambey, in the adjacent Diourbel region.
All of the villages are Wolof-speaking, with the exception
of Diouffène, a Serrer-speaking village. However, since
Wolof is the lingua franca of Senegal, most Serrar
speakers also speak Wolof. You have a harder time, however,
finding people in the villages who speak French, the country’s
By the 2002, 141 people (118 of them women) in the five villages
(population 643), had been trained in regenerative agriculture
techniques. A system of rotating loans was established to
aid in the purchase of subsistence seeds, gardening equipment,
and purchase of livestock for fattening and manure.
In 2003, 105 participants shared total loans of about $920
USD (US dollars) to purchase millet, peanut, and cowpea seeds.
A total of 54 farmers shared about $3,600 USD in loans to
purchase of goats and sheep. All loans were repaid and each
women’s group now manages its own loan process.
Thanks to the project and a good year of rain, the percentage
of working-age women (14 to 69 years old) involved in agriculture
increased from 45 percent to 70 percent in the first year.
Millet and peanut yields have increased with the help of organic
amendments, improved seed varieties, and favorable weather.
At Keur Banda, millet stocks lasted more than six months after
harvest, whereas they had previously lasted only three. The
participants at Taiba Ndao noted that their yields were greater
than those in the neighboring villages.
Trees create fertility, protection and
Agroforestry is another integral part of TRI’s regenerative
agriculture campaign. Seedlings are started at the experimental
farm at Keur Saib Ndoye a few kilometers outside of Thiès,
then given to participating women once they have dug the transplant
holes and amended them with compost or manure.
Fruit tree seedlings—mango, guava, lime, mandarin—are
usually planted in family compounds. Other varieties include
Acacia mellifera for living fence around the group
garden; the nitrogen-fixing Leucaena leucocephela
for windbreaks around crop fields and gardens; flame trees
(Delonise regia) for shade; and Eucalyptus
in village wood lots. In the first year alone, 371 trees were
planted in the five villages.
Growing out of this project was the introduction of a nutritionally
valuable plant named Acacia mellifera, or "nebaday"
in Wolof. It was successfully used as a living fence. Large
quantities of its seeds were collected for further use in
other programs. Micro-finance allowed the women to access
resources needed to establish small-ruminant fattening activities
and other inputs as part of integratred regenerative agricultural
systems. They purchased groundnut, millet and cowpea seeds
and cassava cuttings to diversify their cropping systems.
This project benefited directly 154 people (90 percent women)
from five villages and generated a capital of $5,400 USD.
The women’s groups in the so-called “Vanderbilt
villages” are dynamic and proud of their work. They
are eager to find solutions to the challenges threatening
their gardening endeavours—broken pumps, invading centipedes
and hungry goats are a few they mentioned to me. Their laughter
is as abundant as the bowls of ceebu weex they feed
Their light-hearted offers of a Senegalese wife or two for
me are relentless, but they are very serious about their work
and motivated by the successes of the last couple of years.
One participant commented, “Thanks to the project, those
who started out with one leg now have two.”