Sustainable in Senegal
A rich slice of sustainability in Senegal

A Peace Corps stint in Mali and an internship with The Rodale Institute® showed this American ag student the critical need for innovative soil saving practices in West Africa.

By Nathan C. McClintock
June 16, 2005

West Africa calls you back

West Africa gets deep into your marrow, haunts you, calls you back.

After two years there in Peace Corps working with farmers in Mali, I was yearning to return to the region. In 2003, that call drew me to Senegal where I spent a semester as an intern at The Rodale Institute to compliment my graduate research in sustainable agriculture. I wanted to see how TRI was able to transfer its expertise to farmers, helping to improve their livelihoods.

The Senegalese farmers I met were eager to share their stories, their food, and their laughter. Their resilience and creativity farming on the edge of the Sahara can serve as inspiration to us all. – Nathan C. McClintock


Where we've been:

A rich slice of sustainability in Senegal:
The Rodale Institute® showed this American agriculture student the critical need for soil innovative soil saving practices in West Africa.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to the [Rodale] project and a good year of rain, the percentage of working-age women involved in agriculture increased from 45 percent to 70 percent in the first year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The women's groups are eager to find solutions to the challenges threatening their gardening endeavours—broken pumps, invading centipedes and hungry goats are a few they mention.

 

 

 

 

“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 millet.

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 finances.

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 official language.

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 shade

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 to me.

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.”

Nathan McClintock holds an M.S. in sustainable agriculture from North Carolina State University. He is a freelance sustainable ag consultant, trainer, and journalist. He is currently assisting a farmers’ group Nepal in its transition to organic. He will be starting a PhD in agroecological geography at Berkeley this fall.