Sustainable in Senegal: Profiles in Senegalese Regenerative Agriculture
El-Hadji Hane and Gora Ndiaye, regenerative ag education and entrepreneurship along the Petite Côte

Through local farmer organizing, commercial promotion of agroforestry and international connections, two college friends are nurturing sustainable initiatives along the tourist-impacted “Little Coast” of Senegal.

By Nathan C. McClintock

Where we are:

Best site for finding detailed maps of Senegal: Multimap.com

Learn Wolof Vocabulary relating to Vegetables and Food


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.

 

Posted February 16, 2006: On a map, Senegal’s Petite Côte (“Little Coast”) stretches southeast from Dakar, forming a smooth and subtle arc from the underside of the Cap-Vert peninsula to the dense dapple of islands in the mouth of the Sine-Saloum River delta. This 100-mile long smooth stretch of white sandy beach has attracted beachgoers and tourists since colonial days. Today, the beach town of Saly is home to a number of resorts such as Club Med, attracting European tourists and wealthy Dakar weekenders alike.

The influx of tourism over the past decades has been, as always, a double-edged sword, providing economic opportunity for some of the region’s local population while draining rural villages of a much-needed workforce. This out-migration of mostly young men from farm to city is commonplace not only in developing nations such as Senegal, but also in farming communities throughout the United States, and has been exacerbated by trade liberalization. The dismantling of many agricultural programs (such as subsidies, price supports, import tariffs, and ag extension programs) designed to support farmers has led to a rapid decline in the ability for a farmer to make a living. As cheap agricultural imports flood the markets of developing countries, selling prices drop, making farming even less profitable.

One of the central goals of sustainable agriculture is to revitalize rural areas, to protect rural livelihoods not only through environmentally sound techniques, but also by providing real economic opportunity for rural populations. Two men in Mbour, the economic center of the Petite Côte, are playing a central part in promoting this model of agricultural sustainability through their entrepreneurship and educational activities.

Fish-kill epiphany

In the early 1980s, when they were university students in Dakar, Gora Ndiaye and El-Hadji Hane began gardening in the vacant lots that are home to the majority of Senegal’s urban agriculture. Troubled by the excessive use of pesticides in the city’s gardens, they formed AGRINAT, an organization promoting organic agriculture and pesticide awareness. El-Hadji remembers, “The turning point came one day when we found that all the fish and frogs in the spring were dead. Someone had mixed pesticide in the watering can, watered their plot, then dipped the can into the spring. If it could kill everything in the spring, imagine what it could do to the producers and the consumers!”

“My family was furious. You don’t go to school and then go back to the farm. Now my father is happy. He decided in the end that I’d made a good choice.”

El-Hadji went on to study tropical agroecology in Montpellier, France. Well prepared to work for the government or an NGO, he decided instead to become a farmer. Rather than returning to his native Cassamance region (a part of southern Senegal marred for decades by a separatist rebellion), El-Hadji purchased 10 hectares of land for a good price in Ndiemene, 16 miles south of Mbour in 1993. “My family was furious. You don’t go to school and then go back to the farm. But I farmed and sent my father money just as if I was working in an office.”

El-Hadji also chose this region because the problems affecting Senegalese agriculture were more “visible” here than in the lush south—soil degradation, outmigration, infrequent and variable rainfall. Working with local farmers and women’s groups, El-Hadji has addressed these issues by promoting regenerative ag techniques such as cover cropping with pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan, called poix d’Angole in Senegal), alley cropping with agroforestry species like the N-fixing Luceana in their millet fields and vegetable gardens. He has also helped the farmers’ groups organize and sell their produce in Mbour and Dakar, where the high quality of their organic onions is becoming famous.

Most importantly, El-Hadji has helped the local population take responsibility of stewardship of their land. “They realize that thirty years ago this was all forest with lots of wild animals. Now people are starting to understand that the environment is being degraded, that they must take charge of it. If someone else does it for them, it won’t last. Now they say, “We must do this ourselves.’”

The activities of the farmers’ groups, as well as El-Hadji’s prominent role in IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) www.ifoam.org, have attracted visitors from around the world. Every year, El-Hadji hosts several European interns on his farm. “Now my father is happy. The farm is always full of interns from Europe—toubabs [foreigners]. He’s happy that my name is well-known. He decided in the end that I’d made a good choice.”

Planting palms for sustainability

Up the road off of a sandy street in a residential neighborhood of Mbour, El-Hadji’s old partner Gora Ndiaye is surrounded by thousands of baby coconut palms in the nursery of his business, the Association des Jardins d’Afrique (AJA). Tiny palm shoots sprout from coconuts half-buried in the sandy soil. While Gora’s gruff personality markedly contrasts that of the effusive El-Hadji, he shares the vision of enhancing the sustainability of Senegalese agriculture and making agriculture profitable for the local population.

Gora’s work revolves around promoting the integration of palm trees into both the natural and agricultural ecosystems of the Petite Côte. “Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. By integrating trees and agriculture, we can create a microclimate that is favorable to the growth of legumes. The coconut palm helps to do this.”

In 1994 Gora began the first phase of his project, working with farmers to integrate palms into their gardens. He quickly realized that he needed some technical assistance when many of their young Grand West African palms were ravaged by beetles and a fungus. Gora met a palm specialist from Benin who invited him to his country to learn more. Both in Benin and in Côte d’Ivoire, Gora learned new germination methods and identified resistant varieties of palm that he has since used in Senegal, improving his production 100-fold.

The AJA has been selling coconut, oil, and date palms, as well as the related rônier (Barassus aethiapum Mart.) to customers from their nursery since. Selling for about US$10, the young trees are a good source of revenue, particularly in this tourist-intensive zone where there is a strong demand from hotel and home owners. The pricey trees are still a bargain, Gora maintains: “Coconut palms may take four years to fully develop, but they will produce for fifty years.”

“Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. By integrating trees and agriculture, we can create a microclimate that is favorable to the growth of legumes. The coconut palm helps to do this.”

In addition to selling palms, Ndiaye through the AJA has been involved with dune stabilization along the Petite Côte. In 2001 they received a $50,000 grant from the UNDP to train the local population to grow palms as a means of stopping dune erosion. The organization also purchased a nine-acre plot an hour’s drive south in the village of Samba Dia, where they continue to experiment with palm varieties and integration with field crops.

While Gora Ndiaye and El-Hadji Hane have taken different paths towards promoting sustainable agriculture, education is central to both of their activities. Both are proud of their successes, but are also well aware of the resource and economic obstacles that lay ahead, such as lack of water or a lack of an organic marketing infrastructure. Nevertheless, their deep-seated belief in promoting a socially-equitable and environmentally sound agriculture keeps them both motivated. “We just want to interest people in what we’re doing,” El-Hadji says. “The first step is to show them that we must approach things in a holistic fashion.”