Posted April 13, 2006: Not far off the pot-holed
highway running east to Tambacounda, Senegal’s easternmost
regional capital, farmers in the village of Touba Fall are slowly
tapping into the world organic market by increasing production of
a traditional crop gaining a global following.
Thirty members of Kanbènkafo, a farmers’ organization
whose name roughly translates to “coming together to save”
in the local Maninka language, have been producing sesame (Sesamum
indicum) for the past three years with the help of a local
non-governmental organization (NGO). GADEC, based in “Tamba,”
has provided the group with an early seed variety, as well as trained
the group to make and use an organic pesticide made from leaves
from the neem tree (Aradizichta incida) to control insect
pests. The NGO then brokers the sale of the sesame to a Senegalese
export cooperative, providing farmers with much-needed income at
the end of each year.
Sesame, or bènè in the Maninka language, has likely
been grown in West Africa for centuries, imported from North Africa
via the trans-Saharan caravan routes that supplied West Africa with
salt and the rest of the world with gold. In eastern Senegal and
Guinea and western Mali, the Maninka and neighboring Bambara people
add pounded sesame seeds to the staple peanut sauce, tigadègèna,
or roll the seeds into small sweet balls for sale on roadsides as
a snack food. Like so many other plant species in West African agriculture,
sesame fills a specific dietary niche while adding to the biodiversity
More crops, less risk
In this semi-arid environment where highly variable rainfall has
steadily decreased over the past 50 years, integrating a wide variety
of crops is a means of risk management for smallholder farmers.
Intercropping staple crops such as corn, peanuts and millet with
secondary niche crops like sesame, bisaab (Hibiscus sabdariffa,
known as roselle in English) and kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)
helps to stabilize the farming system against environmental shocks
and flux. An intercrop can act as a physical barrier, slowing the
spread of host-specific diseases and pests.
Additionally, farmers can guarantee a minimum of food security
for their households throughout the year by intercropping species
that mature at different times. By diversifying cropping systems,
smallholder farmers worldwide rely heavily on secondary crops to
alleviate the risk of losing everything to crop failure. In short,
crop diversity divvies out the proverbial eggs to several baskets.
ka di. Sesame farming is sweet. You can earn between
twenty five and forty thousand CFA [$50-80 U.S.] from
this much sesame.”
Now, thanks to the growing interest in natural products, this tried-and-true
form of risk management is paying off economically, as well. Kekouta
Camara, a 29-year-old farmer in Touba Fall, proudly shows off his
acre of sesame tucked in between fields of recently harvested corn,
and maturing cowpeas, roselle, and kenaf. “Bènè
sènè ka di. Sesame farming is sweet. You can earn
between twenty five and forty thousand CFA from this much sesame.”
At about $50 to $80, this is good money in rural Senegal.
Kekouta, who also manages his late father’s family fields
with his brothers, is the liaison between Kanbènkafo and
GADEC. He has been teaching others in the village about the neem
pesticide. “We rotate peanuts, then sesame, then millet,”
he explains. “We don’t use any fertilizer, just cow
manure,” he says. Camara is eager to expand his sesame production
next year and is excited to try intercropping cowpeas in with the
sesame to improve soil fertility.
Scarlet hope for high-value export
About 370 miles to the northwest, farmers in the village of Keur
Banda, are also expanding production of an underutilized species.
Abdoulaye Niang, shows off a field of bisaab plants, tucked amongst
the expanse of millet, cowpea, and watermelon fields that surround
the village situated a roughly a mile off the main highway, 16 miles
east of the regional capital of Thiès.
“The locusts have eaten everything this year,” Abdoulaye
observes with the familiar, somewhat lighthearted and matter-of-fact
tone that marks the speech of so many Sahelian farmers when confronted
with disaster. He points to the eviscerated stubble of peanut plants
poking up from the sandy soil. “Wantè bëguñu
bisaab bi! But they didn’t like the bisaab!” he laughs,
pointing to the healthy stand of green plants with reddish stems
and pink and yellow calyces or seed pods.
Bisaab is widely intercropped in the peanut, millet, and cowpea
rotation of the Peanut Basin. It is often used as a border crop
to delineate the boundaries between fields, and its sticky calyces
may attract beneficial insects that control pests. The calyces,
rich in vitamins and antibiotic properties, are widely used in sauces
and beverages throughout West Africa, and post-harvest value-added
processing has traditionally been an important source of revenue
for farmers, especially for women.
More recently, West African roselle has attracted the attention
of food processors in Europe and the United States, eager to find
a natural red coloring agent for herbal teas. Pick up your favorite
brand of organic or natural tea and you may see “hibiscus”
listed in the ingredients, usually imported from Sudan, Egypt, Mexico,
“The locusts have eaten everything
this year. Wantè bëguñu bisaab
bi! But they didn’t like the bisaab!”
Now, with the help of ASNAPP (Agribusiness for Sustainable Natural
African Plant Products), a USAID-funded project designed to promote
organic production of traditional herbs for export, Senegalese farmers
like Abdoulaye Niang will soon profit from the more gourmet, cosmopolitan
taste of consumers in the West. (For an excellent description of
the ASNAPP work with bisaab farmers in Senegal, see: www.asnapp.org/country-progs/senegal.html.)
Like GADEC does with the sesame farmers in the Tambacounda region,
ASNAPP is helping to pair Senegalese farmers with export buyers.
In Keur Banda, 30 farmers are participating in the project. The
Rodale Institute also worked in three villages in the Thiès
region and several in the Matam region to provide technical training
for the farmers in the project. ASNAPP is also starting to package
teabags of roselle and other traditional herbs from several African
countries under the Ubuntu label, cleverly sold in recycled cardboard
packages decorated with enough Africanesque doodling and exotic
descriptions to whet the palates of organic-minded internationalistas
in the U.S.
While they would probably be proud to see their sesame and roselle
on display in supermarkets abroad, Kekouta and Abdoulaye are well
satisfied that these previously underemphasized crops have attracted
outside attention, increasing their revenue. To them, the shift
from commodity cash crops such as cotton and peanuts to traditional
species they can grow with low inputs and sell into a high-value
marketing niche is a welcome change.