“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
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
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.”