Senegal's Peanut Basin region is made up primarily
of the low-lying area between the Ferlo and Gambia rivers.
||Fertilizer subsidies were dropped six years
ago and now none of the farmers I interviewed uses fertilizer.
Dafa cher. It’s expensive.
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.
“They’re yellowish. Reddish.
And soft. Dafa soon. Dafa xonq. Dafa nooy.”
Farmer Fatoumata Kâ describes a jóór
soil to me, the predominant soil found in her village Taiba Ndao,
20 or 30 miles from Senegal’s second largest city Thiès,
deep in the heart of the Peanut Basin.
Fatoumata is a member of the village women’s group, Groupment
de promotion feminine (GPF), that New Farm Senegal worked with to
improve the soil, improve yields, and provide access to credit for
livestock fattening and seed production. She answers my question
confidently, as one of the more outspoken in the group of 30 or
so women who comprise Taiba Ndao’s GPF.
There is the faint purple stain of antimony dye around her mouth,
a common practice among Halpulaar, or Fulani-speaking people, across
West Africa. She and Aby Sow, one of the other Halpulaar in this
Wolof-speaking village, usually drill me with Pulaar greetings,
but are serious during our focus group discussion. “Deg
dafa ñuul, dafa deger. Deg soils are dark.
And hard,” she continues. The others nod in agreement.
According to the French soil classification system, a jóór
(or “dior” in the French spelling) is a “sol
ferrigneux tropicale peu ou non-lessivé”, an unweathered
tropical soil with high iron content. According to the USDA soil
taxonomy, a jóór is an Entisol, a Ustipsamment
to be specific. That means it is a “young” soil, unweathered
from its parent material of sandstone bedrock, in an arid moisture
and temperature regime. A deg (or “deck”) is
more weathered with slightly higher clay, silt, and organic matter
content. It is an Alfisol according to the USDA system.
While such nomenclature may sound as exotic and indecipherable as
their Wolof analogues, they give a soil scientist a pretty good idea
of how each soil was formed, the changes in temperature and moisture
they regularly experiences, and their make-up. All of these things
factor into how fertile each is and how it behaves under certain management
More important, however, is how local farmers themselves classify
the soil and decide how to maintain its fertility. Often the divide
between science and the real world seems impossibly vast. Scientific
scrutiny in the lab or experimental field plot is by its nature
centered on the microscopic, on teasing out the factors at play
in a given system. Yet as most things in life are greater than the
sum of their parts, a microscopic focus often misses the obvious.
It’s like not seeing the proverbial forest for the trees,
though that metaphor hardly seems appropriate in the scrubby Sahelian
It’s easy for an agronomist to figure out what amendment
produces the greatest yield on a given soil type, but this insight
is of little human value if it remains tucked away in a scientific
journal somewhere along with legions of other papers by the likes
of “Dimpledirt, et al, 1983.”
The essential task for appropriate agricultural development is
to put these findings into the fields of farmers struggling to produce
crops with few resources. New soil-care techniques have to work
as part of a farming system that recognizes the local constraints,
ecological as well as social, economic, political, and cultural.
Why waste time and money promoting a farming practice that violates
a cultural taboo or gender division of labor, or is impossible due
to lack of access to capital? It’s not that it’s unimportant
to figure out if a soil is an Alfisol or an Entisol, but to help
farmers to regenerate these soils, you have to understand how they
see it themselves.
Fortunately, over the last couple of decades, government development
agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) alike have begun
to recognize the importance of involving local farmers in the process
of agricultural research and development. Baseline surveys are a
now prerequisite to any attempt to introduce appropriate technology
in the field.
I’ve traveled with the Rodale Institute’s staff to
the villages they serve to get a better understanding of local soil
management practices. I’ve had individual interviews and discussions
with the women’s groups and smaller focus groups in the villages
of Taiba Ndao, Diouffène, Keur Banda, Thiawène, Keur
Sa Daro, Touba Peycouck, Mboufta, and Ndaimsil. I’ve been
struck how similar soil classifications are across the Peanut Basin
-- and how well adapted the practices are to the harsh climate.
Senegal Soils 101
Farmers here classify soils according to
color and texture. Jóór soils are
“soft” (nooy in Wolof) and light-colored—red
(xonq), yellow (soon), or white (weex).
Soils classed as deg are hard (deger), and dark
or black (ñuul). There was some variation in nomenclature
between the villages. In Taiba Ndao, they used the word deg
interchangably with xur to describe the darker soils. A
xur is a low lying area, a basin, or where deg
soils are generally found.
When I asked which type of soil was most fertile or productive
(naat), farmers in all villages agreed that degs
were the most fertile. However, this depends on rainfall. Under
drought conditions, crops planted in jóórs
yield better, whereas in years with ample rainfall, participants
noted, “Deg moo gënë naat”, degs
are more productive. The higher clay content of the deg
allows for a greater water-holding capacity, extending the moisture
exposure to plants after a rain.
Because a jóór soil is often 95 percent
sand, water drains quickly away beyond the root zone. Under drought
conditions however, the may quickly harden due to higher clay content,
impeding root development and resulting in lower yields. So while
degs are inherently more fertile than jóórs—they
have a greater quantity of organic matter and a greater ability
to hold nutrients—yields are more a function of rainfall than
which soil a crop is planted on.
When I asked farmers what crop they planted on a given soil type,
they laughed and agreed that they don’t get much choice in
the matter. If all your fields are jóórs,
then you plant everything in jóórs! I appreciated
their good humor and recognized that familiar, lighthearted acceptance
of what God has divvied out as the fine thread of fatalism running
through the Sahel, prerequisite to survival in such a fragile environment.
So I rephrased my question. If they have the choice, what do they
plant where? Peanuts, which require sandy soil, are planted in jóórs.
Millet grain in degs. Usually, however, because most fields
are jóórs, farmers rotate annually between
peanuts and millet. Fallowing has more or less disappeared from
the rotation. Each year more and land is cultivated to make up for
a drop in production that can be attributed both to declining fertility
and declining rainfall over the last several decades.
If a field is fallowed at all, it is often only left for a year.
Of those who carry on the practice, a few said their goal is to
let the soil rest and regain its strength. Most, however, said that
they simply lacked sufficient quantities of seed to plant all fields.
Instead of fallowing, some farmers work a cowpea crop into the rotation.
In many of the villages, women were in charge of this crop.
Rationing out manure
Local soil classification is also important to the application of
amendments. Most farmers here fertilize their fields with manure from
the household manure pile, the sentaare, which is made up
of manure collected from corralled animals (mostly sheep, goats, and
horses), food scraps, fallen leaves, and cooking ashes. When I asked
what makes the soil fertile, they invariably responded with manure,
compost, and trees -- the kadd (Acacia albida) tree, specifically.
Mbalit (household waste) and dom (ashes) figured
into everyone’s lists in all the villages.
If there is a limited supply of sentaare manure, it is
applied to the less fertile parts of the fields. “How do you
identify these?” I asked. “The color of the soil, if
it’s yellow or white,” they responded. In essence, a
jóór takes priority when it comes time to
apply manure. If the entire field is a jóór
and manure is limited, farmers often cover half the field with manure
one year, and amend the other half the following year. They often
apply manure locally, taking into account the field-level variability
in micro-topography and fertility, shown by poor yields (“if
the head of the millet is thin”) and the presence of nduxum
(Striga hermonthica; a parasitic weed endemic in the Sahel).
Following harvest, peanut stover (ngooñ) is collected
to use as fodder for livestock, and is either sold or stored for
use over the dry season. All the remaining green leaves are removed
from millet stalks and fed to the animals. One woman in Diouffène
said, smiling, “We feed the animals and they make manure that
we then put back on our fields.” Sturdy millet stalks are
cut and gathered for use in the construction of fences (sàkket)
around the family compound. As the sàkkets eventually
weather and collapse, they make it into the manure pile as well.
Broken and small stalks are left in the field until the following
May or June. At that time, all residues are pulled up to facilitate
cultivation and sowing. Useful shrubs and weeds are collected and
taken home, and the remaining brush is piled with the crop residues
When I asked about chemical fertilizer use, most people said that
yields were better with chemical fertilizers, explaining that harvests
were larger in years past when they had “Two sacks for every
household.” Fertilizer subsidies were dropped six years ago
and now none of the farmers I interviewed uses fertilizer. Dafa
cher. It’s expensive.
While they acknowledged that fertilizer-induced yields were greater,
they also recognized that they were temporary. A Thiawène
farmer noted, “It only lasts that one year. With manure or
compost, it lasts three years!” In Taiba Ndao, the group president
said, “We have a lot of animals now and a lot of manure, so
we don’t need fertilizer.”
Seeking balance with local amendments
Most Sahelian soils are very low in available phosphorus, as it
is bound up by either aluminum or calcium in the soils. So I asked
about the use of locally-mined rock phosphate. Most shook their
heads, or said they didn’t know what it was. In Taiba Ndao
they said that the men never bothered to pick it up when the government
delivered it to nearby Thiénéba. In Thiawène
and Diouffène they said the natural soil balancer was just
clay powder and wasn’t useful. In Keur Banda, Ngoussane Fall
claimed that he and some other farmers had used it and hadn’t
seen any effect. “It’s useless! The government gives
us the leftovers after they export the good stuff to foreign countries!”
he added somewhat irreverently. I heard his conspiracy theory a
couple more times in other villages.
Rodale extensionist Diagne Sarr shook her head every time, dismayed
that the government failed to explain why they were providing
farmers with free phosphate. “Il n’y avait pas de
sensibilisation. There was no raising of awareness.”
When I asked the farmers if they noticed a purplish color to the
millet leaves, a sign of phosphorus deficiency, they said yes. She
and technician Djibril Diallo used the opportunity to educate them
about the importance of phosphorus to plant growth, likening it
to breastfeeding a baby.
It’s obviously not an easy message to grasp, but a few of
the groups we met with seemed to take it to heart. One of the fundamental
differences between industrial farming systems and those found in
near-subsistence systems like the one here in the Peanut Basin is
that nothing is wasted. Farmers here are in many ways regenerative
already, but struggle to manage their fields in ways that keep pace
with the twin demands of population growth and declining rainfall.
Every new idea has to earn its place in the shared farming wisdom
that allows farmers here to cope with their conditions. Only by
understanding and respecting the intricate and finely woven relationships
inherent in traditional local farming systems can development organizations
propose appropriate improvements.
Using this philosophy, New Farm Senegal promotes sustainable soil
management techniques based on good soil science applied to local
- Recognizing that millet stalks are used as fences and peanut
stover as fodder.
- Identifying what works already and tweaking it, building on
- Using local terms such as “jóór”
instead of “Ustipsamment,” “dark” instead
of “humic,” “vitamin” instead of P205.
When farmers hear counsel that reflects and fits with the wisdom
they already know, they will listen. Once one or two of them take
the leap of faith necessary to apply a promising idea in their fields
and see results, others will follow. They will try the method and
watch to see what happens.
Things might get better Insh’allah, as they constantly say
here. God willing.