A lush canopy of coconut, mango,
papaya, and sapotier trees hovers above a traditional fence made
of millet stalks and palm fronds. Outside, a fairly typical dusty
vacant lot is populated by goats nibbling on old plastic bags and
other urban detritus.
The fenced oasis seems out of place in this grid of sandy streets
and high cement walls of the Ndiolofen neighborhood of Saint-Louis
on the northwest coast of Senegal. The site is a couple of blocks
off the main paved road that heads east along the Senegal River
delta leading to the North Atlantic.
Behind the battered corrugated tin door lies Doudou Diallo’s
small – and amazing -- organic vegetable and fruit garden.
To describe Doudou’s garden as Eden-like would be stooping
to a cliché that fails to underscore the sweat and rugged
persistence invested in its creation.
Doudou, 32, began working in this family garden 10 years ago when
his father’s health began to fail. The garden is only 32 yards
square, a patchwork of small 3-by-6-foot beds cropped with lettuce,
beans, cassava, maize, sweet potato, basil, mint, onions, leeks,
chives, carrots, peppers, eggplants, and more. Doudou inherited
the garden when his father died in 2003 and now is responsible for
the welfare of his brothers and sisters.
“They call me ‘Papa’ now. But I’m not really
a papa because I don’t have any kids myself!” he explains.
Yet he takes his responsibilities to the family seriously. For Doudou
and for most urban farmers in West Africa—where city dwellers
may spend as much as 70 percent of their income on food—gardening
is an economically viable means of feeding the family and supplementing
the diet with healthy vegetables. What these determined farmers
raise on their intensely cultivated spaces is an economic and nutritional
buffer in hard times.
Banking on lettuce
Lettuce is Doudou’s primary
cash crop. “People love lettuce. They eat and eat and eat
it!” he laughs.
His mother and younger sister sell it for him at the main market
by the Pont Faidherbe, the dapper 1870s iron trellis bridge shipped
to Saint-Louis when it was the colonial capital of French West Africa.
Because demand for salad is high in this urban center, Doudou has
a good market. The crop also has a relatively fast turnover: “After
two months, it’s finished and I can plant again.”
Leeks are another important cash crop; selling at the hotels in
town for about 50 cents per pound. Another high value crop for Doudou
is mboro boro a leafy green that earns him about 20 cents
per small bunch. A small coconut palm nursery at the back of the
garden serves as equity in reserve. “If you can’t pay
your bills, you dig one up and you sell it!”
Water is his main expense. He limits his use to just over 26,000
gallons of water a month from the municipal water system, which
costs him about $20. A hose slowly fills a concrete cistern in the
middle of the garden. His younger brother fills a watering can from
the concrete reservoir to sprinkle the beds before the heat of the
morning sun filters through the palm leaves above.
Doudou uses only compost to fertilize his garden beds. He makes
the compost from manure, garden wastes and leaves from the N-fixing
ipil-ipil tree (Leucaena Leucephala). He avoids chemical
fertilizers because he says they make the quality of the produce
much lower. “With chemical fertilizer, you cut it and it’s
rotten within a day or two.”
When preparing beds, he sprinkles a small cupful of wood ash on the
soil and waters with a tea made from neem (Azadirachta indica)
leaves, a well known natural pesticide. He is well aware of the potential
dangers of wrongly-applied synthetic pesticides. Most of the agricultural
chemicals used in Senegal are applied in urban gardens, often at dangerously
high rates that ultimately lead to public health risks. To avoid these
dangers, to keep his garden healthy, and simply to save money, Doudou
only uses natural pest control.
||“With chemical fertilizer, you cut
it and it’s rotten within a day or two.”
In addition to neem tea, he plants flowers in each bed to attract
beneficial insects and trap others -- or at least distract them
away from his produce. He points to a catatonic stink bug between
two leaves of a woody shrub next to the leeks, “See, he’s
lost!” He also sells many of the regal zinnias and marigolds
that gild the verdant vegetable beds. “People just come to
me here in the garden and want to buy them.”
This is true of his produce as well. While there is no real premium
for organic produce in Senegal, many of his customers recognize
its superior quality. Some of them even pay him more than he asks.
For the most part, however, he continues to sell at market prices.
His first effort to set up a contract with the nearby Université
de Saint-Louis met with results that that surely resonate with small
farmers worldwide: he was unable to produce enough for their demand
or sell at a low enough price.
Despite Doudou Diallo’s humble demeanor, it’s clear
that he is proud of the garden and the outstanding quality of the
food it produces. It’s clear to those around him that he does
indeed live up to the title “Papa.”