Sustainable in Senegal: Profiles in Senegalese Regenerative Agriculture
Madame Sall, juice and syrup entrepreneur, Dakar

Buying directly from farmers boosts quality and consumer demand, but small-scale processor struggles to expand her place in the market.

By Nathan C. McClintock


Boulevard Général de Gaulle

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.

 

November 10, 2005: In Madame Sall’s third-floor apartment overlooking Dakar’s busy Boulevard Général de Gaulle, a heart-shaped wooden sign hanging over her small propane stove proclaims “Fatou’s Kitchen.” The modest space is the center of a juice and syrup business that Madame Sall has built up over the last five years. Her genius has been to add value and convenience for customers who crave the nation’s traditional beverage, but don’t want to go the trouble of actually creating the drink from the red booms in the countryside.

Large bags of bisaab (Hibiscus sabdariffa) blossoms sit in the corner next to buckets full of tamarind (Tamarindus indica) pods and piles of ginger root. (“Bisaab” is pronounced “BEEsap;” a final “b” is spoken with the English “p” sound in Wolof, the dominant language in Senegal.) The produce comes from several of Dakar’s markets, or from her brother, who purchases them directly from farmers in the Diourbel region, a couple of hours into the country’s interior. In 2005, farmers trained by The Rodale Institute® were included as suppliers.

“I prefer to buy directly from the producers,” she says. “The product is higher quality, more uniform. All transformateurs want to buy a uniform product.”


Bisaab blossoms

On her dining room table, she displays a broad spectrum of juice concentrates of varied hues—orangeish-pink guava, deep crimson bisaab, ochre ginger, green ditax (Detarium senegalense), pale yellow madd (Saba senegalensis) , and golden mango. She slathers glue on the back of a sky-blue label that she presses firmly to a one-liter plastic bottle of bisaab concentrate.

The label reads: “JANA Sirop de Bisaab au gout nature”, naturally flavored bisaab syrup. An owl surveys a green tree and slogan at the bottom of the label: “Pour l’equilibre des écosystèmes,” for balancing out the ecosystems.

Leveraging her way

Like many women throughout West Africa, Madame Sall purchases produce and processes it into juice or syrup concentrate for sale in the city. The production of value-added food products is central to the livelihoods of most women and girls from all economic backgrounds in crowded urban centers such as Dakar. Revenue provides them with economic and social leverage in an otherwise male-dominated society.

Madame Sall moved to Dakar from the Diourbel region in 1986 to start university. She married shortly thereafter. She shakes her head smiling with disbelief at how time has flown, “Gaaw na dè! It’s been fast!” Like many Senegalese women, she belongs to a women’s group. In 1999 the group participated in a training workshop on fruit transformation run by Winrock International (www.winrock.org). She later completed a certification program at the Institut de Technologie Alimentaire (www.ita.sn). After these two training programs she began training other women in making beverage concentrates. She now works with a small group of processors called “Saf Na,” the Wolof phrase for “tasty.”

She started small in her kitchen, making three bottles of tamarind juice that she sold to friends. Then she made seven more, then 10, then 20. Five years later, she makes about 600 bottles a month. “I can’t make more than 600 liters. I’d really like to make more than that.” Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, she and three employees crowd into the small kitchen to begin cooking down the produce and adding sugar. “When there’s dittax, there’s a big demand and I have to hire another person.”

She sells the bottles for about $3 each. Every month she sells out, mostly to several national grocery chains. She has a verbal agreement with these markets. To formalize a contract would require that she open a business account with an initial $100 deposit. Most of the other women she knows making juice have similar verbal sales agreements due to prohibitive banking fees. “I know many women doing the same, but most are amateurs who make only 6 to 10 bottles a month.” While this informal economy or “petite commerce” is the backbone of trade in West Africa’s urban centers, it is difficult to quantify and often overlooked by the government.

Even though she sells all that she currently produces, she complains that penetration of the local retail market is difficult. “Conquering the market is very hard, especially if you don’t have transportation,” she’s found. “You have to survey the products on the shelves, pass by regularly.”

Barriers separate food from the hungry

The logistics of small-scale production is also difficult. Madam Sall’s ginger press is too heavy and bulky to bring up three flights of stairs, so she has to grind the roots below before bringing them up to her small kitchen.

And she criticizes the lack of government support for small-scale entrepreneurs like herself. “People are suffering from malnutrition, yet they throw away produce because there are no buyers! It’s as if they don’t want Senegal to develop.”

She believes semi-industrial production spaces with food processing equipment would allow entrepreneurs to get existing food to hungry people in Senegal. “All the [government has] to do is help us organize. We have everything we need here, so I ask myself why people suffer from malnutrition!”

Madame Sall has met with the chief government official dealing with small business activity, le Ministère de l’Artisanat, to try to convince him of the importance of improving infrastructure and capacity building for small-scale juice and syrup producers. She would like to see additional training in production and marketing. An incubator kitchen would streamline production and improve hygiene during the transformation process from fresh produce to processed food.

Echoing the concerns of small-scale producers worldwide, she voices her frustrations in trying to compete economically with industrial-scale processors who benefit from economies of scale. “Sugar is expensive for me, but the industries buy it a lower price.”

She’s been trying to get around this disparity for some time, but expanding her market niche takes a discouragingly long time. “It’s slow. Four years and you don’t move forward. It’s really hard.”

Yet taking on the structural challenges and sticking with the fight have raised her profile as a leader. The enormous spread of colorful made-from-real-fruit concentrate bottles on her dining room table belies the suggestion that her story is anything short of inspiring to women and small-scale entrepreneurs throughout Senegal.

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