Senegal reinvents grassroots development

South helping South is key to new approach


Vietnamese expert discusses new citrus crop with Senegalese farmer. (Photo: Fabio Massimo Aceto/Ag. Grazia Neri)

DIOURBEL, Senegal -- In the years since large-scale subsidized agriculture lost favour, poor countries have looked for a sustainable model of small-scale agriculture. For six years Senegal has been a laboratory for an approach promoted by FAO, which in site after site has shown that, with modest investments and training, villagers can raise crop yields and feed their families.

In this town of 40 000 located south of Dakar, Mamadou Ndoye, 68, and his sons work in the blistering sun to hand water a market garden. Its yield has improved with the help of Vietnamese technical experts working under the South-South Cooperation component of FAO's Special Programme for Food Security, a programme now under way in 66 low-income, food-deficit countries.

Under South-South Cooperation, governments of more advanced developing countries send experts to less developed countries to live in rural areas and work side by side with local farmers. So far, agreements have been signed with 25 countries to provide experts to the programme.

The Vietnamese showed local farmers new techniques, such as how to plant orange and mandarin trees along the ends of vegetable plots -- the trees' roots grow under the rows of potato, onion and lettuce, catching water that seeps through the sand. Eucalpytus trees planted as windbreaks prevent sand from blowing across the lettuce and getting caught in the leaves, reducing market value.

Yields of cabbage and lettuce have jumped from 15 to 25 tonnes per hectare, thanks to improved seed and a better method of fertilizing crops by mixing fertilizer with the soil before planting.

"The techniques we teach are simple and give rapid results so the farmers see with their own eyes that they work," says Doan Kim Long, an agricultural engineer. "They are good students. They really listen to us and apply the techniques."

"The real problem now is the lack of labour to water the fields by hand," says Mr Ndoye, pointing to fallow land nearby. He would put it under crops if he could afford the labour or a pump. Commercial banks are not keen to lend money to poor, small-scale farmers. Now, Ministry of Agriculture officials in the town, heartened by a glimpse of how much food could be grown locally with the new methods and inputs, have vowed to solve the problem of lack of farm credit.

Small-scale technology from Viet Nam

At the advice of the Vietnamese, rice is now planted in rows instead of at random, making weeding easier. (Photo: Fabio Massimo Aceto/Ag. Grazia Neri)

The Vietnamese have introduced simple technologies and machines that don't need electricity or diesel motors. A centrifugal honey extractor is turned by hand, gently removing honey from the comb, leaving the comb intact and impurities behind. Concrete Vietnamese beehives have been introduced.

One obstacle the Vietnamese have managed to overcome through good humour and a lot of sign language is the language barrier. The Senegalese farmers speak Wolof. Most of the Vietnamese speak only their own language, now sprinkled with some agricultural terms in Wolof they have picked up since their arrival.

They come to Senegal on two-year postings, leaving their spouses behind but keeping each other company in communal houses dotted around the country near the villages they assist. "We feel close to the villagers," says Van Tat Truyen, a field team leader. "We understand. In Viet Nam, we had a hard time for a long time."

Viet Nam is doing better now. Far more people are literate than ever before, for example. This is a particular boost in rural areas, where literate farmers are now able to follow written instructions for procedures such as pesticide application and nursery and crop management. According to World Bank figures, 95 percent of adult men and 92 percent of adult women in Viet Nam were literate in 1998, compared to only 45 and 26 percent respectively in Senegal.

Opinions differ on water policy

Not all the the Vietnamese ideas make sense for Senegal -- such as their advice on water, the biggest of Senegal's agricultural challenges.

"Why not dam the Casamance River -- raise the water table so it is reachable?" suggests Mr Truyen, referring to one of the country's largest rivers. "But the state must do that. There is not much the small farmers can do."

Not so, explains Mr E.K. Tapsoba, FAO Representative in Senegal, who actively participates in the Special Programme for Food Security in the country.

"It costs seven to eight million francs (US$10 000-$11 000) per hectare to put in a big water project," he says. "They did it in northern Senegal, paid for by donors and the state. But upkeep is expensive, and now the mechanized pumping stations are broken."

In rice production, FAO does not encourage Senegal to try to compete with big rice exporters like Viet Nam or China. Instead it says that small producers need help to grow enough cereal to feed themselves plus enough of a surplus to sell to pay for the following season's inputs, school fees and books, medical care and the other necessities of life.

FAO also encourages the use of simple technology that small-scale producers can repair themselves, such as inexpensive human-powered treadle water pumps, used widely in Asia and increasingly in Africa.

In Ndiemou, an isolated community that increased rice yield fourfold with Vietnamese help, farmer Rockhy Sene, 52, recalls grim periods in village history and how important development assistance is to them.

"In this village, there have been periods of hunger in the past, even famine," she says. "We are in the bush and if our groundnut or millet crops fail, there is no paid work anywhere nearby for us."

"I've seen lots of progress here, and we'd like to keep improving. But we are not yet at the stage where we can do it by ourselves," she concludes.

4 March 2002


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