Sustainable in Senegal: Profiles in Senegalese Regenerative Agriculture
Abderahmane Sow, agro-entrepreneur, Belel, Matam region

Starting from scratch with curiosity and a knack for doing business, this new farmer wants to expand agricultural opportunity to help the next generation thrive on the land without leaving the region.

By Nathan C. McClintock

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January 12, 2006: Four kilometers off the main asphalt road connecting the far northeastern towns Bakel and Matam to the capital, the tiny village of Belel lazes on the banks of the Senegal River. A couple hundred feet across the yellowish currents lies Mauritania. A motorized pirogue loaded down with passengers and cargo plies the water between the two countries. The minarets of Belel’s mosque rise high above the floodplain marked only with the occasional scrubby sump tree (Balanites aegypticum) or jujube (Ziziphus Mauritania) bushes.

Abderahmane Sow scratches the head of his water buffalo and motions in the direction of his rice fields. “The land is fertile here. We have fresh water. We have everything we need. I knew that agriculture here could work.”

Abderahmane is an unlikely agriculturalist. Born to a Pulaar-speaking family of merchants, he began his business career as a six-year-old, working in his fathers shops. Growing up, he watched his brothers, cousins, and friends emigrate to France, to Italy, to the US, and to central Africa in search of economic opportunity. Indeed, some 80 percent of men in the Matam region emigrate, sending home money to build mosques, schools, and houses. “Everyone wants to leave, to emigrate. But over there in France, they’re still unemployed. Some return with nothing, others with diseases… If you emigrate without a profession, it’s very difficult. Business there has become saturated.”

Six years ago, at the age of 30, Abderahmane realized that he had to do something different. “They say that abroad, agriculturalists are some of the richest, so why not here, too? Here, people automatically think you’re poor if you farm. If you’re looking for a wife, you’ll have a hard time, because her family will say that you’re a peasant. But if you make farming a profession, you can make a real living.”

Defying his critics

At first he thought he’d invest both in commerce and in agriculture. After six months, however, he realized that he couldn’t do both. He received a lot of criticism from his friends, but his father told him to go ahead with his plans. He purchased land, invested in livestock, and in a tractor and implements. He now has about 74 acres of land (or 30 hectares, the metric measure of land area), 50 acres of which is fenced, and 34 acres under cultivation. “Some people said, ‘Abderahmane is crazy!’ Others said that I’d failed in business. But today, Alhamdulillah [thanks to God], now they say that I’m a big agriculturalist, that I have a lot of money. I’m not a millionaire, but I can’t complain.”

Abderahmane plants 10 acres in seed rice that he sells to other rice farmers. He also grows bananas that he fertilizes with the manure from his cattle and water buffaloes. To conserve moisture he mulches the bananas with crop residues. The addition of organic matter to his fields has resulted in higher yields. Additionally, he intercrops his bananas with a variety of other crops, including sugar cane, corn, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and eggplants. The many benefits he sees in this system are backed up by research worldwide that has demonstrated synergistic relationships between intercrops such as improved yields and reduction in pest and weed pressure.

He has also integrated agroforestry on a field scale, by planting Eucalyptus windbreaks along his field borders. He selectively harvests these for sale or for construction on the farm. He plans to integrate more fruit trees into his production system—mangoes, grapefruit, and cashews.

He attributes much of his success to the inherited business acumen in his blood that he honed for 30 years in his father’s shop, but also feels like he could use more marketing and agronomic training. Because he began working as a young boy, he never went to school, and only recently attended Pulaar literacy classes. But he hasn’t let this hinder his progress. “I’ve always been curious. As soon as something catches my attention, I follow up on it.”

Success attracts attention

This curiosity has led him to extension agents who have helped him experiment with various crops, including sorghum, garlic, peanuts, and tomatoes. He plans to experiment with sesame this year. His successes once attracted the attention of the Senegalese national agriculture director with an entourage of French agronomists. He was even featured in a French television documentary on West African agriculture. “A friend in France called me and said, ‘Hey, I saw you TV here in Europe!’”

During an interview, Abderahmane excuses himself to fish around in his robes to take a business call on his cell phone, a classic snapshot of the paradox of development on the whole in much of Senegal, with its random mixture of the high-tech and the pre-industrial, where IT filters into rural areas faster than running water and sewage systems. He is conscious of the irony, laughing, “Look, a peasant on a cell phone!”

He complains that he lacks high-tech business tools. “If I had a computer, I could link up directly with buyers.” Last year he did just this, however, by advertising his seed rice on the government extension agency’s website. Many people came to see him immediately and he quickly sold his entire harvest.

He notes that his success has come by advancing one step at a time, to reduce the risk of failure. “Mostly I didn’t want people to think that it’s impossible to succeed in agriculture. I had to succeed. No one else has invested in agriculture here. They all invest elsewhere, by building houses in Dakar. I had to show them it could be done without emigrating.”

In addition to wanting to stem emigration from the region, Abderahmane wants to leave a legacy for future generations, to provide them with the opportunity for professional apprenticeship in farming, and most importantly to teach them to cherish the land. He has succeeded on both fronts. To illustrate this success, he tells of how he played a trick on his 7-year-old son. “Yesterday I told my son that a tubab [white person or foreigner] would be coming today to buy the farm for a lot of money.” His son began to cry, and said, “No, never sell the land.” Abderahmane smiles and says, “I was so happy to see how much he has learned to love the land.”


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