Sustainable in Senegal: Profiles in Senegalese Regenerative Agriculture
New interest in old crops, Tambacounda and Thies regions

Kekouta Camara of Touba Fall and Abdoulaye Niang of Keur Banda identify promising crops that enhance biodiversity, reduce weather risk, extend crop rotations and attract high-value export buyers.

By Nathan C. McClintock

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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.


Posted April 13, 2006: Not far off the pot-holed highway running east to Tambacounda, Senegal’s easternmost regional capital, farmers in the village of Touba Fall are slowly tapping into the world organic market by increasing production of a traditional crop gaining a global following.

Thirty members of Kanbènkafo, a farmers’ organization whose name roughly translates to “coming together to save” in the local Maninka language, have been producing sesame (Sesamum indicum) for the past three years with the help of a local non-governmental organization (NGO). GADEC, based in “Tamba,” has provided the group with an early seed variety, as well as trained the group to make and use an organic pesticide made from leaves from the neem tree (Aradizichta incida) to control insect pests. The NGO then brokers the sale of the sesame to a Senegalese export cooperative, providing farmers with much-needed income at the end of each year.

Sesame, or bènè in the Maninka language, has likely been grown in West Africa for centuries, imported from North Africa via the trans-Saharan caravan routes that supplied West Africa with salt and the rest of the world with gold. In eastern Senegal and Guinea and western Mali, the Maninka and neighboring Bambara people add pounded sesame seeds to the staple peanut sauce, tigadègèna, or roll the seeds into small sweet balls for sale on roadsides as a snack food. Like so many other plant species in West African agriculture, sesame fills a specific dietary niche while adding to the biodiversity of agroecosystems.

More crops, less risk

In this semi-arid environment where highly variable rainfall has steadily decreased over the past 50 years, integrating a wide variety of crops is a means of risk management for smallholder farmers. Intercropping staple crops such as corn, peanuts and millet with secondary niche crops like sesame, bisaab (Hibiscus sabdariffa, known as roselle in English) and kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus) helps to stabilize the farming system against environmental shocks and flux. An intercrop can act as a physical barrier, slowing the spread of host-specific diseases and pests.

Additionally, farmers can guarantee a minimum of food security for their households throughout the year by intercropping species that mature at different times. By diversifying cropping systems, smallholder farmers worldwide rely heavily on secondary crops to alleviate the risk of losing everything to crop failure. In short, crop diversity divvies out the proverbial eggs to several baskets.

“Bènè sènè ka di. Sesame farming is sweet. You can earn between twenty five and forty thousand CFA [$50-80 U.S.] from this much sesame.”

--Kekouta Camara

Now, thanks to the growing interest in natural products, this tried-and-true form of risk management is paying off economically, as well. Kekouta Camara, a 29-year-old farmer in Touba Fall, proudly shows off his acre of sesame tucked in between fields of recently harvested corn, and maturing cowpeas, roselle, and kenaf. “Bènè sènè ka di. Sesame farming is sweet. You can earn between twenty five and forty thousand CFA from this much sesame.” At about $50 to $80, this is good money in rural Senegal.

Kekouta, who also manages his late father’s family fields with his brothers, is the liaison between Kanbènkafo and GADEC. He has been teaching others in the village about the neem pesticide. “We rotate peanuts, then sesame, then millet,” he explains. “We don’t use any fertilizer, just cow manure,” he says. Camara is eager to expand his sesame production next year and is excited to try intercropping cowpeas in with the sesame to improve soil fertility.

Scarlet hope for high-value export

About 370 miles to the northwest, farmers in the village of Keur Banda, are also expanding production of an underutilized species. Abdoulaye Niang, shows off a field of bisaab plants, tucked amongst the expanse of millet, cowpea, and watermelon fields that surround the village situated a roughly a mile off the main highway, 16 miles east of the regional capital of Thiès.

“The locusts have eaten everything this year,” Abdoulaye observes with the familiar, somewhat lighthearted and matter-of-fact tone that marks the speech of so many Sahelian farmers when confronted with disaster. He points to the eviscerated stubble of peanut plants poking up from the sandy soil. “Wantè bëguñu bisaab bi! But they didn’t like the bisaab!” he laughs, pointing to the healthy stand of green plants with reddish stems and pink and yellow calyces or seed pods.

Bisaab is widely intercropped in the peanut, millet, and cowpea rotation of the Peanut Basin. It is often used as a border crop to delineate the boundaries between fields, and its sticky calyces may attract beneficial insects that control pests. The calyces, rich in vitamins and antibiotic properties, are widely used in sauces and beverages throughout West Africa, and post-harvest value-added processing has traditionally been an important source of revenue for farmers, especially for women.

More recently, West African roselle has attracted the attention of food processors in Europe and the United States, eager to find a natural red coloring agent for herbal teas. Pick up your favorite brand of organic or natural tea and you may see “hibiscus” listed in the ingredients, usually imported from Sudan, Egypt, Mexico, and China.

“The locusts have eaten everything this year. Wantè bëguñu bisaab bi! But they didn’t like the bisaab!”

--Abdoulaye Niang

Now, with the help of ASNAPP (Agribusiness for Sustainable Natural African Plant Products), a USAID-funded project designed to promote organic production of traditional herbs for export, Senegalese farmers like Abdoulaye Niang will soon profit from the more gourmet, cosmopolitan taste of consumers in the West. (For an excellent description of the ASNAPP work with bisaab farmers in Senegal, see:

Like GADEC does with the sesame farmers in the Tambacounda region, ASNAPP is helping to pair Senegalese farmers with export buyers. In Keur Banda, 30 farmers are participating in the project. The Rodale Institute also worked in three villages in the Thiès region and several in the Matam region to provide technical training for the farmers in the project. ASNAPP is also starting to package teabags of roselle and other traditional herbs from several African countries under the Ubuntu label, cleverly sold in recycled cardboard packages decorated with enough Africanesque doodling and exotic descriptions to whet the palates of organic-minded internationalistas in the U.S.

While they would probably be proud to see their sesame and roselle on display in supermarkets abroad, Kekouta and Abdoulaye are well satisfied that these previously underemphasized crops have attracted outside attention, increasing their revenue. To them, the shift from commodity cash crops such as cotton and peanuts to traditional species they can grow with low inputs and sell into a high-value marketing niche is a welcome change.