Sustainable in Senegal: Profiles in Senegalese Regenerative Agriculture
Doudou Diallo, urban market gardener, Saint-Louis

Strong customer demand for his high-quality vegetables propels this intensive urban gardener to pursue organics even without a premium price.

By Nathan C. McClintock
October 13, 2005

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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.


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

Doudou reflects over burgeoning lettuce plants.
Click here for more photos of Doudou's garden.

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.”

“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.

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.”

Nathan McClintock holds an M.S. in sustainable agriculture from North Carolina State University. He assisted a farmers’ group Nepal in its transition to organic last summer before staritng his PhD in agroecological geography at UC- Berkeley.