Food for Thought

  • Africa's 650 million small farmers and rural entrepreneurs represent 80 percent of the continent's population, potentially a tremendous engine for growth.
  • Africa's rural population could transform what is now the world's “hungriest region” into one self-sufficient in food, producing enough to feed families, communities and even whole nations.
  • Africa's small farmers are also the day-to-day stewards of its natural resources: the soils for planting crops, the grasslands for grazing herds, the water for irrigation and home use, and the trees that supply wood for fuel.
  • Africa's small farmers could form a powerful “front line” in the battle to eliminate hunger and save the environment.

seeds of change

In rural Africa, as the world over, the challenge facing agricultural communities is far larger than just growing food. Farmers also need sustainable natural resources, facilities for irrigation and crop storage and transport, business management skills, access to credit, a healthy local market and more. When agricultural assistance programs address all of these issues, the results can be bountiful.

One such program continues to benefit nearly 350,000 people in farm communities in the Kaolack region of Senegal, West Africa.

Once, Kaolack's farmers grew more than enough food to support themselves. In 1980, however, the state-sponsored rural credit program collapsed, leaving farmers with less money for seeds, fertilizer, equipment and other agricultural needs — and less ability to produce food. At the same time, population was on the rise and the need for food was increasing every day. To try to meet the need, farmers were forced to cultivate marginal lands. Erosion worsened. Crop yields dropped. Hunger and poverty spread. And young people began to leave, seeking jobs and hope in cities already crowded by the poor.

Fortunately, this rural area did not have to die.

In 1992, Africare launched a six-year program to help revive Kaolack by helping to revive its farm-based economy. The program centered on the establishment, or strengthening, of agricultural enterprises. One in each of 56 villages. And each enterprise truly sustainable — because each combined plentiful food production, the generation of much-needed income, and the use of techniques to protect and improve the natural environment over the long term.

The enterprises were owned and run by village groups. For the project, the groups contributed 10 acres of land apiece to serve as demonstration fields. There, villagers and Africare specialists developed improved ways of cultivating crops, fencing fields and restoring soil fertility. Africare supported the establishment of tree nurseries and put irrigation systems in place. Classes in functional literacy were begun (before the project, more than 70 percent of Kaolack's people could neither read nor write nor do math), as was business management training. And a credit fund was set up for the entrepreneurs.

The results?

  • Today, 56 new agricultural enterprises are up and running in Kaolack, with a combined total of 500 acres of productive field crops. More than half of the enterprises are women-owned.
  • Surplus harvests have enabled villagers to make further investments — for example, cereal mills and grain storage facilities — providing additional income and jobs.
  • Expansion has also come about through the credit fund, which to date has lent nearly $400,000 (about 60 loans, averaging $6,600 each) to the rural entrepreneurs.
  • Environmental protection techniques have spread rapidly throughout Kaolack. Hundreds of farmers have planted rows of trees for windbreaks or as “live fencing” around gardens to keep the animals out. They have established compost pits to produce top-quality fertilizer of their own. Sixteen nurseries are providing income to their owners while assuring new generations of fruit trees and other species of trees for basic needs like food, firewood and shade.

The project's success demonstrates the wisdom of thinking of assistance to Africa as more than famine relief. Lasting relief comes in the form of a thriving, self-sustaining agricultural sector: one that feeds ecologies and economies, and millions of people, too.

Other Sustainable Agricultural Assistance Projects

  • In 1998, Africare undertook a multifaceted assistance program in Uganda. More than 100 villages are beginning to plant high-yield, pest-resistant crops. Improved forestry techniques are slowing water erosion and helping to preserve the fertility of the land. Newly constructed feeder roads are connecting thousands of rural farms to local markets. And more than 1,000 households started backyard vegetable gardens.
  • A major agricultural project in Eritrea has benefited from an increased water supply. Africare supported the construction of a large irrigation system in the Bada area of Eritrea's Northern Red Sea zone. Water from that system has improved cultivation on 4,000 acres of land.
  • With minimal support from Africare, farmers in the Logozossovidji village of Benin expanded rice production to 25 acres of flood plain and a yield of 15 tons. Proceeds from the first rice sales financed additional improvements, including animal traction and a dry-season irrigation scheme.
  • Africare helped to expand agricultural extension services to underserved villages in the Northwestern province of Zambia. The program created well-paying jobs for local residents, who were trained as agricultural extension agents. The extensionists, in turn, brought much-needed services to surrounding villages.