Food Democracy and AgrEcol Afrique : Empowering Communities Through Organic Agriculture
AgrEcol Afrique began in Switzerland in 1983 and became an entirely Senegalese-run NGO in 1996. Its mission is to promote the vision and practice of organic farming in Senegal to achieve future food security and economic empowerment. AgrEcol Afrique broaches food insecurity by addressing various stakeholders at different points within the food commodity chain. It operates “from the ground to the table” whereby it facilitates education and growth for producers and aids in the transformation and market process for consumers. As a result, its promotion of organic farming serves to combat agribusiness and empower rural communities to preserve local land for domestic use against officials and foreign companies.
Since its first garden in Thiès in 2002, AgrEcol now spans 9 areas of intervention across the southern half of Senegal. It assists in the income increase and diversification of hundreds of community members, most of which are women, rural or poor. In congruence with this, it operates under 5 programs of international aid, primarily from Switzerland, Belgium and the U.S. It has also aided in the establishment of a vast network of organic agriculture NGOs in Senegal and successfully promotes environmental protectionism and combat of land degradation.
⦁ The incorporation of native employees is essential to the success and proliferation of agricultural projects in developing areas.
⦁ The slow inherent process of organic agriculture lends itself to the demotivation of participants who want fast results. More methods
are needed to hasten this process or hold participants over while infrastructure building, soil restoration and growing take place.
⦁ The sharing of educational resources online are not useful to disenfranchised communities with little internet access or literary skills.
More efforts need to be put toward pictorial learning or colloquial education.
⦁ Greater expansion of capacity at quicker pace is needed if organic agricultural movements intend to keep up with agribusiness.
Following the trend toward democracy and independence in the mid to late 20th century, many sub-Saharan African countries now face a second wave of democratic reform. “Democratic consolidation” poses a particularly complex challenge, whereby the institutionalization and legitimization of democracy must overcome long standing alliances and patronage.
Gaining independence in 1960, Senegal’s particular barriers to democratic consolidation stem from what many call “patrimonial democracy”.1 In this case, the one-party reign until 2000 allowed many government officials within the Socialist Party to consolidate power . As a result, though Senegal has one of the least corrupt governments in Africa, its ministry officials and legislators often utilize state resources to their own benefit.
Partimonial Democracy and Agriculture in Senegal
One such prominent issue with the push toward market liberalization not unique to Senegal is the “African land grab” through which the privatization of agricultural land allows foreign investors to buy land in bulk and utilize it for their own export purposes.2 Government officials snowball this phenomenon by forming shady coalitions to reap the benefit of foreign deals at the expense of the rural and poor population. This exacerbates and poses several challenges to the already majority disenfranchised and further consolidates the power of government officials.
For example, soon after his election in 2012, President Macky Sall approved the allocation of 20,000 hectares of the Ndiael Nature Reserve for privatized agricultural purposes, killing the livelihoods of those who work on and around the reserve.2 Similarly, an investigation of the coalition behind the Senhuile-Senethenol project in 2013, which allocated 45,000 hectares of local land for commercial agricultural use, revealed a shady connection between Senegal’s Ministry of Mines, prominent businessman Gora Seck, and Brazilian money launderer Benjamin Dummai.3 To further reiterate this phenomenon, only 7 large scale private agricultural firms account for 75% of Senegal’s agricultural exports.4
This allows for heavy infiltration of foreign markets and substantial vulnerability to any price fluctuations of food. Seasonal variations due to climate change exacerbate the fluctuations. Warmer temperatures increase the range and destructive potential of 58% of climate sensitive crop diseases and pests.5 Commercial agriculture does not assist in this process, and rather degrades the value and nutrients of the land due to monoculture techniques. Climate projections estimate a drop of up to 50% in crop yield in the African region by 2100.6This makes domestic markets increasingly unstable and more dependent on foreign imports.
As a result, not only are half of all Senegalese plagued by food insecurity but the dependence on foreign imports and the degradation and decrease of horticultural land economically cripples rural and poor communities. This means less income for primary education and economic empowerment, resulting in a decrease in agency from a vast sect of the Senegalese population while government officials simultaneously consolidate power through deals with big agricultural business. At this time, approximately 60% of the population is classified as “poor or vulnerable” with a majority rural.7
This study discusses and reflects upon the techniques of NGO AgrEcol Afrique, whom I lived and worked with for the period of summer 2017. Thus, much of the understanding of this organization is based upon my own anecdotal experience. However, a significant amount of resources back its claims to effectiveness.
Several key investors work with AgrEcol in individual programs:
- Broederlijke Delen: Invests in awareness raising, training, and support for local agricultural products in Thiès and Kaffrine.
- Directorate General for Development of the Kingdom of Belgium: Supports production, processing, and marketing.
- Bio Vision: Supports development of value chains and markets.
- Swiss Lenten Action: Supports implementation since 2008. As a result, 170 grain producers, 97 market gardeners and 130 poultry
producers were assisted in organic production and fair trade.
- Global Resilience Council: Supports economic resilience for communities in Sahel.
Specific definitions of organic farming vary in discourse around the world. Subsequently, international regulations serve to create a general consensus. AgrEcol adheres to IFOAM standards (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements). The most recurring theme within IFOAM regulations implies that nature’s inherent processes are the best method to optimize productivity while remaining harmonious with the environment. Consequently synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms are prohibited due to their unnatural origins within the ecological system.8
AgrEcol identifies specific communities and utilizes foreign investors to build infrastructure for organic gardens. Chosen communities usually range from 50-100 individuals. They also simultaneously work with the Ministry of Agriculture to formally approve land use for organic purposes. Once the soil is fertile and sufficient infrastructure is in place, the community begins the growing process. AgrEcol works closely with these communities and partners with other organizations such as REFABEC to maintain steady progress. Technicians visit the various communities weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly depending on need to ensure the process runs smoothly. They offer advice directly to community members on improving the care of crops. Once ready for harvest, the first priority is to ensure the community receives adequate produce to feed everyone. Technicians from AgrEcol then visit each community during harvest and transport extra products to areas closer to the center of Thiès.
The products are then taken to transformation centers where employees of partner organizations package the food for consumption. These products then take several paths. Some remain in the affiliated store of AgrEcol for consumers 6 days a week, some are shipped to local restaurants and children’s programs, and others are sold at the market on Fridays and Saturdays on site. All of the money made from these products goes directly back to the communities they came from.
Growth and Benefits
As mentioned previously, AgrEcol has grown to 9 zones of intervention from a single garden over the course of 16 years. Similarly, AgrEcol operates within a network of 5 other organic agriculture NGOs that work together to allocate resources and strategize various areas in Senegal.9 As a result, there is a vast civil society of advocates for organic agriculture that work to lobby the government and campaign against land privatization. These groups hold meetings monthly to discuss and tackle various issues within rural communities from education, to marketing, to techniques. In essence, organic agriculture provides a platform for disenfranchised groups to come together to advocate and discuss amongst themselves.
The economic benefits of organic agriculture are also substantial and serve as a catalyst for future improvements in organic farming; it is essentially a self-sustaining system. Profit from community gardens are reinvested into further farming resources as well as given to the rural poor as a source of income. The diversification of crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, cassava and eggplant enables reliance on multiple income sources instead of one staple crop. Therefore, producer income is not solely subject to the volatility of one large, mostly foreign market; economic stability improves. In all, AgrEcol improves income stability for over 900 community members, though the reverberating economic benefits from this are difficult to determine.
The vastly untapped market of organic products in Senegal also commodifies the technical knowledge of organic agriculture into a marketable skill. Thus, rural communities are supplied with experience that will enhance job security as the organic market expands. Furthermore, the movement toward organic produce and local stakeholder power combats commercial agricultural business and foreign market infiltration. Consumers prefer to buy local, and producers no longer need to rely as heavily on imports. This gives less market power to government officials interested in agribusiness deals, because the domestic market is thriving and rural economic empowerment discourages more land deals.
Key findings and Critiques
Primary success of AgrEcol Afrique’s efforts stems from the success of their community gardens. Mostly, this success is evaluated through pictures and sales. After all, the entirety of the system depends on the quality and quantity of their products. In some cases, there are quite a few large gardens that are thriving. Similarly, the attention AgrEcol receives during market days from their consumer base is substantial. They normally sell out every week, with 30-40 pre-orders every week. I did not have access to budget sheets, but I estimate based on price (200 CFA a pound) that market days made on average $200-$500 a week. This does not include the profits from the on-site store open 6 days a week or the bulk orders from restaurants and school programs. However, given that the average yearly GDP per capita is around $1,000, these numbers are substantial to the livelihoods of rural and poor communities.9
However, this also means communities are vulnerable to the changes in climate and pests that are unable to be combatted through organic methods. As a result, the incentives for communities to keep utilizing organic practices are low when these methods are unsuccessful. Likewise, when I spoke with Assane Gueye, program director of AgrEcol, he expressed his concern in keeping communities motivated. “It is difficult to convince them to use organic agriculture methods when it takes a long time to see results.” Often times, soil restoration and infrastructure building takes a few years, and a strong garden takes a few years to be established after that. Thus, many communities feel their only option is to give into agribusiness and rely on foreign imports because they are not willing to invest in the long-term.
Similarly, much of the education awareness and publications AgrEcol promotes is written in French. While this does target bureaucratic elites and those with schooling, such resources are not useful to rural communities who only speak Wolof and do not have access to computers. This widens the educational resource gap between the rural and bureaucratic elite. As a result, there is a heavy reliance on technicians who regularly visit the communities, as other resources are not available. This puts strain on the operation when technicians are not available.
In all however, the success of AgrEcol demonstrates the movement has vast potential. Several key findings can be emulated within their work:
Mission specificity and networking: AgrEcol Afrique has formed strong partnerships with organizations that share similar missions. As a result, various groups can compile their resources together to complement each other’s strengths. The dense collaborative network of successful organic organizations within Senegal attests to this.
Practical learning: An invaluable tactic from AgrEcol’s example stems from the emphasis on practical learning. Skillful agricultural knowledge is the driving force for economic independence, because the mission is to ultimately empower the people to provide for themselves.
Conversation: Successful movements incorporate meaningful conversation. The face-to-face interaction between technicians and community stakeholders creates intimate relationships that form a frame of support within the operation.
Organic market power: The market power potential of organic produce provides an alternative and much needed market entry point where disenfranchised agricultural communities can gain access to the economy.
Incrementalism: The growing success of AgrEcol can be attributed to the careful and slow expansion of capacity and food commodity chains. However, incrementalism also serves to demotivate communities from sticking to the movement.
Though AgrEcol is growing slowly and steadily, the need to combat the allocation of local land by government officials and the infiltration of foreign markets is of greater pertinence than the rate of domestic organic growth. The fear is that agribusiness will buy more privatized land before local organic movements have enough economic momentum to combat this process.
What’s in store for the future of organic agriculture?
The multilateral benefits to organic agriculture are quite vast, and AgrEcol Afrique has utilized this to their advantage. Organic agriculture enables economic empowerment, community engagement, environmental protectionism, and rural agency all in one.
Ultimately, the slow inherent process of agriculture lends itself to the organic formation of AgrEcol Afrique’s capacity over the past two decades. As a result, this type of work involves long term planning, perhaps over spans of multiple life-times. The hope is that organic agriculture can proliferate before the effects of agribusiness and climate change at its current rate cause devastating consequences.
However, this means some changes must be made to the operation in order to achieve this. Most importantly, this means AgrEcol needs an expansion of capacity at multiple levels. AgrEcol primarily operates with 30-35 employees who are mostly university educated. A need for more legal and technical professionals, diversification of resources for the non-literate, and a quicker process for infrastructure building is needed for further development.
Most of these issues rely on greater sources of funding.
For further information and updates of on-going projects, visit:
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