[ABIDJAN] In a country with a precarious history of food insecurity, one award-winning research institution is driving change in Senegal by focusing on training farmers and helping them to diversify their products.
The Institute of Food Technology (ITA) has about 90 researchers and scientists — 19 per cent of whom are women, and has developed many technologies in the area of food processing.
Using ‘training of the trainers’ approach, the ITA is managing to train more than 100 women farmers each year.
It trains women on quality standards and technology for food processing. This training strengthens the economic power of women in Senegal.
The institute also helps women’s associations to develop and professionalise small-scale food processing, while offering women a vital source of income.
“Previously, some worked for three weeks to earn just 1,300 CFA francs [less than US$3]. Now they earn over 2,000 CFA francs [over US$4] per day,” says the director of the NGO, African Renaissance Women of West Africa (RAFAO), Ms Khady Fall Tall.
For example, Sofie Seck owns a small grain-processing business. Before she started it, Seck had attended a training course at the ITA, which allowed her to master new processing techniques.
She began her business with a single product, cracked corn. The processing was done at the ITA before the company had its own equipment and premises. She quickly diversified production, introducing, for example, cornflour for children.
The company started with a production of 50 kilograms per month. It now has the capacity to produce between seven and 11 tonnes of flour per month depending on the time of year. Seck has also hired 15 employees — ten permanent and five temporary staff.
“Our vision is to become a centre of excellence, providing targeted research for sustainable development, and ensuring training and quality assurance.”
Ababacar Sadikh Ndoye, ITA
Today, the company exports its products in French, Ivorian and US markets, mainly selling to Senegalese immigrant communities there.
The fruit sector is another big area where women, from both villages and cities, are very involved in ITA’s work through marketing and processing. To fully benefit from the economic value of locally-grown fruit, ITA and some NGOs train women’s groups on the processing fruit to make value-added products such as drinks, jams and syrups.
“Women use traditional techniques to produce drinks,” explains Malick N’dao.
“AFBARD, the Association of Women Bassire Resident in Dakar, is a small structured economic interest group business involving 30 women from the same village in Casamance. This association has benefited from training run by ITA,” N’dao adds.
This training enabled the association to transform fruits more effectively into value-added products, including hibiscus syrups and juices made from monkey bread, ginger and tamarind. The level of the association’s monthly production was between 600 and 700 units of juice at the beginning. The level is now between 1,000 and 1,200 units per month.
Since 2009 the ITA has also been implementing another major project to train women farmers in the north of Senegal on producing new varieties of sweet potato and using them for producing several products such as sweet potato puree, flour, jams, scones, cookies and cakes.
For the director general of ITA, Ababacar Sadikh Ndoye, there are several economic benefits of this project, such as increasing the value of a primary agricultural commodity, local production of food products and reducing imports of equivalent ones. New sweet potato-based products became very important for Senegal, according to Ndoye.
“Yields increased from 30 to 40 tonnes per hectare. Today the sweet potato ranks fifth among food products in the country behind the onion, cherry tomatoes, industrial tomato and cabbage.
This strong growth in production has been accompanied by improvements in quality that allows producers to earn revenues ranging between 2.5 and 4.5 million CFA francs [US$5,240-9,400] per hectare,” Ndoye says.
The project also aimed to promote the sweet potato in the context of crop diversification in the Senegal River Valley.
“It is mainly a question of the achievement of food security and poverty reduction,” says Mamoudou Dème, director-general of the Senegal River Delta development and exploitation company (SAED).
Sweet potato agriculture occupies about 4,000 hectares of the river valley. Therefore, Dème considers the initiative to have been motivated by an insistent demand from producers of the valley, particularly those living around the Lake Guiers, who are major producers of sweet potato in Senegal.
Sadiarra Niang has got a field of eight hectares around the village of Pakh. He explains that, the production of sweet potato has become the main agricultural activity of the population.
According to Niang, the business is growing and attracting large number of workers, so it has become a cash crop. Workers come from several areas of Senegal. “Our workers come from Luga, Tambacounda and sometimes from Gambia during harvest periods,” says Sadiarra Niang.
Ensuring quality in the face of challenges
Agriculture in Senegal is famously precarious, with production and livelihoods vulnerable to fluctuations in weather and global commodity prices. To ensure the high quality of Senegalese agricultural products and keep them competitive in today’s highly dynamic market, ITA has five research laboratories focused on: phytosanitary analysis; microbiology; chemistry; mycotoxins (harmful chemicals produced by fungi); and biotechnology.
“Our vision is to become a centre of excellence, providing targeted research for sustainable development, and ensuring training [for food professionals] and quality assurance for the public and private sectors in Senegal and Sub-Saharan Africa,” explains Ndoye.
The ITA is awarded an average of 50 contracts a year, both from the private sector and in public development projects, to carry out research and develop products.
It won the Islamic Development Bank’s Prize for Science and Technology in 2007 in view of the importance of the research it is doing and its contribution to the development in Senegal in general. Receiving this prize has given ITA a greater profile within the community, and the prize money was used to support the institute’s operations and invested in initiatives to motivate staff.
It also offers technical assistance to small and medium-sized enterprises and training of technicians in the farming industry, women’s organisations and agricultural extension workers, among others. Ndoye believes the ITA can serve as an exchange platform for all actors involved in the food production industry, from agriculture and agroforestry to cattle-rearing and fishing.
This article is part of a series Africa’s Minds: Build a Better Future produced by SciDev.Net in association with UNESCO, with funding support from the Islamic Development Bank.