First Person

After a poor harvest in Senegal, farmers find creative ways to carry on

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Bady Ndao says he did not grow enough millet to feed his family this year, but will find ways to earn money to buy food and make up the deficit. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

In the semi-arid Sahel, Senegalese farmers find ways of coping.

Binta Ndao is sitting in the shade in front of her home in a village in Senegal called Kalbiron. She has a bowl of groundnuts on her lap. She’s says they are of poor quality, suitable for making sauce for her family’s meals, but probably not for sale.

“This season the rains were not good,” she says, “we did not harvest much.” She says she produced a fraction of her normal groundnut harvest, and very little sorghum of such low quality she will probably just feed it to animals.

Ndao says last year she produced enough millet to feed her family for four months; this year she only has enough for about one month, if she cuts back. “We’re not eating like we used to,” she says, explaining that instead of preparing about two kilos of millet each day, she might feed her family one kilo, with less of the usual high-protein groundnut sauce.

Like all the farmers I spoke with in this corner of Tambacounda, Senegal, she produced no rice this year. When I ask how she will make up for the food deficit, she starts to explain that despite the fact that they do not have a lot to work with, they have ways of coping, including growing vegetables in a nearby garden area (near a well), taking loans from a Saving for Change group which she can use to buy food items and soap she can then resell in her village at a small profit, and charging people to use a grain mill she borrowed from her brother.

“The situation is quite difficult here,” she says, “but we will cope.”

Binta Ndao did not grew enough ground nuts, and what few she did raise are not of very good quality. She says she has other ways of earning money and producing food, and expects an insurance settlement to help her as well. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

She might also find help from another unlikely source: As part of Oxfam and the World Food Programme’s R4 initiative, she has index insurance to help farmers who experience a bad harvest due to poor rainfall. Farmers can pay the premium with cash, or through a work-for-insurance program designed to help build community infrastructure like rock walls in areas prone to flooding and severe erosion, or small dikes to store water for more gradual use.

When I visited Ndao, she said she intended to request an insurance settlement and was waiting for the company to finish its meteorological analysis. In the town next to Kalbiron, a place called Kathiacoutou, a farmer named Bady Ndao (no relation to Binta Ndao, almost everyone in this area is named Ndao) tells me that he has been signing up for the insurance for several years now, along with both his wives, a grown son, a brother, and several others in his extended household.

Bady Ndao says last year the harvest was not as good as normal either, so he got a payout of 14,000 francs (about US$28). “I bought rice for the family,” he says. “We have eight people in the household participating in the program so they each got the payout.” I quickly estimate this to be around US$200. That amount of money can go pretty far to buy food and soap for an extended household in rural Senegal.

Worried but confident

What was remarkable about my encounters with these two Ndao families in Tambacounda, as well as three other farmers in the southern Kolda region of Senegal who had a similarly disappointing growing season, is that they explained a wide variety of ways of coping with their disappointing harvest. From cutting and selling firewood, raising and selling tomatoes and eggplants, selling drinks made from hibiscus leaves or baobab tree fruit (frequently financed by a Saving for Change loan), they all could list ways of carrying on.

Perhaps because they expected an insurance settlement,  not a single person I met asked for any help from me, Oxfam, or our partner La Lumière, which helped these villagers organize their SFC groups and the insurance program.

Bady Ndao, who I met early in 2015, was really energetic despite the looming food shortage. He remembered me and just could not stop smiling when he saw me. He was optimistic despite the fact that his grain storage area was only partly filled with a poor harvest of millet. He says all the 12 villages in the area engaged in different aspects of the R4 program (including insurance), Saving for Change, and other measures designed to reduce risks for farmers were all working well to serve farmers here in Senegal. “We have good equipment, we have the seeds… If we could have had some rain we would have had a good harvest,” he says.

“But when we have problems, we can manage the situation ourselves.”

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