First Person

Food crisis in Senegal: Can farmers plant this year?

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Kassa Danfakha says usually one of his biggest concerns in the growing season is cows wandering on to his millet field and eating his plants. It’s a significant source of conflict in the community, but last year he had bigger worries.

Photo: Brett Eloff
Kassa Danfakha: “We need good quality seed, for rice, groundnuts, millet, and maize.” Photo: Brett Eloff

“Last fall I got almost no harvest. There was not enough rain,” he says, sitting by his home in Bembou, in Senegal’s far eastern Kedougou region. “The first rains came and the seeds we planted started to grow, but then the rain was very irregular. At one point the rain stopped and the plants died.”

“Some more rain came later but we had no more seeds to plant.”

Danfakha is 58, has seven children, and also grows maize (corn), groundnuts, rice, and a local grain called fonio. Last year his entire maize crop was wiped out. He harvested less than half the normal yield of the others. Normally he will grow between eight and 10 (50-kilo) bags of groundnuts, but last year he got only three. He’s saving one bag so he has some seed to plant when the rains come, hopefully next month.

Lean times

I’m in Senegal now and just spent three days in Kedougou talking with farmers, most of whom are in a situation similar to Danfakha. Cherif Sow, who works for the Association for Action and the Development of Kedougou (known as AKAD, one of Oxfam’s partners here), has also been talking with farmers across this forgotten, distant corner of Senegal. “They say what they have harvested is feeding them for two, or a maximum of three months,” he reports, sitting in front of his office in Kedougou. “In recent years, the harvest would last them for seven months.”

This means families that harvest in November can normally cover their food needs until June when they can plant again. Even in a good year, many of them struggle to find food until the next harvest. This lean time of year can be a real test, as the farmers work hard in their fields, many without the benefit of a donkey or cow to pull a plow.

But when the lean times start four months earlier than normal, it can be a real catastrophe.

Danfakha ‘s youngest children are in school, where the government provides lunch every day. He feeds them dinner from his dwindling supply of food. We look in his grenier, a round structure with a thatched roof near an absolutely massive baobab tree: He has two bags of rice, one of which he is saving to plant. On one side there is a pile of groundnuts, his seed.  On the left he points out his last bag of millet, which is about one third full. It might feed his family for a few more weeks.  “Most years there is not even enough room to stand in here,” Danfakha says, it is usually so full of sacks of produce. Now, there’s enough room in the middle for three of us to stand and talk.

Kassa Danfakha in his grenier. Photo by Brett Eloff/Oxfam America.

Farmers need seed

Danfakha is getting by with money sent by his 27-year-old son who is panning for gold, a common activity here during the dry season. But he’s not sure he has enough money to get the seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs he needs to plant if and when the rains come.

“We need good quality seed, for rice, groundnuts, millet, and maize,” Danfakha says.

The food crisis in Senegal is serious, but could get a lot worse if farmers don’t have the resources they need to plant this year. If there is rain – which is a big if– they need to be in a position to recover from the crop failure in 2011. If not, what is now a food shortage could turn in to something far worse.

The good news is that there is a new government in Senegal and the relevant ministers are publicly acknowledging the situation and the need to respond. Aid organizations like Oxfam are mobilizing resources to assist farmers across Senegal. Isaac Massaga, who is in charge of Oxfam’s response in Senegal, says timely help for these farmers will make a huge difference. “We need to ensure farmers have what they need to plant, and feed their families while they grow their crops this year.” He is planning a program with several different organizations in Kedougou and  Kolda, and intends to assist 63,000 people.

Oxfam would like assist more people, if we can raise the money. We’d rather not wait until a food shortage turns in to something far worse over the summer.

Danfakha shows us his millet field. At the end of the dry season the earth is hard and gravelly, and a sort of steely dark grey in color. It must be incredibly difficult to grow anything out of this hard, stony soil, but Danfakha is used to working here. He says he is worried, but still walks purposefully around the perimeter of his field, projecting an air of confidence for his visitors. In the sky there is a thick layer of hazy clouds, but it does not look like rain.

Addendum 25 April

When I got back to US, I heard some good news: It rained in Kedougou on Sunday night/Monday morning. Is this an indication of better rains for the impending growing season? I hope so.

My colleagues here at Oxfam also reminded me about the video we launched last month: “Baaba Maal speaks out on the Sahel crisis.” Please have a look and check out Baaba Maal’s music, he is a modern manifestation of the ancient West African oral tradition of griot singers. His voice is amazing and we are grateful he is helping us raise awareness of the situation in the Sahel.

Oxfam is aiming to help 1.2 million people across seven countries with programs that include cash transfers and cash-for-work initiatives, veterinary care for the livestock on which many families depend, and access to clean water and sanitation. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+