Waitrose buyer Amy Lance fondly remembers Senegal seven years ago; the first time she enjoyed eating Thieboudienne and drinking Bouye, sat on a traditional Senegalese open roof terrace in sauna like conditions, surveying the hustle and bustle of the historic colonial city of St Louis and sensing the faint smell of burning twinned with the distinct smell of drying of fish. Now she’s back as part of a year-long sabbatical from her role as a Waitrose buyer
St Louis lies close to the Senegal River and 200 miles north of the capital Dakar and I was visiting for the first time an exciting farming development started in 2006 by Michael Laurent, a highly respected businessman and entrepreneur in partnership with British farming business Barfoots. I was at that time a technical manager for Tesco and the farm covered approximately 350 hectares.
I returned to Senegal in September 2016 and am once again eating Thieboudienne, now at least once a week, often sharing a large plate with colleagues. It is the national dish of Senegal and combines fish, rice and vegetables in one hearty meal. Bouye, is one of the most nutritious drinks I have found to date, made with the fruit of the baobab tree, tasting most similar to a thin, chalky textured lassi or kefir, served in a small plastic bag tightly tied at the top – only a teaspoon of the creamy coloured dried, powdered fruit contains amazingly, 2g of fibre, it’s high in calcium, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, thiamin, vitamin B6, and also acts as a prebiotic.
Business with SCL
I am lucky enough to be in Senegal on my third visit, living in a small rural village named Bango for three months, working with Societe de Cultures Legumieres (SCL), the business that welcomed me to the beautiful country those seven years ago.
It is quite evident that much has changed in the interim, although not only at the farm, which has diversified and more than tripled in size, as the impact on the local communities has been significant.
SCL is now estimated to support a community of more than 10,000 people. I’m sure that there are very few British consumers purchasing Senegalese sweetcorn, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, chillies, green beans and courgettes in the dark, chilly evenings of the UK winter who realise how their purchases have an indirect impact upon such a large, rural community.
The original SCL farming site is based in the area of Diama, which is also home to the Diama dual-purpose dam, the primary reason why farming has thrived in this area. As well as creating a road crossing between Senegal and Mauritania, the Dam’s main purpose is to prevent saltwater intrusion upstream, providing the potential for fresh water irrigation of about 45,000ha as well as preventing any flooding inland by the saltwater.
The dry, sandy land of Diama, coupled with a high degree of salinity and insect pressure, makes it a challenging place to farm, even for Senegal’s local agricultural production, which is dominated by peanuts, rice and millet. What makes it feasible to grow for export is the bright sunshine, long days and for the past 27 years, a very good supply of fresh water. The fresh produce demand in Europe from Senegal has also helped shipping companies to justify a five-day shipping line from Dakar, allowing sea freight for a much broader range of crops than initially scoped. Enabling agriculture has clearly significantly helped Senegal to be the second fastest growing economy in West Africa in 2015, behind the Ivory Coast.
Together, villages and farming businesses have grown and agricultural employment has become popular. SCL has also worked closely with villages to develop and improve sanitation, health care, potable water supply, education and sport. Much of this support and employment has also had a direct impact on education. The national average primary school attendance has been researched to be around 47% in Senegal, in the area surrounding Diama (the primary SCL farming site), the average primary school attendance has risen to an impressive 92%. With only 55.41% of the adult population able to read, improving literacy among the young will really make a significant impact.
It has been fascinating to see the growth of the SCL business and the local community but even more, it’s been an invaluable experience to work and live within the Senegalese community. I have spent a lot of time with the daily workers in the scorching heat and hot white sand picking chillies, planting butternut squash, preparing land and packing sweet potatoes, trying to understand quality from bottom up. As a retailer this is an invaluable part of farming I rarely get to experience it.
Agriculture is certainly having a positive impact in Senegal, in 2015 the agricultural sector accounted for almost 34% of GDP growth. Around 40% of Senegal’s population lives in urban zones, although with business opportunity and employment growing in some rural areas such as Diama, the number of young people fleeing to St Louis and Dakar to continue their careers is falling. SCL now attracts enthusiastic young people not just from the capital city, but also from France, the Ivory Coast and many other neighbouring countries and cities that are excited by the economic growth, future career paths and potential a fresh-produce export business can provide.
The presence of SCL and other fresh-produce businesses in the area is having a positive effect physically, financially and socially. Physically, with improved access to water, education, improved road systems. Financially by increasing the average income per family and community, and socially by teaching new skills (including role-specific, healthcare or language) to a large community.
It is reassuring to know that growing vegetables in the desert for the shelves of UK retailers is helping to transform a community.