Matam — Like many other young Senegalese, Pape Mokhtar Diallo long dreamed of escaping his rural home in northern Senegal for a better life. Three times he tried and failed to go overseas. But the establishment of an agricultural cooperative here in the village of Boyinadji has put another dream within his grasp. The 25-year-old has a job now, a humble one that doesn't pay well, but he feels he is a part of an initiative that has caused him and other young people here to imagine a future working the land.
"I work as the security guard for the cooperative's store. I'm earning 25,000 CFA (50 dollars) per month; and more than that, I'm part of a cooperative. I'm not thinking about leaving any more," he told IPS.
The cooperative he's speaking of is called a SIPA - a Société intensification de la Production Agricole - an initiative under Senegal's national programme for investment in agriculture.
Boyinadji's SIPA was set up in 2010, with 400,000 dollars of financial support from the government and partner institutions like the West African Development Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). It's one of a set of agricultural cooperatives nationwide intended to help young men and women who might otherwise join the exodus from rural areas to organise themselves into coops and earn a living.
Thirty hectares were assigned to 150 smallholders who set about growing a variety of crops for sale, as well as vegetables for their own consumption.
"Last year, we produced eight tonnes of watermelon, 12 tonnes of maize and three tonnes of groundnuts... After selling our harvest and paying off our creditors, the cooperative was able to earn two million CFA francs (around 4,000 dollars)," said Mamoudou Thiam, the Boyinadji SIPA's manager.
He said he hoped that 2012 would be even better, with plans in place to also grow tomatoes, cabbage, okra, peppers and lettuce.
Over the past two years, the cooperative has extensively developed the land. Its lush green fields are fenced off, cleared using tractors, and irrigated by a sprinkler system supplied by motorised pumps drawing water from a borehole.
Thiam says the project is providing jobs for village youth. "Two pump operators, a manager and a security guard have been chosen. At the moment, we can't pay them a great salary, but 25,000 CFA a month... at least they're earning something," he said.
IPS met Aïssatou Dia at work with a hoe in the coop's fields. She explained that in addition to being a member of the SIPA, she is also the leader of another agricultural association in the village.
"We formed an association of women," the 25-year-old said, "and each of us has got a plot where we grow okra, melons and watermelon to earn income, improve nutrition for our families and create jobs at the local level. Last year, I earned 80,000 CFA (160 dollars) from the sale of our produce. And beyond that, I grew a lot for my own use," she said.
Abdoulaye Baldé, another member of the SIPA coop, agreed that the project had enabled youth to support themselves and stay in the countryside, but said that for the project to be sustained, it would need government support to commercialise and build up production capacity.
"We want to work the land. But we'll need support to help us turn a profit. Right now, we need electricity to run the borehole pump, and increase our production," he told IPS.
"This would allow us to save on money we're using to buy fuel. I think the well could be equipped with solar panels. This would also be another revolution, if they would help us to strengthen certain capacities of our farmers," Baldé said.
According to Abdoulaye Diakité, from the National Agency for Rural and Agricultural Extension Services, in order to develop agriculture in this region, it is vital to carry out an inventory of land available for cultivation, and then to determine what crops are appropriate.
"What Senegal is lacking is an agriculture project worthy of the name, one with precise goals and objectives," he said.