Potou — Increased harvests in the northern Senegalese community of Léona provide evidence of the benefits of multifaceted support for agriculture. But as their yields grow, farmers are calling for consistent policy to protect markets for their crops. Since 2008, the village of Potou has been the site of a multi-sector poverty eradication effort, one of 12 "Millennium Village" sites found in hunger hotspots in ten countries across Africa.
Each site was chosen to represent a different Sub-Saharan African agro-ecological zone, to demonstrate how a combination of local knowledge and a holistic, science-based approach could achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing extreme poverty and hunger by half - even in the most challenging locations. (The MDGs are a series of development and anti-poverty targets agreed by U.N. member states in 2000.)
The project was championed by economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, and has received support from a wide range of sources including U.N. agencies, transnational chemical and agriculture corporations, individuals and both host and donor governments.
The Millennium Village project aims to reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half, providing farmers with high-yielding seeds, fertiliser and irrigation. But the project is not narrowly focused on support for agriculture.
"People in our rural community now have access to clean water and solar energy which not only lights up our homes, but supports the irrigation of around 800 of the 1,000 hectares devoted to growing onions in this region," said Serigne Abdou Boye, vice president of the National Horticulturalists Association of Senegal.
The project has also added four new health facilities in Léona, at which the community's 31,000 residents can get free health care. Sixty new classrooms are planned as well, in order to eliminate the temporary structures that many of the district's school children have had to study in.
Farmers in Léona grow a variety of crops, including tomatoes, okra, peppers and carrots, but El Hadj Mamadou Bâ, president of this rural commune, said that onion producers have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Millennium Village project.
"Last year, I harvested less than 20 tonnes of onions from one hectare. This year, I've got two irrigated hectares planted with onions, and thanks to project support in the form of onion seeds, I think I'll manage a record crop of 80 tonnes," he told IPS.
Another onion farmer, Idrissa Diallo, told IPS that using better seed, irrigation and organic fertiliser made from cow dung, more than 60,000 tonnes of onions were harvested during the 2012-2011 growing season, significantly higher than the 45,000 tonnes produced in 2009-2010.
"Before the project, we needed so many workers to irrigate the fields, but our output didn't measure up. We were harvesting less than 20 tonnes per hectare, but thanks to this project, we sometimes manage as much as 70 tonnes per hectare," said Idrissa Diallo, an onion producer in Potou.
During a visit in mid-July, Bouri Sanhouidi, the resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme in Dakar, said the new irrigation system gives the community the resources to cultivate seeds. He called on U.N. agencies to support the project.
During the growing season from April to November each year, Potou's population - the village is home to roughly 3,000 of the 31,000 residents of the greater Léona area, according to the last census - is supplemented by dozens of migrant farm workers from neighbouring countries.
Ahmadou Konté, from Guinea, told IPS he has been coming to work here since 2008. He said he returns home at the end of each year having earned around 360 dollars.
Bâ added that a number of cooperatives operating in Léona have created jobs for 102 youth who were deported as undocumented migrants from Spain in 2005.
The community's success has even attracted people from elsewhere to move to the area, but there are some unresolved challenges.
Producers complain that they are isolated by the region's poor roads. They also say that fertiliser and seed were delivered too late in the season for maximum effect - and that the cost of these inputs is too high.
"Yes, we've been provided with seed and fertiliser by the project, but the prices of these are a bit high. We would have liked additional support from the government. Five hundred grams of seed costs 21,000 CFA (42 dollars), and a 50-kilo sack of fertiliser 12,000 CFA (24 dollars). That's expensive for us," Yoro Ba told IPS.
There is also discontent over pricing of onions, Fatoumata Dia Sy, regional director for the National Rural Advisory Service in Louga, north of the country, told IPS.
"The price of onions has been set by an agreement between the government and producers," she said. Producers are to receive the equivalent of 24 cents U.S. per kilo from intermediaries who are entitled to sell the onions on at 33 cents a kilo to retailers who will in turn sell them to consumers at 50 cents a kilo.
Grower Moussa Sow also condemned the lifting of a ban on onion imports that the government had imposed from February until the end of August. "The re-authorisation of onion imports is a challenge. It risks killing off production in this area," he said, fearing a slump in sales of local production if the market is flooded with imports.
"We have taken out bank loans, and now we are unable to sell our crop, thanks to the market," Sow said.
Léona president Mamadou Bâ called for the import ban to be extended to three years.
The Senegalese prime minister, Abdoul Mbaye, visited the project in July, hailing it as an "applied model of development." He stressed the need for the government to work to make it sustainable and extend it to other rural areas. Careful attention to farmers' concerns over market conditions might be a good place to start.