This October, I had the opportunity to leave my post here at Agrilinks to do a volunteer consulting assignment helping develop the next phase of Winrock’s Farmer-to-Farmer program in Senegal. Having worked in international development across the African continent for 15 years, this was among the most satisfying assignments I’ve completed. That’s not just because it meant tasting such local delights as baobab juice, dried mangos, hibiscus jam and millet couscous, but also because of the exciting opportunities I saw among the hard-working entrepreneurs working to capitalize on Senegal’s agricultural riches.
The USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program provides volunteer technical assistance to farmers, agribusinesses, and education and extension providers in developing countries to promote sustainable improvements in the agricultural sector. Since 1991, Winrock volunteers have completed over 5,400 assignments in 58 countries. Winrock’s West Africa F2F Program leverages the expertise of skilled volunteers to strengthen agricultural institutions in the region, thus equipping a new generation of agriculture educators, technicians, farmers and agribusinesses to address evolving agricultural sector challenges.
My assignment was to help Winrock build its next phase of F2F to incorporate assistance to the postharvest sector in Senegal, interviewing stakeholders to understand priorities for volunteer technical assistance in this sector and working with Winrock’s local team to develop its country strategy.
Food Processing in Senegal: A Boom Market
Senegal enjoys a competitive advantage in many agricultural sectors, including horticulture, fish and peanuts, on the domestic, subregional and international markets. While most of these agricultural products are consumed locally or exported without value added, the food processing sector is on the rise in Senegal, with an estimated 750,000 direct jobs and 3.2 million indirect jobs. Moreover, an estimated 80 percent of these jobs are held by women, who dominate the cottage industry.
As we discovered firsthand, the agro-processing industry in Senegal is diverse and dynamic, with businesses operating at many levels of operation and capacity. Some businesses are still pounding out products by hand, while other more sophisticated operations are doing brisk business with Senegalese expats in Europe or in the US, who are hungry for a taste of home. We met with well over 30 groups and partners both in the capital, Dakar, and in the field, and while we heard about many constraints and barriers — like no access to affordable, appropriate finance and lack of availability of raw materials — we saw as much success and opportunity.
A few promising opportunities of note:
- A dynamic market with strong demand. Senegal enjoys a dynamic market for local processing, with lots of opportunities domestically, in the sub-region and abroad. Despite very little formal marketing, most businesses have little difficulty attracting clients and making sales.
- A sector dominated by women. Processing is almost exclusively the domain of women, helping achieve not only strategic objectives of food security, poverty reduction and nutrition, but also women’s economic empowerment.
- Growing consumer awareness. Anecdotally, I heard much consumer awareness and acceptance for natural products and the advantages of “buying local.” For example, natural juices are becoming a popular substitute for sugary sodas, while consumers also are increasingly seeking out products like moringa powder to add nutritional value to their diets.
- Win-win market opportunities. For example, there is an improved flour for which at least 15 percent of the imported wheat has been replaced with local cereals. The product is improving nutrition and providing a new market opportunity for local cereal processors, while also decreasing the cost of flour for bakeries and, in turn, bread for consumers.
- Nascent online sales channels. While still a small portion of processed food sales, enterprising vendors are beginning to capitalize on digital marketing tools to sell online sales. Sooretul and made-in-senegal.org, for example, offer online sales with door-to-door delivery for natural Senegalese products. Others are using Facebook and Whatsapp to market their products and attract clients.
Often we in development focus on the constraints; it’s natural, as it’s our job as practitioners and policymakers to identify and find ways to overcome challenges. Senegal’s post-harvest stakeholders face many obstacles, to be sure — packaging woes, a lack of product innovation and low levels of literacy, let alone business management skills — but I left Senegal feeling optimistic about the opportunities it faces in the post-harvest sector.
I was struck by the personal stories I heard of Senegalese women using food processing to fight for a better life. Take for example COFLEC, a group of women fighting illegal emigration. Having lost their sons to risky clandestine sea voyages to Europe, these women sought to create economic opportunities like food processing so youth would have a reason to remain in Senegal. Or the young entrepreneur I met in Kaolack, who started her own business with $50 and not much else. She developed innovative upcycled products through techniques she learned via YouTube and was beginning to market other women’s food products online in a town where few were selling anywhere but the local fairs and markets.
Call me a dreamer, but I look forward to the day when the sweet-tart flavor of baobab fruit will be as ubiquitous as orange juice here in the U.S. Baobab is still relatively unknown to the Western markets but offers more vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas, more antioxidants than blueberries and more calcium than milk. If programs like F2F can help unleash the tenacity and ingenuity of Senegal’s food processors, fueling their businesses with new techniques and skills, as well as access to finance and markets, big trees like the baobab dotting the landscape can help fight big issues like poverty and malnutrition.
This blog originally appeared on Agrilinks.org