Sharing solutions in West Africa

Some groundnuts (peanuts) just pulled from the ground for inspection.  The coconuts were just set there for convenience; the pen was tossed in for scale.

I have just had the good fortune to make a short visit to West Africa for 10 days.  I spent a week in Sierra Leone, visiting 7 small primitive farming villages near the town of Lunsar.  Lunsar itself is a town of 50,000 or so, about 2 hours from the capital, Freetown.  Lunsar has no central electricity (but remarkably good cell phone coverage).   I was working with Village Hope while in Sierra Leone, with the self-assigned task of looking into increasing peanut (groundnut) production.  (The photo above shows groundnut plants pulled form two different farms in Kholifah, a village near Lunsar, with a couple of coconuts that just happened to be placed there.)

From Sierra Leone, I made hop to Ghana, and a skip to Togo where I visited another very similar village about 15 miles north of the capital, Lome.  In Togo, I was visiting on behalf of LeapingStone, working on plans to build a permanent school in the village, as well as looking into Income Generating Programs to boost the wealth of the village.

Before my travels, I was cautioned more than once to respect the idea that these villagers are actually very sophisticated farmers, and know very well what they are doing with their crops.    What I found from my face-to-face meetings discussing groundnut and other farming was that the truth is more complex.  Yes, they are extremely sophisticated in some ways.  They grow at least a dozen crops: two varieties of rice, two of groundnuts, cassava (manioc), several kinds of beans, sorghum (cous-cous), tomatoes, pumpkins, ginger, peppers, bananas, coconuts, palm oil, mangos, papayas, and who knows what else.  In addition, they raise chickens, goats and sheep in most villages (but cows are rare and oxen and horses even more so).  In cases where they have been farming a particular crop for decades, they know a great deal about how to farm these crops fairly efficiently using manual methods.

On the other hand, they are not in a position to measure output precisely, so they cannot tell you whether one groundnut variety might have a 10% higher yield.  They’ve been farming groundnuts in the “uplands” for decades during the rainy season, and know the right time to plant and to harvest.  Within the past 15 years they have begun planting groundnuts in swamps during the dry season, with some success; in the past 5 years or so most have also begun to add a second planting of groundnuts in the uplands during the dry season.  In each of these new cases, they are still using the same variety of groundnut.  Is that the most efficient?  It turns out that the dry upland (second) planting of groundnuts has a smaller yield than the wet season (first) planting of groundnuts.  But also the groundnuts from the 2nd planting make far better seeds because the weather at harvest time allows for much better drying.  Despite this, they only use these 2nd planting seeds for the first planting.  They do not have enough for the 2nd planting itself.  Would there be any benefit?  This experiment has not yet been tried.

Another surprise is that, in this time when weather patterns are changing significantly, the villages still rely on traditional methods to estimate the timing of the spring rains and other weather.  This despite the fact that they get good radio reception in the villages, and UN weather forecasts are broadcast daily.  Ah, but it turns out that the broadcasts are in English, and most of the villagers speak their local language, plus Krio (Sierra Leone’s creole).

Also, all the villages we spoke with have more land available than they can farm.  They are very interested in scaling up through use of basic mechanical assistance.  But these are new techniques, and although they are very interested, they are not in a position to take big risks (like incurring debts) to experiment with basic industrialization.  All this is part of a rather weak financial management situation that often has the villagers “buying high (buying seed during the 1st planting time) and selling low (during harvest, when price is half of what it is during the planting time).

Similarly, in Togo, we learned about a financial technique called “tontine” which many villages and individuals, both in Togo and globally, use to great effect.  But this scheme is not universally known in Togo, and some villages do not employ it.  The village we visited was very interested in raising rabbits, since they heard about another villages success in that area.  It turns out, however, that there is a very limited market.  Only the larger hotels in the capital city buy the rabbits; locals don’t eat them and probably won’t start.  If you invest a chunk into rabbit farming, but have no buyer in place, you may have wasted your money.  On the other hand, snail-raising is also of interest, and here the locals are developing their own taste for the critters, so that investment may make sense.

My point?  Working as a part of the NGO’s above, I’m convinced that often the solutions to our questions exist, or could be easily adapted from a similar solution.   It would be excellent to have a vast selection of articles on all these topics and much more.  Wikipedia has some, but you have to know what you’re looking for, and most Wikipedia articles are simply overviews with no practical “how-to” details.  At the moment, the main beneficiaries of such articles would be NGOs and some farmers with occasional internet access.  But access to the internet in the developing world is exploding.   Just as each village seems to have at least one person with a cell phone, I’ll bet a nickel that within five years most villages will have a resident with good access (by smart-phone or otherwise) to the internet.  See AMD’s “50×15” goal.  It’s not that far off.  (For some additional thoughts on this trip, including phone-based email in Ghana, see my personal blog post on my hop back from Togo to Ghana.)

So, what content will those in the developing world want to read?  Britney’s latest stay in detox?  Or how to efficiently boost their production of protein?