In late November, Lenny Baer, Vibrant Village Foundation’s Program Director in Ghana and Philip Bune, VVF Ghana’s borehole mechanic, traveled to central Senegal to visit CREATE!, one of our grant partners. During their six-day trip, Lenny and Philip learned about CREATE!'s cooperative garden program and gained valuable insights into cookstove construction, village savings and loan associations, chicken farming and other appropriate technologies.
Philip touring a garden in Senegal
On their visit, Lenny and Philip were struck by many of the similarities and differences between the communities where they work in Northern Ghana and the communities where CREATE! works.
“In Senegal, we saw many of the same vegetables that we have in Ghana, including okra, moringa, and a green tomato-like vegetable that we call ‘kombye.’ We also saw vegetables that are either uncommon or unavailable in Fielmuo, like eggplant and a red variety of turnip that looks like parsnip.” It was also interesting to see the differences in how people consume vegetables, Lenny explained, “In Ghana, people eat spinach-like leaves as part of stews whereas in Senegal, people reportedly throw the leaves away.”
It was clear from their visit that Senegal’s rainy season is much shorter, which poses more severe challenges around food security. Lenny remarked that, “the soil in Senegal is also much sandier, which makes it even more amazing to see beautiful lettuce growing in a desert.”
With CREATE! Lenny and Philip had the opportunity to attend a formal Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) meeting. Lenny’s team has not worked directly with VSLA’s before, but have a sense that the VSLA program in their area, which was disseminated many years ago through Plan Ghana, has strayed from the original concept over time. After seeing an example of best practices and realizing the extent of the problem in the Fielmuo area, Lenny is hoping to integrate VSLAs into several of their projects and emphasize the benefits of strong savings groups.
VSLA meeting with CREATE! in Senegal
During their visit, Lenny and Philip also participated in a cookstove construction demonstration using clay, sand, millet husks, and water, all of which are also available in the Fielmuo area. Upon their return from Senegal, Philip built a cookstove for a member of the soap making group in Fielmuo. According to Lenny, “It was not as polished in appearance as the one made in Senegal, but it was a wonderful start.” Philip and a group of interested women have since completed five more cookstoves. Each cookstove is better than the previous one, as Philip and the women gain experience.
Stove construction workshop in Senegal Philip building a stove in Ghana
Lenny and Philip were excited to bring back many new ideas and experiences to share with their team. They extend a huge thank you to all the staff at CREATE!, to the community members they met in Senegal, and to Vibrant Village for sponsoring the exchange.
Thanks to the CREATE! Team for a fruitful exchange
Each school day, three to five mothers bring their own pots, pans and other cooking utensils to Keur Soce Primary School in central Senegal to help prepare a nutritious breakfast for the 360 students.
“It has completely changed the children. They have gained weight and are healthy,” says Aissatou Ndao, one of about 35 mothers who regularly show up to prepare a hot cereal made from ground beans, corn, rice, millet and peanuts — all grown locally. “Before, students sometimes came to school and did not talk much. But now, they participate more actively in class.”
While soils are fertile in this region of West Africa and most of Keur Soce’s 3,500 people rely on agriculture to survive, the area also is vulnerable to the harsh extremes of the wet and dry seasons. Poverty is high among families, and sometimes men must leave the area in search of work while their families stay home.
“Before the program, I had problems affording breakfast,” says 10-year-old Ibrahima Diagne. “But now, I don’t have them anymore.” Thanks to the breakfast program, Ibrahima says he attends school more regularly, which he likes. “School helps me to work and to succeed to help my parents.”
The Andando Foundation, an Oregon-based nonprofit agency that works mostly in Senegal to alleviate poverty through micro-development, started the Keur Soce Primary School’s nutrition program in 2013 with the help of a $75,000 one-year grant from Vibrant Village.
"We are pleased to help fund Keur Soce’s Primary School’s breakfast program,” says Georgina Bukenya Fields, Vibrant Village Foundation's International Programs director. Georgina points out how leading researchers on early childhood nutrition programs have found that schools can offer an enormous opportunity for promotion of health and nutrition for children.
Ndao adds that before Andando created the breakfast program, her own children occasionally would suffer from stomachaches and headaches. “Now they have no problems.”
Teacher Magatte Thiaw Mbaye agrees: “Previously, the students would be hungry by a certain time and unable to follow the lesson. Today, they are happy; they want to learn. They no longer fall asleep in class.”
Bineta Gueye, another teacher whose own daughter attends the school, considers the breakfast program a success on several levels. “It helps families save money. They used to have to send their students to school with 100 West African CFA Francs (about 20 cents) for breakfast.” She adds, “It has brought together the women of the village. And the students enjoy the breakfast a lot.”
After one year of operating Andando’s nutrition program and a number of infrastructure improvements, the school has seen a dramatic increase in test results from students taking the state-run elementary completion test. Over the past five years, the pass rate has averaged 45 percent, but in 2014, more than 65 percent of students passed the exam.
“The parents and school administration were very happy with the results, and we see this as a culmination of our efforts in providing better facilities, increased nutrition, more community involvement and improved attendance,” says Lewis Kiker, Andando’s executive director. “While there is still a long way to go, this is a great start and proof that things can change when attention and effort is put forth.”
Through the partnership between Andando and Keur Soce Primary School, students now receive breakfast or lunch five days a week. Lunches are prepared with fresh vegetables from the newly established school garden and rice from the World Food Program.
In addition to the breakfast program, Vibrant Village Foundation’s grant also funded the school garden, which supplies food for the nutrition program, and paid for several much-needed repairs to the school. Young men attending nearby Legacy International Vocational School rebuilt the desks, and many parents volunteered their time to help repair and paint the school.
“Vibrant Village Foundation is thrilled that Andando’s work in Keur Soce has generated exciting results and galvanized the community to lead efforts to improve the well-being of the children of Keur Soce,” Vibrant Village’s Fields says.
Andando’s Kiker adds, “The last year was a time of growth for Andando, and Vibrant Village Foundation was a huge part of that. We were able to grow the scope and reach of our programs and take steps to ensure their success and sustainability. Vibrant Village Foundation helped us guide these programs and reach a growing number of people in Keur Soce across many sectors as we walk together with the people of Senegal.”
In Senegal, the Vibrant Village Foundation partners with Oregon-based non-profit, Andando, supporting women’s collectives to run community gardens. Recently, Andando completed a solar-powered water borehole project, bringing new irrigation water to the small plots of land run by each cooperative. Madame Diagne, one of the coop’s leaders, oversees a one-hectare market garden and represents the agricultural group made up of 85 women.
“We have organized ourselves into groups of 10, with one woman responsible for each bed,” she tells us. “The group collectively determines what to plant. If they use the produce for their own purpose, they must ‘buy’ it from the group at a reduced price, with all profits going into a collective pot.” Some of the crops in the garden include lettuce, carrots, onions, tomatoes, okra, corn, peppers, eggplant, potatoes and cabbage.
Madame Diagne has encouraged the group to be extra frugal as they start out with their fledgling business. The cooperative already has one steady customer in town: a small, basic motel that purchases 65 pounds of food a week. “We are excited to have customers and now want to develop relationships with more people to keep business steady,” Madame Diagne says.
Thanks to the new solar-powered water borehole, the women’s cooperative will have three harvests this year instead of one, which they hope will allow them to provide a more consistent supply of produce to customers. During the rainy season, the women plant lower-maintenance crops such as hibiscus and okra, while they are busy in the millet and peanut fields providing for their families. Then, during the other two harvests, they will plant higher yield cash crops to generate more revenue for the co-op. Madame Diagne tells us that the group already has plans to purchase a scale to weigh their produce for sale at the market.
By working closely with the Andando garden manager, the co-op is starting to bring soil amendments to their gardens such as manure, peanut shells and other organic matter. These practices and other new techniques will take time since change does not come easily and farmers are often skeptical of new agricultural practices. Yet with water flowing, new technologies, improved practices and burgeoning demand from customers, Madame Diagne is confident the market garden will continue to grow and be a successful, stable source of work and income for these 85 women.