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Tradition meets technology

In the fertile valley of the Senegal River farmers grow rice on vast swathes of land. The foodstuff is part of every meal in the West African country of Senegal. While farmers use traditional methods and tools, they also rely on digital tools to compete in the market.

Text
: Katrin Gänsler
Photos
: Momar Talla Cissé

Assane Diop stands thigh-deep in water. He moves forwards slowly, grasping large clumps of grass, ripping them out and throwing them on to the water’s edge. This is how the 48-year-old ensures that the channel around his rice field doesn’t get clogged with weeds and that his seed always has the water it needs. Rice growing is labour-intensive work in the north of Senegal, just a few kilometres away from the Mauritanian border.

But the father of six, who lives in Diama, cannot imagine any other life. His father was a rice farmer too and passed on all he knew to his son. ‘Rice is hugely important. The harvest gives us the money we need to be able to send our children to school and offer them a decent future.’ Diop owns three hectares of land. In 2011, he got together with 34 other rice farmers and founded a cooperative called Mbole Mooy Dalé. The name comes from a saying in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, and means ‘Together we are stronger’. Together they farm 115 hectares. Although that is equivalent to 161 football pitches, the cooperative is still only small fry – of no interest to lenders. Nobody wanted to take the risk of supporting unknown smallholders. But access to cash is vital for a good harvest. Without funding, cooperatives are unable to invest and grow.

Bildergalerie Accordion

In the meantime, Assane Diop has climbed out of the water. Wiping his wet hands on his trousers, he says, ‘We need loans to buy seed.’ This is a sentiment frequently expressed in Senegal. There is no shortage of good ideas for setting up businesses, and often training isn’t necessarily the problem. Today, more training programmes are available in Senegal. But many projects cannot be realised because the capital is not available.

Ibrahima Seck (28) gets off his motorbike. He visits farmers on their rice paddies at least twice a week. He pulls a smartphone out of the black rucksack he is carrying. For this agricultural science graduate, spades and hoes are not the most important tools, but rather a small phone. The men greet one another, while Seck opens the ‘office’ app. Every member of the cooperative has their own digital file, including Assane Diop. All sorts of data on rice growing are stored here, including the area of land farmed and, in particular, photos of the rice paddies. New photos are constantly being added, for instance when seeds are planted or the weeding done. The photos also document how the slender green stems grow little by little. Diop tells us that he found it odd at first that his fields were constantly being photographed. But all this offers an opportunity to contact financiers at last, and to become visible. It builds trust.

The agCelerant platform, developed by Manobi Africa, makes it possible. Founder Daniel Annerose (65) calls the concept ‘phygital agriculture’, a combination of physical and digital farming, the coming together of technology and agriculture. The various parts fit together like cogs in a machine, he explains. Young people like Ibrahima Seck are trained as advisors and can work in new jobs. Farmers like Diop receive sound advice from them, are better able to hold their own on the market and are put in touch with larger buyers. Access to loans is crucial though, stresses Annerose. And the platform offers another benefit: since all the information about farmers’ harvests and so on is stored online, little by little a huge dataset is being compiled that will deliver findings about the development of agriculture. Another reason why this has become possible is the steady improvement of internet coverage in Senegal. Even in rural areas, 4G coverage is available almost everywhere. There are very few dead zones. Alongside the platform and the app, experts like Ibrahima Seck provide important support for the digital development of agriculture. He and 39 other Senegalese citizens attended training last year at Manobi’s Academy. GIZ supported this upgrading measure on behalf of BMZ, along with the international research facility AfricaRice.

A properly functioning agriculture sector is becoming increasingly important. On many occasions, Senegal’s President Macky Sall has underscored his conviction that, ‘Senegal can feed itself.’ Rice growing in the valley of the Senegal River, which snakes its way 1,086 kilometres through the north of the country, plays a pivotal role. This West African state, where rice is a staple part of every meal, is to become independent of imports from Asia and produce high-quality rice – an ambitious goal, given Senegal’s considerable population growth. Within 30 years, the country’s population has almost doubled to 17 million. 

Country Wiki
Senegal

LAND: Senegal

CAPITAL: Dakar

POPULATION: 16.7 million

GDP PER CAPITA: USD 1,430

ECONOMIC GROWTH: 0.87 per cen

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX RANKING: 168 out of 189

Source: World Bank

With the growth has come high unemployment. According to the national statistics agency, joblessness stood at almost 25 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021. Most jobs are created in and around Dakar, home to one in four of the country’s inhabitants. Rural areas are losing skilled workers. Ibrahima Seck, who had a master’s degree in environmental sciences before he trained in digital agriculture, is bucking the trend and building his future here, where others are leaving. ‘I wanted to work here in agriculture,’ he stresses. He has been working as an independent advisor for some months now. All he needs is his motorbike and his smartphone. He not only helps smallholders update their files, but also helps calculate how much seed and fertiliser they need and assists with filling in forms in French. The farmers pay him for these services. For every hectare harvested, he receives 80 kilogrammes of rice that he sells on. This gives him a monthly income equivalent to almost 460 euros, which is considered a good wage in rural areas, where rent, food and transport are significantly cheaper than in the capital Dakar.

Both sides are motivated. The farmers want to increase their harvests. Seck has a direct interest in providing his clients with the best possible support and gaining new clients so that he is responsible for more land. Agricultural tradition and modern technology clearly seem to complement one another very well. Assane Diop nods as Ibrahima Seck leaves. ‘He even boosted our first harvest by 20 per cent per hectare. That makes me more confident about the future.’

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Win-Win-Situation

In an effort to open the door to a better future, in particular for young people in African countries, the Special Initiative on Training and Job Creation of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is supporting sustainable private investment. The aim of the Special Initiative, which operates under the banner ‘Invest for Jobs’, is to create more and better employment. It is therefore contributing to the implementation of the Marshall Plan with Africa and the G20 investment partnership Compact with Africa. In Senegal, the Academy of the agCelerant platform was established with the company Manobi and the AfricaRice research centre to train young people with some prior knowledge to become digital agriculture experts. 

Contact: senegal@invest-for-jobs.com
For more informationen see: www.invest-for-jobs.com

Sustainable Development Goals
The project contributes to the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):
01 NO POVERTY, SDG 02 ZERO HUNGER, SDG 04 QUALITY EDUCATION, SDG 08 DECENT WORK AND ECONOMIC GROWTH, SDG 12 RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION, SDG