With headphones dangling from one ear and a cap to shield his eyes from the sun, Cheikh Thiam scrapes the earth to check the roots of his flowering groundnut plants. He gently caresses the leaves and explains: “It’s the roots that will form groundnuts. You have to watch the roots to ensure they don’t come to the surface. The deeper the root, the better chance of getting good nuts. You also have to check the colour of the leaves. When they turn yellow, it means the nuts are mature.”
Mbawane is a village in Kayar, a district about 55 kilometres from Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The area is known for its groundnuts, but Mr. Thiam is one of the few groundnut farmers in the village who uses organic methods. While organic farming has challenges, there are also advantages.
Some groundnut farmers are choosing organic methods to improve soil fertility, including organic fertilizers. Karfa Diallo is a program officer for the groundnut sector with a non-governmental organization called Enda Pronat. He says: “Senegal used to be the first [groundnut producer] in Africa and third in the world. It lost this place because of excessive use of [chemical] fertilizer, pesticides, and harmful agricultural practices that affected the soil, especially in Senegal’s groundnut growing areas. Groundnuts no longer play the same role in the economy.”
Mr. Diallo adds that organic fertilizers provide important plant nutrients that build soil fertility gradually, which means that, over time, yields increase.
Mr. Thiam is a worker in his 40s from Kaolack, in central Senegal. He earns a monthly salary growing organic groundnuts during the off-season on a farm in Kayar district, far from his family.
He says organic groundnut farming has many benefits: “The quality is better with organic agriculture. [And] it doesn’t involve health risks.”
Sidy Ba is a groundnut expert and member of the CCPA, a group representing Senegal’s groundnut producers. Mr. Ba says organic groundnuts take longer to mature than non-organic groundnuts because on conventional farms, chemical fertilizer accelerates the plants’ growth. This allows farmers to harvest the groundnuts before they are fully mature. But, says Mr. Ba, this increases the risk of aflatoxin infection. Aflatoxins are carcinogens caused by fungi that thrive in warm, moist environments, such as immature groundnut pods.
Groundnuts need a lot of water, but using organic fertilizer helps retain moisture in the soil, reducing organic farmers’ reliance on irrigation. In Kayar district, the most commonly used organic fertilizers are poultry, cattle, and, less often, horse manure.
In the market, organic groundnuts are more expensive for many reasons, including the fact that there are fewer suppliers, and that the nuts take longer to mature. Certification as an organic producer is costly.
The selling price of organic groundnuts depends on all these expenses. The price usually varies between 400 and 450 francs (US$0.70 to $0.80) per kilogram during the off-season, but can reach 600 francs.
Mr. Thiam says he is thankful to work on an organic farm where he isn’t exposed to harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Besides that, he adds, the groundnuts taste better.
Uniterra is a program implemented by CECI-WUSC, working in Senegal with local partners in the rice, groundnut, poultry, and market gardening sub-sectors to help youth and women access better economic opportunities. The objective is to reinforce the economic power of women and youth by developing their entrepreneurial spirit. The Uniterra program provided funding and technical support for the production of this story. CECI and WUSC are financially supported by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada, www.international.gc.ca. For more information you can follow Uniterra Senegal on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cecisenegal.