Youth Farming and Aquaculture Initiatives Aim to Reduce Food and Political Insecurity in Senegal
The 2011-12 West African food crisis led to riots in Senegal and Burkina Faso as well as food insecurity for millions of rural and urban poor across the region. The crisis emerged from a number of factors, including instability in northern Mali, increases in global food prices, and low rainfall in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 growing seasons. Many countries in the region are now reassessing and expanding domestic agricultural capabilities. At the top of the agenda for Senegal, a democratic republic on track to reach many Millennium Development Goals, is reducing youth unemployment and increasing domestic agricultural capacity.
Youthful Labor Force
Senegal has a population of about 13 million, and the UN estimates it may reach 29 million by 2050. Sixty-three percent of Senegalese are under the age of 24 and 20 percent fall between the ages of 15 and 24 – a similar demographic to that which captured the world’s attention in the Middle East and North Africa during the spring of 2011.
Despite a 3.3 percent annual urbanization rate, driven in part by young people flocking to cities to hawk fruit or electronics on the street, agriculture still occupies about 78 percent of Senegal’s labor force. Well-educated youth from the national university system – one of the strongest on the continent – enter the job market at a pace of about 100,000 graduates a year, according to USAID and the International Youth Foundation, while the formal private sector creates fewer than 30,000 new jobs annually. High government officials have referred to the rising tide of educated and uneducated youth alike as a “time-bomb,” to which the 2011 food and gas price riots was perhaps a preview.
It is in this context that Senegal is discussing initiatives that simultaneously diversify the rural economy, improve food security, and gainfully employ young people. Two of the most promising responses, we argue, are expanding farming in southern Senegal and fish farming in eastern Senegal.
A Casamance Agricultural Boom?
A low-level separatist conflict has simmered in southern Senegal, a region known as the Casamance, since 1983. Ethnically and linguistically distinct and geographically separated from the rest of the country by The Gambia, the Casamance has seen economic stagnation since independence.
Still, the region has incredible agricultural potential, with copious water resources and a semitropical climate. A recent boom in cashew exports to India – facilitated by English speaking Gambians – confirms this potential.
In September several American non-governmental organizations in conjunction with the Senegalese Ministry of Youth began discussions about investing in a widespread agricultural training program for Casamance youth. The discussions derived from a mandate put forth in the 2006 Senegalese action plan for youth employment. With a population of 1.8 million, it would be feasible to formally train a substantial number of the region’s young people in irrigation, agricultural product transformation, accounting, and English (to limit the influence of middle-men in the India-Casamance exchange).
The initiative is on track to open a center by 2014 and complete an academic and service program with its first cohort of youth by mid-2015. Annual Casamance service days, focused on engaging youth, are planned to follow.
The reasoning stands that by providing economic opportunity to Casamance youth and reasonably priced food to families, two of the major tenants of the conflict seen in the last two years would be diminished.
Fish Farming in the East
Eastern Senegal is characterized by a few things: quintessential sub-Saharan vistas, a surprising slew of large rivers, and high fish prices.
The national dish of Senegal is ceeb bu gen, literally translated as “rice and fish.” Fish accounts for about 60 percent of Senegalese’s protein intake, with artisanal fishing around the major port cities of Dakar and St. Louis accounting for the bulk of consumption. However, transportation to Senegal’s eastern regions is expensive due to high petroleum prices (a co-instigator, along with food prices, of the 2011 riots), which makes the price of fish quite high there.
As a national gastronomic staple and essential protein in an otherwise monotonous diet of grains, Dakar has a vested interest in ensuring eastern Senegal has better access to reasonably priced fish.
Kathleen Mogelgaard on considering population, food security, and climate together
Currently a feasibility study is being conducted by the Centre de Recherche Ouest-Africain in conjunction with the national university, Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, to explore optimal locations for fish farming hubs. Farming fish in or around rivers in the east poses an attractive alternative to maritime fishing, as it reduces dependence on a stretch of coast that is already aggressively over-fished by foreign industrial fleets and eliminates much of the petroleum needed in the supply chain at both the fishing and transportation stages. In turn, the magnitude and variability of fish prices would be diminished.
Fish farming is already successful elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, notably in Kenya where it has been linked to improved nutritional outcomes. It is done in Senegal as well, but minimally and in ad-hoc, small- and medium-scale instances that range in sophistication from cages in lakes to tilapia farming in cement-lined beds.
Besides the food security and petroleum reduction benefits, fish farming is a vocation that promises to engage young people across the spectrum of education because of the range of technicalities and scales at which it occurs – there is space for highly technical, industrial-level farming alongside fairly simple, smaller-scale efforts.
The feasibility study currently being conducted is intended to inform high-level decision making in aquaculture efforts already begun, including the proposal of a training center by an American non-governmental organization and several nationally sponsored pilot projects. A major goal of the study is to broaden the purpose of Senegalese fish farming to include improving domestic food security, rather than being solely export-oriented.
Double Bottom Line
Installing agricultural training centers and scaling-up fish farming promises to help Dakar address the twin hazards of disenfranchised youth, unable to find jobs with or without college degrees, and food insecurity. Both pose a threat to healthy democracy, as evidenced by the last West African food crisis.
To be sure, neither agricultural training in the Casamance nor fish farming in the east provide all-encompassing solutions, but they are locally relevant, scalable, and market-oriented responses to systemic issues that face Senegal and many other countries in the Global South. As decision-makers around the world examine similar liabilities, like dependence on petroleum imports and over-fished seas; vulnerabilities, like mass unemployment and food insecurity; and opportunities, like technically educated youth and agricultural- and aquaculture-friendly ecosystems, we hope they take these interventions into consideration.
While the West African food crisis showed the interconnected and formidable nature of Senegal’s dependencies and vulnerabilities, we hope a coming era of targeted and well-informed interventions will demonstrate Senegal’s potential for sustainable agricultural and demographic growth.
Mark Brennan is a post-bachelors Margaret Walsh Fellow from the Johns Hopkins University studying food security, and Kody Emmanuel is a National Security Education Program Boren Fellow from New York University studying youth. Both are studying at the Centre de Recherche Ouest-Africain in Dakar, Senegal, for the 2012-2013 academic year.
Sources: All Africa, Bloomberg, The Brookings Institution, CIA World Factbook, The Economist, Fall (2011), International Youth Foundation, IRIN, Nature, The Star, Thomson-Reuters Foundation, USAID, World Fish Center.
Photo Credit: Soumbedioune fish market in Dakar, courtesy of flickr user Jeff Attaway.