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January 29, 2007

Dynamic organic banana cooperative in Senegal blazes a trail

by Chido Makunike

A group of over 700 farming families deep in the interior of Senegal is experimenting with unique ways of managing its organic banana enterprise. A key feature of the group is its deliberate decision to be self-sustaining and to manage its affairs along stricty business lines. To this end APROVAG ( l'Association des producteurs de la vallée fleuve de la Gambie) employs a staff of 11 technical, managerial and clerical staff to professionally manage various aspects of the business. Each member of the cooperative pays an annual fee to cover the group's basic running costs.

Formed in 1988, APROVAG has undergone many transitions to develop to its present level of organization. They are composed of 13 groups from seven villages located on the banks of the river Gambia, near the town of Tambacounda. Over the years they have been assisted in various ways by a number of agricultural and developmental NGOs for defined short-term periods. Some forms of assistance have been in the areas of insititutional development, reinforcement of production capacity and better management of the banana that is their mainstay crop.

On average APROVAG sells about 5000 tonnes of banana per year. Each smallholder works an average of a 0.5 hectare piece of land. Capital city Dakar, about 500km away, is the major market. The dirt road from Tambacounda to the villages is in very poor shape and with no cold storage facilities available until the produce gets to Dakar, losses during handling are heavy. Addressing this is one of the ways the cooperative hopes to develop in the near future.

The group switched from conventional cultivation of banana to organic means two years ago for non-sentimental, very practical reasons : productivity was fairly high with chemicals but the conventionally grown banana did not keep fresh as long as the organic banana. If a buyer showed up from Dakar a day or two later than he had promised, that could mean the difference between a financial windfall and heavy losses. In addition to the longer freshness of the organic banana, a partner organization of theirs had identified interest in organic banana amongst a segment of consumers in Dakar and it is planned to try to make the most of this niche market opportunity in time.

Since switching to organic cultivation, yields have initially been lower but this is expected to improve as the group's soil fertility management skills improve. They are confident of eventually getting the same yields as before but with fewer associated problems in shelf life, procurement of expensive chemicals and so forth. The soils in the area are poor in trace minerals like potassium and magnesium and a supplementation strategy that addresses this is in the pipeline.

APROVAG is seeking ways to protect itself against some of the marketing travails that affect all farmers. In times of good banana production in the country, the price plunges. The group plans to go into various ways of processing their crop so that they are not solely dependant on the fresh crop and to give them some cushion against times of over-supply of banana on the market. Also being explored is the possibility of an arrangement in which cold storage space in Dakar can be obtained for APROVAG's bananas so that they will then be able to selectively release them to the market at price-favorable times.

An interested buyer will approach the APROVAG office in Tambacounda with his requirement. Payment is effected there and the buyer is then directed to where among the producers he can go and get the produce. The farmers are paid monthly by their APROVAG management team and a savings component is being incorporated into the payment system.

Because of the disproportionate power of the buyers over farmers, particularly when there is a lot of banana on the market, the producers have sometimes been paid months after the buyer has obtained the produce from them. This is bitterly resented by the farmers and causes all manner of social problems, particularly in areas where there is no other cash economy to rely on and the communities depend on their banana crop for their cash needs. They however have little choice but to depend on the buyer's "take it or leave it" offer of delayed payment, ostensibly due to the difficulties of trying to sell the product at times of over-supply and depressed prices. Negotiating and incorporating ways around these issues is another way that APROVAG has proven itself to be a forward-thinking farmer-led initiative whose example might provide useful lessons to many others grappling with similar difficulties in growing and marketing their produce.

Although the production system is organic, the produce is sold as conventional banana because there is not yet an organic verification system in place. While they have an eye towards eventual certification, the short-term goal is to devise a verification system best suited for the local market. The possibility of a unique APROVAG label is also being looked into. With no ready examples near them to borrow from, the reasearch on all these issues has to be done by the APROVAG management from scratch with the assistance of various partners and resource organizations.

Tending the banana crop is an intensive activity around which the lives of the villagers revolve because of its crucial role as a cash source. Other crops that they grow subsistence amounts of are millet, groundnuts, cassava and mango.

Their latest development partner is VECO Senegal, the local branch of a Belgian NGO. VECO has supported ARROVAG with funds for a base study to document all the important parameters of the banana project with a view to identifying what interventions are required to improve the enterprise and how best to effect those interventions. Some of the areas already identified for attention include finding ways of better access to markets, political engagement with the Senegalese government through the stakeholder-led Market Regulation Agency for banana on the issues of crop diversification, irrigation and the promotion of organic production.

The APROVAG initiative may be the first and only commercial organic banana project in Senegal. It has come a long way not only in terms of production issues but as an organization of farmers earnestly working to have more control over the marketing of their produce and of their overall destiny. As such they are blazing a trail from which many others will learn from both their successes and difficulties.

African Agriculture

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