By Chris Newhouse, MATTER’s Agricultural Program Director.

From July 7-13th, MATTER facilitated the second Regenerate Senegal agricultural conference in partnership with the Gorgui Dieng Foundation, the Beer-Sheba Project, and Minneapolis based Terra Ingredients. Several international experts in a variety of agricultural fields traveled to Senegal to spend the week with about 50 farmers from Senegal, Liberia and Zimbabwe.

Farm manager, Barama Dieng and MATTER volunteer, Eddy Cyphers.

The Gorgui Dieng Foundation Center for Agricultural Excellence (GDFCAE) is located on the Western tip of the Sahel. Having a semi-arid climate, the Sahel (/səˈhɛl/) is the ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. Over-farming, overgrazing, over-population of marginal lands, and natural soil erosion have caused serious desertification of the region.

The Regenerate Senegal conference originated in 2018 to bring attention to both this project and the larger issue of agriculture in the Sahel region of Africa. The population is growing very quickly in the Sahel. There will be 100 million people in the region by 2020 and 200 million by 2050—almost four times the current population—and 70% of the population is involved in agriculture. The Gorgui Dieng Foundation has a unique opportunity to highlight this region in creating a Center for Agricultural Excellence that can be a research and training center for the larger region.

In preparation for the conference, MATTER volunteer Eddy Cyphers arrived at the GDFCAE in April to prepare and train farm manager, Barama Dieng, and several farmworkers. Eddy labored tirelessly; and in collaboration with Barama, implemented several important projects on the farm: a small chicken operation, a cistern for water storage, metal roofs on the buildings, a large door to the classroom, tool organization, a seed nursery, compost pile, and permanent paths on the farm so only select areas would be trampled on.

The conference kicked off with a tour of the farm and small group discussions on issues directly pertaining to the participants’ situations: water shortages, pest problems, soil depletion and deforestation. Addressing these challenges through classes, hands-on training and group discussions gave the farmers a variety of innovative experiences to cultivate learning and nurture a sense of community.

Abundance in the desert: touring the Beer-Sheba farm.

On the last day in Kebemer, the international participants were invited to a delicious meal at Gorgui’s home in Kebemer and then boarded a bus for Saly, Senegal and the Beer-Sheba Project. The Beer-Sheba project was started 15 years ago on 100 hectares (about 250 acres) of degraded land near Saly. When the land was purchased there was only one lonely Baobab tree present, but after 15 years of regenerative practices, there are over 65 native tree species and 180 species of birds in the now thriving ecosystem.

Barama Dieng manages the foundation farm in Kebemer and has worked tirelessly to transform the degraded land in the desert into a place that can be a shining example of regenerative agriculture in the region. A farmer’s work is never done, and Barama recognizes that the land does not regenerate overnight. However, with the right strategies and careful stewardship, his aim is to bring back the trees, replenish the soil and help others in his area to do the same.

I asked Barama to share some of his thoughts after this year’s conference.

What are the biggest challenges facing farmers in your area?

The stakes are enormous. We have a big challenge because in our locality many farmers use phytosanitary products and chemical fertilizers. So we are calling on them to change their methods and to take the path of organic farming. It is difficult for farmers to become dependent on chemical products as they are expensive and dangerous to work with. Marc’s class on using neem as a natural pesticide was very helpful to us and provides an alternative to expensive pesticides.

How does the Regenerate Senegal conference help you in your work?

The Regenerate Senegal conference has caused us to expand our building and capacity for classes and has resulted in a fruitful exchange among farmers in the area.

What are your thoughts on the visit to Beer-Sheba?

Beer-Sheba is a beautiful example of a functioning agricultural system that regenerates the soil. Outside their boundaries is desert and inside is a lush ecosystem of natural life. The farmers from Kebemer were impressed at the advances and are eager to apply their experience back in their farms.

What is your vision of the Gorgui Dieng Agricultural Center of Excellence?

My vision is objective—I am advocating for the establishment of a training school which will invite students who will be able to test their education in the field. Beersheba is a model to strive for and we are thankful for our partnership with them.

MATTER would like to thank everyone who attended the Regenerate Senegal conference and made it such a success. A very special thank you to our speakers and distinguished experts for sharing your knowledge and expertise: Noah Elhardt, The Beer-Sheba Project; Dr. Marc Beyrouthe PhD, Faculty of Agricultural & Food Sciences., Lebanon; Dr. Doug Malo PhD, Distinguished Professor of Soil Science, South Dakota State University; Dr Christiane Samir, Lebanon; and Jason Brown, Peace Corp volunteer in Senegal.