It’s December in the Western Sahel in the northern part of Senegal and southern Mauritania. With the start of the dry season, by 9 a.m. the sun is already beating down on the parched and dusty soil. In the past, this was considered some of the most arable land in this part of the Sahel. And then, the land began to change….
The once abundant rains that would fill area streams, long ago dried up as drought and desertification began to encroach. Crop yields have shrunk and malnutrition has risen. Today, in this arid region, one of every four children under five years old suffers from malnutrition. Families focus on finding ways to grow food under these adverse conditions, or need all family members to help generate income for food purchases. This results in fewer children going to school. Since 2001, Counterpart International, with generous funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has taken a holistic approach to addressing food security, child nutrition and access to education in both Senegal and Mauritania. And … it all starts in the garden.
Harvesting Knowledge in Mbilor Village
A stone’s throw from the border of Mauritania lies the small village of Mbilor, Senegal. As Counterpart staff arrive, we are greeted by playful children laughing loudly as they run to hide behind the billowing fabric of their mother’s boubous. Poking their smiling faces from behind their mother’s legs, we finally get a glimpse of what is happening here. Meeting everyone at the local school, these shy children are quick to show us their proudest possession – their school garden of Moringa trees, sorghum and millet.
Maintained by the Parent Teacher Associations of those schools, this garden has become the epicenter of the local community.
What was first designed as a “school garden” in April, has now become a community endeavor, with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) responsible for cultivating and harvesting from the garden.
Counterpart has provided the PTA with customized agricultural training, technical assistance, and small-scale farming equipment, ensuring the community has the capacity to sustain the garden long into the future. The garden also helps supplement the two meals each child receives at school.
In the Matam Region of Senegal, more than 70 gardens are now managed by the community, and school canteens are now able to provide for children through the community gardens. And, the gardens are so well maintained that extra produce is provided to the community or sold at the market. While the project in Matam started as a school feeding program, the success of the gardens is now feeding and engaging the local community. And local engagement means local sustainability.
Tackling Food Insecurity in South Mauritania
From 2006 until 2013, Counterpart International, with generous funding from the United States Agency for International Development, partnered with seven local communities in the Gorgol, Assaba, Guidimaka, and Hodh El Gharbi regions of Mauritania to improve food security.
Establishing village development committees in 157 communities, Counterpart provided technical support and monitoring services, while building the capacity of community groups to produce and implement Community Action Plans that addressed food insecurity. The focus on the Community Action Plans were community gardens.
Over the seven-year period, crop yields in the community gardens increased by 86% and by end of the program, the community gardens had produced 893 metric tons of vegetables.
Planting Hope in the Sahel
Desertification is not only changing landscapes, it is robbing children in the Sahel of their childhood, their education and their future. By building gardens in the heart of these communities- at schools- Counterpart International is empowering area parents, teachers and community leaders with the knowledge and skills needed to create sustainable solutions that increase food security in their villages and help ensure children stay in school. Unfortunately, the impacts of climate change and desertification will continue, but thanks to our many programs, children and communities in the Western Sahel are better prepared now and for the future.