Agriculture Reform in Africa: In a Gambian Village, Learning From a Local Champion

NJAWARA, The Gambia — This village in the North Bank region has throughout its history been both in the international spotlight and on the brink of collapse. Queen Elizabeth came through here in 1961, in the waning years of British rule; and this was once a key commercial hub inhabited by Lebanese traders. But around three decades ago, Njawara was in danger of becoming a ghost town. After the traders departed, most natives flocked to the urban areas of the West Coast region.

Fully aware of the fate that could befall their home if nothing was done, Badarra Jobe, founder ofthe Njawara Agricultural Training Center, along with the village chief made a bold decision: to return to their land. In doing so, they both gave up comfortable urban lifestyles.

Now Njawara has re-established its connection to international players — this time it’s neither for political nor commercial purposes, but rather for agricultural development.

In 1990, Jobe started the Njawara Agricultural Training Center, which trains farmers in ecological agriculture and builds the capacity of farmers to disseminate knowledge throughout their community. He is the recipient of an Ashoka Fellowship, awarded to social entrepreneurs all over the world who are selected for their innovative solutions to social issues. He was one of 100 people chosen by the World Bank to go to Washington to present his project proposal on farmer-led value addition, allowing farmers to conduct on-farm processing and thus get a higher price for their crop. Last year, he traveled to Iowa to attend the symposium of the World Food Prize, the annual award given to the person who has made the greatest contribution to fighting world hunger.

In learning Jobe’s story, most encouraging to me was that linking local-level agriculture initiatives to transnational networks really has the potential to make an impact. It’s a two-way street: Jobe has the opportunity to learn from prominent experts, and people all over the world can learn about his own work and possibly apply Jobe’s ideas to other parts of the developing world. Yet as I visited farmers in Njawara, it hit me that all the complex concepts about “smallholder farmers” discussed by outside experts are completely foreign to the actual people on the ground who purportedly will benefit from agricultural development.

And that’s exactly where people like Badarra Jobe come into play. Given his international exposure and his standing in the Njawara community, he is precisely well-positioned to make sure that farmers are indeed benefiting from the ideas that sometimes may appear a bit abstract when talked about in comfortable offices in Western cities. Jobe said he knows that his training center can have the biggest impact if its focuses on equipping farmers with the skills to spread best practices in their communities.

Both in the Gambia and when I visited Kenya earlier this year, I’ve really come to appreciate the importance of what I call “local champions”: the people who not only understand the complexity of agricultural development in the same way that Western experts do, but are able to deploy that information to improve the food security and livelihoods of farmers in their community. To use a sports analogy, they are what my dad and I would deem “wily veterans” — they have the most experience and know how to perform in the most crucial moments. In Kenya, my favorite “local champion” was Samuel Nderuti, director of the Grow Biointensive Agriculture Center, who received an Honorable Mention award at the Community Food Security Coalition’s conference last year in San Franscisco. (I wrote about Samuel’s organization in this column).

Jobe does not even have a college degree, but as he relayed to me one particular story about soil conservation in Njawara, one could have easily thought he was a college professor. Farmers on the village’s more elevated land had been planting their crop rows in alignment with the slope, leading to soil and water erosion. Not only was this depleting those very soils’ fertility, but the soil began to infiltrate the lowland farming areas, and the mixing of soil types was detrimental for lowland rice production. So Jobe intervened and taught the farmers to practice “contour farming” — planting across the slope — which averted such problems.

The foresight of Jobe and the village chief in returning to their rural home is a vital lesson for the rest of their country today. President Yahya Jammeh has called on Gambians to go “back to the land” as a way to boost food self-sufficiency. What Njawara represents is a repudiation of the idea that all Gambians should aspire to migrate to the urban areas.