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Senegal: Field Visits and Preparing for Training ANPEJ Executives

So much has happened in the last two weeks here in Senegal. Billie, Ruben, and I set off on a seven-day trip to make field visits to incubation center sites in MBour, Bambey, Linguere, and Richard Toll. Accompanying us were Pape Oumar Diagne and Youssouph Sane from Winrock International. They translate for us, handle logistics, and guide us through the cultural aspects of Senegal that the team has quickly become much more accustomed to. Getting to these four cities required many hours spent in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, driving along roads that ran the gamut of quality. Some hours were spent on modern highways not unlike Interstate-17 which gets one to Thunderbird in Phoenix, and other times we bumped along trails through fields at 20 km/h.  

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At MBour we met with members of the local Fishing Federation who, years ago, had set aside two buildings to be used as incubation centers. They received donations of some fish processing machinery, but not enough support from the government to figure out how to configure a classroom setting and a practice production space for community members to learn modern fish processing techniques. Advancing from the traditional methods currently used would enable them to buy seafood cheap, process and store it using best practice food safety measures, and then sell their final product when prices are higher. The people we met with were honest and humble when describing their lack of knowledge regarding using any type of machinery in the fish processing industry. It quickly became clear to us that they did have strong business acumen and unwavering motivation to give the youth in their community better skills.

Next on our trip we visited the Silane Farm outside of Bambey. This was easily the most remote site we visited, requiring about 90 minutes of driving on a dirt road that had been badly damaged during the rainy season, which is coming to a close. Potential incubation center students from the nearest village would have to walk for at least 30 minutes to get to the Silane Farm, but if a center becomes active there, students will be walking from much farther. Upon arrival we were surprised that an audience of at least 20 youth and community leaders had made the journey on foot to greet us and show us their operation. The farm is in its first production cycle. Watermelons and tomatoes were taking root. A large shed held maybe 500 chickens. A recent delivery of baby mesquite trees from a nursery leaning against a storage building would be planted along the border of the 2-hectare property to beautify and strengthen the fencing being installed. The rainy season had provided plenty of water for the crops, but the dry season is quickly approaching. The farm has an agreement with the National Agency of Aquaculture to be allowed to pump water out of two nearby ponds during the dry season, but no plans have been made to get a contractor to install a system of PVC piping to bring the water into the farm. We were told that the surrounding communities have roughly 400 youth that are unemployed and interested in learning modern farming skills. These youths have access to land belonging to their families that is underutilized. ANPEJ tells us that they have a tractor that will be given to the farm (and used by community members) as soon as an incubation center operational strategy and management structure are in place. Looking around, the only buildings on the land were the chicken coop, three storage rooms, and a large porch. Where will students be able to sit in desks and take classes on business and modern farming practices? We do not know yet.

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Two days later we arrived at the center we were the most excited to see, as we had been told this one was closest to being operational as an incubator. This was the dairy production center in Linguere, Louga. The compound was small but modern. We were met by two women who have received advanced education in dairy and fruit processing. They both completed internships at factories run by industry leaders in dairy processing. At the center we saw some modern pasteurizing equipment, milk pumps for cows, and quality testing equipment I will not pretend to understand the complexities of. The two cows at the center were both pregnant, so they will not be milkable for quite some time. Right now, a nearby American run farm donates just 10L of milk to the dairy center each day that is processed into milk or yogurt, which is sold or given as samples to people in Linguere. The lack of access to milk leaves these technical experts with idle hands. We asked why they are not buying up the supply of milk that we see being sold on the side of the road from buckets by local women. Our experts told us that they can only use milk from a cow whose vaccinations are up-to-date and verifiable. Before these women can pass on their expertise to youth who can start microenterprises, the center either needs more of its own cows, or the whole community needs a way to get cows vaccinated and keep track of those vaccinations. We thought that this lack of access to milk was their greatest challenge, but when asked, the experts told us that their greatest hurdle will be to convince community members that the health benefits from drinking pasteurized milk are worth paying a premium for. Having grown up only ever consuming pasteurized dairy in the U.S., the thought had never crossed my mind that some people in the world might not buy into the whole pasteurized is safer mindset.

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The last city we visited, Richard Toll, is in sugar cane country on the border of Mauritania. The potential incubation center there has the nicest and largest building of all the centers we visited. The people that met us there informed us that the government gifted the community the building ten years ago without a concrete plan for what to do with it. In 2006 a two-week training program on grain processing was hosted at the building for 25 women. Some loans were given to them. The loans were defaulted on and no microenterprises were started. We do not want that to happen again. When asking the attendees of our meeting what industries youth and women should be trained in at this facility they give us a list: making tomato paste, processing hibiscus juice, grain processing, soap manufacturing, and textile embellishment. They have lofty goals. We explain that the center will have to start small, just specializing in the industry that is the most profitable or that will lead to the most jobs for youth in the community. Then we get to the subject of attendees. One community leader believes that the first incubation attendees should be the same 25 women who got a taste of grain processing a decade ago. The principal of the local secondary school thinks that the high-school dropouts should be the first to receive skills training at the center because it will rehabilitate them and give them something to do. Our team left scratching our heads. If government resources are going to be poured into developing a center where the goal is to train people in skills that make them employable or empower them to start microenterprises, then the people who should be given priority are those that are most likely to succeed in finding work after having been given new skills. How can we convince this community that our idea of who is most likely to succeed is a better than their altruistic opinions about who should be incubated first?  

We returned to Dakar just days before the Tabaski holiday. Sane informed us that Senegal consumes roughly 800,000 sheep during this Muslim celebration. We probably saw 50,000 of those sheep being herded across the countryside during our seven-day trip. We knew that our stakeholders and Winrock support staff would be spending time with family, so we largely spent the first five days back in Dakar researching things like best practices for running farming cooperatives, how bank loans work in Senegal, and reports by the African Development Bank on food security, etc.  

Three days ago we found out that from Sept 20- 23 we will be spending five hours a day with ten ANPEJ executives and four representatives from the centers we visited. We will walk them through our findings in the field and describe to them all of the recommendations we have come up with regarding how to choose the location and industry specialization of new centers. We will discuss how to determine the cost of operating a center, what roles need to be filled at the ANPEJ and incubation center levels, and how to constantly modify curriculum based on how successfully graduates can find good work, etc.

This consulting project has thus far been a wonderful experience for Billie, Ruben, and me. The challenges and ambiguity we have faced have accelerated our management and problem solving abilities better than any typical masters class back in the U.S. could. There are still two more weeks of our TEM Lab before we come home to share our experience with the Thunderbird student body. I urge students of any discipline to seek out programs that get them out of the classroom and into the field. The best learning happens in distant lands among different cultures.