Forest fruits: new supply chains in Senegal

Joe Osman reflects on his visit to forest fruit farmers in Senegal, new partners of Traidcraft who will hopefully become fair trade producers of the future.

I’m writing this in Dakar, Senegal, at the end of a short visit to a new project. Although we’ve not worked in Senegal before, we’re following the classic Traidcraft model of development – engaging with farmers; working with them to organise; delivering training activities to increase skills; protection and preservation of the natural environment; and enabling great produce to reach markets at fairer prices and terms.

We’re working in the Casamance region in the south of the country, a place which ought to be more prosperous than it is but which has been blighted by a military conflict that goes back decades and is pretty much forgotten by the rest of the world. There’s been calm in recent years, but underlying tensions remain. There are good reasons to work here – natural resources, great people with great potential and plenty of opportunity for development.

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Casamance is a region of rich soils and great potential

The project focuses on forest fruits, with baobab probably the best known, so technically the communities we are working with are not ‘farmers’ but collectors of the fruit which grows naturally in remote forest areas. This is a key source of income for families that we met.

Crucial to the success of this project are Senegalese traders and manufacturers, social enterprises themselves who want to buy their raw materials in a fair way. I’m here with a consultant looking at some of the technical issues around these products and we hope at some stage to develop products for sale in the UK.

We visited three of the five communities we are working with, each with its own unique character, and are accompanied by one of our partner traders who has never engaged at this level before. We talk with farmers about their current business model – trading with bana-banas who act as middlemen taking produce to market, and who come with ready cash but at uncertain prices. Our aim is to develop a new supply chain which provides producers with a more predictable income. We hear about how the fruit is collected and the challenges of managing quality for perishable products, but we also see lots of enthusiasm for the project and expectation of an improved income and a better life. We talk to local dignitaries – they are vital ‘enablers’ and we need them to be fully aware of what’s going on and have their support.

We hear the mayor of one of the communities tell us that he hopes that this project will help in the process of bringing peace to the region. The link between poverty and conflict is well documented, and fair trade can contribute by enabling farmers to focus on just social and economic structures, and to put aside differences. The road toward peace in Colombia is said to have been aided in part by the development of such structures, and to hear this message from a key figure in a rural African community tarnished by conflict is an enormous encouragement.

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A community-wide meeting, under a ditakh tree

The project lasts four years. There will be challenges and setbacks as we continue the journey – but it’s a great start.

And we have a spare few hours before the flight home so time for a visit to the Island of Goree which is a mile off the coast of Dakar. It seems fitting to end the week at this preserved world heritage site which for five centuries was purported to be the largest slave trading centre on the African coast. There’s some dispute as to the number of slaves who passed through this island and the tour guide’s estimate of the number of slaves who died here even before they managed to embark seems unreal. But it’s not about numbers: it’s a symbol of one of the greatest acts of exploitation and injustice in world history and visiting is a poignant experience.

Exploitation and injustice still exists on our planet – it’s what Traidcraft seeks to address in our work. Let’s hope that this project will have huge economic impact on a region of Senegal where it’s much needed.

Joe Osman is Sourcing Director at Traidcraft.

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