Badara Jobe has developed a grassroots, farmer-to-farmer approach to sustainable agriculture that builds capacity and self-reliance to confront the climate changes characteristic of the Gambia and surrounding countries in West Africa. His approach, which encourages farmers to use innovative farming techniques as well as to be creative problem-solvers, is being replicated in four areas on either side of the Gambia River. Badara is working with Ashoka Fellow Binta Sarr in Senegal to bring this approach to farming communities near the border between the two countries.
To achieve sustainable farming, Badara has developed an approach that cultivates and strengthens farmers’ abilities to produce successful crop yields despite climate changes. His core insight is that fluctuations in an already short rainy season introduce a new and complicating set of variables for farmers. Even a missed day of rain or slight decreases in rainfall intensity over a few days can jeopardize certain crops in ways that were not previously understood. What is needed is not simply agricultural diversification, but hedging strategies that involve cultivation in precisely calibrated but small areas for a range of different crops tied to particular seed varieties. The objective is that, should the worst case scenario happen, the plot will still yield sufficient “food energy” to sustain a farmer and his family to the end of the dry season. Areas of focus include the integration of crop cultivation, animal husbandry, planting of cover for forage, and shade crop cultivation. Farmers are also trained to counter to the emergence of pests that respond to these and other changes in the balance of the local ecosystem. To build their confidence, farmers learn on a self-sustaining “core” farm run by local farmers that is within a radius of twenty kilometres and contains many of the same climatic and other variables they face at home. Post-training follow up with farmers ensures that they are confident and motivated to establish their own self-sustaining farm as a resource to other local farmers in their area. Ultimately, farmers learn how to achieve independence and no longer risk dependence on donations or government programs aimed at establishing cash crops and other unreliable agricultural methods. As a next step, Badara is engaging social entrepreneurs who can establish their own training centers to work with those in their farming communities. Through the expansion of his network and integration of leading farmers, he can reach a larger number of communities and foster even more communication, innovation, and community-based development. He has also begun to work with Senegalese farmers along the border, spreading farther into West Africa.
The rainy season in the coastal zone of West Africa is both brief—sometimes lasting as little as six weeks—and unpredictable in terms of frequency and intensity of rainfall. A significant reduction in crop yields can occur, causing poverty and in extreme cases, famine, throughout the region. Trained in colonial-era agricultural techniques, such as cash cropping and Western methods not applicable to the natural environment of the region, farmers are left with little recourse to the rising climate challenges for their livelihoods. Traditional techniques are either lost or ill-adapted to current circumstances, and contemporary methods are not viable alternatives given social and environmental realities. A mix and application of both past and present, keeping in mind the current climate and environmental changes, is needed.Government intervention in the Gambian agricultural sector has not led to a vibrant farm economy. Government-run training centers have generated little success with a focus on cash cropping and other politically driven methods rather than engaging local farmers to come up with viable, appropriate solutions to their problems. While the impacts of climatic variation in the Sahel are generally well-known by academics, local farmers have been left to come up with on-the-ground solutions. The cumulative effect along either side of the river Gambia where Badara began his work mirrors the situation in much of West Africa. Areas that were once major sources of food for urban areas have experienced dramatic declines in production. Farmers, unable to maintain their farms without ways to endure climate challenges, are losing their livelihoods.Former farmers and others have begun to flee rural areas in search of new work. When Badara returned to his native village of Serrekunda to begin his work in 1986, less than half the original population remained. Those who stayed were either elderly or farmers who relied at least in part on remittances from extended family living in Banjul, the Gambia’s capital. With little or no success in farming and no organized local support network, rural populations, especially young people, are forced to make new lives elsewhere, creating strain and increasing poverty in urban areas.
While Badara helps farmers learn how to balance and integrate different types of cultivation, he does not offer these farmers a formula, for the simple reason that each farmer faces different environmental variables, such as the availability of groundwater. Those with abundant water from shallow wells, for example, are encouraged to place more emphasis on vegetable farming, while those with less water are encouraged to start off placing more emphasis on raising animals. Farmers are encouraged to share their experiences and expertise while in training in order to build methods and techniques that are both culturally and environmentally appropriate. Farmers engage with each other during their training, creating a model of interactive learning that is fundamentally different from the government-led training approach.In 1998 Badara launched his citizen organization, the Njawara Agricultural Training Centre, and received funds from a donor to construct a small dormitory on his farm to house thirty farmers during their three months of training. Farmers who take part in Badara’s program do not pay for the privilege. They collectively farm while at the training center and receive a portion of the produce to sustain themselves and their families. To sustain the core farm, Badara also sells a portion of the produce to buy seeds and tools. Farmers spend three months at a core farm, learning farming techniques, animal husbandry, and agro-forestry. They then return to their farms for three months to test what they have learned, and then finally return to the training center for another three month period. To increase farming participation within villages, Badara has devised ways to include women and young people in the training programs so that each family can have a representative. He has instituted a baby-sitting system to allow mothers to train without the distraction of childcare. One of Badara’s chief areas of concern is “backyard animals” like cows, sheep, and goats. Village populations release them to seek forage during the height of the dry season when their own stocks of forage run low. To solve this problem Badara is using his network of “successfully integrated” farmers to lobby village councils to enact regulations that curb stray animals. As an alternative, Badara shows village women how a “backyard management system” can provide more lasting nutritional value than a goat or cow. Not all of the farmers who come for Badara’s programs go home and immediately embrace all that they have learned. What Badara has found is that the process of accumulating enough experience in a particular twenty kilometre radius takes anywhere from five to ten years, and then these farmers have enough shared experience to have the confidence to organize their own self-sustained core farm to work with farmers in their area in a more organized way. At this point, there is normally a nucleus of ten to fifteen farmers in the area who have shifted to integrated cultivation. Since 2004, Badara has worked directly with 500 farmers in 150 villages, leading to the launch of four additional core farms in the Gambia that employ his model of farmer-to-farmer teaching and training. Badara’s recent spread into Senegal, where the unifying non-tribal language is French, rather than the English spoken in the Gambia, is the beginning of wider regional scale.
Badara was born in the rural area of Serrekunda and completed his primary education in Njawara while farming using local techniques. In 1971 he moved to the capital Banjul to pursue his higher education. He worked as a geology assistant and then as a manager in the Gambia cooperative union before returning full-time to his extended family’s farm in 1986, following the death of his father. He found the village he loved so dearly to be empty and lifeless, with much of the population gone in pursuit of work or living in poverty due to poor crop yields and other farming problems. He began to explore ways to bring the village back to its original state and to retain the village populace, especially young people.Badara’s first goal was to integrate the farms and make them sustainable. His early experiments with tree planting failed, as did some of his crop schemes, but with the help of other farmers he was able to locate good seed and make other changes that allowed integration to go forward. To learn additional agricultural techniques, he attended the Bicton College of Agriculture in the U.K. in 1995 and participated in an agriculture program in New Jersey in the U.S. During this period he received repeated visits from an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who urged him to pursue his dream: To turn his farm into a place where other farmers could come to learn and gain the same confidence he had gradually gained. With five core farms underway in the Gambia, Badara feels he can now accommodate the interest of nearby West African farming communities.