Tiyeda Abalah

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Tiyeda Abalah's work was prepared when Tiyeda Abalah was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .

Introduction

Tiyeda Abalah has laid the foundation for the revival of a creative and forward thinking agro-pastoral approach to small-scale farming in Togo and neighboring Central Sahel. Her work has been built upon the principles of organic and sustainable cultivation. With a series of critical foundation steps now in place, Tiyeda wants to take the next step in her work: To launch a Sahel-wide youth movement to bring young people back to “abandoned land” and make it suitable for small-scale agro-pastoral production.

L'idée nouvelle

After diligently working to demonstrate a process of how previously marginal lands can be reclaimed and reincorporated into productive farming areas, Tiyeda was able to attain the government buy-in that resulted in the widespread adoption of her model in Togo. Curricula of agricultural schools, as well as that of the national university in Togo, now teach students how to become successful small-scale farmers based on the principles of organic and sustainable cultivation on lands that have been previously considered “unusable” for a host of reasons, including drought.

With a critical mass of graduates returning to farming communities in Togo, and with interest from neighboring countries to establish similar schools, Tiyeda is focusing on uniting young people in a regional network through which they can play an active role in spreading this message to the furthest reaches of the Sahel. Everywhere struggling farmers and former farmers find themselves unable to make a living as previously fertile lands lay dormant; this network will demonstrate and teach others that bio-farming is indeed the tool for reviving discarded lands. More importantly, they will work together to continue incorporating more nuanced ideas that may already be floating around the Sahel. With these ideas, a cohort can influence their respective governments and the general population to embrace their vision of a new, rejuvenated, and sustainable small-scale commercial farming industry that raises the standard of living for those currently on the edge of poverty.

Le problème

Northern and Central Togo and neighboring areas of Benin have traditionally been suitable for a mix of small scale farming and the cultivation of animals, such as sheep and goats. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the area began to experience sharper periods of drought. Concurrently, the military-style government of Lomé spawned a popular resistance and the government was highly suspicious of initiatives in the rural areas. Believing that dissidents hid there, very little time and money was spent investing in rural areas. The next generation of would-be farmers also struggled to receive relevant agricultural education that would help them revive the sector. By the 1980s, a combination of government focus on the mining of phosphate and a lack of profit reinvestment in the farming sector led to an exodus of existing small farmers to Lomé, where many struggled to get any real footing.

The result is that throughout Togo, and many parts of the Sahel, a similar reality can be observed in rural areas: Existing farms are not well farmed, and drought and underinvestment has pushed back the boundaries of what kind of land people think they can use. In fact, more than 1,000 square kilometers in Togo, and throughout Central Sahel, lies abandoned, considered unusable because of its poor condition. Further complicating this reality is the belief that such lands are in fact an enormous graveyard, where the spirits of the ancestors of those who moved off the land reside in the stone-filled soil; therefore, reengaging with such land is considered a faux-pas.

La stratégie

Tiyeda is currently in a position to leverage hundreds of graduates from farm schools whose curricula she heavily influenced because of the work she started over twenty-five years ago. Creating a farm from abandoned land on the outskirts of a village in Baga, she and her husband were able to model the kinds of bio-farming techniques that could resuscitate lands previously considered permanently unusable. Tiyeda formalized this into a Farm Learning Center and began to teach sustainable farming techniques to skeptical local villagers, and when this proved successful, to their relatives—some of whom had left the rural area and moved to Lomé. Tiyeda specifically focused on young people, recognizing the importance of getting the next generation involved in embracing what could be a new reality of creative, productive, and sustainable small-scale commercial farming, that would reduce unemployment rates and increase the standard of living across the Sahel.

To overcome the obstacle of trying to get access to lands that were technically abandoned, but considered possessed by the spirits of deceased family members, Tiyeda approached the families and worked with them to arrive at the conclusion that the spirit-possessed stones were actually better kept with them, wherever they had relocated. She also negotiated exchanges, where families transferred their rights to the abandoned land to newly interested (often young) farmers in exchange for other services.

Twenty years demonstrating her model of land reclamation and regeneration led to national and international recognition, once the many hundreds of young people who had been inspired by spending time at her Farm Learning Center later moved into positions of influence in Lomé’s government and business sectors. In 2005, the Government of Togo made her an offer to become formally involved in re-thinking how to prepare young people for careers in farming, realizing that a rejuvenated small-scale farming industry could indeed do a lot to reduce unemployment, and poverty rates. Tiyeda seized this opportunity, which led to her chairing a committee which recommended a major overhaul of schools and educational curricula—with a focus on sustainable small farming, including the reclamation of abandoned farmland.

With the public education infrastructure in place in Togo, Tiyeda has put in place a management team to replace her in running the model school at her first learning center, as well as spearheading the creation of the national agricultural school curriculum. Now she will draw on her and her husband’s experience inspiring approximately one thousand young people to become full-time farmers in the region, and the resultant ability to influence government to spread this model throughout the Sahel. Tiyeda is organizing systematic outreach to young people, many of whom are graduates of her schools, to create a grassroots-based, pan-African network of social entrepreneurs dedicated to launching locally anchored movements to reclaim large areas of abandoned farmland. Consequently, she plans to spend at least half her time out of the country, connecting with young people and small farmers in Africa and elsewhere, to spur interest in encouraging local movements and linking them together.

La personne

Tiyeda was born in Ghana on June 8, 1955. Her father and mother emigrated from Togo, traveling by foot and looking for well-paying jobs to meet the needs of a family of five children. Tiyeda remembers that her father tirelessly described the Togo that she did not know. These stories sharpened her thirst to see the country of her father with its beautiful landscapes, its valorous working men and women, herds of animals led by small shepherds, majestic trees and captivating flora, and so on. Tiyeda continually dreamed of the day when she would return to her native country.

Inspired by her parents’ work ethic, as well as her own passion for learning, Tiyeda enrolled at the University of Lomé (Togo) in 1976, and later at the Sorbonne in Paris. She received degrees in literature at both institutions.

After meeting Seda, another displaced Togolese, Tiyeda married and moved back to her native country with the hope of changing the face of her parent’s village of Baga (1983). The couple was soon confronted with life’s realities. They were heavily indebted from finishing their studies, and living in Lomé without work and two children to feed. Determined to get to work revitalizing rural areas, Tiyeda decided Seda would return first and Tiyeda would remain working in Lomé until their student loans were paid, and money was put aside to invest in creating a “model farm”—to attract young people to reclaim abandoned land and take up sustainable small farming.

In 1987 Tiyeda moved from Lomé, where she had been a teacher, back to the village to join her husband and begin the effort to create a farm educational center on the farm Seda put together from abandoned land. She began teaching, and in the late 1980s and through much of the 1990s many people approached her to expand her program, but because the government suspected rebels of hiding in rural areas, she thought it unwise to formally expand her work. In fact, the farm was frequently visited by police, but because she did not harbor rebels, no action was taken against them. At the same time, by word of mouth, the success of their farm spread, and they began to receive international recognition.

Soon after came changes in the government, and the national recognition that facilitated Tiyeda to truly spread her idea of small-scale farming.