Five years ago, in the fall of 2013, I celebrated my 20th birthday in the rural Senegalese village of Ndiaye Bope, located about 50 miles to the northeast of Dakar. The next day, my host brother, Adama, gave me a tour of his family farm. “These are our peppers,” he told me. “And over here, we are growing bissap [hibiscus].” As he showed me each vegetable species growing on the land, explained how to draw up water from the well, and offered me a taste of fresh-squeezed goat milk, it became clear that he was proud of his farm, but he wasn’t actually the one who worked on it. Instead, it was his 60-year-old mother who worked long hours in the fields, often hunched over with manual tools like hoes and sickles to complete her work.
I haven’t been back to Ndiaye Bope since 2013, but I know that today the family farm is a drastically different place, most likely for the better. I can say this with certainty because Senegal is at a critical juncture in its development; currently ranked 110th in the world in GDP PPP, President Macky Sall’s Emerging Senegal Plan (ESP) aims to transform Senegal into a middle-income country by 2035. The plan consists of three central tenets, which together will structurally transform the economy and improve the physical, social, and financial well-being of the population. In many ways, the plan is all-encompassing, with ambitious projects reaching far into the fishing, infrastructure, energy, urban development, and agriculture sectors.
Key to the realization of the ESP’s lofty goals is a total transformation of Senegal’s agricultural production; while the sector makes up just 15 percent of the country’s GDP, it employs roughly 54 percent of the population, most of whom are rural smallholder farmers like Adama’s mother.
Although there still remains much work to be done, the ESP’s plans for agricultural reform have already borne fruit. According to the World Bank, peanut production rose 268 percent from 2011 to 2017, and the seven percent growth in GDP seen in 2017 was achieved in part thanks to increased agricultural production and climate-smart agriculture. The growth is creating an attractive and potentially lucrative environment for investors who may have otherwise overlooked the small market.
But while the ESP prioritizes projects that increase the production of cereals, peanuts, rice, and other agricultural products, finding the manpower to grow them may be no easy task. In the time I spent with him touring his village natal, Adama made it clear to me that he was home just for my stay and planned to return to Zinguinchor, a city in the Casamance region of Senegal, where he worked odd jobs to supplement the meager income of his mother’s farm. Adama’s case is not unique; roughly 60 percent of Senegal’s population of 15.8 million people are below the age of 24, and rural populations are dwindling as people, mainly young men, move to urban centers in search of employment opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. It is critical, then, that the Senegalese government engage its growing youth population and make agriculture an attractive employment option for young people entering the workforce.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that many Senegalese youth have a negative perception of agriculture and aspire to achieve a material success that can only be obtained by leaving the agricultural sector for greener pastures in management or finance. They are not alone; because aspirations are formed within a broader social context, the aspirations of African youth are increasingly influenced by the culture, media, and lifestyles of high-income countries and urban centers. Consequently, many young Senegalese view agriculture as a form of traditional employment that is fundamentally at-odds with a glamorous and profitable lifestyle.
This perception of agriculture as an unprofitable “employer of last resort” is also due in part to the fact that farming in Senegal has traditionally been grueling work consisting of long hours and hard manual labor. For many small farmers in rural Senegal, food production is further hindered by a lack of reliable access to water, land, inputs, and mechanical equipment that could ease the burden of work. Without relevant modern technologies and knowledge, farmers may also be unable to think beyond the boundaries of their family farms using the agricultural knowledge handed down to them by their parents and grandparents.
Agricultural education and technological innovation, then, are critical pieces of the puzzle. Today, more Senegalese youth are educated than ever before thanks to efforts to achieve Millennium Development Goal 2 (universal primary schooling). However, as African youth become more educated, they aspire towards vocations that match their educational attainment in both status and prestige, and the current state of agriculture in Senegal does not fit the bill. As a result, youths that participate in the agricultural sector are often those that lack other options for upward mobility. Yet, the burgeoning population of educated youth in Senegal may actually be an asset because higher levels of educational attainment are associated with greater economic returns; in other words, the more educated and skilled an individual is, the more likely they are to seek and take advantage of income-boosting opportunities, including the adoption of relevant technologies. Through a concerted investment in agricultural education and technologies, then, the Senegalese state may help its youth begin to see farming not as a last resort but rather as a business, a science, and a profession. By inserting agriculture into the curricula, facilitating access to value chains, offering incentives such as land and inputs, and creating accessible commodity exchanges that offer real-time market information, Senegal may succeed in turning agriculture into a profitable, sophisticated, and desirable career path for young adults.
What is clear, then, is that the Emerging Senegal Plan has its work cut out for it; youth are the future of Senegal and especially the future of Senegalese agriculture. Only once perceptions change and agriculture becomes a profitable option for young, educated Senegalese can the ESP’s agricultural goals truly be realized. And who knows, maybe one day soon Adama will return to Ndiaye Bope to rejoin his family on their plot of land.