Adventures in The Gambia

Article by Felicity Jones

During February I spent 3 weeks in The Gambia with the international charity Concern Universal.

The Gambia is located in West Africa, with an estimated population of 1.7 million, and it is about half the size of Wales. The dominant religion is Islam, although almost 10% of the population are Christians.

Right from the start it felt like an adventure. As I flew out from Bristol to Banjul I was very excited – it was my first trip on a plane! Fortunately, I managed to get a window seat and the skies were mostly clear, so there were some great views.

In the first week we went inland to visit rice fields, farms and women’s vegetable gardens. The most common cash crop in The Gambia is groundnuts (peanuts); other key crops include maize, rice, sorghum, millet and cassava. Often the journey around the rural areas was pretty bumpy (mostly dirt/sand roads), though the infrastructure is improving.

 Around 75% of the Gambian population are dependent upon agricultural activities for their livelihood, and the average farm size is 1.5-2 ha. The centrality of farming to people’s lives was even apparent in the amusing bill-boards advertising the mobile phone company Africell. The adverts stated that every new customer who signed up to Africell would be entered into a prize draw to ‘win free ploughing’.

The main project that I was working on with Concern Universal involved the plant Jatropha. The project aims to explore ways in which Jatropha can be used to benefit rural communities, and to investigate the carbon offsetting potential of the plant. It is funded by the Carbon Rationing Action Group (CRAG) and Caplor Farm in Fownhope; funds have also been recently secured from the British High Commission.

Jatropha is a relatively hardy plant that can grow on marginal land, and it is resistant to drought and pests. It is a biofuel, producing seeds that can be pressed to provide oil; it can also be used to make soap and has various medicinal properties. My role was to visit and report on plots where Jatropha has been grown, and to help the team to plan future activities for the project.

Jatropha has recently attracted a lot of bad press, due to the way in which large multi-national companies have cleared vast swathes of land for commercial biofuel production. In the process, they have displaced many rural communities in developing countries, on land that arguably should be used to grow food instead.

However, the project I was working on aimed to explore the potential of Jatropha for community (rather than commercial) benefit. There was a special emphasis on investigating its potential for live fencing. A common problem in The Gambia is that stray animals eat and damage crops intended for human consumption. Since animals do not like the taste of its leaves, Jatropha has strong potential for hedging. Moreover, the seeds of the plant can be used to help diversify the income of farmers, through oil or soap production.

 It wasn’t all hard work. In my spare time I visited the sheep/goat market, which was very chaotic; old tyres were used as troughs. I also enjoyed a boat trip up the Gambian river, wandered on the beach, haggled at the local market, and had three African dancing lessons.

Overall, it was a truly eye-opening experience, especially when comparing common farming practices in The Gambia with those in Herefordshire. In The Gambia, a group of women would work hard to grow and harvest 2-3 ha of rice by hand, in extreme heat and often with babies on their backs. The contrast with Herefordshire is striking, with farmers here often harvesting a hundred times this area with the aid of sophisticated machinery.

Concern Universal is working to reduce this gap. Through activities such as the Jatropha project, it is driving forward agricultural development, and in doing so, improving rural livelihoods in The Gambia.