I am just back from Senegal, a country rich with history and culture. Some may know that Senegal was also the primary hub of the West African slave trade, which involved more than 20 million slaves and lasted more than 300 years. Since its independence from the French, Senegal has remained a peaceful and stable economy, but it has also remained a poor one. Like many of the nations in sub-Saharan Africa, it lacks available clean water and basic infrastructure. More than half the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day, mostly in the rural areas.
More than 550 million smallholder farmers around the world, including in Senegal, are suffering because they lack access to innovations that already exist elsewhere or could easily be designed, distributed and adopted.
As I see it, Minnesotans and Americans have a responsibility to tackle global hunger, malnutrition and poverty targeting people and places like Senegal that have a real need for our help. This state's nonprofits and business/agricultural sectors have a tradition of reaching across the ocean to make a difference.
As it has historically been in Minnesota, agriculture is the primary sector in Senegal and most African countries. Small farmers do the bulk of the work across the continent, and they are cultivating small plots, only 2 to 12 acres of land. They grow millet, sorghum, peanuts, rice, beans, tomatoes, onions, melons and other tropical fruits as part of their traditional diet. Yet because of extreme drought and the lack of availability and access to basic inputs, tools, infrastructure and markets, small farmers are left doing things the way they have done for centuries. This includes all of the laborious work after harvest to prepare and process food with a mortar and pestle, which clearly limits productivity and the ability for farmers to move much beyond small plot production and small-scale processing.
Farmers in very remote areas spend the majority of their days bent over in the hot sun. They have to prepare all the food they consume just as many of our ancestors here in Minnesota and the U.S. did. They have little time, money or space for education, starting a business or picking up a new hobby.
When it comes to harvesting and processing food, Senegalese women do 90 percent of the work. And, between collecting water and firewood, tending the field, transforming the crops into food, cleaning up and taking care of the children, they spend almost their entire day working. Female farmers are the most marginalized and vulnerable in the rural sector, and by not changing this, we put children and families at risk. We also lose an opportunity to strengthen economic opportunities for the other half of the population.
Unemployment is high in Senegal and in many other developing countries. People want to work, but they need paying jobs.
Minnesotans and Americans can help to tackle global hunger, malnutrition and poverty by targeting people and places like Senegal that have a real need for our help.
We know we can make a real difference by providing simple innovations and programs for those who need them most.
We should focus on value chain development for select crops in certain regions such as pearl millet and sorghum that can grow in drought areas because they do not require much water. Or peanuts because they are nitrogen-fixing.
We can strengthen basic human rights by freeing up time for women so they don't have to spend 18-20 hours of their day working. And we should develop personal capacity by providing simple technologies and training small-scale food processors at the village level, strengthening their collective agency and nutrition.
In the U.S., thanks to technology and innovation, we have great examples of success. We have diversified our food and agriculture both for large and small farming. We have developed sophisticated business models to capture food markets. Our consumers have the choice to buy packaged, nutritious food. And we are leading ventures around the world.
We know that we are stronger by teaching and investing in others. This means working to reach those farmers, the ones who are still waiting for our help, to provide basic farming tools and training to be able to thrive and compete in their local economies. This kind of leadership is a Minnesota tradition that we all need to foster.
Compatible Technology International (CTI) is a local organization whose model is developed with this leadership. Founded in St. Paul 35 years ago by engineers from local food companies, CTI is creating a demand-driven model for innovations and high-quality food supply. We work with local family farmers and partners in Africa. We collaborate with volunteer employees from Minnesota companies who work in Africa such as General Mills, Cargill, Buhler, Thomson Reuters and Peace Coffee, who share expertise to make a positive difference in so many people's lives.
Our technologies and programs are helping people in 40 countries and we've reached 500,000 people. But together as a community that cares, there is so much more to do.
Alexandra Spieldoch is the executive director of Compatible Technology International, a nonprofit based in St. Paul.