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13 Feb 2017

News: “Diversifying agriculture in Senegal to improve their quality of life”

Lara Pereira, a pre-doctoral student at CRAG, is also the president of Cultivalia Senegal, a non-profit organization which aims to improve the quality of life of rural Senegalese families by giving them technical resources and agricultural materials. In this interview Lara talks about the role of the organization in Senegal, but also about what moved her to create this NGO and how this project has changed her life.

Lara Pereira, pre-doctoral student at CRAG, was born in A Coruña and at the age of eighteen she moved to Salamanca to study Biotechnology at University of Salamanca. Later, her studies brought her to Lleida University, where she studied a master in Plant Breeding from Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Zaragoza. Since 2014 Lara is doing her thesis on melon climacteric ripening in the “Genetics and Genomics of Vegetable Crops” group, led by Dr. Jordi Garcia-Mas. In her thesis Lara is trying to elucidate which genes are involved in the melon ripening process, using genetic, genomic and molecular tools.

One year ago, Lara founded, together with two resident physicians friends, the non-profit organization Cultivalia Senegaal, which seeks to contribute to develop a sustainable, diversified and productive agriculture that guarantees the food sovereignty of the Senegalese people.

Quinoa

How would you define the Cultivalia Senegaal project in a few words?

Cultivalia Senegaal is an organization with a very clear ideology; our project is constructive, inclusive, with innovative methodology and, at the same time, respectful with the Senegalese culture and know-how. We work for a global objective: improving the quality of life of rural Senegalese families. To do so we focus on a key aspect, the nutrition. In the rural Senegal the agriculture is the basis of the diet. We want to improve the agricultural sector to give access to a more balanced diet and improve the quality of life of rural Senegalese families.  

To achieve your goal you have three main lines of work:  crop diversification, agriculture modernization and farmer training. Could you explain them briefly? Which one represents the biggest challenge?

Firstly, the technical improvementit’s an obvious necessity. Actually, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) published a recent article about the necessity of specialized machinery in Sub-Saharan Africa. This area of action presents a clear financial challenge. On the other hand, we work on crop diversification, which we believe is essential to improve the nutrition of the rural Senegalese people. In general, they eat what they produce. Unlike technical improvement, this is not a great economical challenge, but it is a social challenge because we have to convince people to eat a food they do not know. In this sense, we are trying to introduce the quinoa. Finally, the training is a basic pillar that complements the other two lines; if you want to introduce new machines or new crops you have to teach how to use them.

You talked about quinoa, could you explain why have you chosen this crop?

Quinoa has a lot of advantages; it is very nutritional and has a high protein composition. This is the reason why we want to incorporate quinoa to their harvest and diet. Even though it is a huge challenge, it comforts us that FAO also supports this initiative, and there are already ongoing projects to introduce quinoa in Mali and Kenia. What’s more, agronomically it has many benefits: it is very versatile, there are a lot of varieties (ecotypes) adapted to different conditions, it is very resistant, tolerant to drought, to salinity, etc. For its characteristics, we think that it is feasible to find varieties that will work well in Senegal.

Cereals and peanut are the main crops in Senegal now; which is the problem with these crops?

There is no problem with the cereals they grow, millet and sorghum. Their nutritional contribution is very good; the problem is that they do not eat anything else. Our idea is not to replace millet and sorghum, but to complement them.

Lara Pereira

How have the Senegalese people welcomed this initiative?

So far the answer is very positive. With the technical improvement is very easy; when you say that you are going to help buying news machines, everyone likes it. Starting with a new crop is little more difficult, but the cooperation with the local farmers is good. The farmers attended us, we visited their plots, we asked them what they expect from us, what problems they have to face, where we should begin to help, etc.

What are your goals in five years?

Right now we are working with a pilot group of 10-12 farmers in the village of Nguéniène. Five years from now we would like to have a good bond of trust with the council and with farmers and we would like to have done, at least, a couple of technical improvement projects. Firstly, we want improve the irrigation system, because now they water by hand, which means a lot of effort, a loss of water and a limitation of the area they can cover. Secondly, we want to fence the field, because they suffer many losses due to animals that eat the crops. We are actually trying to finance this project with a crowdfunding campaign. As for the crop diversification, our first project is a two-year plan of quinoa implementation: obtain the seed, multiply it and perform two trials in Senegal to decide which variety is most useful. In 2018 we would like to be giving seeds for their harvest to the farmers. This is very ambitious, and we know that it is very difficult do it on time, but we are optimistic. Lastly, for training, we want to do courses every time we go there. The next one will be about fertilization, we have done analysis of the soil to see what nutrients are missing and, depending on the results, we want to make a fertilization training plan and implant it on our next trip.

Tell us a little about yourself. What motivated you to undertake this project?

The project comes from a trip to Morocco that we, the three founders or the organization, made. In this trip we crossed the mountains stopping in a lot of little villages, and we saw they work with very scarce resources.  At that time I told myself I should do something. It was a very revealing experience in which I asked myself: what am I doing with my life? Am I fighting for the right causes?

In cooperation there are two radical sides: people who don’t want to know, they tell themselves that even if the world is very sad he or she cannot do anything about it; and the opposite, people who change their live and move to countries that need help. We are looking for an intermediate point: we want to have a project of our own that makes us feel that we are part of the fight to change the world.

How do you coordinate Cultivalia with your work in CRAG's Plant and Animal Genomics program?

In Cultivalia we are all volunteers, we all have our work outside the organization. Of course, the things are not going as fast as we would want to, but each one of us does what we can when we can.  In my case, I do the thesis and work at CRAG and I spend my leisure time with Cultivalia. It is hard but very rewarding and fun.

What has this project brought you at a personal level?

It is a very important part of my life. I sleep better at night, I feel better with myself, I have found a balance between what was my life and what I wanted it to be.  I am aware that it is unlikely that I will live in Senegal forever, but there is a real chance to spend long seasons of my life there, and help to improve the lives of a small group of people. This may sound like very little, but we can do something to improve the quality of life of the people we work with. We do a little, others will make a little bit more, and if we all fight together, it will be a victory. If thanks to tour effort there is a child who eats better, this is a success.

We talked about the future of the organization, how do you see your future? Do you see yourself as an active part of the organization within five years?

I hope to be active in Cultivalia for many years, for me it is a long term project, but it is difficult that I devote myself just to the organization. Right now I spend my holydays in Senegal, and I want it to continue like this. I see myself living in Senegal when I finish my thesis for an indefinite period, but as I need a salary to life, it cannot be permanent.

My dream at the academic level is to collaborate with initiatives like this. I would like to work in a research group which strives to improve crops in disadvantaged regions.

Finally, if someone wants to collaborate with you, what can they do?

Everyone is welcome, it is an inclusive project! Everyone who has concerns can talk to us. There is a lot to do. You decide your level of commitment, and we will never demand more. With small contributions of time, or money, we can get a lot! I encourage people to contact us if they have questions or suggestions.

If you want to know more about Cultivalia Senegaal  you can visit its website here.