International Day of Rural Women : Meeting with Dado Baldé, head of the Resilient women and agriculture project in Senegal

News | Published at: October 14 2021

An agricultural engineer, Dado Baldé, 49 years of age, joined CECI in 2017. First recruited for a volunteer position in Dakar, she now lives in the city of Kolda, from where she leads the Resilient Women and Agriculture (FAR) project, which provides support to women and young women producers in southern and southwestern Senegal, whose living conditions are challenged by the impacts of climate change. 

On the occasion of the International Day of Rural Women, celebrated on October 15, Dado Baldé offers us a glimpse into the reality of these women of Casamance, whose strength and determination she praises. She also talks about the stakes of this five-year project which aims to make women, who are today the first victims of the impacts of climate change, key players in the sustainable changes of tomorrow.

You were born and raised in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. How did a city girl like you decide to dedicate her life to agriculture?

My father and mother are originally from the Kolda region. It is here, in their native region, in Casamance, in the south of Senegal, that we spent our vacations. We came back all the time, and it was on these occasions that I became interested in agriculture and understood, by living among these communities, what life was like for these rural women.

During the vacations, it was rare that I could spend a day with my grandmother. She would leave early in the morning and return late in the evening; like the other women, she was busy with rice production and upland crops such as peanuts and corn. In the off-season, she grew and sold vegetables. My grandmother used to tell us that it was by selling the vegetables from the garden, which she grew during the dry season, that she was able to pay for my mother's and uncles' schooling. With rudimentary means of production, women producers have participated in the development of agriculture in the regions of Kolda, Tambacounda and Sédhiou.

So I learned to love agriculture by observing the commitment and determination of women who succeeded in providing for their families. And seeing the pride that these women and men felt! What could be more rewarding than being a farmer, working to support and feed your family and an entire community? When my father asked me what I wanted to do after high school, I didn't hesitate. It was agriculture and nothing else!

You first worked as a facilitator in the natural resource management and resource substitution program, then as a development officer for food security programs at World Vision. For nearly a decade, you worked in different communities in the region of southern Senegal, considered the agricultural breadbasket of the country, and spent a lot of time with the women of Casamance, whom you got to know better. What do you think best describes them?

Their bravery and self-sacrifice!  They participate enormously in the economic development of their village. They are very present in the households, they take care of the domestic work, of the education of the children, of their primary care and they are strongly involved in social cohesion. They are everywhere!

But, unlike the previous generation, today's women producers, and rural women in general, are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Their production systems are becoming more fragile and they are not prepared to face them.

Thanks to a Ford Foundation scholarship, you had the opportunity to do your Master's degree in International Studies at Laval University in Quebec City. You then returned to Africa, first to Burkina Faso, then to Senegal as a volunteer with CECI. At what point did you become aware of the reality of the impacts of climate change in this region?

I can't say exactly when the impacts started to be felt, but it is certain that since my return, in the last 5 years, I have noticed enormous changes compared to the early 2000s, especially if we look at the level of rainfall.

Twenty years ago, the rainy season started at the beginning of May. Nowadays, to have a good rainfall, you have to wait until July. And the consequences for food security are enormous.

Let's take the example of corn: it could be sown in May, with the first harvest in August, and this would allow families to have food and to cope with the lean periods. We could sow again in August, for another harvest in October. Rainfall allowed us to sow as many times as we could, and the granaries where we kept the rice, corn, and peanut harvests allowed us to meet the food needs of the households for a whole year. With my grandmother's stock of rice, we could eat until the next rainy season.

Today, this is no longer possible. This year, with unstable rainfall, it will be very difficult for households to feed their families for more than 4 or 5 months. The granaries are no longer filled. Moreover, the very word "granary" is disappearing...

How are women more vulnerable than men to the impacts of climate change?

Today, with the climatic conditions that we know, traditional agriculture can no longer ensure food security for a whole family and a whole year. This subsistence agriculture needs to be adapted and modernized.

Women depend on local natural resources for their livelihoods and those of their families, especially in rural areas where they bear the burden of family responsibilities such as water supply, fuel collection for cooking and heating, and food security.

In addition, unlike men, women have limited access to technical training, information, and productive resources (land, water, agricultural tools and equipment, inputs, etc.) and this perpetuates economic and social inequalities.

The Resilient Women and Agriculture (FAR) project aims not only to strengthen the food security of women producers, but also to empower them socio-economically by providing them with greater access to irrigated agriculture. Advocacy for access to productive resources, equipment and land for rural women is at the heart of the project. Can you tell us about it?

The right of rural women to access productive resources is a central issue in our zone. Women and young people represent nearly 70% of the agricultural workforce in Senegal. If this workforce does not have access to productive resources, we will never be able to talk about food security, nor about improving the economic conditions of communities. And women will never be able to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Today, as we have said, with the decrease in rainfall, not to mention the increase in temperature, we can no longer confine ourselves to rainfed crops, we must develop irrigated crops. We must provide technical support to women, so they can position themselves within the value chains of irrigated crops and can capture the wealth from production and marketing.

So what we are saying to the state and customary authorities, to religious leaders, to village chiefs, to mayors, to decision-makers, is: we must review the financing systems! Do not confine us to micro-credits, micro-loans, micro-gardens. Give us the opportunity to access productive resources. If I need $1000 to buy a motor pump to irrigate my garden, don't just give me $500 because I'm a woman! If I need to fence my garden, install an efficient irrigation system just like a man would, give me substantial investments!

And give me secure land with a land title that will allow me to guarantee these loans and investments, and that will also allow me to perpetuate my activities. Because the traditional land law allows a woman to use a land without it belonging to her. But the owner can come any day and claim the land she has developed, and she will lose all the investments that have been made. So yes, we must move towards this irrigated agriculture, but there are prerequisites. Access to financing, and control and ownership of land are central elements of our advocacy efforts.

Beyond this central and essential advocacy, how concretely does the FAR project accompany women producers in this necessary transition to irrigated agriculture?

The project supports producers in the banana, rice and vegetable production sectors through a program of capacity building through farmer field schools. The trainings focus on, among other things, innovative production techniques, but also about the gender equality approach: the objective is that women can better know their rights and the Senegalese legislation, but also that men become aware of these rights and become allies in this fight. What must be understood at this level is that this discrimination against women is not the sole responsibility of men, but of our societies, which are patriarchal. But, as we say, if men are part of the problem, they must also be part of the solution.

Women also need to understand that they have the right to ask for land and not rely only on inheritance or loan. If a woman wants to get land, but does not know the procedures to follow, this is a problem.

As such, the project strengthens their leadership so that they can position themselves at the decision-making level, where strategic decisions are made. They are empowered to become entrepreneurs and to position themselves in all links of the agricultural value chain. They must have the possibility to say no to certain policies, to give their opinions.  They must be listened to, and not have decisions made for them.

At the same time, large developments ranging from 5 to 7 hectares are planned for the economic interest groups (EIGs) benefiting from the project, composed of 60% women, 20% youth and 20% men. In these developments, the EIGs are supported with agricultural equipment, such as innovative irrigation systems.

We believe in the strength and leadership of women to better participate in the development of their region. They want to and can position themselves within the value chains of irrigated crops targeted by the project.  First of all, to be able to provide for their families, but also, thanks to the surpluses obtained, to meet the existing market demand, generate income and achieve economic empowerment.

The objective of all this work is that women can take their place in tomorrow's agriculture, which is becoming more demanding in terms of knowledge and support due to climate change.

What does this international day of rural women mean to you?

It is a very important day to value the determination of rural women and all women. Beyond the celebration, it is a moment to stop and consider the experience of thousands of women living in rural areas: to take stock of the policies announced and the measures put in place.

That is why, with one of the project's partners, the Tambacounda Women's Advisory Committee, we will organize an awareness and advocacy campaign on women's access to productive resources. We will challenge, inform and sensitize state, religious and customary authorities on the difficulties women face in obtaining the land, inputs and financing necessary to produce with dignity.

We want to draw their attention to the fact that climate change forces them to rethink all agricultural programs, and suggest that when they set up programs to grant equipment or distribute inputs for example, there must be quotas for women. Positive discrimination in favor of women producers must be put in place.

Finally, this day is also an opportunity to salute the commitment of those who are fighting for better recognition and valuing of the invisible work of women producers, who constitute an important agricultural workforce.

Due to the pandemic, the project could not really take off until the beginning of 2021. Do you still see some results emerging?

Absolutely! We started by revitalizing the producers' organizations through training in organizational development. The women are now better equipped to understand and use the project's approaches and strategies to achieve results. In order to create a synergy of expertise and maximize our results, we are working with several partners in the fields of environment, gender equality, intelligent agriculture and water resource management.

And yes, results are emerging... Following the first awareness campaigns, local authorities have granted 24 hectares of land to women's groups. Moreover, leaders are beginning to emerge and express themselves. It happens now that when women are offered 1 hectare, they refuse and ask for larger areas to be able to produce and meet the market demand. They understand that no one will claim their rights for them.

We know that we have to persevere, there are obstacles and barriers. All this is not easy, we are in an area where patriarchy dominates. And as these are new approaches, there are many amalgams, many interpretations when we talk about equality between men and women and positive masculinity.

So we always try to contextualize, to communicate, to inform, to listen to others too. To explain. We are in this phase, and as time goes by, people understand that it is really the economic power of women that we are trying to promote in this project, for the well-being of the whole community.

Once the project is finished, how will you measure its success?

What will allow me to say that we have made a difference is when I see women producers in decision-making bodies. When they demand respect for their rights and no longer let others speak for them. When I see them well positioned in the value chains of the sectors we have targeted, as wholesale traders for example and not just as simple retailers. When I see them negotiating contracts in the markets. When I hear them ask to be better integrated in the development of agricultural policies.

Am I optimistic? Of course I am! You only have to remember the pleas that existed in the 2000s for the education of young girls. Many did not believe in it, especially in my area here in Kolda. However, today there are many more girls in the schools of our villages. Before, few girls went to high school or university. Nowadays, girls go to university to get a master's degree, just like boys.

Why do they do this? Because at one point, there were people who believed in it! And who said to themselves that by raising awareness, by informing, by talking to the authorities, by changing programs and policies, we can act on the challenges of development. This is not utopia. This is not the first fight that women have led. And I know that they will win this one too.

The Resilient Women and Agriculture (FAR) project is implemented by CECI in consortium with SOCODEVI and with the collaboration of OURANOS, and receives financial support from the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada (GAC).