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Saruja Village: Why A Rice Growing Powerhouse is shifting to Vegetables

For many rice-growers, general body pain is a consistent ordeal in their lives – leading to frequent illnesses due to high demand for physical activities.  

By the nature of the production, some capital investment is also needed in order to have better yields. 

The must-done processes such as clearing, ploughing, laying nursery beds which requires the availability of good quality seeds, transplantation, weeding and harvesting need both man-power delivery and investments. 

While gardening may require some of these processes, the expenditure and the level of workload cannot be compared to that of rice production.

For women in Saruja, a community in the Central River Region South, which lies 192km from Banjul, surrendering their traditional rice growing status for vegetable production due to economic reasons is imminent. 

The community has spent decades in rice production due to its close proximity to the country’s main rice growing area, Jahally-Pacharr. 

“We have realised that the amount of money we have been spending in rice production was not profitable to us economically, in terms of how much we have in return and not to talk about the labour intensity,” Jonsaba Baba, NEMA trained committee member of the Saruja Women Garden tells The Chronicle as she weeds her garden bed.

Jonsaba Baba removing unwanted weeds from her onion bed

According to Baba, the village sought land from the Alkalo whose response was positive, giving about five hectares of land on the outskirts of the community.

The National Agricultural Land and Water Management Development Project (NEMA), which has constructed the garden, is funded by the International Funds for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The project has been supporting several other rural communities, particularly women and youth in projects that aim to fight rural poverty. 

From experience, Jonsaba believes that rice cultivation is not adequate to solve her needs, such as paying tuition for her children and their social functions – which goes for her colleagues as well. But with vegetable production individual women vegetable growers are going home with D4,000 or more from a single harvest, as she justifies their decision to shift from rice to vegetable production.  

“If it’s Jahally Pacharr rice field, the whole year is like taking loans to buy fertilizers and other expenditures. Imagine, taking two bags of fertilizers on loan and the payment will be bags of rice. You pay the ploughing cost also with bags of rice. Every other loan you take  in order to have a good yield will be paid in kind. What would you be left with?” she queried.

“This is why women in this village have decided to focus on vegetable production. You can see one woman here will harvest more than ten (25kg) bags of onions from the garden,” she told The Chronicle. 

When the garden was started a few years ago, it was confronted with water problems. “We sought assistance from the NEMA project who helped us with fences, reservoirs, farm house, toilet and a borehole powered by solar to facilitate year-round vegetable production. Things are now going very fine,” she said.

She said they’re now harvesting a good quantity of vegetables such as bitter tomatoes, tomatoes, okra, sorrel, pepper and others. Unlike rice which normally has only two harvests, vegetable production is a continuous process which provides for their families consumption to improve their health conditions and for income generation as well. 

“We are very committed here. We are more than 200 women here. Every woman in this village is here, working in this garden.” 

Like many places in The Gambia, women in Saruja have long been funding the education of their children. 

“We are all responsible people here because most of our children are relying on their mothers in terms of their education. I know their fathers are doing well, but normally children will be getting their school lunch fees from their mothers. If they are sent home over non-payment of tuition fees, usually their first point is at the mother.”

“If you look at our bank accounts today, we have an impressive savings. We impose fines on people who fail to adhere to the committee’s rules and normally those fines will be saved in the bank. We are saving a lot for the women’s group as well for future developments and sustainability of the garden.” 

Adama Baba, another member of the garden, says the new endeavour is benefiting them a lot. However, lack of storage facilities remains a problem for them.

“We need a storage facility where we can keep our harvested produce before they are sold. We also need mobility that we can use to transport our produce to the market,” she said. 

Like Jonsaba, Adama believes that the shift from rice growing to vegetable production is a necessity.

“We have been into rice production for so long, but we were not getting anything that is sustainable. You will spend all your time in rice production, but when you harvest it, everything will finish before the other harvest time.” 

“From the garden, we can provide for our needed vegetables for daily cooking and also have money from it. This is why we are engaging in this. If this success continues, few women will be in the rice fields,” she told The Chronicle. 

Mamadou Keita, has also benefited from the NEMA training and is currently serving as a committee member in charge of water distribution. He acknowledges the significance of the garden in the community and how it’s helping to economically empower the women. 

The Project Director of the Nema Project, Momodou L. Gassama, said Saruja is among several other successful communities that have benefited from Nema intervention. 

Momodou L. Gassama

“If you go to the areas where tidal irrigations have been developed, we have seen a significant increase in productivity from the baseline of 2.5 to 3.5 and in some areas up to 4 tons per hectare in a single season,” he told The Chronicle.

Thanks to vegetable production, Gassama said some communities are mobilizing incomes through the vegetable gardens up to the tune of D5 million in one season. 

“All these gardens were constructed through the support of IFAD. I can assure you that there are many Sarujas. Almost all the 33 NEMA gardens have the same Saruja story. In some cases, I can guarantee you that some are even better than Saruja,” he said.

He describes gardening as a game changer since their intervention, hailing their method of using organic manure over the chemical fertilizer which creates better gains. 

“They are making so much money, changing their lives and that’s the objective of the project,  IFAD, government of The Gambia and the project staff. There is a commitment from the women themselves, you can see that they are willing to change their lives and that’s why they are succeeding.” 

An agricultural economist, Dr. Mamma Sawaneh, believes that shifting from one area of cultivation to the other is part of the agricultural diversification system. “It’s very correct. It’s in line with economic thinking,” he told The Chronicle.

“It’s what we called agricultural diversification where the farmer can do the reallocation of some of his farm resources. For instance, land, its capital and farm equipment or other capital products particularly places where they think their traditional farming is not giving them positive economic gains.”

According to him, it’s normal for farmers to normally go in for other forms of productive use of land; such as vegetable production where they can have their farm income as part of the diversification process, stating that it can give them a stable income which farmers are interested in.

“This is inline, it’s correct. They need to be supported,” he said.

He advised that farmers can also explore livestock production amongst others without fully concentrating on one area.

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