New Internationalist

The onion fields

Issue 371

Playwright and actor Kwane Kwei-Armah went to Senegal to see for himself how international trade affects everyday life…

On the long, straight road between St Louis and Podor in northern Senegal I met Fatimata, and she prayed for me. She was crouched in an onion field with her baby on her back. It was the hot, dry season.

I was on my way to a small town called Ndioum where I was expecting a reception committee from the local community and a bed for the night. Fatimata made me late. She showed me how to scratch tiny onions from the baked earth, the ones that the labourers on the first sweep of the field had left behind. Fatimata was not working for the farmer. She was allowed to take any of the leftover onions and sell them herself, from which she expected to make around $2.00 per day. That’s why she was crouched for the whole day in the searing heat of a Senegal summer.

There is a chain of events to bear in mind. I agreed to take part in the TV programme Celebrity Fame Academy and was caught by its cameras by the side of my bed. People from the British agency Christian Aid spotted me praying and asked if I might be interested in speaking on their behalf about trade justice. I’m taken to Senegal to ‘see for yourself, Kwame, how people are affected by the way trade currently works’ and meet Fatimata, and she prays for me.

Crouched beside her in that field, as she talked calmly about her situation, it came to me like a spear through the heart that being right at the bottom of the global pile is truly miserable.

Fatimata could not spend much time talking because she needed to pull as many onions from the earth as possible. But the labourers who had harvested before her and the farmer who owned the fields, each one or two rungs above her on the ladder, were in truth only maintaining a sallow carcass of an existence; off which Fatimata was chewing the last few sinews. Had she not been such an intelligent, dignified character, I would have said it was pathetic.

It was through the story of onions that I began to understand how trade can work against the interests of some of the poorest people in the world.

Earlier, in the sandy French colonial port of St Louis, I had seen imported onions in the market. Senegal imports 40,000 tonnes of onions each year, mostly from Holland. This costs the country tens of thousands in valuable foreign exchange, but the price Senegal is paying for imports of a staple vegetable is a great deal higher.

Senegalese onion farmers, such as the owner of the land from which Fatimata was chiselling her onions, struggle to compete with the imports. In Holland, where onion farming is a large scale, commercial venture, onions are grown to store and then release steadily on to the market all year round. In Senegal most smallholders grow a few onions in the hope that they can sell them. But they have no storage. So, as the president of the onion growers’ association in the Senegal River Valley told me, ‘one month a year, Dakar smells of rotting onions’.

And you can imagine what releasing the majority of the country’s onion crop on to the market at once does to the price; which is possibly why the country boasts so many onion-rich dishes and so many poor onion farmers. And then there’s the Dutch onions, on every market stall alongside the locally grown variety, selling for either the same price or less, which further cripples the market. How can Senegalese onion farmers, with little money to invest in technology and no storage facilities, compete with what are almost certainly European rejects – low on quality but even lower on price, and in the marketplace all year?

In a village called Thialaga, close to where Fatimata was working, the Senegalese organization RADI introduced me to Mamadou Niang. He’d been in his fields since six in the morning, but agreed to wait for me, along with a crowd of villagers keen to catch a glimpse of a black European.

With a pick-axe over his shoulder, Mamadou climbed into our car and we drove across open, featureless desert until we reached the Niang family compound. There, watched by his four children and surrounded by his small herd of goats, we sat and talked.

Each year the cost of fertilizer, which is imported, is increasing and the price I’m paid for my rice decreases,’ he said. ‘I have been growing rice for 16 years but I don’t know how much longer I can do it.’

Mamadou’s problems are not solely related to the cost of fertilizer, or to last year’s drought that left much of Senegal’s north and interior dry. He is also forced to compete with 670,000 tonnes of imported rice from Vietnam, Thailand and the US that floods Senegal’s markets each year.

Mamadou told me about a dish called thieboudienne – pronounced ‘cheb-oo-jen’ and meaning ‘rice and fish’ – which is Senegal’s national dish. The rice that most people use to prepare thieboudienne is not his. ‘Even in the countryside people use imported rice because it is often cheaper,’ he said. ‘I’m not against imports but I think I should have the chance to sell my rice first.’

Rice farmers in Senegal at one time received subsidies to help towards the cost of fertilizer. But then, according to World Bank and International Monetary Fund dictates, the subsidies stopped and the Government of Senegal agreed to reduce the duties it charged on imports of rice. As a result, imported rice became cheaper and rice grown by farmers like Mamadou Niang was made more expensive to grow. ‘I only made around 100,000 CFA [$150] profit last year,’ he told me. ‘It was only enough to survive for five months and then I had to sell some of my goats.’

The grim reality of Mamadou’s predicament began to dawn on me and I experienced the same piercing sensation that I had felt as I crouched alongside Fatimata the day before. Here was a man of modest means, a farmer with a wife and four young children, some land of his own and a decent home. But as he spoke I could only sit and wonder what the future held for him.

The land Mamadou owns is becoming more parched; ‘the desert is knocking on our door’, as he put it. The costs of running his business are rising and there is no government assistance to help him buy seed or fertilizer, unlike his European or US counterparts who receive enormous subsidies. Bit by bit, Mamadou is also losing the fragile grip he once had on Senegal’s rice market, as cheap competition floods in through the country’s increasingly open trading regime. And, worst of all, year on year he is having to sell his assets – his goats, which are in effect his bank account – in order to make ends meet.

Typically, more than 70 per cent of people in most African countries live in rural areas and rely in one way or another on farming. But there are no statistics that capture the crisis they are currently facing. After decades of underinvestment, and in the teeth of increased competition from imports made cheap by reductions in tariffs, they are being pushed into a precarious position. Climate change has also brought less predictable patterns of rainfall or sometimes simply less rainfall altogether.

The absence of statistics to describe the plight of poor farmers is perhaps no bad thing. It’s tough to feel alarmed and outraged by facts and figures, but put a human face on the problem – such as that of Mamadou or Fatimata – and the arguments start to mean something.

In Senegal you can also serve up the problem in one dish – thieboudienne. Although this is a favourite lunchtime food of most Senegalese, the ingredients on their plates are likely to be imported. ‘The story of thieboudienne is tragic, because the producers of all the ingredients face major problems,’ says Bamba Niang, the Director of RADI. ‘As well as rice from the Far East and onions from Holland, a lot of people will use tomato paste produced in Italy, which is often a little cheaper than the Senegalese paste.’

Back in St Louis, my mind already blown, we headed for the beach. Although the town is rapidly becoming a tourist destination, it was not our wish to swim or sunbathe. We went to meet fishing families.

Thieboudienne is traditionally made with the best-quality fish – what Senegalese people refer to as ‘noble’ fish. But it is now rare, even in better restaurants, to eat anything other than mackerel.

Ibrahim Gueye, who along with his brother works a six-metre fishing boat, blames the Senegalese Government’s decision to sell fishing rights to foreign governments. ‘The fish are becoming more and more scarce. At one time we would only have to fish for a matter of hours,’ he told me. ‘Now we often have to stay out for two or three days or longer. But this is expensive because you have to buy all your food and fuel in advance. We cannot compete against the big boats.’

In a deal struck last year with the European Union, Senegal will receive $74 million over four years in return for allowing European trawlers to fish the sea along Senegal’s 350 miles of coastline. ‘We’re not consulted and we’re never paid compensation,’ said Ibrahim.

As I watched hundreds of small, brightly painted wooden boats take to the sea, fighting their way through the surf, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was not only the large European trawlers that were over-fishing. Once farming families have disposed of their assets, many turn to other means of earning a living and migrate to the coast. Alongside the communities of families who have been fishing these waters for generations are those who have lost out to the cheap imports and the climate and headed for the sea in the hope of sustaining a better living.

If countries like Senegal are to trade their way out of poverty rather than relying on aid, then the rules of international trade need to be weighted in favour of poor communities. Otherwise, once the sea can no longer support those who have already left their land in the villages, then the next stop is Senegal’s cities, where they’re likely to end up living on the streets; and then we’re back to more aid instead of trade.

In Senegal I was told that the sea is dying; I was told that farming is dying. If this is the truth then how are these people supposed to survive? It’s not about romanticizing or clinging on to traditional industries, but the rhetoric of fair globalization does not seem to have an answer to one simple, staggering question: if not farming or fishing, what do Fatimata, Mamadou, Ibrahim and the hundreds of millions like them do?

Kwame Kwei-Armah is a trade ambassador for Christian Aid. His plays include Elmina's Kitchen. He is currently appearing in the BBC TV series Casualty.

  1. For more information about Christian Aid’s Trade Justice campaign and the mass gathering in Brighton, England, on 26 September, tel: +44 845 330 0500 or visit http://www.christianaid.org.uk/campaign.

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