Saturday, February 26, 2011

February: a month of travel

Its been a busy month of February! I can’t believe that the last blog that I posted was my trip to Kédougou- that seems like so long ago already and a lot has happened since then. Here’s a quick run down of where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to:

Right after I got back from the trip I had to switch gears from Bioessence and Baobob trees to networking and presentations at the World Social Forum (being held in Dakar Feb 6-11). After the Forum was over I ran off to Kafountain, in the Casamance region of Senegal, for a dance and music festival with a friend. When I returned I spent about half a week in Dakar catching up on emails and work before leaving on a three day expedition to visit some of the ecovillages near Dakar. And that brings me to today, back in Dakar, trying to fit everything I've learned into my project for fair trade and microfinance!

The World Social Forum: “The World Social Forum is an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, for formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action” (

The forum this year brought together more than 200 organizations from around the world and many more individuals from the university and elsewhere that were anxious to discuss problems, experiences and solutions to poverty and development. I was in charge of organizing EREV and SEMs involvement and visibility at the event (which basically meant setting up our stall and making sure there was information to hand out and people to answer questions). The forum was outdoors at the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar. There were rows of stalls that had been set up for registered organizations and then large tents for meetings, lectures and discussions. The picture above is of me and Cissé setting up our 3X3 meter stall for the event.

While it was a great opportunity to have contact with several large organizations and present our activities to some possible funders, the majority of the week I was repeating the same information about who we are to college students that were looking for work and internships. At first I was excited to see so many students participating in this forum of social change, but after a while I realized that for most of them this was just another way to search for employment (which we weren't able to offer). Most students wouldn't even ask what we do or even look at the name of the organization before asking for a business card or brochure.

To avoid running out of materials I tried to weed out who was really interested in Microfinance or environmental protection, and who was just collecting contacts. One student came up to me with a huge stack of pamphlets and reading materials in his hands and proudly explained, "I've been to all the organizations to get information and you are the only one that I haven't gotten anything from yet". I kindly asked him what his interest was in our organization and he looked at me in confusion and asked again if he could have a pamphlet. Then i explained that we were only giving out pamphlets to those who were interested in our organization, but that I would be happy to answer any questions he had. He just stared at me like maybe I hadn't understood his question and asked, "so you don't have any materials?". At that point I just said "no, we don't" and went to talk to someone else.

There were however many good conversations and contacts that I met throughout the week. Discussions that opened my eyes to new approaches to development and contacts with organizations working in Microfinance and environmental sustainability that could be potential partners in our work! I also had a blast working with Cissé (one of my host brothers who also does some work with the informatics program at EREV) and some other volunteers. You can see our team and some other friends we made at neighboring stalls to the left.

More to follow about the rest of February- Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Kédougou Part 1

Finally, a week after it was scheduled, my trip to Kédougou with Bioessence Labs finally took place. All together I think it could be counted as a success even though we only accomplished 1 out of the 3 tasks that we were sent to do.
1. Map the regions where the Baobob trees (picture left) are located for the Bio Certification by taking GPS points outside of fields and village areas.
2. Buy Baobob grains from the women's groups in the region
3. Build storage structures in two of the villages with which Bioessence has a partnership to protect the grains from spoiling during the rainy months.

As for #1, we actually accomplished this task, but it took the whole trip to cover the territories where the Baobob fruit is collected. Much of the terrain was accessible with our Mercedes SUV (though just barely) and then we would bushwack to get out of the village and fields for an accurate mapping of natural areas. The lead on this project was Soulaye Ndeye, a man in his 50s who works with the ministry of water and forests. He agreed to help Bioessence with this project because of his family connection to the director, and because he was also working on a project in the area; evaluating the impact of human consumption of Baobob fruit on the chimpanzee habitat (the Chimpanzee project just happens to be in collaboration with Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University). To the right is the team I worked with in the field. Here is a map of the area we were in and the villages we visited:,-12.549133&spn=1.271359,2.469177&t=h&z=9

As for #2: We ran into some problems here because we didn't have a way to transport the grains back to Dakar and Bioessence didn't send the money to buy them. So all we were really able to do was connect with the women that had grains available and find out how much they would eventually sell to Bioessence and at what price. I also spent quite a bit of time speaking with the group presidents to find out how they felt about their current partnership with Bioessence and what they thought could be improved. One of the main things that they suggested was a system of pre-financement from Bioessence so that they could buy more Baobob fruit at the beginning of the season and also providing storage and machines that would increase their productivity and prevent the grains from spoiling in the rain.

As for #3: Even though we already have land set aside for the building sites we weren't able to start construction because the materials that were supposed to arrive with another Bioessence staff never came.

My favorite part of the trip was the day I spent in Bandefassi with the group of women that produce baobob powder and grains (seeds) as well as Fonio (a type of couscous that is very popular in the region). To the right I'm talking to the president of the group, Tacko. I could try to explain the process of converting the Baobob fruit into the powder and prepared seeds that they sell, but I'd rather show you...

There's a lot more to tell about the trip and what I learned, but this will have to do for now. I'll put up more pictures soon!