Mentors, youth and reality radio: the recipe to increase sustainable farming (and employment) in Mali

About the author
Lisa Weighton is doing her M.A. in International Development at the University of Ottawa. She is currently working as a co-op student with Farm Radio International in Ottawa.

It’s a time of self-invention and vast optimism. A time to unearth hidden talents and build new skills. A time to boast radiant skin, slim figures and good teeth.

But youth is also a time governed by self-doubt. A time when the only thing that seems certain is that tomorrow you’ll wake up to uncertainty.

This portrait of youth is all too familiar for young Canadians – just ask any 20-something post-recession job seeker (or this writer, who spent more than her fair share of time as an overeducated, underemployed lifeguard). Like so many others, there I stood – dripping with enthusiasm but fighting a futile battle against those twice my age with phonebook-sized resumes.

My journey for better opportunities took me all over the map – from Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific Coasts to East and West Africa. Along my path, I was lucky enough to find mentors along the way. One would offer encouragement. Another would teach me a new skill. Each of them played a defining role in helping me get to grad school, do field research and get experience in my field.

But the obstacles are often much greater for other young people around the world struggling to secure sustainable employment.

That’s especially true for rural youth in Mali. The West African country spiraled into recession in 2012, with a negative growth rate of -1.5 per cent. The situation is compounded by serious political crises, staggering poverty rates and pervasive food insecurity. But amidst these challenges, Farm Radio International knows there is a future for rural youth in Mali.

That future is farming

The idea has taken root in FRI’s innovative reality radio series, FarmQuest. In Mali the series is known as Daba Kamalen, which means literally: “best young farmer of the year” in Bambara, Mali’s national language. The idea was awarded the prestigious 2012 Innovation Challenge Award by the Rockefeller Foundation.

By providing the opportunities, inputs and support young farmers need to start their corn, peanut, poultry or livestock farm, FarmQuest aims to use radio to show young people that farming can provide a sustainable livelihood, despite economic challenges.

Armed with an experienced local mentor with the necessary motivation and know-how, each participant will take up the challenge of creating a vibrant new farming business. While the series will follow six young farmers in the region of Fana as they compete for the prize of becoming Mali’s “Best New Farmer,” many more will benefit from their stories.

That’s the power of radio,” says Mark Leclair, Farm Radio International Senior Program Officer overseeing the project. “For each of these contestants, there will be hundreds more just like them – struggling with the same challenges. Radio can provide a means for the larger population to overcome these challenges but also be entertained at the same time.”

One of these contestants is Hawa Doumbia, 27.

The mother of four is from a village on the outskirts of Bamako, Mali’s capital and largest city. There, Doumbia and her family practiced market gardening – a business based on the small-scale production of various fruits and vegetables. But after marrying a man from another village, she no longer had access to her own plot of land, and market gardening on a professional scale is not practical because after the rainy seasons, the village doesn’t have a sufficient water supply.

Hawa Doumbia, 27, FarmQuest participant.

Hawa Doumbia, 27, FarmQuest participant.

Growing peanuts seemed like a good alternative to her, but she doesn’t have the oxen and plough she needs for this kind of agriculture.

As a participant in FarmQuest, Doumbia will have access to credit, allowing her to buy an ox and plough. Her village chief was so excited about the idea of supporting women’s initiatives he even granted Doumbia more than two acres of land to start her farm.

Her story is likely to inspire many others from the region.

By using the airwaves, FarmQuest will promote knowledge-sharing, ensuring agricultural improvements don’t happen in a vacuum. Program coordinators will also help connect young listeners with credit organizations and other resources such as agricultural input providers so they can take what they’ve learned on the radio and apply it in their own lives.

Radio remains by far one of the most powerful media in Mali for reaching rural households.

Radio remains by far one of the most powerful media in Mali for reaching rural households.

Joining Doumbia in her quest to grow her farming business is Diakaridia Fomba, 35. Fomba isn’t exactly young. In fact, he’s the oldest of the FarmQuest contestants (the youngest is 18). But like many young people, Fomba is still wading through that uncertain phase in life—struggling to put down roots.

While the vast majority of the labour force in Mali is engaged in subsistence farming, many young people don’t see agriculture as a career choice that can lead them out of poverty. In fact, many see farming itself as a symbol of poverty and they wish to distance themselves from it.

As a teen, Fomba showed an interest in raising poultry. But after a while he became restless and left Dien for several years. Like many young people, Fomba sought better opportunities in the city, where he survived doing various odd jobs.

After a while, Fomba became discouraged with the fact that his financial situation wasn’t improving. He came to the conclusion that the only way for him to get ahead would be to return home and do what he knows best – raise poultry.

Over six episodes, Diakarida’s uncle, Tafara Fomba, an experienced poultry farmer, will act as his mentor to help him build an effective modern chicken coop, raise healthy chickens to produce eggs, and negotiate with buyers in the market.

Fomba knows accessing valuable resources and knowledge through FarmQuest could be his best move yet. What he doesn’t know is that soon he’ll be the mentor for many more young farmers just like him.

Lisa Weighton is doing her M.A. in International Development at the University of Ottawa. She is currently working as a co-op student with Farm Radio International in Ottawa.

With files from Erica Pomerance

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