In 2015, I learned about volunteer opportunities available through the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) in Senegal, West Africa. Their Farmer-to-Farmer Program (F2F) sends American farmers and agribusiness professionals on 2-3 week assignments worldwide to promote sustainable economic growth and agricultural development.
I originally took an interest in West Africa through my study of West African dance, and had a chance to travel to Senegal in 2008 to meet with incredible women business owners. The trip was life changing; I was inspired by the work being done to support a sustainable business model for Africans to support Africans. From that moment, I was committed to educating myself more deeply in business with the goal that one day I could more directly contribute to someone else’s sustainable livelihood.
So I jumped at the chance to volunteer this past November for F2F in Senegal as a marketing specialist. I was able to use my National Co+op Grocers volunteer hours on this trip—and choose to spend my vacation training business owners on marketing skills.
With support from F2F volunteer alumni and Abibou Diaw—the in-country contact, interpreter and cultural guide—I developed a training curriculum. On November 5, 2017, I arrived in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
The next morning we departed for a daylong drive to the Matam region and the town where I would ultimately stay, Ouro Sougi. Along the way we stopped to purchase goods from three different sellers and, as we made our way through towns and villages, I saw the open-air markets and began to gather new insights. Markets are broken into different areas with dry goods sellers, butchers and fishmongers, produce sellers, clothiers, etc. Our visits helped me to understand how they engage customers and approach expanding their market share.
Our local host group was CLCOP Orefonde, a business services association whose membership consists of women’s groups and producer organizations. We trained in four villages, and each day we would travel the countryside to reach them, passing through fields of sorghum and seeing crops being cultivated on the banks of the Senegal River.
When we began training, I was incredibly nervous, wanting to do a good job, provide value and be respectful. Each session would open with introductions and the trainees, mostly women, would tell us what they sold—milk, livestock, vegetables, cereals, clothing, jewelry, veterinary services, soap and more. The training was designed to help these entrepreneurs analyze the market, provide a good base in customer engagement/experience, and help them understand how to better manage costs.
We introduced concepts that trainees had never worked with before. Using a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) structure, they engaged in breakout discussions to understand what was helpful or harmful for their business and identified their unique value proposition. We walked through the components of a formal marketing plan. They learned that they are stronger together and that everyone in the group, regardless of age or status, can add value to make the whole better.
The people were incredibly warm and welcoming, and have a very natural sense of community and care for one another and for visitors. Women would sit with me and teach me words in the Pular language. In the last group we visited, while my co-trainer Abibou had said nothing about my interest in dance, on the first day of the training one of the women popped up in the middle of our circle and began dancing. The other women encouraged me to get up and dance with her, which I shyly did. Other women joined us and said, “We like you so much, tomorrow we will sing and dance for you,” which they did.
I can’t say enough about the amazing women we worked with. Some of them were strong leaders in their communities; they balance the demands of running a household, caring for their husbands and children, while operating a business and adding income to the home. They were incredibly grounded and radiated a beauty from within.
My F2F experience was amazing and I have NCBA CLUSA, Abibou Diaw and CLCOP to thank. The work I did has the potential to affect 300-500 sellers in the Matam region of Senegal. It’s pretty amazing to think that what I had to offer can help others strengthen and maintain a sustainable livelihood. I strongly encourage anyone who has the skills that F2F needs to consider volunteering for this wonderful program.
Learn more about NCBA CLUSA’s Farmer-to-Farmer program.
—Heidi Traore is Category Management Lead at National Co+op Grocers, a business service cooperative representing 147 food co-ops operating more than 200 stories in 37 states with combined annual sales of over $2.1 billion.