Through NCBA CLUSA’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, members have the opportunity to impact communities abroad. Recently, Jennifer Seeker Conroy, Senior Marketing Consultant for CUNA Mutual Retirement Solutions, an NCBA CLUSA member, completed a volunteer assignment in rural Senegal. Below, she recounts her experience:
By: Jennifer Seeker Conroy, Sr. Marketing Consultant, CUNA Mutual Retirement Solutions
In the far eastern corner of Senegal, near where the Senegal River weaves a snaky border with Mauritania, you will find women dressed in brightly-colored, billowing dresses, their hair wrapped in matching fabric bent over green garden plots. Often they have babies tied to their backs with cloth, snoozing as their mothers work. The farms are split into perfect rectangles, divided by mounds of dirt, spotted with green seedlings, and fed by water pumped from the river into a canal that divides the farm in half. They work with rustic tools and watch as older children dart between the plants or wash in the canal. These women are smart, funny, and enthusiastic. They want to be successful and provide for their families. They have much in common with American women, but they lack what many of us take for granted; access to education and financial services.
I visited Ganguel Soule, Senegal, the last two weeks in January as part of the Farmer-to-Farmer program. It is a USAID-funded program facilitated by the National Cooperative Business Association [CLUSA International]. The program usually brings US farmers to developing countries to share agricultural techniques, but in my case, the assignment involved teaching the women basic marketing and financial literacy skills so that they could earn more for their products and build a better life for themselves and their children.
I learned about the program when NCBA CLUSA visited CUNA Mutual Group at our Madison office in August 2015. Representatives from NCBA CLUSA met with a group from CUNA Mutual and told us about their international programs. They explained how they are promoting cooperative values, core to both of our organizations, to improve the lives of people around the world. We talked about ways to work together to further this cooperative philosophy. Not long after, the volunteer position in Senegal came up, and it was a good fit for our shared goals.
My professional background includes marketing and training, but this assignment was a world away from the skills I have developed. My experience involves training with PowerPoints and marketing on websites and via email. In this assignment I had to revert to showing printed pictures, making analogies, and role-playing. At first, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to figure out the appropriate methods, but after getting ideas from a previous volunteer, brainstorming, and sketching out my lesson plan, I felt a lot more confident. I laminated pictures to share and brought along supplies for games and exercises.
The village is on the opposite side of Senegal from Dakar, the capital and largest city. My translator Abibou and a driver met me there, and we drove all day to get to the town where I stayed. Each day we would make the hour and a half drive to Ganguel Soule over dusty land dodging donkeys and goats. I trained the women on the 5 Ps of marketing (price, place, promotion, product, and people), how to describe the value proposition of their product, expenses, profit, and innovation, among other topics. The training was slow, as every word I said had to be translated into the native language of Pulaar. The women crowded into broken desks in a classroom of the village’s elementary school. The other classrooms were overflowing with kids. Curious children often crowded around our door and had to be shooed away.
The village had no running water and the toilets were pits in the ground. Many children do attend elementary school, but some stay home to tend to crops or herd livestock. Those that do go to school often stop at a young age. The nearest middle school was recently built, but it is a long walk. The closest high school is in a different village. To attend, students stay in the village all week, often in poor living conditions. Many girls become wives and mothers at an early age, another obstacle to completing their education.
Most of the women in the training were not literate. To sign their name on the attendance sheet, they made an x. They were so anxious to learn and so grateful to receive the training. Some concepts were hard for them, such as delaying price negotiation, and instead promoting the value of their product. But they all caught on and were excited to try out new techniques.
I encouraged the women to work together in a cooperative structure to pool their products, find new markets, and share the risk. This also was a new concept to them, as they usually worked independently. This causes an oversupply of products and low prices. They already do have some cooperative structures in place, such as an association that seeks funding for the common good of the village and various women’s groups. We spent a lot of time talking about how they could build on this cooperative infrastructure and form a marketing committee to sign contracts, agree on fair prices, and organize a planting schedule to meet demand. The women were skeptical at first but began to understand the advantages and pledged to form a marketing cooperative. At the end of the training, they proudly accepted certificates one by one and posed for pictures.
While I was in the village, women and children would smile, shake my hand, and hug me. They were so thankful to me for being there and sharing information. It was a very humbling experience, as I felt like the fortunate party to be there experiencing a new culture. The assignment made me acutely aware of the privilege and opportunity I enjoy in the United States as an economically secure white female with access to education and financial support. I worry more about my Netflix subscription than my water supply. My education was encouraged and easily available. Access to financial services like loans and insurance is a few clicks away online. Marriage and motherhood were delayed and under my control. The women of Ganguel Soule want the same things that I do, but they don’t have the access to achieve them.
My trip renewed my commitment to work for the economic empowerment of all people. The realities of the women in rural Senegal are more extreme but in many ways parallel to the lives of hardworking Americans. Many people still do not have access to or knowledge of the means to improve their lives. My trip starkly illustrated for me the potential we can unleash when we empower all people and the ripple effect that empowerment has on their families and their communities.
[NCBA CLUSA’s Farmer-to-Farmer program in Senegal is funded by USAID in partnership with ACDI/VOCA. Interested in volunteering? Check out our open positions here.]