Scaling Up Senegal: Modernizing Storage Systems for Millet Hubs
In Africa, for millennia, farmers have been growing grains to feed their families. This type of subsistence farmer lives off the land and grows food mainly for family consumption. Farmers at the next level may have a bit more land and money and hope to have surplus grain to sell for income. These “subsistence-plus” farmers sell at a small scale, mostly through direct marketing, earning very little, and with almost no bargaining power. The next level of farmers are those who are “market ready" — these are individual farmers with perhaps more land or better production, or they are small groups of farmers pooling their money and goods for sale, earning more per person together than they could alone.
While there is room for growth at this level, these “market-ready” farmers face a conundrum. On one hand, they are motivated, knowledgeable and eager to grow their business; yet they also lack technical or business skills, group composition, infrastructure, professionalism and — most of all — the investment required to improve quality, access formal markets and achieve bargaining power.
Over the last three years, the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) CLUSA has worked with these market-ready, motivated farmers to fill the gaps in knowledge, infrastructure and investment, helping them organize, formalize and scale up their production and post-harvest methods. NCBA CLUSA did this through the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded Millet Business Services Project (USDA|MBSP), active in four regions: Kaffrine, Fatick, Kaolack and Dakar. The project provides training, coaching, networking and advocacy on behalf of previously underserved farmers, processors and other millet value chain actors in these target zones. The goal of the USDA|MBSP project is to increase the productivity of the millet value chain, from production to consumption, and to expand the trade of millet at scale in Kaolack, Kaffrine and Fatick, connecting with commercial activities in Dakar.
The USDA|MBSP project found one of the weakest links in the millet supply chain is the aggregation and storage of millet for sale. If not addressed, all the business skills and other support would not ultimately be valuable. Modernizing post-harvest handling and storage methods is an absolute requirement for farmers to access formal markets and be recognized as legitimate market actors.
To reach productivity and quality goals, MBSP zeroed in on storage and post-harvest handling of millet, providing technical skills training, infrastructure improvements and coaching for organizational development, business management, marketing and branding.
“It all started with a warehouse,” is the way post-harvest technical coach Aminata FadoumLy describes the evolution of grain aggregation and handling from a method to a system. The project enabled farmers to move from basic storage and handling to an aggregation and processing center, which led to a multiservice “hub” providing not only sales, but also services and diversified incomes.
USDA|MBSP helped build or rehabilitate more than twenty millet storage facilities. These hubs have now become an anchor within the value chain and have helped others along the chain increase their own sales. The hubs have also enabled the millet industry in Senegal to improve quality.
The story of storage: What’s the problem?
Most importantly, the practice of storage serves as a way to minimize crop losses and reduce hunger during lean times, such as dry seasons, and at a basic level helps ensure food security among farm households. Second, for those who can afford it, storage allows farmers to save their harvest and sell it later, when prices are higher and they can earn more. Freed from debt (incurred by selling before harvest) or the immediate need to sell post-harvest when prices are typically low, proper storage allows farmers to increase incomes, expand farm operations, reinvest for growth and become important contributors to their country’s agricultural and economic development.
In Senegal, storage is one of the major causes of post-harvest loss because of improper practices, inadequate facilities, insect infestations, spoilage, etc. Losses generally occur at all post-harvest stages. They may be classified into three often interrelated categories: 1) quantitative, or physical loss; 2) loss of quality affecting the appearance, texture, composition and nutritional value and therefore the product worth; and 3) the opportunity costs resulting from selling the raw product at an inopportune time.
In Senegal, the most commonly practiced storage methods in rural areas are still traditional ones. These methods have been passed down by generations of farmers but rely on outdated infrastructure and technologies. Farmers cannot access formal markets or achieve scale without modern storage.
While Senegal has agricultural storage facilities across the country, they remain largely underutilized and are insufficient to handle the volume of production Senegal’s farmers are capable of producing. These community storage units are, for the most part, managed locally by government administrators at the regional and local level and are challenging to access.
Post-harvest activities start with threshing, cleaning, drying and handling, then move into processing, storage and marketing. However, the design and establishment of these and other local storage units have not always considered the capacity and real needs of the farmers they serve — storage is not a one-size-fits-all model. Regions are different, starting points are different and needs are different.
During initial research with participants, USDA|MBSP found that — more often than not — local storage facilities are used for purposes other than grain storage (serving as a dance hall, classroom or for housing livestock). Meanwhile, numerous producers interviewed cited proper millet storage as their number one constraint.
The materials needed to build proper storage facilities that meet quality control standards is too expensive for most farmers to consider on their own. Outside financial support and/or bank loans would be necessary, but the many steps and legal permits required often discourage farmers from applying. So, the farmers continue using old methods and continue to lose product and money, for lack of better options.
The USDA|MBSP solution: Increasing the quality of millet post-harvest
To create or increase the demand for millet requires the rebranding of millet. Buyers and consumers want to know that the product they buy is clean, safe and high quality. Rebranding requires quality standards and controllable storage conditions for producers. Thus, at the beginning of the project, USDA|MBSP conducted a comprehensive diagnostic analysis of all aspects of post-harvest systems that add or detract value and quality from the final product for sale. To that end, USDA|MBSP:
- Trained producers on hygiene standards and millet quality at harvest season (Agence Nationale de Conseil Agricole et Rural(ANCAR)).
- Trained women on millet pre-processing in production areas (project team).
- Trained storekeepers on storage standards (project team and ANCAR).
- Identified the best performing millet production areas to select the best site for the construction of a storage facility.
USDA|MBSP post-harvest target indicators are: 1) 2,500m3 new storage space built, and 2) 7,500m3 of refurbished storage space, i.e. rehabilitating or retrofitting existing storage facilities. Apart from this basic aim, and with the lens of economic growth, the project envisioned that the storage facilities could become a multiservice agricultural hub, providing services to farmers and supporting income-generating activities such as buying and distributing seeds, renting out equipment, processing services, training, meeting space with sanitation facilities, and access to finance.
Appropriate technology, locally sourced
NCBA CLUSA is committed to appropriate technology for sustainable outcomes, defined as “technology that is suitable to the social and economic conditions of the geographic area in which it is to be applied, is environmentally sound and promotes self-sufficiency on the part of those using it.”
Therefore, the project’s goal was to enable artisans, farmers and local masons to build the storage units themselves and within their budgets to ensure long-term sustainability. USDA|MBSP built the capacity of local communities and worked together on storage warehouse prototypes. The project explored alternatives to “modern” cement brick making, which doesn’t provide the humidity or temperature control proper millet storage requires. Instead, USDA|MBSP turned to innovations that are more appropriate, less costly and made with locally available resources. This resulted in a new kind of brick called géobéton (geoconcrete), a building material made of soil with and a stabilizer, usually cement, sometimes lime or bitumen.
Producers and communities were involved in the entire construction process (site selection, mobilizing resources, construction, training and coaching for economic activities in the storage space, etc.).
Producers and building sites were selected based on the following criteria:
- Be established in the project intervention area (Kaolack, Kaffrine and Fatick).
- Be a member of a producers’ network, association or cooperative.
- Have enough farmland and production to warrant a storage facility.
- Be dynamic and well organized.
- Be located in an accessible area.
- Hold a plot of land in the name of a producers’ group for the building of the storage.
- Be in a position to provide in-kind contributions for construction, such as water, laterite and sand.
Overall, eighteen sites were selected for the building of millet hubs. Among those sites, one shelters two pre-processing units (Keur Saloum Diané and Keur Samba Guèye).
Training and construction
Training and construction happened concurrently, with USDA|MBSP working hand-in-hand with our trainee masons.
Our aim was to design a more effective, less costly facility that is suitable for proper storage and handling of millet. In the Sahel region of Senegal, the days can reach more than 100°F during the dry season, and the nights are cool, around 70°F. During much of the year, including the long dry season, an intense wind blows from the Sahara Desert. Dramatic fluctuations in temperature and precipitation impact the design of proper storage of millet. For example, too much humidity or extreme temperature fluctuations can destroy millet, and potential income is lost.
The géobéton innovation uses less than half the cement of traditional bricks and maintains the temperature and humidity balance necessary to preserve millet quality. As an added benefit, the géobéton brick could spearhead a revolution in sustainable, local construction, and could be applied to other types of buildings, such as schools.
Since local masons were hired to handle construction, the project first made sure they mastered the skill of géobéton brick making and could train and mentor others in the technique. Together, the masons formed a construction team that could be mobilized to build other structures or dwellings. This is sustainability in action.
To take millet from farm to market requires formalizing all activities. Producers must understand the link between improvements in techniques and infrastructure and improvements in their daily lives. The project gave them a hand up, not a handout.
Training was thus a crucial element, and getting it right meant helping a group of masons achieve a higher level of mastery of their trade, a plus for sustainability and the indirect benefits of NCBA CLUSA’s work.
Training included a mix of:
- Apprenticeship for construction by local masons using lower cost, locally available resources.
- Training on how to construct necessary outbuildings, such as office space for meetings and with hygienic restrooms.
- Training in how to build a simple facility for millet processing, with equipment and storage.
With this three-tier approach to capacity building, USDA|MBSP trained 44 masons who completed 18 millet hub facilities. These skills are applicable to all types of work, and masons can apply them to other work in their communities, contributing to sustainability and economic opportunities.
Risk reduction and improved lending
Another benefit of the géobéton warehouses is risk reduction, not only for the producer (who can assure better quality and quantity for sale later), but also for bank lenders. It also provides a mechanism for producers to aggregate in a central location (hub) to increase the tonnage of millet that is equal to the value of the financial loan. This is called warrantage, which is a loan guarantee commonly used for producers who have difficulty accessing financing, have no collateral or are seen as too risky for a loan. In this instance, the wholesale-level stock of marketable goods (such as a warehouse filled with bags of millet) becomes the collateral. The millet is stored separately. The bank comes to the warehouse to inspect the quality of the collateral stock and values it. When the loan is approved, the bank keeps a key to the warehouse to avoid loan default problems if a producer sells the reserved stock. At the set time, producers sell the reserved millet stock and repay the loan. The guarantor who signs the loan agreement is usually the president of the producer group or hub.
A successful transaction shows the creditworthiness producers can have as a group, when processes are systematized and they use sound management practices. It legitimizes producers’ contributions to the economy and raises their standing among commercial stakeholders.