West and Central Africa — Addressing new challenges

January 25, 2011
IDRC Communications

From his office in Dakar, Senegal, IDRC West and Central Africa Regional Director Gilles Forget has seen some aspects of life — particularly relating to trade — become easier.

Now that “continental integration is starting to take hold,” he says, cotton growers in landlocked Mali no longer have to pay excessive tariffs to ship their goods through a Senegalese port. Meanwhile, the telecommunications revolution that has gripped most of Africa has helped improve the lot of entrepreneurs, farmers, and many others. But alongside these improvements have come new challenges.

Animal herders in West and Central Africa, for instance, must deal with a number of ecological and social changes, such as the sale of pastureland to farmers. Privatization of former common land often spells trouble for herders and their livestock: if a herder and his animals happen across a tasty field of vegetables, for example, conflict with the landholder is sure to result.

That’s why some herders — whose basic job description hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years — can now be found carrying PDAs, or Personal Digital Assistants. IDRC-supported research has introduced these devices to give the herders crucial information to help them choose their route.

Now, not only can herders see in advance when they are about to stumble upon that farmer’s vegetables, they can also see if their intended destination has attracted other herds before them, enabling them to choose an alternate course that will take them to untouched pastureland.

IDRC / Stephane Colvey

Individual benefits, environmental impacts

Forget says that beyond its personal benefit to farmers, the project has a major positive environmental impact: “It’s instrumental in helping local people protect their area from encroachment by the desert. If too many sheep come to a particular area and pull out all the grass, it’s much more likely that the desert will move in.”

Like many other initiatives in this region of Africa, this project’s success hinges on its ability to examine a far-reaching social problem in the light of the individual people who are affected and involved at various levels.

In urban Senegal, for example, IDRC-supported research addressing the use of contaminated wastewater in food production involved many players, including the mayor, individual householders, and the people who grow and sell fruits and vegetables.

For people in this community on the peri-urban fringe of Dakar, there were powerful factors encouraging wastewater use in food production. First, the region is increasingly dry, meaning that a source of water that is free looks very attractive. As well, transporting food from the country to the city is costly and unreliable, adding to the imperative to grow food where people live. The abundance of nutrients in wastewater ensures that those crops grow big and abundantly.

The problem, of course, is that wastewater’s contaminants, including microbial material, make people sick. Says Forget: “Sometimes necessity makes you do things that are bad for you in the long term, and that is what was happening here.”

Technology and personal commitment

The solution was partly technological: the project introduced a new method of treating wastewater that achieves results exceeding European Union standards. But equally important, it required that everyone — from the mayor’s office down to the street vendors — understood and accepted what they had to do. “People who sold produce in the street had to know that they could no longer make their fruit look shiny and fresh by washing them in dirty water,” Forget explains. “It was a very participatory process. Everybody had to know what their role was.”

Forget is also proud of the work done by the IDRC-supported Educational Research Network for West and Central Africa (ERNWACA), recognized in 2006 as a Centre of Excellence in Africa. Active in 13 countries, ERNWACA believes its research and activities will help the region meet the benchmarks for education set out in the Millennium Development Goals.

Additionally, IDRC has supported a significant amount of gender-based research — the outcomes of which include giving women their first opportunities to participate in the political process. Some countries have also benefited from IDRC-sponsored research advising them on how best to adapt to the rules of the global economy.

IDRC / Djibril Sy

Of course, not all aspects of this story are positive. Gilles Forget says, for example, that research institutions suffer as low salaries compel African researchers to take employment abroad. (IDRC is attempting to address this problem through a program called Capacity Building in Resource Mobilization for IDRC Research Partners.)

Dangers also loom on the broader African political, social, and economic landscape — in richer countries, conflict over natural resources is one. New waves of foreign investment may also potentially encourage unwise environmental practices.

But Forget believes that Africans have shown themselves capable of dealing with the most daunting of challenges. What is important, he says, is that they have good research to make the task more manageable.