There have been too many false-starts and failures in Africa and, as a result, many of our people suffer from a poor self image. This is no basis for development. But there is another Africa, not yet known to the mass-media and the world at large, which recognizes that Africa can survive if Africans draw on their own traditions, energy and creativity to become self-sufficient.
Looking at Africa today, the continent's major problems are lack of food, poor transport and unemployment. In major cities like Lagos, Abidjan, Nairobi and Harare, food prices are going up largely because of the cost of transporting food from rural areas. At the same time there are more mouths to feed, more hands without work and more people without income. The Songhai Environmental Rehabilitation Centre has been developed as model farm and training ground to help young Africans to meet these challenges. Our main objectives are to develop low input and therefore low cost, food production systems at the places where the food is most needed - in the cities and in those rural areas where food production is failing. Simultaneously this will provide employment for the many who need a source of food, if not income as well.
The Songhai Project is both a centre of what we might call "barefoot" research and is a centre of production. The farms and gardens have to be self-supporting economically in order to survive and we believe that it is essential that we train young people within this atmosphere of economic viability for their own future benefit. Our production system integrates crop, livestock and fish production: waste water from the fish ponds irrigates our cassava, corn, vegetables and fruit, while small fish provide protein supplements for our animals; animal manure, crop wastes and water plants generate biogas that serves as the project's primary energy source; and the fish, fruit vegetables and other crops, together with our poultry, rabbits, sheep and goats, help feed the staff and the trainees. We have also responded to the needs of those without any land who wish to produce some of their food by incorporating techniques of growing plants in containers such as old tyres and boxes filled with soil and even on hollow blocks set in walls. In many towns and cities too there is vacant waste land, which urban authorities could make available to local residents, even on a temporary basis, to grow food.
To-date, about one hundred young people from several countries have graduated from a rigorous two-year training programme in which they have learned about complementary farming techniques, making their own tools and managing their farm business financially. Many more people have attended shorter training courses and most have returned to their homes in town and countryside to put their learning into practice and, hopefully, to pass on their learning and enthusiasm to others. They form a network of Songhai graduates with whom we keep in touch, give advice and respond to their feedback.
The overall aim of our work is to lower the cost of production, enhance sustainability and discover or develop new and more appropriate low-cost inputs. Some of the activities include composting, biosolar drying, pharmacopoaeia, earthworm production, local chicken production and insect larvae for fish production. Technologies that we have developed at Songhai, such as organic bacteria, have begun to be tested at nearby farms.
Our overall productivity, which now incorporates three separate centres, has increased by 10% in the past three years. In addition to this, Benin's Agriculture Departments have created 15 centres modelled after Songhai, and nascent projects have been launched in Nigeria, Ghana and Togo.
Part of our success at Songhai has been achieved because we have been willing to learn from our mistakes; we are not afraid of admitting our mistakes and pulling back. Songhai is not so much a "how to do it" institution as a "how to be" organization. We don't write a lot of books or articles, because so many of the masses we hope to reach are illiterate and anyway they often live out of reach of publications. Instead, we try to ensure that the things we do speak for themselves: everyone can "read", whether they see a demonstration at Songhai's three main sites or on a neighbours land, they see concrete results and they can say "Yes, this is possible. Let's do it!"
The benefit of the Songhai Centre's philosophy and practice is that it goes beyond even providing food self-sufficiency and employment: it encourages community action. This kind of production can be a lot of fun; people learn from it, they can collaborate and work with their neighbours to share ideas, exchange seeds, plants and produce and safeguard each others garden plants. Finally, it helps to feed people and make money because even if production is not sold, the money saved on not buying food is money earned.
Our philosophy at Songhai is to create solidarity and self-respect in our communities, as well as self-sufficiency. We can share so many things in life but something that cannot be shared is poverty.