At the urging of Dov Pasternak, John spent a lot of time researching the Songhai Centre (www.songhai.org/english), and really wanted to visit it this year. I am so glad we did. It is an extraordinary place, and we know we want to become involved in what they are doing here.
Songhai was founded in 1985 by Father Godfrey Nzamujo, one of those remarkable people who makes amazing things happen. He has created a powerful vision of what is possible with grassroots agricultural development and inspired the best and the brightest to join him. He has created a center of excellence by finding the best people, the best technology and the right markets for local agricultural products.
The Songhai Centre is a showcase. It is a totally integrated system, combining crop production, aquaculture and raising of livestock. The “output” of each one (e.g., chicken manure), becomes the input for another.
Maximum recycling of water and waste into biogas, fertilizer, etc. creates a system with minimum environmental impact and almost zero waste.
The system requires substantial upfront investment but lowers operating costs (fertilizer, feed and energy) and labor (e.g. waste water flows from where it is produced to where it is processed to where it is needed – all by gravity). Low input production means higher profit, and low environmental impact means the place is pristine. At Songhai, they are raising thousands of animals (chickens, turkeys, quail, ducks, guinea fowl,pigs, rabbits and enormous guinea pigs called “grass cutters”) and yet there isn’t a hint of the smell of manure. Compare that to most U.S. livestock facilities.
The farm products are of the highest quality, thanks to research done there or adopted from elsewhere. Tilapia and cows are bred using artificial insemination. Songhai scientists have developed a rice variety which excels in lower moisture climates. The center recycles waste metal and fabricates its own farm equipment.
To maximize value, they process many finished products (soap, baked goods, juices, jams, syrups, animal feed, etc.), while other farm products are sold in Songhai stores and to wholesalers and retailers. Songhai Centre also earns revenue through the lodging and restaurant on the grounds, all built with bricks made there, and featuring Songhai products. Their imprimatur of quality allows them – and their graduates – to attract customers. And Songhai provides a market for its graduates, often buying their produce.
The students at Songhai Centre are the best and the brightest. Men and women aged 18-35 take an oral exam. The usual program is an 18 month internship combining class study with hands-on practical experience. (Sounds like a full-time 18 month intensive Farmers of the Future but for adults.) At the end of the program, each student submits a detailed business plan; the best plans receive startup grants. Others continue to work at one of the 4 Songhai Centres in Benin or for other businesses. Only the best ones are funded. Grants range from $6000 to $20000, but there is only a limited pool of funds with which to make these grants.
Does it work? Emphatically YES! Not only has the center itself turned a profit every year since 1988, but many of its graduates – Father Godfrey’s “agricultural entrepreneurs” – have become excellent agribusinesspeople (is that a word?) – transforming their lives, the lives of their families and of their communities through their new-found expertise. Of the 1500 graduates to date, some 300 have started their own businesses, some with Songhai grants, some with help from their families, some totally on their own. In my next post I’ll introduce you to Romain Migan, a remarkable young man with an extraordinary story.
Furthermore, Songhai Centre is being backed by the UN to expand the program to 15 countries - and possibly more - all across Africa.
We believe wholeheartedly in the Songai Centre. Their goals are completely consistent with those of Eliminate Poverty Now - economic opportunity and education, with a focus on agriculture and a concern for gender equity. We think it is important to begin to develop a strong relationship with the center, because they could be a wonderful partner through which we can invest in the kind of projects we want to promote. Towards that end, we made an initial contribution of $1,000 to be used for Songhai's startup grants. We hope to do much more.