The Gambian Experience

My sojourn to The Gambia, West Africa in early 2005 as a VSO volunteer is an experience which gives me a feeling of having achieved something in an otherwise very average and pedantic life.

Unlike the tour operator with the same name, operating out of Gatwick in UK, ferrying tourists to The Gambia, I was fortunate enough to have a very holistic experience in The Gambia. This became possible as I was staying with the community in the country for two years.

I stepped into the shoes of a VSO volunteer, very wary of the decision that I am taking. This was all the more so for me, as I was venturing into an unknown zone - making a shift from the Corporate sector to the Development sector. At that point of time, it was to test myself whether I can leverage my knowledge and experience and contribute my bit in the Development sector.

Working in different areas

I spent two years working as a Marketing Advisor attached to a local women farmers’ association working in the sector of ‘Sustainable Rural Livelihoods’. The organisation - National Women farmers’ Association (NAWFA) was an umbrella organisation of more than 1,070 kafoos (clusters) with a membership of 49, 000 individual women farmers. These clusters were known as Sesame Growers’ Association (SGAs) which came together to form NAWFA in 1999.

NAWFA was involved in the cultivation of sesame seeds as an alternative cash crop to that of groundnut - on which The Gambia was highly dependent upon for foreign exchange earnings. Over a period of two years, the organisation moved from one crop dependence to that of diversification of their agricultural produce.

I worked along side them on various cross cutting themes like advocacy for gender rights, functional literacy for the members, basics of financial management, participation and governance, apart from my main job description of developing a marketing strategy for the long term sustainability of the organisation. I did not in my wildest of dreams; visualise working in such areas when I had accepted the placement. I had to do adapt myself to such requirements and engage in some amount of self-learning and networking with my colleagues, volunteer friends and other stakeholders.

Successful results

From day one in the organisation, I worked with my Gambian colleagues and my counterpart to work towards quantifiable measurement of impacts of our work. We agreed on certain baselines regarding that in the various areas we were working upon. This gave our work a sense of direction and focus.

And, the result? At the end of the first year (calendar and fiscal) of my stay, the income to the individual women farmer increased by 7.6%. The farmers moved from one crop dependence to diversification of their produce and started working on value addition of the produce. Also, they started talking about value addition of their produce. This resulted in an increase in their income level thus giving them some more financial leverage to attend to the needs of their families. It went a few steps forward in addressing the ‘hunger’ issue.

More importantly and satisfying for me and the women farmers was the great boost that happened to their confidence level.

And, now in hindsight, I feel -”Wow, at least once in my life, I took a right decision!”

Sumanta Basu
VSO volunteer

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