End hunger - the organic way

It’s actually absurd: although the region is fertile, almost the only onions available in Guinea-Bissau are imported from Senegal and Holland. But domestic cultivation only has positives: it is an effective way of fighting hunger and providing families with urgently needed cash.

A radio blares out. Children are playing under the shade of a tree and two women in bright clothing stand chatting in a garden. Green stems sprout up around their feet and growing in the sandy earth beneath is what makes this idyllic afternoon scene in the rural region of Bafatá (Guinea-Bissau) possible in the first place: big, flavoursome onions.

But appearances are deceptive. Until a few years ago this region constantly faced food shortages. The women remember this only too well. The onion means much more to them than adding a bit of flavour to their cooking – in Guinea-Bissau the onion is a basic foodstuff. Its cultivation is an important aspect of the effective and sustainable campaign against hunger.

School money and clothes 

The onion fields, which only the women cultivate, are crucial for a project that SWISSAID implements in this rural region along with its local partner Apalcof. Thanks to the support they receive with cultivation, the women are able to earn a modest supplementary income and to make sure their children are never again faced with empty plates. “Because the fields yield so much, I can sell onions and make a little money myself. I use this to pay the school fees for my children and to buy us new clothes”, says 40-year-old Fatumata Embaló, onion farmer, palm oil trader and mother of five. She is overjoyed, “There was even enough for a bed and a couple of goats.”

Apalcof purchases the market fresh onions from its members and manages the marketing. This collaborative selling has boosted the visibility of the local produce. More and more consumers are willing to buy onions locally – so there is no need to make the arduous journey to the big markets in the cities.

In addition, the customers obtain top-grade organic goods: to protect the soil and keep cultivation costs to a minimum, the women use organic cultivation methods. That means no expensive chemical fertilisers or toxic pesticides. The onions are less at risk of deterioration and there is more money left over to go into the household budget.

The women have their say

And there is more potential: Apalcof has plans for the future to store the onions in independently constructed warehouses and to release the produce to market when onions are in low supply and prices are high. As many men have left for the cities because of the dismal prospects, the women often have to shoulder the responsibility for the farm and their family entirely on their own. The women farmers’ commercial success and greater recognition are worth their weight in gold.

37-year-old Uma Djau is enthusiastic, “Thanks to Apalcof I have learned to use compost fertiliser for the fields. The onions grow really well, taste better and keep for longer.” Today, the widow has no problem funding the household budget and paying for food, sending her two youngest children to school and breeding goats – this maximises her income and her independence.

Onions in the fields – and on the airwaves

Since the early 1990s Apalcof has been a committed partner of SWISSAID in the region. In addition to fighting hunger, it also endeavours to improve living conditions for farmers and their families. The organisation runs a local radio station to inform people who live in the more remote regions and who are unable to read and write about the latest events.
Part of the daily programme includes advice on organic onion cultivation, tips for pest control without using chemicals and information about price trends. The farmers also rely on the radio station broadcasting adverts for their products. The competition is tough: the market is saturated with onions from nearby Senegal and imported products from Holland where cultivation is subsidised. So staying informed, networking and cooperation is the only way to become an influential negotiating partner and to face up to the challenges. 
  • Project code: GB 2/12/06
  • Project duration: 2014
  • Project costs: 84'303.- Fr.
  • Partner organisation: Apalcof
  • Number of beneficiaries: 1200 Families