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Aida Dieng (center) mentors members of her former 4-H club.

children dancing in front of a wall

Taking root in Senegal

Virginia Tech helps grow 4-H programs in West Africa

In the small town of Toubacouta in southwest Senegal, 14-year-old Aida Dieng and her father planted seeds in the garden adjoining their home, but this was no ordinary garden. More than just a place to get dirt under the fingernails, this garden was a place to grow a better future.

Each month, dozens of children came together to master steps from planting and watering to weeding and harvesting. In addition to Aida’s father, local professors, extension agents, and other volunteers helped the children with activities designed to teach them technical and social skills and produce a new generation of aspiring agriculturalists.

Situated in the western corner of Africa’s Sahel region, Senegal relies heavily on the agricultural sector, which employs 75 percent of the country’s 14 million people. With 60 percent of the population younger than 25, and food insecurity and malnutrition higher in rural areas, programs that penetrate into the Sahel are essential for feed­ing people and achieving economic growth. 

In 2015, Virginia Tech heeded the call to train, empower, and serve by introducing the U.S. model of the 4-H program to Senegal via the U.S. Agency for International Development Education and Research in Agriculture project.

The project used the U.S. land-grant model to build human and institutional capacity in agricultural teaching, research, training, and outreach to meet the needs of the Senegalese public and private sectors, including farmers and entrepreneurs.

For more than a century in the U.S., 4-H — that’s head, hands, heart, and health — has encouraged youth leadership, entrepreneurship, and agricultural education. In Virginia, there are almost 200,000 members and, in the U.S., almost 6 million.

In 2015, the ERA program, managed by the Center for International Research, Education, and Development at Virginia Tech, launched the 4-H Senegal Positive Youth Development initiative to train community leaders, volunteers, university faculty, and government officials to create programs aimed at helping youth. The program was led by Tom Archibald, assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education; Kathleen Jamison, professor emerita and extension specialist; and Bineta Guisse, ERA’s former gender coordinator and outreach officer.

Senegalese children
Senegalese youth in 4-H clubs participate in activities such as learning to compost, planting and selling crops, developing entrepreneurship skills, and playing sports.

Aida’s club was one of three pilot 4-H clubs established in Francophone Africa.

Under ERA, Aida and hundreds of other youth in rural Senegal have been connected to agricultural institutions, grassroots leaders, Peace Corps volunteers, and other partners to foster their development. In addition to opportunities to learn valuable life, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills, the 4-H participants gain experience in science, technology, engineering, and math. And they are encouraged to find ways to make good decisions, manage resources wisely, work with others, and communicate effectively.

In the first year, nearly 600 youth joined. They came from across the country — from Saint-Louis on the northern edge of the country’s Atlantic Coast to the lush region of Ziguinchor in the south. Virginia Tech faculty members trained more than 150 community leaders, faculty at Senegalese higher education institutions, and Peace Corps volunteers.

CIRED Executive Director Van Crowder highlighted the university’s role in envisioning and launching the 4-H program. “The ERA 4-H program is a great example of how a youth development model that has been very successful in Virginia and the United States can be used in Senegal to equip youth with the knowledge and confidence to create better futures for themselves, their communities, and their country.”

The program is equally beneficial for agricultural institutions seeking to implement Senegal’s new community service law enacted in 2015. Inspired by ERA, a key component of the law is community outreach and service as part of each university’s mission.

The 4-H Senegal Positive Youth Development program was so successful that in 2017 CIRED was awarded a second project to redouble its commitment in the country. Also funded by USAID, the five-year, $4 million Senegal Youth in Agriculture (YIA) project carries on the work of ERA by institutionalizing 4-H nationally.

“We have had very high demand for the 4-H clubs since the initial launch,” said Guisse, who now serves as the project’s national director. “To respond to this demand, we have put in place a train-the-trainer program that prepares our local leaders for setting up and leading effective positive youth development programs. Essentially, local leaders are giving back to their communities for generations to come.”

Nearly 22,000 youth are expected to enroll in 4-H clubs in Senegal over the next four years. For them, 4-H could open the door to a wider range of employment opportunities through technical and vocational education and training. Often, youth in Senegal do not possess the job skills that employers seek. Youth in Agriculture is closing this gap by helping participants gain in-demand skills that increase employment and entrepreneurship results. 

Four years ago, Aida and her community planted seeds in her garden. Today, those seeds have blossomed into a national program empowering youth throughout Senegal. 

Aida continues to reap the rewards of 4-H. She is enrolled in college in Dakar, where she studies transportation logistics. 

During vacations, she is still involved in her 4-H club in Toubacouta, where she now mentors the next generation of youth leaders.