Study Tour Senegal: Too Many Mangoes, and a Memorable Celebration
Today was an amazing day. I say this with my whole heart. I have traveled to many countries in this world but I have never felt what I felt today.
We awoke early to leave our hotel in Ziguinchor early in the morning. We traveled for an hour on a rural road. The destination was Bignona to visit Cooperative Des Producteurs et Exploitants Du Sud (COPEX SUD). COPEX is a mango growing and production cooperative that has been funded by Oikocredit. The goal of the COPEX is to take local organic mangos and ship them abroad to foreign markets.
Oikocredit is deeply involved in all aspects of this project from the financing, building the business model, organizing the cooperative, and forming the partnerships in Europe for export. Not your typical lender, eh? Furthermore this area of Senegal is one of the poorest regions in West Africa, so as you can imagine, investments in such a project are a rare occurrence. However, that is what Oikocredit does. We go where others won’t.
In early 2011 Sambou Coly, Oikocredit Senegal Director, began working with COPEX to begin a project that would transform the lives of thousands of local villagers. The problem was this: although most of the villages in this region produce a bountiful harvest of mangoes each year, most of the mangoes would spoil due to the lack of sufficient storage. What’s more, the sheer amount of mangoes grown is far more than local villagers can consume. The villagers told us that 75% percent of the delicious mangoes go to waste each year.
So the question became, “What to do with the lion’s share of the mango crop in Casamance”? Sambou and Oikocredit have decided to invest 400,000 Euros in COPEX to build an infrastructure that will be able to support mango producers in Casamance. The money has gone towards building a factory with brand new machinery, including refrigeration to preserve the mangoes. We spent most of the day touring the almost finished factory.
But before we toured the factory we were greeted by the entire cooperative. It was a moment I will never forget. Drummers drummed, hands clapped, and voices sang. All the cooperative members had traveled to be there to meet our group. Some had traveled the day before and slept over in the local village. There was a ceremony in which the entire board of COPEX was introduced. They made a special presentation to Sambou to show their appreciation. I must have shaken 300 hands before the end of the day. Many of us danced with the villagers after being towed into the dance circle against our will. It was worth it.
After the ceremony we walked to the factory to tour the newly built facility. All of the equipment was there that they needed. It was by no means fancy and/or state of the art, but it was sturdy and functional. Sambou was keen to make sure that COPEX took into account the “risk of technology”. COPEX and its farmers are in a very remote part of Senegal, it is important that the equipment is easily fixable and parts can be ordered from the capital Dakar.
Overall the day was amazing. Our hearts are swelling after full day of gratitude. The COPEX project is still waiting to be finished. However, a buyer has been found for the mangoes. The buyer is based in the Netherlands and is anticipating a shipment this year of fresh and dried mangoes. Thanks to Oikocredit and the dedication of its staff on the ground, things are looking up for the disadvantaged in Casamance.
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