Salim Dara is revolutionizing agricultural education in Benin through a hands-on agricultural entrepreneurship program and his holistic farming model—shifting agricultural education from theoretical teaching to practical skills development that instills in students an appreciation for the natural environment.
Salim’s projects have been informed by life events. His university career in the sciences came to a brutal halt after the student strikes of 1979. Salim was considered a leader during the strike, one of the first to defy the Marxist regime, and was imprisoned for five years. Thanks to Amnesty International, Salim was released and attempted to resume his studies in math, physics and chemistry (1984). Unfortunately, a new strike movement erupted and Marxist authorities blamed the newly released students for the unrest—they were sent back to prison. Salim left formal education and went on to join the Songhai Project—a newly established educational farm. He was the first graduate of the center, and he became a teacher. Salim later held the positions of Director of Professional Education and Deputy Director. He introduced poultry farming to the center and brought forward several initiatives for improvement. Salim left Songhai to establish Solidarité Rurale. The success of his program and his performance led the Faculty of Agronomy to ask him to teach agricultural entrepreneurship. In 2010 Salim was inducted as King Baparape of Djougou, meaning, Father of the city, as a model for the community.
Through his organization, Solidarité Rurale (Rural Solidarity), Salim works to replace a broken agricultural education system by providing students with the practical experience, confidence, and resources they need to generate food and income from the natural resources around them. Salim envisions a system of demonstration farms where students can learn through practical application rather than observation. His first demonstration farm (just outside Porto-Novo) uses an integrated model of produce, livestock, and fish farming with an attached market, to instill an appreciation for the natural connections and balance between ecosystems. Unlike the conventional method of education, in which students first assimilate concepts for evaluation and obtain appropriate certification before starting field experience, Salim provides learners with technical and field expertise with their studies, so they have the practical skills employers want and experience needed to start their own farming businesses. Salim offers young people (both in and out of school) an opportunity to gain practical experience, training in agricultural entrepreneurship, and confidence to pursue self-employment. In line with his vision of hands-on education, Salim partners with vocational schools; and their second year students participate as interns at his demonstration farm. Students are trained to utilize their natural resources, gradually develop their farming operations, and grow a small business. Students are also prepared with skills in resource management, inventory management, and product marketing. In addition, they learn how to work together to facilitate access to capital and increase their chances of success.
Over one-third of Benin’s nine million people are affected by poverty. Youth unemployment and food security are persistent challenges to improving the income and quality of life for most Beninese. Agriculture is the largest sector in Benin’s economy but has experienced declining profits since 2007. A large proportion of the population relies on subsistence farming for both food and income. However, food security and nutritional problems continue to plague the population. An over reliance on cotton production has led to an undiversified agricultural sector and contributed to the challenge of food security. Despite the size of the agricultural sector, Benin is still a net importer of food. Although the overall unemployment rate in Benin has dropped in the last four years, youth unemployment rate has grown to twice the rate for adults. There are currently 2.75 million young job seekers in Benin and given that over 40 percent of the population is under 14 years, this rate is likely to grow unless the underlying causes for high youth unemployment are addressed. Salim understands that one of these causes is that educational and vocational institutes are overly focused on the number of diplomas awarded each year, rather than preparing young people with the practical skills and sense of initiative needed to create or find employment. Over half the population (over 15 years old) is illiterate and students must spend at least fifteen years in school (to obtain the equivalent of a UK HND) before they can gain practical experience. The government is concentrating on diversifying university courses and encouraging young people to specialize early on and embrace vocational courses so they can get jobs. However, Salim does not believe that vocational education as it currently stands will solve this challenge. Educational and vocational institutes do not provide their students with the practical training that employers want their employees to have. Only 10 percent of graduates secure employment after completing their courses. While the number of graduates grows each year, there continues to be too few jobs and too many graduates not prepared for employment. The agricultural sector is particularly in need of bright graduates with the confidence and practical experience to address outdated production techniques, equipment, and management practices. It is also in need of young people that pursue food, livestock, and fish farming, so as to diversify the sector and increase food production. However, most graduates from agro-educational institutions usually move to cities to pursue work unrelated to their studies, such as zemedian (taxi driving). In fact, agricultural employment is looked down upon by most urban youth. The Songhai Center (the largest agricultural education center in West Africa) originally focused on training orphaned street children, and thus, agricultural employment was seen as an imposition rather than a choice. In addition, the Songhai Center (and other institutions) is focused on large-scale, mechanized production and students often think they need significant capital to start a farming business. This type of agricultural training does not provide young people with an understanding of the wide range of agricultural possibilities, and it does not teach them how to manage a small profitable farming business.
Salim established Solidarité Rurale to improve the lives of African youth. He opened a half-hectare farm school in Porto-Novo, 3.5km from the city, to show how it is possible to successfully feed and provide for a family. Salim’s Porto-Novo farm demonstrates how produce, livestock, and fish farming are connected and support each other, as well as how to prevent damaging the environment. Most waste from the farm is recycled to create value elsewhere. For example, residue from fish is used to feed the livestock, and waste water is used to water plants; in turn, livestock waste is used to feed the fish. Organic farming principles and methods are used to supply the local population with healthy food that is consistent with environmental regulations. Salim used the initial crops from his farm to identify and build a customer base. The profits soon allowed him to extend the farm and further diversify his activities. Along with the demonstration farm, Salim opened a snack bar and created a relaxation area, the Jardin du Roi (The King’s Garden). Visitors may buy farm produce (eggs, rabbits, vegetables, and coconut) and learn about Salim’s approach to agriculture. The snack bar and garden create an internal marketplace that illustrates farming business profitability to his students while it also provides a valuable social space for the community and the organization. Salim next decided to use his demonstration farm to teach young people how to develop local resources, and meet their basic needs without damaging the environment. Salim targets young students in and out of school and equips them with agricultural techniques and skills that are applicable to both rural and urban areas. His aim is to teach them to take ownership of agricultural techniques that will lead to successfully starting and/or operating a modern farm. Salim’s training program gives young people the skills and confidence to pursue agricultural employment and emphasizes that it is attractive, profitable, and intellectually changing work. He teaches students how, with only a small farm, it is possible to earn more than a Beninese university professor. Salim has forged partnerships with training colleges in Benin, including one of West Africa’s leading agro-economic institutions (Songhai Center) to ensure that vocational students obtain the practical experience and training needed in this sector. Second year students go to the farm for work experience and put what they learned into practice. They experience a sense of initiative and they no longer expect society to serve them, but ask what they can do for society. To date, more than 60 such students have opened their own farms, and many are training others in agriculture entrepreneurship. Increasingly other organizations have requested Salim to train their staffs to improve agricultural production techniques or in cultivation methods suited for deprived areas. He also gives advice to young graduates on how to set up a business. More than 600 people visit the center each year to learn from his model. Many academic institutions have adopted the initiative such as Valdocco Centre-Foyer Don Bosco which trains children in difficult circumstances, the Valponasca Centre of IFMA for trafficked girls, CIDAP Baga Togo, which focuses on agricultural entrepreneurship, and ENSTA Djougou which trains adults in agropastoral farming. Salim plans to open a new center in the north of Benin, but his first priority is to train a team of young people to manage the Porto- Novo site. He wants to start shifting out of his current manager role so he can spend more time influencing universities to adopt agricultural entrepreneurship into their programs and mentoring alumni trained at his farm. Salim currently works as a consultant for the University of Benin in Agriculture to develop their agricultural entrepreneurship program. Many academic institutions have adopted Salim’s model within their own programs. His ambition is to expand the model widely across Africa over the next ten years.