Pride, prevention and a life-saver

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What does an Agriservices manager in Senegal do all day? Why is agriculture such a great field to work in? And how has the pandemic changed life in the countryside? We put these and other questions to Ousmane Sow, who is also our local D&I Champion. Read the French version

Syngenta Foundation: How would you describe your role and main tasks?
Ousmane Sow: There is a planning side to Agriservices, mapping out our activities across the various regions. But I also have a financial hat, working up all the individual budgets. And, of course, there’s always plenty of reporting to do, especially at the end of each year.

Those are important tasks in lots of sectors. Why did you choose agriculture in particular? 
For four main reasons. First and foremost, there’s family pride. My father, a hard-working farmer, and my mother, a kind and generous vegetable trader, both fascinated me throughout childhood and youth.  Secondly, and partially thanks to my parents, I’ve always seen vegetables and other crops as a route to self-reliance. And plants are so important for feeding the world! Those thoughts led me to deepen my passion by also studying agriculture.  

And the fourth motivation?
The reason for then choosing an agricultural profession was a sense of duty to my country and compatriots. That perhaps sounds rather grand – or in some countries unlikely! – but in Senegal farming is both crucial for feeding the population and a major source of jobs.    

You meet male and female farmers, old and young. How do you relate to them all?
It’s all about trust. That enables us to have frank discussions and share know-how about growing the various crops. With the younger ones, entrepreneurship is another important topic. We talk a lot about running businesses in and around agriculture, and especially about marketing aspects.

How has Covid-19 affected daily work for you and the team?  
In the beginning, we had to change how we work. In particular, that meant reducing the number of field visits and office meetings. Since then, the main emphasis has been on all the usual preventive measures – which the farmers are as good about using as we are. Work continues as well as possible, simply with all the precautions.

What does a typical working day look like?  
I’m a very early riser. That gives me time for morning prayers and then a bit of reading. After that, it’s time to look after my animals. Then I either head for my desk or am off to meet farmers. We quite often talk with current or potential partners about our work. I also present our activities to interested students, for example. The time passes really quickly, and then it’s my family’s turn!  

What particularly memorable experience have you had with the Foundation?  
There’s one moment I’ll never forget. In early 2019, I was recruiting students for jobs with the agripreneurs in our Farmers’ Hubs. One of the female candidates seemed particularly passionate about joining. She got one of the jobs, in a remote area. When we next met, eight months later, she said: «Thank you, Monsieur Sow, you saved my life! Before the interview, I was in a hole professionally and had a lot of personal worries. Being picked by the Foundation gave me back my sense of ambition. And now here I am, running my own business and earning enough money to meet my family needs as well.»

What’s your advice to young people interested in farming?  
Go for it! Start with what you’ve got. Stay calm when difficulties arise, and see them as opportunities. And always remember that it’s not all about money.  

On a more general note: what books would you recommend?
Perhaps surprisingly, I shan’t advertise any agricultural textbooks! But I’m a fan of business books like Robert Kiyosaki’s ‘Rich Dad Poor Dad’ and David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’. In a completely different genre, I can also heartily recommend ‘So Long a Letter’ by the Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ. She originally wrote it as ‘Une si Longue Lettre’ – in either language, it’s a great way to get to know various aspects of our culture and society.