Between May 2022 and May 2023, WellFound worked on a project whose goals were to improve the nutritional intake of the remotest and poorest villages in Guinea-Bissau and alleviate poverty in the region. To accomplish these goals, WellFound focused on extensively supporting Bissau-Guinean women with the tools, skills and materials needed to set-up market gardens in their local communities. Market gardens not only create a healthy source of nutrition, but also allow the villages to develop agribusiness through enhanced local farming. This article will identify the struggles facing Guinea-Bissau, explore our strategy in tackling them and discuss the successes and limitations of our project.
Identifying Malnutrition and Poverty in Guinea-Bissau
For decades, Guinea-Bissau has been struggling with malnutrition. Currently, chronic malnutrition across the country exceeds 25% (1), causing severe poor health, increased susceptibility to illness and stunted growth.
In fact, over 27.6% of Bissau-Guinean children were affected by stunted growth in 2014 (2), leading to poor cognition and educational performance, loss of physical productivity and increased risk of developing chronic diseases (3).
All these effects only continue the cycle for future generations, worsening the quality of life and prosperity of the population. Malnutrition can be inked back to an undiversified and undernourished diet, stemming from three main issues: extreme poverty, crop failure and food insecurity. Over 69% of Bissau-Guineans live below the poverty line 4 and the majority of the population depend on agriculture for their main source of income.
Therefore, to survive, most families’ food intake consists mainly of the crops they harvest on plantation, such as Cashew nuts (the highest export of the country), frozen fish and oily seeds (5). Though these foods do offer many nutritional benefits themselves, the country’s malnutrition problem stems largely from a lack of diversity in the people’s diet as it is generally unaffordable, resulting in limited diets with low nutritional value.
Yet, Guinea-Bissau’s general diet is compromised even further with the issues of climate change (6). One major impact has been rising average temperatures, causing drier, hotter and longer summer months. Climate change has also caused unpredictable and unstable rainfall across the country. With an underdeveloped irrigation system, farmers are ill equipped to deal with these impacts on plantations, leading to an inevitable inhospitable environment for crops and their subsequent failure. This scarcity of local foods causes inflated prices, forcing families into a more modest diet and malnutrition.
Another key to understanding why Guinea-Bissau’s population is malnourished, is by understanding their dependence of imports. Rice is a staple food in the Bissau-Guinean diet, yet the country does not grow it themselves. In 2021, Guinea-Bissau imported $35.3M in Rice, which was the 2nd most imported product in the country (7). Though importing foods is a great way to widen the diet of the population with varied foods, it illustrates Guinea-Bissau’s overreliance on foreign import, causing issues such as susceptibility to price volatility and self-insufficiency in an emergency disruption of rice importation. Hence, WellFound’s main mission in this project has been to tackle the three major causes of malnutrition in Guinea-Bissau; extreme poverty, impacts of climate change and dependence on imported foods.
The strategy employed to meet our goals was simple, as with just one tool we could address so many different causes of malnutrition and poverty. The answer is market gardens. A market garden is an allotted piece of land in a local community, allocated to small scale farming of a variety of crops. A flourishing market garden in a local community provides a wider array of foods available to local and wider communities and in turn provides a source of income for the cultivators, connecting villages together and increasing self-sufficiency, thus reducing reliance on foreign grain imports. Although the idea was simple, the execution was far more complex. To establish a successful market garden, WellFound has to identify a suitable location, willing cultivators, equip them with the knowledge and tools to grow crops successfully and link people and villages together.
When choosing the location, many factors were taken into consideration, remoteness, a substantial local population, and access to water. A total of 5 villages were identified with these ideal conditions for market gardens, allowing them to prosper and benefit the local community. The villages chosen were Biambe Abrigo, Cabam, Bidas, Tepde and Biamfoie. WellFound was then tasked with recognising willing participants, women specifically, able to dedicate enough time and enthusiasm to the project. Women in particular would benefit most from the project, as they could gain more independence and financial stability through a second source of income for their families. WellFound recognised 250 women (and their families of 2,460 people) willing to learn and dedicate their time in ensuring the fruitfulness of these market gardens.
After identifying our strategy, it was time to act. WellFound began by teaching the local women the skills they would need as local farmers, how to prepare the land, irrigate and grow crops successfully. Throughout the year, WellFound expert volunteers led a total of 30 technical workshops on agro skills. Following this, WellFound needed to teach the women how to mitigate the impacts of climate change. In total, we led 12 climate-resilient workshops, instrumental in enhancing community knowledge about the impact of tree cutting, waste disposal, recycling, and preparing for adverse climatic events. With the educational skills and understanding preparations complete, each plot of land had to be prepared, an irrigation system established, and the seeds sown. Women, families, and even local schools became involved in this stage, all contributing to the project. Across the villages, healthy vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber, aubergine, okra, onions, tomatoes, and peppers were planted and tended throughout the year. But did these efforts pay off?
All 5 villages had their own successes. This year in Biamfoie, two successful harvests have already been achieved, and the other villages are now preparing their lands for planting beans in the rainy season. Nutritional intake has seen notable improvement following a vast array of vegetables and legumes being cultivated in the local villages. Through our health promotion program, communities are now more aware of the importance of nutrition and balanced diets, with a noticeable increase in the integration of vegetables into their daily meals. In addition, our health promotion workers are encouraging vulnerable members, such as pregnant women, children under the age of 5, and the elderly, to integrate healthy foods into their diets, including nutrient-rich moringa leaves and fruits. This positive trend is expected to further progress in the coming months.
Improvements in household income are also evident, women have started selling the crops locally and to further villages, causing them to witness a positive impact on their earnings. Aligned with WellFound's sustainable plan, all 5 communities received assistance in setting up a micro-saving scheme. This scheme encourages all women members of the community to contribute towards sustaining the market garden program. Currently, 226 women are actively contributing, resulting in a savings amount of 160,000 CFA (approximately £215) in just one year. While it is still early to fully ascertain the project's overall effect on monetary gain, the baseline study conducted in Biamfoie, with a sample of 7 women participating in the market garden program, showed a 12% increase in their household income compared to last year, after just two harvests. With confidence based on past experiences, WellFound anticipates a collective improvement in the income of all 5 villages.
Economic hardship: WellFound has always upheld the idea that a community must show their own initiative for change, to benefit from our organisation. However, challenging it may be, even small efforts prove to us that the community is committed to our projects. Yet, this requirement was particularly challenging as the villages were undergoing financial hardship throughout the period, meaning it was harder for them to dedicate their time and funds in the small tasks assigned to them prior to launching the project. In addition, the political situation also affected the sale of cashews, depriving communities of additional income. Despite these challenges, WellFound remained committed to its principles but experienced a delay in getting the programme up and running.
Availability of materials: The general lack of economic activities and reduced cash flow among the population limited the availability of materials required for the market garden. Moreover, the increased costs of materials had an impact on the project budget. Yet, with hard work, all major hurdles were overcome, and all planned market gardens were successfully developed with the resources available.
Climatic challenges: The occurrence of heavy rain in early February, which is atypical for the region, prevented WellFound from travelling to the villages. This unexpected weather condition disrupted logistical arrangements and affected the timeline of the project, requiring additional efforts to adapt to the conditions. In the Oio region, finding water posed a significant challenge, because of climate change. It required patience and the application of innovative techniques to ensure access to water resources. Yet, within just over a year, the successes of the project cannot go unnoticed, all 5 villages have had successful harvests.
Despite these challenges, WellFound's dedication to its sustainable approach has remained unwavering. The team actively navigated these obstacles ensuring the successful implementation of the project's objectives. By addressing these challenges, WellFound continues to make a positive impact on the communities it supports, fostering sustainable development and empowerment. All challenges were seen as lessons, teaching our team how to solve such problems easier and faster in the future.
Overall, the project supported by the Danish Embassy, Senegal was successful and meaningful, helping communities battle malnutrition and poverty. The successes were achieved by identifying the causes of the problems, namely the effects of climate change, dependence on imports and a lack of income opportunities, which then were tackled by the implementation of local market gardens. Though positive outcomes have already been identified, the full outcome of the project will be realised in the months to come and WellFound will monitor it as part of our 3-year commitment to the villages. WellFound has another 72 villages on their waiting list, who would need such help and assistance. The sustainability model implemented by WellFound proved to be successful in getting people taking development in their own hand. We are looking forward to more partnership in this area and furthering the impact of these successes to ensure sustainable growth and development in the region.