Israeli and Senegalese officials inaugurated an agricultural training field for university students in Dakar as part of Israel's ongoing effort to share its agricultural expertise with African countries looking to raise farm productivity and reduce their dependence on imports.
On a large field in the middle of Dakar's sprawling Cheikh Ante Diop University campus, agricultural students tend tomato, cucumber and hot pepper plants.
It is not a typical Senegalese garden, but rather a "field school," where students have partnered with Israeli experts to learn innovative irrigation methods.
Thin plastic hoses are threaded neatly into the lines of vegetable plants and swirled around the bases of mango, lemon and papaya trees. The hoses are connected to central water pumps, and small holes in the hoses over each sprout deliver precise amounts of water directly to the plant at prescribed intervals.
It is a system called drip irrigation, an Israeli invention, first developed in the 1960s, that is now a cornerstone of the country's agricultural diplomacy.
Israel is currently training farmers in the West African nations of Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon.
Standing in the university garden in Dakar, Israel's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Shalom Simhon, said irrigation technology is fundamental to farming in semi-arid environments, something Israel has learned firsthand in its desert climate.
He says drip irrigation is a very efficient use of water, and it allows farmers to respond to the specific needs of each plant without overwatering. The world is getting drier, he says, and water sources are becoming more scarce. Countries, he says, can not afford to rely only on rain for agriculture, and irrigation technology is essential.
Nearly 10 million people in the West African countries of Niger and Chad currently face severe food shortages brought on by erratic rains and poor harvests in 2009. Aid workers say poverty and lack of irrigation make farmers in the Sahel region vulnerable to even slight climate changes.
Simhon says improved farming practices, like drip irrigation and water recycling, have helped Israel conserve water and almost double its farming output in the last decade, leaving the country with a food surplus.
He says these technologies could be game-changers for African countries like Senegal that imports 80 percent of its food.
Botanist and head of the university's Plant Biology Department, Kandioura Noba, agrees. He says farmers are currently dependent on rain, which allows only one harvest each year. With drip irrigation, he says, farmers can have as many as three harvests per year. Just imagine, he says, what this ability to farm year-round could do for Senegal.
Noba says the newly-inaugurated agricultural training field gives his students the chance to get hands-on experience with new farming technologies.
One such student, 26-year-old farmer Thierno Sow, said he was skeptical of the drip irrigation method at first, but the results have been nothing short of extraordinary.
Sow says when we installed the watering network ourselves and began to use it, I saw that it wasn't complicated. Once you set it up, he says you calculate the number of irrigation hours based on the stage of the plant and then make a calendar for the season. Then, all you have to do, he says, is turn on and off the water.
Sow says drip irrigation is but one of the methods he has learned that he will take back to his community, but that is not all.
He says this training has given him a leg up in the job market. He says there are a lot of organizations looking for youth who are skilled in the latest farming technologies, environmental science and the exportation of crops.
The university's agricultural training field is part of an ongoing cooperation between Israel and Senegal that began in 2006 and aims to reduce poverty through farming innovation.