Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Back in the early 1980's Father Godfrey Nzamujo believed that the level of development in Africa was grossly insufficient and sought to do something about it. He formed a small group to address this problem and to restore dignity to the African people. This effort became the Songhai Center named after the famed 15th-century Malian empire.

The Songhai Center, headquartered in Benin, is a center for training, production, research and development of sustainable agricultural practices. Those associated with it seek to augment the standard of living of Africa's populations by the creating viable agricultural enterprises using the following methods:

- Making use of local resources, traditional and modern methods;

- Blending traditional and modern agricultural practices;

- Teaching and employing effective management;

- Encouraging individual and communal responsibility and initiatives;

- Maintaining channels for, and respecting, diverse opinions.

Songhai seeks to foster "an environment of creativity and innovation and as a result, reestablish a stable African society." Inspired by "the Timbuctu effect," which was the impact of that ancient city on the many cultures that came together there to trade. Songhai believes that pride progress and effective results will be accomplished by there efforts "clearly emphasizing all the advantages Africa offers." And that "Citizens can therefore benefit from globalization rather than be excluded from it or solely bear the weight of its effects."

Believing that for agriculture to become a viable force of development, "it must be extensive and holistic, going beyond purely agricultural knowledge… and include education in management, organization, and planning." In order to accomplish this, Songhai engages in several activities that support and enhance agricultural production.

The Songhai generates income from the sale of its own products and it also receives grants from various partners. It is the hope of the organization that one day it will attain complete financial independence. But in the mean time, it has received funding from: USAID, the Songhai Support Group (of California), UNDP , HCR, (Agencies of the United Nations), the RABOBANK Foundation of The Netherlands, the Spanish Foundation - Accion Verapaz, SID (Society for International Development),IDRC (International Development Research Centre),Coopération Française of France and several others.

Songhai has more than 400 students in 18-month training programs in its centers located in Porto Novo, Savalou, Parakou, and Kinwedji. Also over 250 farms, managed by the young people trained in Benin, have been established in all the regions if the country. These farms are brought together under a network involving local coordinating units.

In addition to the 400 regular students, more than 300 other individuals of various backgrounds take part each year in short-term training programs.

Songhai aspires to promote an agricultural, entrepreneurial spirit in young Africans by developing and transmitting the human values capable of bringing about behavioral changes. Songhai believes that "Through this training, the students can then become agents of their own development. The final goal is to train a new breed of leaders capable not only of conceiving and carrying out entrepreneurial activities, but of equally blending individual and communal interests."

At Songhai, there are 3 levels of training. In Level 1, Students are trained in techniques of agricultural production, in agro-industry and in management of agricultural enterprises through the Songhai production workshops. In Level 2, the students continue training and collaborate in creation and management of an agricultural enterprise. Level 3 aims at empowering African executives so that, beyond their personal businesses, they may also become entrepreneurs in development. There is much more to these three levels of training, but I have just given the briefest of overviews.

Skills are taught in modules grouped into workshops in sequences of three months. This includes, among other things:
- Animal Production
- Fish farming
- Feed Mill - which is food processing, agricultural mechanics, marketing of agricultural products, and human development

Songhai says that the training is "a continuous process made up of successive stages. It involves progressively bringing the recipients (be they school drop-outs, current farmers, or executives) to a given level by sharing knowledge, expertise, and the ability to motivate others. The end result of this process is the establishment of profitable businesses and centers of excellence, which attract both local farmers and development agents and engender genuine socio-economic dynamics in rural areas."

In addition to training and production Songhai conducts permanent research into new varieties and species of both plants and animals, and into new techniques of production. They also conduct research into energy, the environment and mechanization. Because this research is conducted directly in the production workshops, it is termed "grassroots research."

The three fundamental principles of training at Songhai are:

- to create the desire in youth, underprivileged groups, and women to participate in entrepreneurial activities and in so doing empower themselves.
- to teach them values, which will lead to a change of attitude will thus make them agents of their own development. And
- to improve trainees' skills in the areas of analysis and socio-economic awareness, coordination, leadership, organization and management of sustainable community development activities.

As a by-product of their training and research, Songhai has developed products to enhance farming capabilities. Two such products are the Palmist Press and a Cassava Grater with a Metal Drum. I will let you go to the web site to discover why these developments are important. These products are offered for sale by Songhai and the income generated by those sales are an important part of its revenues.

There are many things going on at the Songhai Center that I will not be able to discuss here, but I cannot complete this article without mentioning the telecenters.

Believing that the new technologies of information and communication constitute a vital element in the improvement in the quality of their social, economic, and intellectual lives Africans. Songhai has established The Beninois Network Of Community Tele-Services. Community telecenters are being established Porto-Novo, Savalou and Parakou - the larger cities where Songhai sites exist. And these telecenters are integrated into the overall activities of Songhai.

The objectives of the telecenters are:

- To increase the level of knowledge in each community by giving the citizens the means of procuring and exchanging information relevant to their socio-economic and professional activities.

- To create within the Songhai community a culture of sharing information and experiences both internal and external.

- To train the target groups (grassroots communities, pupils, entrepreneurs, health workers, businessmen, students, etc.) to appropriate and utilize the new technologies of information and communication.

- To facilitate the acquisition and exchange of experiences among farmers and other members of the rural community. And

- To share technical results and experience gained by Songhai with other development actors on the continent through the new technologies in information and communication

Partnering with IDRC, (The International Development Research Center) Songhai has been able to create a network of these telecenters.

I could go on and on about the telecenters and the rest of Songhai's programs, but I must bring this article to a close. (Alas, so much to say and so little time to say it.) Believe me, folks, I have not even mentioned one third of the good things that are taking place at the Songhai Center. Here is the web site address: http://www.songhai.org/ it is in both French and English. Go by there and take a look at an African organization on the move.

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