Why do we work? Labour and agroecological transition in sub-Saharan Africa – AgroWork

Family harvest of organic chili in the Niayes region of northern Senegal
Family harvest of organic chili in the Niayes region of northern Senegal. Photo: Patrick Bottazzi

Rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa are facing a major social and ecological crisis. Their food systems, in particular, confront serious threats resulting from ecological degradation and unbridled neoliberal policies. In light of these challenges, experts increasingly highlight the need for a major transformation towards agroecological farming to enable more sustainable agricultural practices, farm resilience, and improvements to farmers’ working and living conditions.

Agroecological farming systems in Senegal

The project AgroWork aims at understanding the factors that help or hinder transitions to agroecological farming systems in Senegal, focusing in particular on human labour. Participating researchers draw on various scholarly perspectives, including those from social, political, and Earth system science. The project centres on four central topics:

Main approaches of the AgroWork project to study agroecological transitions in Senegal.

Most of the project’s case studies are being conducted in Senegal’s Niayes region, north of Dakar, an area now dedicated to horticultural production. The region used to play a critical role in domestic food provision for the entire country. Today, it is highly impacted by climate change, urban sprawl, and unsustainable use of natural resources.

Topic 1: What are the systemic lock-in and leverage points for just transitions to agroecology?

Food systems are not “components” of given societies, but rather reflect the entire social system. In Senegal, narratives about the need for “food security” have been used to push for liberalization of the local agricultural sector, including massive importation of staple crops, large-scale land acquisitions by foreign companies, and increasing subsidies for agrochemicals.

More recently, however, this “liberalized” agrarian regime is being challenged by agroecological coalitions led by NGOs and farmers’ organizations. These groups call for transitions to food systems that are socially and environmental “just”. Such agroecological coalitions can be considered “niches” of transformation. In order to better understand what collective actions can promote a just transition to agroecology, it is crucial to study interactions between niche movements and the dominant agrarian regime.

Topic 2: Who controls labour in agroecological farming?

One unique feature of the project is its focus on agrarian transitions from the perspective of labour relations – looking, in particular, at power relations established in and around labour processes in connection with environmental issues and perceptions of “nature”.

Agroecological farming is often associated with increasing labour demands, since it requires more hands-on weeding, self-made treatments, organic fertilizers, etc. At the same time, this added labour often remains subject to external influence and control. For example, agroecological pilot programmes largely remain managed by a network of NGOs and international organizations dependent on global North countries.

Farmers’ mobilization capacity via their organizations largely determines their autonomy and ability to emancipate themselves from external forms of labour control. Therefore, the project also explores the question of meanings and perceptions of agricultural work according to key social characteristics such as gender, age, position in a given hierarchy, or ethnicity.

Topic 3: What are farmers’ motivations to adopt agroecology?

A challenging question for agrarian transition studies – and thus for the project – relates to farmers’ psycho-sociological motivations for adopting a given behaviour. Although agroecological practices are considered beneficial in terms of human health and soil conservation, farmers’ adoption of such practices is determined by three external factors:

  • ability (e.g. farmers’ access to adequate means of production)
  • opportunities (e.g. farmers’ access to preferential markets)
  • legitimacy (e.g. formal regulations and social norms supporting organic products)

For example, farmers may be seen as capable of producing without chemical pesticides (ability), but they may not be able to sell their products for a fair price (opportunity) in the absence of adequate certification mechanisms (legitimacy). In this way, farmers’ motivations and willingness to adopt agroecology are shaped by complex processes of cost–benefit estimation with respect to changing modes of production in a given food system.

Participatory mapping and focus group discussion with farmers’ organizations in northern Senegal
Participatory mapping and focus group discussion with farmers’ organizations in northern Senegal. Photo: Patrick Bottazzi

Topic 4: Can agroecological transitions mitigate the labour crisis?

Finally, the project also seeks to understand how labour demands and outcomes vary according to different models of production, especially small-scale agroecological farming versus industrial “conventional” farming. Improved understanding may reveal the potential of agroecology to provide an alternative rural development pathway by combining rural employment and sustainable food production.

Info box
 Main research institutions Institute of Geography, University of Bern

Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

 Duration  2018 – 2024

Swiss National Science Foundation (Professorships)

 Partners Initiative Prospective Agricole, Senegal

Université Cheikh Anta Diop Dakar, Senegal


Dr. Patrick Bottazzi