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The ‘backway’ returnees who found greener pastures on the farm

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“The grass is not always greener on the other side,” Pa Malick Jallow said about his experiences in Libya.

In 2016, like many young Gambians, he embarked on the perilous irregular migration route to Europe in search of so-called greener pastures.

But he could only travel as far as war-torn Libya. There, his journey came to an abrupt and acrimonious end.

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“We were put in the prison in Libya,” said Pa Malick, a young man in dreadlocks. The ‘backway’ is the Gambian name for migration routes by land and sea via the Central Mediterranean to Italy. 

Like thousands of Gambian youths who embarked on the journey, Pa Malick left The Gambia and attempted to enter Europe purely on economic grounds.

Having lost his mother, who was the breadwinner of his family, the 26-year-old felt he had no other option but to leave the country in search of self-actualisation.

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“I was being sponsored by my mother, but she passed. Eventually, I stopped at high school. It was difficult,” he recalled. 

The farm

Pa Malick, who lives in Berending in Gambia’s North Bank Region, is among 30 other young Gambian Returnees from the Backway (GRB) who formed a farming group in 2017. GRB also does awareness raising initiatives and as well offer peer support for its members.

Inspired by agricultural development in Libya, in 2019, the group ventured into farming in an ambitious drive to make it at home.

He said: “While we were there, we have seen how they (Libyans) survive through agriculture, which is also the backbone of our country’s economy. So, we decided to come back and form this association.”

Pa Malick said those who conceived the farming idea numbered at least 30, however, interest in it has grown exponentially over the past years. “Many people want to register with us now,” he grinned.

“This place was recommended to us and we had discussions with the Alkalo and the village development committee (VDC)of Berending. They welcomed us here and said they too want development. They gave us the land to farm for free.”

The group established a poultry farm. They are also growing vegetable, fruits and a host of other crops on an almost 200×100 meter piece of land.

Most of the produce is consumed locally, especially the eggs from the poultry farm.

“We have shops in the village. We have a vehicle that goes round distributing our produce in shops and neigbouring villages,” Pa Malick said.

Hopes and challenges

The returnees’ venture is solving a long-standing community problem of access to eggs as a means of protein supplement. They are also contributing significantly to Berending village’s horticultural production.

But this feat did not come without challenges. According to Pa Malick, their main problem continues to be lack of good perimeter fence.

“Cattle and goats intrude here [the farm] all the time and damage our crops,” he said. “Water is also a problem here; our borehole is not working.”

The farm is powered by a solar panel system, but it has since been damaged by a recent windstorm and efforts to fix it has so far failed. The poultry building also suffered damages with water oozing from underneath.

These challenges are frustrating their efforts, but these young Gambians are determined to create a bright future for themselves and others in their community.

The oldest returnees on the farm are 35 years old. A lot more are younger, and Pa Malick believes the farming project can keep young people in the country because “there is hope”.

“The people on the farm are young,” he said. “As the farm develops, we know that there is hope that we will earn even more. So, no one would want to quit that for another venture or to embark on the backway again. The farm has helped us. And it has given us that pride and solace that we are doing something meaningful with our lives. We share our profit.”

An idea from prison

Mamina Jallow, who hails from Sinchu Sori in Kombo North, is the chairman of GRB – the group of returnees who defied the narrative that rural farming is now left to the aging, or that agriculture is not a lucrative business.

“It all started in prison,” he said of the idea to set up a group farming venture as returnees.

“We have hope that it can bring meaningful development and change to our living conditions. It’s not easy to gather people and do something meaningful. We are at the early stage, but yes, progress is coming gradually. We are managing,” he said.

The returnees were assisted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to start the farm. They were given reintegration assistance by the UN agency through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration.

It is not clear exactly how much money or resources were invested to start the farm, but Mamina said the investment is valued at more than one million dalasi.

According to him, returnees who put their resources into the farm are grouped into two: investor A and investor B. Investor A, he explained, are members who invested in the crop farm, while investor B members invested in the crop and poultry farm.

“Eighteen of 30 members agreed to be part of the investor B category, but the farm belongs to the organisation,” he said.  

While they are growing crops like cassava, maize, oranges and other fruits on the farm, Mamina said what is now needed is increased capacity building.

“We need more training on entrepreneurship, including business management, team management, conflict resolution, and auditing,” he said.

They also need training on effective advocacy since a fair share of their work focuses on awareness raising on the dangers of irregular migration. 

IOM support

In recent times, the hunt for socioeconomic advancement – particularly among the youth — has driven many to embark on irregular migration with the aim of reaching Europe.

Over 35,000 Gambians arrived in Europe by irregular means between 2014 and 2018, with many others in Africa along the Central Mediterranean route opting for voluntary return, according to data from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

IOM, which opened a country office in Banjul in July 2017, hopes that the success stories of GRB and other returnees can help inspire other young Gambians who have a desire to embark on the perilous journey to stay home.

Etienne Micallef, IOM programme manager for Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme, said the agency’s projects have helped return a lot of Gambians who were stranded in north Africa, Niger, Mali, and other countries.

Returnees who get repatriated through the IOM are given “reintegration assistance”.

“The reintegration assistance has different aspects,” Micallef said. “One of the most prominent is economic support. We provide the tools for returnees to create something that gives them income or income generation. This group [GRB] decided to stick together and together decided to open a farm. They had the patience and the vison to wait for the right opportunity.”

Through an agreement with the IOM, the private poultry producer, EMPAS, provided training, a chicken house building and some farming and other tools for the members of the GRB.

“Through the agreement, they all went to training on poultry production, processing, and market linkages. We also trained them on group management skills and basic bookkeeping,” he said.

Micallef said that the IOM is aware of some of the challenges confronting the young farmers, and one way to mitigate such challenges, he suggested, is to connect the group to other opportunities that might exist locally.

“We would like to see if something comes on, how we can connect them – because it would be a pity if this positive energy is lost because of technical challenges,” he noted.

He agreed that those Gambian youths who have showed determination and are on the verge of attaining self-actualisation in the country – something many young Gambians don’t belief is attainable here – should get all the support they can get.

“People should support them by buying their produce. Assisting in the reintegration of returnees is truly a whole-of-society endeavor, so all stakeholders should come together and support where they can,” Micallef said.

Alagie Manneh is a multiple award-winning sub-editor, columnist and senior journalist at The Standard newspaper.

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Pa Malick replants a banana tree by a recent windstorm
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Pa Malick takes The Standard on a conducted tour of the farm
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A member of the farm is trying to fix their only borehole destroyed by a windstorm
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The farm breeds domesticated birds for their eggs

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