Fourteen years ago, unemployed and discouraged by a failed business venture, Mohamed Ould Abderrahmane turned to farming. Today the cooperative he set up to grow vegetables on the outskirts of the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, employs several dozen people and provides its members with a handsome income. When he started the Najah cooperative in 1998, Abderrahmane possessed nothing more than an average education and a smattering of training in techniques for growing, drying and preserving vegetables.
"From a contribution of around 150 dollars each, my friends and I bought agricultural equipment, cleared and prepared the land we got as a loan from the government, built cement water tanks and bought seeds to get started with the project," he told IPS.
He looks over the cooperative's fields with clear satisfaction at the rewards of more than a decade of labour. "Look, we're planting fully 10 hectares now, green vegetables and fruit trees everywhere, dozens of employees and a monthly profit of around 300 to 500 dollars for each member of the cooperative."
The coop – whose name means "success" in Arabic – has grown from its original seven members to 120, all in their 30s.
Abderrahmane told IPS the cooperative produces 500 tonnes of vegetables every three months: a profusion of carrots and tomatoes, salad greens and cabbage, beetroots, potatoes, turnips, onions and radishes, mangoes, avocados, dates and bananas.
"We alternate varieties of beans on the plots," said coop member Mahmoud Ely. "If it's tomatoes in this field this season, then we'll plant salad greens or cabbage next to guarantee soil fertility."
Another member of Najah, Ahmed Salem, explained that the cooperative has recently begun to grow exotic plants such as avocado, parsley and radishes.
Abderrahmane and his team say they refuse to use chemical products, preferring to rely on traditional growing techniques.
Cheick Ould Ely, another member of the cooperative and president of Nouakchott's Union of Agricultural Cooperatives, said, "Chicken manure, properly diluted, is good for the plants and the soil, that's why we pay so much for it, around seven dollars for a 50 kilogramme sack."
Two other members of the cooperative, Ali Ould Mohamed and Béchir Ould Moktar, explained that their resistance to using chemical products extends beyond fertiliser. They said they fight against rats, aphids, flies and plant diseases (which particularly afflict their cabbage and tomatoes) by using hot peppers and the leaves of the moringa and neem trees. These natural products, they say, are readily available and risk-free.
Mahmoud Ely said that between September and November 2011, the cooperative produced around 570 tonnes of vegetables. "This is the period when there is a shortage of vegetables and the government called on gardeners to respond to consumers' needs," he said, estimating that this was more than a quarter of the total amount of vegetables sold in the capital.
The regional officer for rural development for the Nouakchott area, Cheikh Ould Mohamed Mahmoud doubts the coop produced quite that much. "I don't think their output reached this level," he told IPS.
But he was strongly supportive of their use of natural fertiliser to maintain soil fertility. "Poultry compost is recommended because of its strong nitrogen content, as long as it's correctly diluted."
Najah creates 200 direct and indirect jobs, though some are only on a casual basis, he said – such as work for vegetable sellers, drivers and truckers, others selling fodder for livestock, or distributing manure.
But Salem complained that the cooperative doesn't get subsidies from the government, and struggles in the face of the high cost of seed and agricultural inputs, as well as with competition from imports from Spain, Morocco, and Senegal particularly between March and May.
Agriculture technician Adama Traoré told IPS that the quality of Najah's vegetables is excellent in terms of nutrition and hygiene standards, saying that the coop's members benefit regularly from training in techniques like transplanting, fertilisation and irrigation.
"The relatively cool climate and the easy access to technical assistance, particularly from the Value Chains Development Programme for Poverty Reduction (known by its French acronym, PROLPRAF), supports vegetable production in and around Nouakchott," he said. Traoré added that the programme also supports thriving market gardens in the two other major cities of the country: Rosso in the southwest and Nouadhibou in the northwest.
PROLPRAF, which is supported through 2017 by a 4.17 million dollar grant from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, aims to improve the well-being of poor populations, particularly youth and women, said Alioun Demba, head of international cooperation at the Ministry for Rural Development.
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