Cracking the Nut: ICCO’s 4 Lessons to Boost the Onion Value Chain

In Senegal onion is the most consumed vegetable, but annual production does not cover domestic demand. The STARS program of ICCO Cooperation, funded by Mastercard Foundation, brings together private sector actors, financial service providers, input suppliers, and producer organizations to connect smallholders to formal markets. During the 2-day learning event ‘Cracking the Nut’, the STARS team Senegal explained how that looks like in reality.

Cracking the Nut: ICCO’s 4 Lessons to Boost the Onion Value Chain

Yassa chicken (known as ‘yassa au poulet’) is a traditional chicken dish in Senegal. Prepared with lemons and onions, it is one of the most popular dishes in the country and can be found in Senegalese restaurants all over the globe.

But the 300,000 tons of onions needed to prepare all these delicious dishes in Senegal is not covered by the annual domestic onion production. The onion value chain is hampered by the lack of good agricultural practices resulting in low productivity, poor onion quality and poor storage facilities with high post-harvest losses.

In Senegal, we produce too many onions for a period of six months, and the market is flooded by onions, lowering the prices,” Dada Gueye, the STARS Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor of of ICCO Cooperation in Senegal said during ‘Cracking the Nut’. This is an annual international learning conference to discuss the ‘tough nuts’ related to food security and agriculture. Because farmers do not have proper storage facilities, Senegal loses between 20 to 30 percent of its annual onion production. Therefore, Senegal needs to import at least 130,000 tons of onions during the rest of the year to keep up with demand,” Dada adds.

Another problem onion farmers face is the lack of tailored credit to invest in the crop. Besides producer organizations that cannot adequately serve their members or access markets. As a result, farmers remain stuck at a subsistence level, with access to informal spot markets only. 

4 Lessons

Idrissa Ba, program lead of STARS in Senegal: “STARS takes an integrated approach to develop solutions within the onion value chain in Senegal. We bring together private sector actors, financial service providers, input suppliers, and producer organizations to connect smallholders to formal markets. By doing so, we learned 4 important lessons.”

 1. Work Closely With Private Sector

The key success factor for the program is getting private sector actors to work closely with producer organizations and farmers. Idrissa Ba: “We linked input suppliers such as Bejo and Elephant Vert with producers through farmer field schools. These schools consist of a group of farmers, who learn how to shift towards more sustainable production practices. On demonstration plots at the school we showed that the combination of the right inputs with agricultural techniques enables higher yields. By adopting best practices and using high quality seed and fertilizer, some farmers even doubled their yields. This helps boost sales for the input suppliers.”

2. Build Farmer Capacity

Idrissa continues: “Through the farmer field schools, we introduced longer cycle varieties, showed best practices in storage management and provided better storage installations, which help the farmers to bring their onions to the market when the price is high”.

Photo: Senegalese farmer in onion field

3. Develop Tailored Financial Products

In addition to helping farmers increase and manage their productivity, ICCO also works in the STARS program with financial institutions to help them develop financial products specifically for onion farmers. 

Khary Cisse, STARS Microfinance Advisor: “Microfinance institutions (MFIs) often don’t really have sufficient skills in agricultural activities. So we developed an innovative Agricultural-Credit Assessment Tool (A-CAT). This tools helps MFIs to better understand the seasonal needs of farmers, as well as to better assess the risks. This changed the process of loan disbursements and increased the credit availability for over 2,500 farmers”.

 4. Combine Your Efforts

It is really this unique combination of developing both financial and non-financial services for smallholder farmers, that has facilitated a steep rise in the productivity and sales of onions”, Idrissa Ba explains. But more should be done,” he adds. “Firstly, on the private sector side, local onion seed producers need to keep improving the quality of their products, which is still not at the level of high performance compared to hybrid seeds from international companies. But most importantly, MFIs and producer organizations need to keep investing in the availability of sufficient storage facilities tailored to smallholder capacities in all production areas,”  Idrissa adds. “We are currently exploring the opportunity to develop a new business model with the company Agro-Expedition who will provide high-quality storage facilities that can be rented by cooperatives and farmers organizations.” Exciting work in progress!


The Strengthening African Rural Smallholders (STARS) program is implemented by ICCO Cooperation in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. Through a market systems development approach, it focuses on improving access to finance and markets for 210,000 smallholders in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

About Cracking the Nut

This years’ 2-day learning event, organized in Dakar, Senegal, focused on balancing public concerns for food security with private, market-based solutions. Applying a food systems lens, the event brought together some of the world’s leading experts in rural development, sustainable agriculture, water sanitation, health and nutrition, including representatives from the  private sector, governments, donors and development practitioners to discuss the “tough nuts” related to food security. 



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