Stories tagged: agroforestry

What is the Resilience Deficit and How is it Being tackled in the Sahel?

Peter Gubbels, Founder and Director of Action Learning and Advocacy for West Africa at Groundswell International, speaks to Farming First about how agroecology can help overcome the resilience deficit in the Sahel and boost farmers’ livelihoods.

Extreme weather patterns continue to hit the Sahel belt hard, threatening the livelihoods of millions of farmers and pastoralists. With over 80 percent of farmland in the region degraded and facing soil erosion and deforestation, communities are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing climate.  

An estimated 24 million small scale farmers and their families living in the risk prone, semi-arid areas of the western Sahel are chronically vulnerable to food and nutrition insecurity. A growing population and dwindling natural resources have left Sahelian farmers unable to adapt to the challenge, leaving them, their families and their communities chronically poor.

Even in years where there is good rainfall, communities adopt negative coping mechanisms, such as reducing the number of daily meals and selling off assets. This has resulted in a growing “resilience deficit” and an increasing dependence on humanitarian assistance.

This means that as communities battle to offset the effects of an increasingly hostile climate, they are unable to build up longer term assets to persist through failed harvests.

Applying agroecology to build resilience

Business as usual approaches to farming in dryland areas are not working; we must transition towards farming systems that are more suited to ecologically fragile, risk prone and climate crisis affected environments.

Groundswell International works to tackle this “resilience deficit”, ensuring that small scale farmers across the region can apply best practices to adapt to climate shocks.

From the offset, the project worked through participatory dialogues with key community stakeholders to diagnose, identify and explore key innovations which help communities rehabilitate degraded soils and build resilience.

Combining agroecology – an approach in which agriculture harnesses natural processes, such as the role of indigenous trees in regenerating soil fertility – with locally-appropriate innovations, farmers were able to adapt agricultural practices to better suit a harsher environment.

In semi-arid lands like the Sahel, our approach to agroecology promoted efficient use of natural resources. Farmers were able to experiment with a range of different farming practices and innovations that helped them reduce their resilience deficit.

Through agroecology, the project has promoted indigenous farming techniques such as zaï pits – a traditional planting method that can help to rehabilitate abandoned and degraded soils. These are small circular pits in which organic manure is placed to improve soil fertility, improve water retention, and foster the growth of micro-organisms essential for healthy soils.

The project also promoted agroforestry, a form of agriculture in which local trees and shrubs are allowed to grow on crop land. They are heavily pruned before the rainy season, to provide organic matter to enhance the productivity of the land, provide fodder for animal feed, reduce high temperatures through partial shade, prevent wind erosion, and also provide much needed firewood for women.

Farmer-managed regeneration of trees – a technique which works with farmers to regenerate farmland through reforestation – helped restore tree and vegetative cover, helping degraded soils to better store rainwater.

For generations, smallholder farmers used shifting agriculture to manage soil fertility. They would clear a new field, by cutting down all the trees, while allowing old fields with low fertility to “rest”.

By reducing planting seasons and allow fields to rest, farmers became more productive.

“Before, I used to sow my fields two times and I did not have a good harvest because of the wind exposing the seedling roots. Now, I only have to sow one time, without needing to re-sow,” a farmer in the Mopti region of Mali said. 

On these fields let to fallow, trees, shrubs would regenerate from the stumps, slowly replenishing soil cover and organic matter over 10 years. With growing population pressure, farmers are no longer able to leave their fields in fallow. However, they have retained the perspective that trees are like giant weeds impeding the growth of crops.

The work of Groundswell has been to convince farmers to adopt innovations that allow them to manage trees and crops at the same time. The secret is to heavily prune the trees before the planting season, rather than cutting them down and burning the stumps.

According to another farmer who has benefited from the project, it has helped farmers see agroforesty as a vital part of farming.

“Before, my father told me to pull out the tree shoots when clearing the field for planting. Now, with the arrival of the project, I protect the young tree shoots and let them grow.”  

The main way Groundswell persuaded farmers about this approach was by “farmer to farming learning and exchange”. The most innovative farmers, who adapted this approach to trees, and had success, would train and motivate their neighbours and farmer leaders from other villages.

Overcoming the resilience deficit

In this way, Groundswell’s programs encouraged a move away from models of farming that were unsustainable and unsuited to local needs. Almost 100,000 rural farming families in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal, have adopted agroecological innovations for resilience, helping to increase livelihoods substantially.

By encouraging biodiversity and livelihood diversification, these programs boosted farmers’ incomes, enhanced community food security, and re-greened the land.

Involving women smallholder farmers, who are not only involved in farming, but in harvesting fruits from indigenous trees, and collecting firewood, helped to increase food and nutrition security.

“Before, many women in the villages cooked their meals by burning millet stalks as fuel. Now they use firewood from the trees in their fields,”  said one female beneficiary.

The programs helped strengthen women’s decision-making processes, organisation and leadership in their communities.

To bring the approaches developed in the project to scale, we helped to nurture and foster farmers’ networks and knowledge sharing. Through a systems approach which involved learning and exchange between communities and linking these networks with district government development programmes, we brought agroecological practices to scale.

With extreme weather patterns set to continue in the Sahel, the effects of climate change will inevitably make lives and livelihoods difficult. The ability of farmers to persist and adapt to these challenges is possible if we work to restore degraded land and reduce the resilience deficit.

Featured photo credit: Peter Casier/CGIAR

Agroecology in Action: with Professor Pedro Sanchez

Where in the world are agroecological approaches building soil health, beating pests and helping farmers stay productive while protecting the planet? Pedro Sanchez, Research Professor of Tropical Soils at the University of Florida Soil & Water Sciences Department continues our “Agroecology in Action” series with this guest post.

Simply put, agroecology is a form of agriculture that takes maximum advantage of ecological processes.

In some situations, nature is able to function as a closed system; take a tropical forest for example. When nutrients are finely balanced in the system, they are recycled, meaning there is no need for extra nutrient inputs to be added.

Agriculture however, requires a regular harvesting of crops. This results in large amounts of essential nutrients being removed from the soil. Agroecological approaches must return these vital components to the soil, to ensure the soil stays healthy and can continue to grow the crops we require. This can be achieved through efficient fertilization— mineral, organic, or for the best results, both. Continue reading

Hudson Shiraku: Farming in the Wake of Water Scarcity in Kenya

This World Water Week, young Kenyan Environmental Scientist Hudson Shiraku tells Farming First how farmers in Kenya are overcoming water scarcity in a variety of ways. This article is part of our ongoing partnership with Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD)

My hometown Kakamega, is endowed with predictable rains and ever-flowing rivers supplying water all year round. Many people have therefore taken this availability of water for granted and are shocked when they hear of other people suffering for lack of it in other places. One such place is Machakos in Eastern Kenya.

Machakos is one of the areas susceptible to frequent and prolonged droughts. Lack of irrigation facilities, inadequate policies and abject poverty have all subjected residents of some areas in the region to a complete dependency on food assistance. This problem has been further exacerbated by climate variability and climate change, causing more or less precipitation in different regions and more extreme weather events. Cognizant of this challenge, the Biovision Farmer Communication Programme (FCP) has been training farmers on sustainable and effective use of water resources to make farming possible in the face of water scarcity. It promotes different technologies to make this happen. Through the field-based workers, FCP conducts farmer training and demonstrations on how to use certain technologies such as;

Mulching: Mulching uses plant remains such as leaves or grass to cover the soil between rows of cultivated crops. Mulching compliments irrigation by reducing the impact of water on the soil – reducing soil erosion and allowing longer retention of moisture. Mulch improves the condition of the soil since this mulch slowly decomposes, becoming part of the soil organic matter. Mrs. Mutisya, one of the farmers practicing mulching, says that since she started mulching, she now uses a mere quarter of the water she previously used on her kale plantation.



Drip irrigation: Another technology being promoted in the region is a watering system that delivers a slow moving supply of water at a gradual rate directly to the soil at the base of crops (drip irrigation). Also referred to as micro-irrigation or trickle irrigation, it consists of a network of pipes, tubing valves, and emitters. Bottles are also filled with water, a small hole pierced at the top and then inverted and buried at the base of a plant to allow water to seep to its roots gradually. This is an economical use of water, as there is reduced evaporation and deep drainage compared to other types of irrigation such as flood or overhead sprinklers, since water can be more precisely applied to the plant roots. Farmers have also reduced disease prevalence due to this technology.

Drip irrigation technology

Drip irrigation technology

Water harvesting: Besides teaching our farmers how to sustainably use their water, we also train them on water harvesting technologies, to avoid water flowing to waste when it rains. We teach farmers the importance of capturing water runoff from the road for agricultural use. Fixing gutters on iron roofs is also important for water harvesting. The benefit of water harvesting is not only to secure and increase crop production in these regions, but also to stop soil erosion and recharge aquifers tapped for irrigation. It also improves soil fertility due to deposition of humus, silt, manure and other organic matter together with harvested water.

Agroforestry: Trees also play a vital role in agriculture. Practicing agroforestry using drought resistant trees species has helped to create more diverse, productive, profitable, healthy, and sustainable land-use systems. Besides providing shade to the crops, these trees are important sources of fruitsnuts and edible oils which counter global warming and the risk of hunger in the region. Trees in agroforestry practices catch, store and release water. Trees break the force of falling rain – preventing soil erosion and allowing percolation into the ground where it is stored as groundwater.

A multi story garden

A multi story garden

Multi-storey gardens: One of our farmers discovered that it is easier to water and maintain plants in a sack. She fills a sack with soil and then uses it as her land. It is easier to water it and accommodates more crops. This technology not only saves on water but also on other resources like fertilizer.

This and other technologies that we promote have since spread to other farmers through our farmer to farmer sharing systems. Farming has been made possible in the wake of water scarcity, and many people are adopting agriculture in the rural areas of Machakos. Thanks to these water saving technologies, farmers have increased crop production and a steady supply of agricultural products all year round. This has in turn cushioned them against the pangs of hunger.

Thanks to a steady supply of water, they have also been able to produce in surplus for the market earning some income. Generally, enabling people to farm has improved the food security situation in the region as there are more farmers than before. Trees have been incorporated in the crop production lots changing the entire picture of a dry area with scorching sun to a better environment.

There are more areas affected by water scarcity and struggling with agriculture. There is need to spread the benefits by these water saving technologies to them. We need to learn from these FCP experiences and replicate them in such areas. Having a database of all these technologies in ready to access and understand formats would help in sharing their benefits.


Climate Change Mitigation Strategies in Gabon Help to Preserve National Crop

Gabon is known for its forest that covers 85% of the country, or 22 million hectares. Only 5% of the land is used for agriculture, and subsistence farming dominates the sector.  The principle crop grown by the farmers is manioc, or cassava root, which is an essential source of iron and vitamins for the population. The best quality manioc is grown in deep and rich soils that are well drained. Heavy rainfalls mean, however, that the ground becomes waterlogged and disease spreads easily amongst the crops.

A case study by IFAP shows how strategies have been put into place to safeguard the manioc crops from the higher temperatures and heavy rains brought on by climate change.

In order to preserve the most beneficial varieties, both economically and ecologically, agricultural researchers identified the local varieties that were best adapted to climate changes, and then helped to promote the most effective farming techniques amongst the farmers to increase productivity.

On a national level, policies are being put in place to establish agroforestry projects in rural areas to increase soil fertility as well as to invest and improve their weather stations to observe changes in the climate. Agricultural organisations are also training farmers in the techniques needed to restore soils.

Through an integrated approach to improving agricultural practices and resources, farmers in Gabon are becoming increasingly able to cope with unpredictable weather patterns and safeguard an important source of nutrients for the Gabonese people.