Stories tagged: The Sahel

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

Yaouza’s Story: How Forest Conservation Can Boost Incomes in Niger

Barrett Alexander, Program Manager for Food Security and Livelihoods at World Vision, explains how Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration can help empower farmers and boost crop yields in the Sahel.

In Niger, the encroaching Sahel is a daily constraint for farmers – the wind, sand, dust, soil degradation, water scarcity, and recurring drought make it hard for farmers to provide for their families.

In the northeastern part of Niger, in the Maradi Region, World Vision works with local farmers on Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) to combat the encroaching Sahel. FMNR is part agro-forestry, part environmental conservation, part Disaster Risk Reduction, and part economic driver. It works by finding indigenous tree species, once abundant in Niger but decimated by drought and human population pressure in the 1970s and 80s, and teaching farmers about pruning methodologies to allow those trees to regrow. The regrowth of the trees has shown to reduce surface wind speeds, increase soil fertility, increase ground water availability, increase yields, and reduce surface temperatures.

Since the inception of FMNR in the 1980s, its growth throughout the country cannot be understated. Currently, there is roughly 5 million hectares of land re-greened through FMNR, with approximately 200 million indigenous trees. In some of World Vision’s project sites, there is a 250 percent increase in tree/shrub density on FMNR sites and the average tree density increased from 35.57 trees per hectare in 2014 to 123 trees per hectare in 2017. This increase in density is helping farmers increase their staple crop production, primarily millet, by 58 percent due to soil revitalization, increased ground water availability, reduced wind speeds that take top soil away, and reduced surface temperatures in this very arid environment.

Champion Farmer Model

One farmer stands out among the rest – Yaouza Harouna. After incorporating FMNR on his 4.5-hectare rain-fed and 0.5-hectare irrigated land in 2013, he now can fully provide for his family. Yaouza has re-grown roughly 310 new trees, including 60 Sahel apple trees. By implementing FMNR, Yaouza increased the productive capacity of his land and became a sustainable farmer. In the Guidan-Roumdji district where he lives, the average millet yield is 547 kg/hectare,—he produced 937 kg/hectare by planting nearest the bases of his trees. He also produced 450 kgs of peanuts, 250 kgs of cowpeas, 375 kgs of sorghum, 2,000 watermelons, and 833 kgs of Sahel apples from his new trees.

Yahouza Harouna showing his millet stock at his house in the village of Tambara-Sofoua Yahaya

All of this production provided Yaouza and his family with approximately $2,534 in income generation on the staple crops and $943 in income for the Sahel apples. Furthermore, roughly 70 percent of the millet and sorghum were used for direct consumption and to provide food for his extended family. With all this income, Yaouza has provided his household with sustainable food and firewood provision, put his children in private school, supported relatives, branched out into more income generating activities (small trading, sheep fattening), purchased a motorbike, extended his land by two hectares, and employed a local man to help watch the land and tend the crops. In effect, our Champion Farmer, based on initial interest in FMNR, has rightfully gained his moniker.

Recommendations for FMNR Implementation

Based on the current trend of FMNR as a sustainable agriculture model and the usage of World Vision’s Champion Farmer Model, there are several recommendations for agriculture implementers.

The first, is engaging the community at the start. A deep explanation of FMNR, the requirements (including community by-laws and enforcement mechanisms), economic benefits, and social cohesion should be the first actions for new implementers

Next, it is important to identify key community actors that will take on promoting FMNR in the community and use their skills, land, and leadership in the community to become “Champion Farmers” like Yaouza. Farmers learn best and incorporate new practices when they see and learn it from other farmers – use this to your advantage and encourage the free exchange of information and site visits between your Champion Farmers and new, doubtful farmers

For more information on how to implement FMNR initiatives, you can visit World Vision’s FMNR Hub for training resources, research, and technical guidance: