How dry wastelands and science are changing women's lives in the Sahel

Women's Day March 2011: Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women

35 year old Oumou has 5 children and lives in Sadoré village in Niger. Like other women in the Sahel, she has no or very little inheritance rights, she is not allowed to own agricultural land and she has no voting rights in community matters. Yet she is the one responsible for feeding her family and helping her husband on the farm in addition to her other daily chores of grinding grain, collecting firewood and fetching water.

Her husband is a millet farmer but frequent droughts meant the family often went hungry. In 2007 Oumou decided to change her life. She joined a women's association and started learning how to farm on the dry wastelands of the Sahel. Sadoré women's association has 100 members and all of them now have something they never had before. The right to own land and make their own income from it.

Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands

The Sudano Sahel is a very vast area just south of the Sahara receiving 300-800 mm of rain/year. Sahelian farmers are among the poorest population on earth. More than 50% of the Sudano Sahelian land is degraded and not suitable for cultivation. In most cases the degraded land is composed of crusted lateritic soils impermeable to water. This scarcity of cultivable land means food insecurity and poor nutrition, a matter made worse by the rapidly growing population in this region.

ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics) is the only international agriculture research institute with a permanent presence in the Sahel. ICRISAT-Niger has developed new ways to use this otherwise 'waste' land to improve food production and nutrition at the same time as improving women's status and income. In the Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL) system, women learn how to use degraded land to produce high value hardy rain-fed fruit trees and vegetables.

Women's Empowerment

For most women in the Sahel, if the husband passes away his closest family or his male children inherit his possessions. If a woman starts a vegetable garden and it proves successful, the husband can expel his wife from the garden and take it over.

Women are also denied the right to own croplands. The degraded lands however are communal lands owned by the village under the authority of the village chief. He can allot the "waste land" to organized women groups resulting in women ownership of land.

Once a women's association is registered, it can negotiate the ownership of a parcel of degraded land with the help of NGOs or CBOs. The association leases each of its members a plot of land in the BDL. The degraded lands are allotted to the association, not to individual women. So, husbands can no longer take over from their wives' successful economic activities since the land belongs to the association.

Degraded lands are scarified to break down the surface crust. Micro-catchments (called demi-lunes in the Sahel) are built to store run-off water. Following a rainstorm the deep-rooted trees planted in the demi-lunes use this stored water for a long period of time until the following rainstorm.

Improving nutrition and income

Demilunes are planted with what ICRISAT calls the "Apple of the Sahel" or in French, "Pomme du Sahel" which is particularly resistant to drought and produces tasty fruit with ten times the concentration of Vitamin C as compared with apple. It is also rich in iron, calcium and phosphorus and in essential amino acids. Another valuable tree is Moringa stenopetala whose leaves are one of the most nutritious vegetables known: they have seven times the Vitamin C in oranges, four times the Vitamin A in carrots, four times the Calcium in milk, double the protein in milk and three times the potassium in bananas.

In dry West Africa between 13-15% of children are suffering from acute nutritional deficiency (USAID, 2006) so these trees provide essential food products to help redress this.

In between the demilunes women plant high value traditional vegetables such as specially selected varieties of okra in 20x20cm deep planting pits which catch run off rain water. This combination of water harvesting techniques, and high value trees and vegetables bring an annual profit ranging between $1,500-$2,000/ha, 10-20 times higher than the profit of one hectare of millet in adjacent sandy soils. In general, trees, major component of the BDL, are much more resilient to droughts than annual crops.

Oumou's success

For three years Oumou and her association have been producing okra, hibiscus and sesame which are partly sold and partly consumed by the family. Soon they will start harvesting Pomme du sahel and Moringa. Oumou is also part of an ICRISAT fruit trees nursery project involving 30 women. Each member of the nursery group is earning $800 per year which is almost three times the average income in Niger.

"With the BDL and nursery activities I have a good income. This means I can clothe and educate my children and buy livestock," says Oumou. "I can definitely say that the status of all the women in our association has changed. We are less dependent on our husbands and we are more respected by them as we contribute to the family expenses. I have my own mobile have also bought a few sheep," she adds.

2009 was a dry year and millet, the main crop was also attacked by the insect raghuva. Though Oumou's husband's millet crop failed , her BDL and nursery income saw them through this difficult period.

Oumou wants other women to follow her example. "We can achieve our goals if we organize ourselves into associations and defend our rights. My message is that women need to work as only work can make a person independent."

Scaling up to reach more women

Research on the BDL started in 2005 and is funded by USAID. Women's groups have accepted this farming system with enthusiasm wherever it has been tried and it is proving to be a self sustained system. Large-scale dissemination will start in 2011 where the BDL will be expanded to 50 sites in Niger directly benefiting a total of 50,000 people. Because of its simplicity and success, there is a high potential for many other women's groups across the Sahel to benefit from this farming system.

For more information please contact Professor Dov Pasternek at ICRISAT. Dov is a retired professor from the Ben Gurion Uiversity of the Negev in Israel. After 30 years working on agricultural research in the Negev desert of Israel., he has spent the last 10 years at ICRISAT-Niger trying to find solutions for poverty eradication in the Sahel, one of the most difficult regions of the world.