The food crisis has hit Burkina Faso with dramatically increased fuel and food (especially rice) prices impacting the urban poor and the equally dramatic increases in fertilizer and rice prices pressuring the rural farming poor. Though the effect on the urban poor is all negative, the rural poor can dramatically increase their incomes by producing and selling more rice.
Rasmata Sawadogo, a rice farmer from rural Burkina Faso, received a voucher for fertilizer for her rice crop. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS
Though the food crisis caught Catholic Relief Services, along with everyone else, by surprise, we were able to rapidly develop a proposal and obtain private funding to start activities in Burkina Faso and three other countries-Ghana, Gambia and Madagascar. In the Burkina Faso project, eligible farmers were issued $20 vouchers that they could then exchange for 55 pounds of fertilizer to apply to their rice soon after transplanting. Our expectation is that this fertilizer will increase farmers' rice yields by about 400 pounds this season. At the current market price of 20 cents a pound, farmers stand to earn an additional $80. We are hoping that they invest this money in their children's health and education-but also reinvest in seeds for next year.
We spent a day with our Catholic Church partners, OCADES, (Organisation Catholique pour le Développement et la Solidarité), visiting rice farmers in Kaya, two hours north of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The rains have been excellent this year and the rice paddies that we visited looked great. The farmers we met with were pleased with their crop and excited about the current high prices that market traders were paying for rice. Most were growing a variety called Faraka Ba 19 (named after the Burkina Rice Research Station where it was developed). Though it is a good variety, it is 20 years old and there are better varieties available.
In group discussions held after the field visits, farmers described how they cultivate rice and how they thought they could improve productivity-of both their land and their labor. Most farmers prepare their rice fields using the traditional hand hoe called a daba. This work is without a doubt the hardest work that farmers perform, as the soil is heavy and the fields are muddy (one enterprising researcher in Gambia tried to quantify energy expenditure by timing how frequently women had to stop and rest and found that rice land work was the hardest). Most of these farmers own draft animals and plows that they use in the uplands for their millet, sorghum and groundnuts. We discussed how they could replace the plow wheel-which tends to sink in the mud-with a simple skid that prevents the plow from sinking too deep and needlessly tiring their draft animals. We also discussed the possibility of trying out some simple equipment used in India for leveling and for puddling (creating the right conditions for transplanting). Though there are many models of two-wheeled walking tractors, we believe that using animals is more appropriate and sustainable because farmers already own draft animals, the equipment is simple to use and there is no need for increasingly expensive gasoline. In addition, the animals produce manure and thereby contribute to maintaining soil fertility.
Farmers, mainly women, currently thresh rice by beating it against 50-gallon drums. This takes a lot of time and effort and does not remove all the grain, lowering overall yields. We discussed the possibility of evaluating simple pedal threshers that require less labor and remove all the grain.
CRS has an opportunity to help farm families across Africa climb out of poverty by producing and selling more rice. Though the fertilizer projects are a great beginning, more needs to be done. This includes:
Connecting farmers and researchers to evaluate new and promising rice varieties
Supporting farmers to manage their own rice seed to ensure that they have good seed and keep their costs down
Helping farmers access and evaluate appropriate tools for rice land tillage, leveling and puddling
Assisting farmer groups to save and invest in inexpensive pedal threshers to reduce labor and increase efficiency
Encouraging farmer-to-farmer visits to exchange ideas and experiences
CRS is discussing a long-term partnership with the International Rice Research Center based in Los Banos, Philippines, and with the African Rice Center based in Cotonou, Benin, to double rice production in Africa. Together, we hope to turn the food crisis into an opportunity for poor farm families to climb out of poverty.