As I rode through the dry, dusty countryside of Burkina Faso in late February, I began to wonder how any plant could thrive in the constant heat, and with seemingly little water. Considering the 2012 food crisis, when late rains led to poor harvests and resulted in widespread food insecurity across the Sahel, I wondered how farmers were able to make this dry, hard land produce anything.
With only four months of rain a year – on average 20-35 inches total – farmers are often dependent on this little rain to produce enough food to feed their families and earn enough income to purchase food in the dry season. It’s a delicate balance – too little rain, and their crops fail; too much rain, and their crops fail.
The importance of water particularly becomes stark when you visit communities that lack a good water source. Families have little to eat because they can’t grow enough due to lack of water; children are in poor health because the water source is not sanitary.
Yet across eastern Burkina Faso, in areas where USAID’s food assistance programs have been working for the last 10 years, green fields are bringing hope to thousands of families, even during the dry season.
Where land was previously infertile or unproductive, land rehabilitation, particularly in the lowlands, has meant farmers are now able to grow high value crops such as rice during the regular harvest season. This provides much needed food and income, especially in comparison with the small yields from cowpeas, sesame, millet and sorghum grown in small household plots. During the dry season, many families are even able to grow onions, tomatoes, green beans, and other crops on these rejuvenated lands to bring in extra income to support their families.
Water was key to these successes. In every community we visited, families identified water as the main constraint to food security. But where USAID partners Catholic Relief Services (CRS), ACDI/VOCA and Africare were able to create or improve water sources, or teach farmers how to capture rain during the rainy season, communities were thriving.
In the hamlet of Kofogou, one woman spoke to us about how for the first time she was able to cultivate rice herself, instead of buying rice, because she now had a plot on the lowland she and other community members redeveloped through Food for Work. Food for Work is work done by community members in exchange for food. On her 0.15 hectares of lowland she now produces ten 75-KG sacks of rice, providing food for her family and a source of income when she sells some of the rice she has parboiled.
I heard similar stories throughout my visit to Burkina Faso. All communities that have been successful identified water access and lowlands development as keys to their success. In Wattigué, the rice producers group “Teeltaaba”, or “Support Each Other”, was organized last year for the 37 farmers working on the newly redeveloped lowlands. In its first year of production on the lowlands – before the 2012 food crisis – the producers group harvested over 15 tons rice. The group sold a portion of this to traders in the larger towns of Kaya and Ouagadougou, rather than individually as small batches to traders in nearby Tougouri as they had in the past. This resulted in better prices. The group’s 2012 sale of rice netted $1,800 income for the 37 farmers. This doesn’t even count the additional tons sold to local women for parboiling and rice collected from each farmer in the community to help feed 68 kids for 3-4 months at the school canteen.
Rassomdé community most struck me. Located in Gourcy province northwest of Ouagadougou, Africare had worked in Rassomdé until 2010, at which time their development food assistance program closed. In traveling to Rassomdé, we hoped to see communities faring better than others which weathered the 2012 food crisis, as a result of Africare’s previous assistance. We were not disappointed.
As we drove up to their fields, we saw 30 hectares of green – onions and tomatoes grew everywhere. Their proximity to a reservoir helped. With Africare’s assistance, communities developed these 30 hectares of land, making multiple canals to bring water from the reservoir to the fields. Today, three years after Africare’s departure, producers can pay their expenses and still earn a net income of $617 per household from vegetable gardening in the off-season.
While significant challenges remain because of a lack of water or lack of access to water, what we saw demonstrated to me that lasting positive changes are possible, through helping farmers and their communities. I am encouraged that these efforts in Burkina Faso are similar to what’s being done across the Sahel in USAID’s development food assistance programs. These changes are exactly what will lift communities out of a cycle of crisis and lay the foundation for their continued growth.