Through their eyes: How cooperative-led agricultural livelihood projects are making change in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen has pushed the country to the brink of famine, with 14 million people facing dangerous levels of food insecurity and one in three children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition. As the bombings and blockade continue to cripple Yemen, a country that previously imported 90% of its food, households can no longer find staple food items in the markets, or can't afford the food that is available. Furthermore, the conflict has disrupted traditional farming activities, critical for a majority of the population's livelihoods, due to the inability to access farmlands and buy agricultural inputs. Thus, Yemenis are forced everyday to find alternative ways to feed themselves and their families. ACTED believes local cooperatives offer the potential to help households and farmers learn how to rely less on unstable markets and more on their own ability to produce food and income.

The Western and Central governorates of Raymah, Hudaydah, Ibb and Al Dhale'e are traditionally agricultural zones, in which farmers rely on various agricultural activities for income. However, for many years, Yemeni farmers have worked on their own or in small, disorganized groups with unsophisticated techniques and equipment and no muscle in the local marketplace. Due to this, their production has been limited and they have struggled to capitalize on the agricultural opportunities in the region. In hopes of changing this outcome for small farms and in order to improve food security in Yemen, ACTED is taking a cooperative-based approach to supporting these farmers. With funding from USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), ACTED has established 14 agricultural cooperatives in four governorates of Yemen, supporting each with training and inputs.

Now more than ever, as government capacity falters in Yemen and humanitarian aid becomes more and more unsustainable, ACTED believes it is key that responses are community-driven and self-sustained. As the cooperatives have been functioning for more than a year, ACTED is now awarding grants to eight of these cooperatives to implement their own agricultural projects. Projects have been conceptualized entirely by the cooperatives themselves, based on what they perceived to be the needs and opportunities in their own communities. All projects will also be implemented by the cooperatives and their members.

In July and August, ACTED sat down with members of five of the different cooperatives to find out how their ACTED-sponsored livelihood initiatives were paying off. Here is what they had to say:

Growing, together: Al Eamar Cooperative greenhouse initiative in Raymah Governorate begins to bear fruit

Saleh, 37 years old and a farmer himself, is the Deputy Representative of Al Eamar Cooperative, responsible for overseeing all cooperative activities. Al Eamar Cooperative is in the process of constructing a greenhouse after observing the lack of high quality and affordable vegetables in the local market and the success of nearby villages in similar projects. So far, Saleh reports the cooperative has had no regrets about that decision, calling the project "a big success." "We have already planted tomatoes and have begun to sell them to market at a reasonable price, unlike in the previous period where the tomatoes were not fresh and were expensive. Farmers are becoming inspired to implement similar projects so I expect that in the following years more greenhouses will appear."

Honey is becoming big business in Yemen. Two cooperatives in Ibb and Al Dhale'e requested ACTED's support to get their beekeeping initiatives off the ground.

In Al Dhale'e ACTED spoke to Mohammed, a native of the area and president of Al Mashehad Cooperative. He explained why beekeeping was a promising way for his cooperative to make ends meet. "The idea of the project came in response to the increased demand for honey generally and Yemeni honey, in particular, which requires abundant production to meet the needs of the people. On the other hand, many people producing honey are relying on primitive techniques." Starting this project, Al Mashehad Cooperative took the necessary steps to make sure their beekeeping operation was as sophisticated as possible. "[With the grant] we have organized many trainings on bee-keeping, we have a specialist in bee-keeping in the administrative board of the cooperative, and we have bought 50 beehives and tools used in the apiary." So far, Mohammed boasts that the project "has been very successful."

Al Rawdah cooperative spurs a threefold increase in irrigated land in its community

Al Rawdah cooperative in Al Hudaydah governorate has taken a very different approach to providing jobs and revitalizing agriculture. When we talked to Omar, the financial representative of Al Rawdah Cooperative, he explained, “In the beginning we considered many project ideas such as establishing a chicken farm or plantation." In the end, the cooperative decided to tackle the irrigation challenges "given the large financial burden it has been creating for farmers."

Specifically, Al Rawdah cooperative is rehabilitating an irrigation channel gate (pictured below), which "is the most important channel for irrigating a large number of farms in the area, although over the years a lot of sediment has built up." Problems with regular access to water is a key issue that farmers have had to face. Omar tells us that "this has led us to want to establish a refinery at the gate to filter dust and stones brought by the floods, thus avoiding blockages, increasing the amount of water transferred to farmlands for irrigation, and thereby increasing agricultural production." This will also enable the cooperative to redirect the money spent annually filtering the gate to invest in projects that improve agricultural production.

According to Hasan, the deputy representative of the cooperative, community engagement in the project was key to its success. "[On top of the grant from ACTED] the community and the association contributed $3500 to this project the response was remarkable and great." He adds that more than 200 men and women from the community also worked on the project, providing much needed income for them and their families.

"We observed a big difference in the amount of irrigated land," Hasan says. "Before the intervention, only 450 Ma'ad of land (one Ma'ad equals 3,600 square meters) out of the total 1,600 Ma'ad of land was irrigated. Now that figures is closer to 1,550 Ma'ad and we expect 100% of the land to be irrigated later this year." Omar is also optimistic, "Because I am one of the farmers that benefits from irrigated lands, I expect my income to increase, which will improve my living situation."

Battling Mother Nature: Quteer Cooperative constructs flood breakers in Raymah

After years of severe floods destroying farmlands in Raymah, Quteer Cooperative is swapping the traditional approach of barricading lands from flood waters in favor of more effective flood breakers (gabions). "This will protect agricultural lands from the risk of the sequential drifting by using cash for work mechanism,” says Husain, who is the external representation for the Cooperative. Before joining the Quteer Cooperative, Husain had tried building makeshift flood breakers, but is thankful to now have the knowledge to “be able to create these bumpers in a good way (by using gabions),” which will pay off in the long run. Simply put, less damage from floods equals higher food production.

In addition, ACTED has been working with the cooperatives to develop demonstration plots for villages to test new seeds and crops. ACTED has helped by providing seeds, tools and training to the cooperative members. Now that all eight cooperatives that received grant money from ACTED are in the process of finishing their projects, it will be exciting to see how these cooperatives grow in the future.