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Restored wasteland benefits women in Sahel

Zai holes catch water and contain manure (© Dov Pasternak)
Zai holes catch water and contain manure
© Dov Pasternak

Like many women in Niger, Salmou Boureima is not allowed to own agricultural land yet she is responsible for feeding her family and helping her husband farm millet, in addition to grinding grain daily and collecting firewood and water. With frequent droughts and low annual rainfall, Boureima's family often had insufficient food, but in 2007 she joined a women's association to learn how to increase the productivity of degraded village land.

More than half of the Sahel is degraded. "This scarcity of cultivable land leads to food insecurity and poor nutrition, a matter made worse by the rapidly growing population in this region," explains Dov Pasternak*. To increase food production within the region, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) has developed means of using indigenous water harvesting technologies to improve nutrition as well as the status and income of women farming degraded land.

Reclaiming degraded land

Impermeable to water, crusted laterite soil occupies a large area of the degraded lands. However, the water holding capacity is higher than sandy soil, enabling plants to live on water stored in the heavier soil for long periods. ICRISAT's Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL) system uses half-moon shaped micro-catchments, called demi-lunes, to store run-off water. Ziziphus mauritania trees (Apple of the Sahel) are planted in the open side of the demi-lunes to avoid water logging. Between rows of demi-lunes, women plant indigenous vegetables such as okra and roselle in planting pits called zai holes. These 20 x 20cm holes not only catch water, but also contain about 200g of manure. Moringa trees are then placed in trenches set up every 20 metres to harvest any additional water run-off.

Okra is one of the hardy indigenous vegetables grown (© Dov Pasternak)
Okra is one of the hardy indigenous vegetables grown
© Dov Pasternak

With deep roots, Ziziphus mauritania uses the stored water to produce nutritious fruit which is rich in vitamin C, iron, calcium and phosphorus. Moringa leaves are also highly nutritious, containing seven times the Vitamin C in oranges, four times the Vitamin A in carrots, four times the calcium in milk and three times the potassium in bananas. "In dry West Africa, between 13-15 per cent of children suffer from acute nutritional deficiency," Pasternak explains. "The BDL is an effective means to provide vegetables and fruit with high nutritional value to remote villages in the Sahel."

Empowering women

Degraded lands are often communal areas under the authority of the village chief. "The right to cultivate the land for about 20 years has to be gained before women begin cultivating, otherwise the village will want to take the land back if women begin to make a profit," Pasternak explains. "Degraded land also has to be allotted to a women's association and not to individuals to prevent husbands taking over from their wives' successful economic activities," he adds.

Every member receives a small parcel of this land to produce vegetables, giving women like Boureima the right to cultivate land and make an income from it. The combination of water harvesting techniques and high value trees and vegetables brings an annual income of about US$1,500 per hectare, compared to US$200 for sorghum or millet, "and this is from degraded land," Pasternak enthuses.

Moringa leaves are highly nutritious (© Dov Pasternak)
Moringa leaves are highly nutritious
© Dov Pasternak

Boureima and the other members of her association grow okra, hibiscus and sesame, and will soon begin to harvest Moringa and Apple of the Sahel. Boureima is also part of a fruit tree nursery project set in a plot donated to the women's group by the village chief. Each of the 30 members receives about US$800 a year, three times the average income in Niger. "With the BDL and nursery activities I have a good income," Boureima says. "This means I can clothe and educate my children. I have my own mobile and have also bought a few sheep."

"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," Boureima adds. Pasternak agrees: "Husbands are happy if their wives bring extra income and extra food for the family."

Scaling up

In addition to cultivating high value vegetables and fruit, ICRISAT has begun to introduce renewable firewood plantations. "Through the sale of wood for fuel and high protein Acacia tumida seeds for chicken feed, renewable plantations will be profitable enterprises," Pasternak says. The leguminous tree also sequesters large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change, improve soil fertility, reduce soil erosion and raise water infiltration. "Renewable plantations will also reduce pressure on indigenous woodlands," Pasternak adds, "currently the only source of firewood for many." Other species being tested include Acacia senegal, which produces gum Arabic and Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which provides fruit juice and nuts.

Sowing okra in zai holes (© Dov Pasternak)
Sowing okra in zai holes
© Dov Pasternak

"Women's groups have accepted this farming system with enthusiasm wherever it has been tried and it is proving to be a sustained system," Pasternak explains. In Niger, 45 villages and over 350 women are already using this technology. During 2011, a USAID project managed by the CLUSA NGO is expanding the system to another 50 sites in Niger. Soon further sites will be added in Senegal. "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," Pasternak adds. "Bringing land back into cultivation should also help to ease the increasing pressure on land caused by the burgeoning population."

"We can achieve our goals if we organise ourselves into associations and defend our rights," Boureima reflects. "My message is that women need to work, as only work can make a person independent."

* Previously Principal Scientist at ICRISAT, Dov Pasternak is now a senior adviser to two USAID food security projects in Niger and Senegal

Date published: September 2011


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