Two-thirds of the West African state of Niger is desert. Only 11 per cent of its land is suitable for farming. The people are suffering due to the food crisis. In particular, there is a lack of precious water. “The main problem is water. Water to drink, of course, but also water for agriculture and for the animals”, Hassane Mamoudou technical advisor to a state hunger relief programme commented last year to the British newspaper “The Guardian”. He is worried. “We used to have a food crisis every 10 years; now every seven, every five, every two years we have a crisis. They come closer and closer and are bigger and bigger.”
The eternal water problem: first not enough, then too much
It is not made any easier by the erratic rainfall. There is often not enough water for the crops. Then there is too much and the rain washes away the seeds so in the end the harvest is smaller.
Boboye, one of the country’s more fertile areas, is ideally suited for agricultural production thanks to the various rivers and its high groundwater level. But the yields from the winter crops are not enough to feed the people and animals in the community of Birni N’Gaouré. And nature even cheats the efforts of the women and men to get more food from their land by farming or fishing in the dry season. The soil is too saline and the rivers are too overgrown.
Wanted: long-term solutions
To ensure that farmers are no longer so exposed to the whims of nature and the consequences of climate change, SWISSAID is supporting a project in the local community of Birni N’Gaouré that is committed to setting up grain and livestock banks and to expanding vegetable production. Getting grain or working animals in return for a fair loan is helping farmers to avoid getting into debt and offers them better and advance planning options for feeding their families. 23 grain banks with basic reserves of ten tonnes of grain have already been set up – nine of them with financial support from SWISSAID. Intensive building was also carried out for the livestock. To avoid the animals travelling several kilometres for vaccination, during the first building phase eight vaccination pens were built where the animals get a small injection to protect them from infectious diseases. The ongoing conflict between arable and livestock farmers for the use of the land as crop or grazing pasture is tackled together with the local people to ensure a careful approach to the use of the land and the environment. All in all it is a promising start but still not enough in view of population growth – according to official estimates 3.3 per cent in 2011.
Another problem, which should be finally resolved, is the poor condition of the local market. Although it is important for this region as a centre for exchanging goods, it is deserted when it rains. Its infrastructure is so decrepit that rainwater seeps in, but cannot drain out again. It is virtually impossible for the market to operate and no revenue is made.
Commitment here, obstacles there
At the end of 2011 a survey showed that many villages in the local community of Birni N’Gaouré are heavily in debt. The previous year was by no means easy either: in 2010 the fields and harvest were so badly affected by floods that an emergency project had to be implemented. Versatile solutions that improve the life-threatening situation for the men, women and children over the longer term are required.
The women in Birni N’Gaouré have come up with a wonderful idea which needs some support. After the main harvest and when the men have left the farm to look for interim employment in the city, they are trying to cultivate vegetables in the empty fields. The aim is to supplement the scarce food supply for themselves and the children by producing fresh greens. They are delighted if they succeed in setting aside a small part of their produce to sell and to satisfy the family’s most basic needs using the income, or if they also have the time and money to breed small livestock.