Archive for September, 2011

Dear Friends,

Kombari (smiling on left) and members of the Gayeri women's group

Kombari (smiling on left) and members of the Gayeri women's group

I wish you could have been with me as I sat and listened to Kombari Odette and the other members of the Gayeri women’s group sharing their excitement about what they learned during a recent cross visit to Zandoma Province in northern Burkina Faso. Fatou Batta, Groundswell’s Co-Coordinator for West Africa, and 26 participants from 9 villages visited nearly a dozen sites to learn about how to increase food production on their barren land.

Kombari said, “We were amazed at how the women from those communities are growing vegetables on land that is even worse than ours. We now know we can do that as well.”

Another farmer who inspired them was Mr. Ouedraogo, because he is successfully regenerating and farming land that was completely degraded just a few years ago. Mr. Ouedraogo showed cross visit participants how to break through the rock-like surface of the land using techniques called half-moons and horse powered zaï. This allows him to capture and retain rainwater, to add compost, and to increase soil fertility and his crop production.

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

Mechanical zaï using horse power is a cost effective, practical and successful farming technique

One participant commented, “We could see how his soil fertility improved, and how large the millet plants were.” That’s why using the farm as a ‘classroom’ is among the best ways to show farmers the true potential of sustainable farming.

Mr. Ouedraogo and other local farmers said that digging zaï holes by hand with hoes takes almost 500 hours of labor per hectare, compared to 50 hours using horse power. Of the 41 families in Mr. Ouedraogo’s village, only 4 were food secure before adopting horse powered zaï and other sustainable practices, but now all of them are food self-sufficient and are selling their surplus production to pay for school, cloths, and other needs.

Woman watering field in village in Burkina Faso.

Participants also visited this thriving field maintained by a women's farmer group

When I visited the women in Gayeri, they were proud to show us the vegetable farm they had started, and they told us how they are convincing their husbands to recover the soil on their fields instead of finding new land to deforest. This is exactly the sort of practical, effective work your money supports when you donate to Groundswell. Cross visits to places like Mr. Ouedraogo’s farm cost us about $50 per person and have the potential to change not only the way a family farms, but entire communities!

If you would like to work with us to reach more communities, there is no better time than now. Thanks to a generous $25,000 matching grant from the Swift Foundation you can  double your investment. We have already matched nearly $18,000 and hope to raise the last $7,000 by the end of this month. Please help us reach our goal. All you need to do is check the “Match my gift!” box on our donation page or write “match my donation” in the comments section of your check.

Thank you for your support.


Steve Brescia
International Director


P.S. We are also making voices like Kombari’s heard in the halls of power. This week Cantave Jean-Baptiste of Haiti will represent Groundswell at the the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York City, which convenes global leaders to promote innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. And Fatou Batta of Burkina Faso and Bern Guri of Ghana will join other civil society representatives to meet with the Gate’s Foundation supported AGRA program in Africa, advocating for more people-centered solutions. Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter this week for updates.

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Fatou Batta, Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa

Between January and May 2010, Fatou Batta, Groundswell’s Co-Coordinator for West Africa, organized a series of planning workshops that brought together representatives of a number of government agencies, non-governmental and community-based organizations working in the field of agroecology to define a shared vision to improve the food security and wellbeing of tens of thousands of rural families living in eastern Burkina Faso. This process identified a number of successful innovations, including Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration Trees, which have already proven their potential to greatly improve food production while restoring the environment. In addition to a shared vision, the process permitted Groundswell and these local partners and organizations to develop a plan to promote and expand successful experiences in sustainable agriculture and food security. Below are a few highlights of achievements and results achieved during the plan’s first year:

  • Local Groundswell partners organized awareness raising and training sessions on Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration of Trees in 13 villages with the participation of 382 farmers, including 157 women. These sessions strengthened farmers’ understanding about the benefits of FMNR and gave them the knowledge and skills to apply it on their farms. FMNR is an improved tree cutting technique used by farmers to restore the vegetative cover on their land. It consists in leaving out some sprouts from the various thrushes and trees per hectare during farmland clearing activities to follow up on their growth while ensuring maintenance and pruning of the sprouts selected.
  • Groundswell organized a cross visit to the Zandoma Province in the North, which allowed representatives of community-based organizations working with our local partners ARFA and APRG to meet with other farmers’ organizations. Twenty-six people participated in the cross visit, including 19 women from nine villages located in the communities of Diabo, Tibga and Gayéri. Participants visited nearly a dozen sites, learning about soil and water conservation, soil restoration, vegetable production, processing and storage of products, and sheep fattening activities, all run by women’s groups and farmers’ associations.

    Groundswell sponsored CBO cross visit to Zandoma Province, Burkina Faso

    Groundswell-sponsored CBO cross visit to Zandoma Province, Burkina Faso

  • Fatou and local partner staff provided support to women to improve vegetable production during the dry season, not only allowing them to generate revenue by selling their products in local markets but also improving both the quantity and quality of food for family consumption, especially for young children.  Participants have been trained in agroecological techniques for vegetable production – for instance, in the use of organic manure to improve soil fertility and pest control with natural products, such as Neem tree leaf extracts.
  • A three-day training session was organized for 50 women from five villages on processing techniques for Shea nuts and soap making, with the aim of improving the quality of the products and thus increase their value in the market.
  • Groundswell provided support to the Gayeri women’s group in digging a well and in rehabilitating the garden wells in three other villages – Tampoutin, Tiguili and Louargou.
  • Groundswell organized training workshops on techniques for drying and storing vegetables. Two five-day trainings were conducted, benefitting a total of 50 women from Gayéri and eight neighboring villages. Training in preservation techniques is a necessary because vegetable producers often lose much of their harvests. The participants in these vegetable preservation training events shared what they learned with other women in neighboring villages — thereby extending the reach of the program and fostering increased learning and exchange between women’s groups.
  • As part of our strategy of promoting agro-forestry, Groundswell and local partners have provided women with tree seeds to grow trees that can be used as live fences around their vegetable gardens.   Fencing is essential to prevent free grazing animals from destroying vegetables, yet wire fencing is costly.  Although live fences take time to grow, they cost much less than wire fencing and have the added benefit of breaking the wind.
  • In collaboration with its local partner ARFA, Groundswell organized information, reflection and training sessions for farmers’ organizations in three villages on the use of modern genetically modified seeds (GMOs) and pesticides.  The goal of this activity was to raise farmers’ awareness about biotechnologies and the risks associated with their use in crop production and animal fattening. The eastern region of Burkina Faso is an area where genetically modified cotton (Bt cotton) ​​is grown and where there is intensive use of pesticides. In recent years, the negative environmental consequences have become obvious, as articulated by producers gathered at the regional conference and civic dialogue on “Sustainable management of natural resources and the production of cotton in the Eastern Region of Burkina Faso.”  Participants highlighted the many negative effects, including the disappearance of some plant species, and even some animal species, that have traditionally played important roles in food security coping strategies during the hungry season.

These are just a few of the achievements Groundswell and its partners have made over the past year. As our program grows and becomes stronger, we expect many more successes in the year ahead.

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Gliricidia sepium tree in Mali, West Africa

Gliricidia trees can be used to improve soil fertility, as living fences, and for shade, construction, and firewood.

In August 2010, Groundswell launched a three year program – Saving for Change Plus Agriculture (SfC Plus Ag) – in partnership with Oxfam America. It responds to requests for agriculture training by many of the 350,000 women in Oxfam’s Saving for Change community finance groups across Mali. They wanted to learn how to solve their other most pressing problems: low agricultural production (caused mostly by rapidly deteriorating soils) and water scarcity (both for domestic use and agriculture). Through SfC Plus Ag, 26,000 women living 200 rural villages in Mali are learning to sustainably improve their agricultural production by introducing simple technologies to improve soil fertility (using nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops), seed quality (short cycle seeds), and water management.

Below are excerpts from Groundswell’s Mali program coordinator’s, Roland Bunch, third progress report covering May 2011 – July 2011.

“In the last report, I mentioned that “we are on the road to…surpassing our objective for improving soil fertility, but only because we have had to spend a lot of extra time and effort to overcome a series of last-minute problems that could have derailed the whole effort.”  This entire sentence still describes the situation of the Program very well.

First of all, our worries about the experienced nurserymen’s ability to produce good seedlings have turned out to be entirely unfounded.  In all the nurseries, the young trees had grown exceptionally well and with no traces of damage from either disease, termites or grazing animals. In Lassine’s nursery, which wound up producing about 7,000 seedlings, or well over half the seedlings we would use, the trees had almost uniformly reached nearly a meter in height.  Thus, even though the nurseries had been planted late because of our last-minute need to have Gliricidia trees for the Program, these seedlings had more than made up in unprecedentedly vigorous growth for the late planting.  If anything, they were a little larger than they should be for planting out into the fields.

As soon as I reached Mali, we hired two trucks and began transporting seedlings.  The rains had started even a little earlier than expected, so we had to contend with trucks getting stuck in the mud (twice), but in spite of several such obstacles, in one week we were able to transport all the nearly 11,000 seedlings to the NGO offices responsible for the various villages in the SfC-Plus Ag Program, as follows:

  • Kolokani: 1,870 seedlings
  • Koulikoro: 2,600
  • Kati: 1,800
  • Bougouni: 1,600
  • Sikasso: 2,800
  • Bamako: 300

We then began the transport of the seedlings to the women’s groups in the villages.  In each case, we had to take the seedlings to the village, measure out the exact half-hectare of land that the village elders had granted to the women, establish the exact spot where each of the seedlings would be planted, remind the women what the advantages of the trees were, do a demonstration of how to plant the seedlings adequately, and then actually plant the seedlings.  Once planted, in each case the women made a shelter for each tree out of thorn bushes to keep the animals away from the seedlings until the villages’ food crops were planted in a week or two, at which time the animals would be tied up.

Gliricidia sepium can be used to feed goats

Gliricidia leaves can also be used as high protein supplement for goats and other livestock.

In most of the villages, we also allowed the women to decide how far apart the seedlings would be planted (that is, the seeding density).  We did this sort of thing on purpose so the women would be making as many decisions as possible, giving them a sense of ownership over the trees, and expanding their sense of empowerment.  In every single case, the women chose the highest density among the various ones we recommended, thereby showing that they are very interested in the trees and want as many as they can get, even though we had explained that the pruning of the trees would require more work later on if the densities were fairly high.  This was one more piece of palpable evidence that the women are very interested in the project.

In every village, the men had willingly agreed to give the women a half hectare of land in order to experiment with the trees and with various cropping patterns once the trees were doing their job.  We had had doubts as to whether the village leaders would be willing to agree to this totally unprecedented turn-over of land to women (in none of these villages—or any other villages nearby, as far as we know—had the men of a village ever turned over land to women except for planting vegetables.  That they did so in this case for planting field crops was something totally new).  And they did so in spite of the fact that population pressure on the land, and therefore the need for every scrap of land one can get, has become more intense than any time in history.  Furthermore, the land was to be given to the women for as long as they continued to experiment with the land (ie maintain it as a “village agricultural school”).  We explained that in most cases, that would be ten to twelve years.

One sign of the pressure on the land was that we had said the women would need something between one half a hectare and one whole hectare.  In not a single case did the men grant the women more than the minimum: one half a hectare.  On the other hand, the men usually did not give the women the worst land in the village.  They apparently are hoping, as fervently as are the women, that these experiments will be successful, and given this example, they will gradually be able to rehabilitate their own worn-out land.  In fact, that the men gave the women any land at all is testimony to the fact that the men are also highly motivated: they very much want the Program to be a success.

To be perfectly honest, no agreement of this kind, whether it is written down on paper or just agreed to verbally, can be absolutely and totally trustworthy.  Land “ownership,” as we know it in the West, is a foreign concept in West African villages.  Nevertheless, a chief or village founder (whoever it is that controls the land in a given village) would have to have a tremendous provocation to go back on a promise made publicly to half the village’s adults.  In effect, the women have as strong an assurance that this land will be under their control for ten or twelve years as does about anyone, man or woman, in almost any West African village.

Once we had planted the seedlings, we also planted, in rows between the seedlings, the tefrosia seeds I had brought from Kenya. In this case, too, we did a demonstration for each group of women, and then they planted the seeds.  The reason for the tefrosia is, of course, that the Gliricidia trees will take at least four to six years before they grow large enough to have an appreciable impact on the soil’s fertility.  On the other hand, the tefrosia bushes will grow much more quickly, providing large amounts of biomass within one year.  Thus, the impact of the tefrosia should be significant after just 15 months.  The tefrosia will die after about four years, but by that time, the Gliricidia will start having a major impact.  Furthermore, even though the tefrosia is only a bush, and won’t grow out of the reach of the animals, it has a poisonous substance in the leaves, such that grazing animals will not eat it.  Therefore, it should be able to maintain the villagers’ enthusiasm about fertilizing the soil with leaves until the trees themselves can take over that function.  In other words, the tefrosia will provide the “rapid recognizable success” for the project that the Gliricidia cannot provide by itself.

This next twelve months will be the critical stage of the project.  This is the time when the trees are most susceptible to attacks from termites, goats, cattle and wild animals.  By and large, the first six months are not too critical because the crops are in the fields and the goats and cattle are kept away from the fields, so November through next July will be the most critical time.  When the rains start next year in June or July, the young trees will once again be protected from the grazing animals, and by November 2012, when the crops are harvested, the trees will be large enough that the goats will not hurt them, the cattle may eat a lot of the leaves but will not kill the trees, and the termites will not bother them.  Furthermore, the tefrosia should be ready to provide a good shot of fertility to the soil.  At that time—a year from now—if things go well, we will be able to say, without exaggerating, that we have a successful program on our hands.”

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