Archive for the ‘Healthy Women & Children’ Category

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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This is the seventh post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth posts.

Taking advantage of new opportunities: health, urban-rural linkages, and climate change

Traditional Granary in Burkina Faso

Traditional granaries like this one are found throughout rural Burkina Faso.

“In rural Burkina,” says Fatou Batta, “we promote community-managed grain banks to increase food security. Farmers sell at a better price and have local access to less expensive food during the hungry season.” As in many countries, farmers typically sell to middle men after harvest when the price is lowest, and then need to buy back from those same middle men when the price is highest. Community grain banks help them break the cycle. In Haiti, farmers typically pay exorbitant annual interest rates of 250-500% on loans from local money lenders—just to obtain seeds and tools to plant at the beginning of the agricultural cycle. We support them in setting up their own savings and credit groups, seed banks and tools banks to liberate themselves from this debt trap.

But we need to go beyond helping rural communities stop the drain of resources, and support them in achieving prosperity. As Steve Sherwood and his colleagues in Ecuador have discovered, “we need to think about agriculture and food as an integrated system. The choices we make about how we eat are key. Working only on agriculture has excluded farmers from the wealth of urban people. Ecuadorians spend $6-8 billion a year on food. How can we bring this consumer wealth to bear on transforming rural landscapes?” Urban consumers, many of whom are low income and need better access to healthy food at reasonable costs, can be the “funders” of small-scale agroecological farming production.

Andean farmers at a Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

Andean farmers at a Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

To promote this, EkoRural and other organizations in Ecuador have been supporting the emerging canastas comunitarias movement: a type of community-supported agriculture arrangement. Low income, urban consumers have formed groups to buy food wholesale and thereby lower its costs, and are now are directly connecting to small-scale farmers and building buying relationships with them. “We found an example that works and expanded on it,” says Sherwood. “This started with one group. We worked with them to think critically about nutrition per dollar spent, and gradually about how to promote the rural landscapes and communities that we want through what we buy and eat. We promoted critical thinking through cross visits and building relationships between urban and rural people. This has now grown into a canastas movement that has gone from a few groups to all major cities in Ecuador.”

In Ghana, Bern Guri notes that “we need to demonstrate the health implications of our traditional foods. When the Director of Health in Ghana bought local millet porridge on the street and emphasized the health benefits in the media, the market for these products boomed. The government could promote this. They could create a policy that 1% of all food served in restaurants must come from traditional food. Right now restaurant food is imported. We could target urban consumers, youth and school feeding programs, linking them to traditionally grown foods from small scale farmers. It would help promote young people’s tastes for these local foods.”

The need to respond to climate change presents another opportunity for pushing back against industrialized agriculture. “We can link efforts to adapt to climate change to the promotion of people-centered food systems,” says Peter Gubbels.  “This is possible because most solutions to adapt to climate change in rural communities require agroecological approaches, rather than those based on industrial agriculture.” Emerging payment mechanisms for carbon sequestration for soil high in organic matter and agro-forestry may provide opportunities and additional incentives for farmers.

– Part 8 will be posted on July 5.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

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On April 1st and 2nd, Fatou Batta, Groundswell’s Co-Coordinator for West Africa, participated as a panelist at a session on Food Solutions at the Pacific Northwest Funders Conference in Seattle.

Fatou’s presentation, titled “Food Solutions by and for People and the Planet”, was extremely well received by conference attendees. Please take a few moments to read her presentation below.


Family in Burkina Faso with vegetables harvested from garden

Family in Burkina Faso with vegetables harvested from village field.

Today more than ever the international community is concerned with the challenge of feeding the world’s population through “food solutions by and for people and planet.”  This timely and complex issue requires responses that are appropriate and multifaceted.  Indeed the idea of food solutions refers to a number or related issues such as:

  • Agricultural policy and food production methods
  • The control of population growth
  • Management of agricultural lands
  • Food consumption patterns
  • Value added processing of food
  • Access to water
  • Availability and distribution of infrastructure
  • Market access
  • Human capital and knowledge
  • Internal and external migration of populations
  • Stability of countries in relation to conflicts, natural disasters, etc.

Within this complexity, I will focus my comments on the following:

1.    The context of food insecurity in the Sahelian countries of West Africa

2.    The causes of food insecurity, particularly in Burkina Faso

3.    The role of rural women in agricultural production and food security

4.    Challenges women face

5.    The priorities and solutions of rural women

1. The West African Context:  A challenging, fragile and high risk natural environment

Tantamba, a village leader, explaining challenges to farming in the Sahel.

Tantamba, a village leader, explaining challenges to farming in the Sahel.

In recent decades, the countries of West Africa have gone through successive food crises. Some of these crises are cyclical in origin, while others have more structural causes.  The recent financial and food crises of 2008 that shook the world and led to unprecedented protests in several countries, particularly Sahelian countries, have highlighted the structural causes that affect the availability and use of food resources. They also highlighted the fragility of agriculture in most Sahelian countries that practice subsistence agriculture based largely on rainfall, and are therefore very vulnerable to climatic hazards.

In its latest 2010 report on hunger, the FAO estimates that 925 million people are undernourished in the world.  Although this represented a decline of about 7.5% from 2009 levels, the figures are still too high, especially in Africa where one third of the population faces food insecurity and hunger.  And these numbers are again increasing as food prices have risen in recent months.  Indeed, global food security is threatened by population growth, changing eating habits, strong demand for agro fuels and disasters caused by climate change.  So policy makers feel an urgent imperative to increase agricultural production.

2. The causes of food insecurity: the case of Burkina Faso

Despite efforts over many years to reduce hunger and malnutrition, we must recognize that food insecurity remains a daily reality in Burkina as in most Sahelian countries. Basic cyclical factors like climate risk, low soil fertility and crop pests contribute to food insecurity.  There are also many contributing structural factors related to the availability, accessibility, and use of food.  The main factors for rural communities are: the low level of access to and management of water; degradation of natural resources; inadequate and poor roads and communications infrastructure; low income levels particularly in rural areas; poor access to credit; and weak nutrition education.  Finally, at the governmental and institutional levels, the coordination, support and monitoring of agricultural policies and programs for food security are not very effective or well-implemented.

Climatic and ecological changes in recent decades have led to the disintegration of traditional organizational forms of collective ownership, and the destabilization of the equilibrium of production and consumption patterns of different types of families.  These changes have resulted in a serious crisis in the family as the basic unit of society.  Another danger that threatens food security is land grabs for cultivation of non-food crops.  Farmers are under pressure from firms which are located upstream and downstream from agricultural production.

To meet the food needs of a growing population, some experts have called for high external input agricultural strategies and a promotion of technologies related to pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, seeds and water consumption.  The risk is that we focus on maximizing productivity at the expense of social and environmental considerations to improve people’s lives.

We find that access to food for a majority of the population is not always related national agricultural production levels.  In many cases in sub-Saharan countries, at the same time that the authorities declare a surplus food production thousands of people are hungry and have to resort to food aid or go hungry.  The case of Burkina Faso is illustrative: at the end of the 2008-2009 agricultural season the government of Burkina Faso reported a strong harvest of more than 4.3 million tons of cereals, with a surplus of over 700 thousand tons (DPSA / DGPER, 2009). Yet the population of many areas in the northern part of the country did not have adequate food for even one meal a day.  A main reason is that the low income family farmers must produce food sustainably and do not have money to purchase food.

3.  Women’s roles related to agriculture and food security, and the challenges they face

Women working together to water their fields.

Women working together in eastern Burkina Faso to water their fields.

The role of women in agriculture has taken on added importance as African countries continue to suffer from famine and malnutrition.  Women are the primary link between production, family consumption and ensuring the nutrition of children and the whole family.

Since the great droughts of 1973-74 and 1984-85 in the Sahel countries, women have seen an increase in their responsibilities in agricultural production because the majority of the male workforce increasingly leaves vulnerable areas in search of employment in cities.  This has led women to spend more time in the fields in order to meet the needs of family members – especially children and the elderly. Over 30% of people in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are in almost permanent food insecurity (IFPRI, 2004). In times of crisis, women are the main players in the survival of families.  Indeed it is women who develop initiatives and strategies to overcome these crises, and make a disproportionate effort to keep their families fed.  The result is that rural women play a central role in household food production and food security in the Sahel.

So if we seek to improve the food security of small scale farming families in the Sahel, we must necessarily support women.  The big questions are:  Do we clearly understand the roles of rural women?  Can we identify appropriate kinds of support for them?  How can we provide that strategic support without further destabilize the family unit?

According to the latest data on Sub-Saharan Africa, women represent over 50 percent of agricultural labor – the highest proportion in the world.  However this proportion varies greatly between countries and even within countries.  Data indicates that women’s participation in agriculture ranges from at least 33% in the coastal countries to over 60% in a country like Niger.  In Burkina Faso, women represent over half of the agricultural workforce, and their participation rate in economic activities in rural areas is 81% (ENSA 1993).  Although they are heavily involved in agricultural activities, women’s roles vary significantly by regions, ethnic groups and production systems.

3.1 Women’s Role in Agriculture and Livestock Production

Goats and other livestock are key for rural livelihoods and for maintaining soil fertility.

Goats and other livestock are important for rural livelihoods and soil fertility in Burkina Faso.

Rural women in Burkina Faso participate in farming activities, ranging from responsibility for a few activities to being primarily responsible for all farming activities – including difficult tasks such as stump removal in some regions.  In some areas of western Burkina Faso, after marriage women are primarily responsible for working to repay the dowry paid by their husbands.

During a recent discussion with the women of Tampoutin, a village in eastern Burkina Faso, they described that they are involved in all agricultural activities – from the preparation of fields, which is their exclusive responsibility, to the transport of crops after harvest.  In addition to this crushing burden, they cultivate personal plots of peanuts, cowpeas, groundnuts, sesame, and okra.  Yet often the land they are provided to cultivate is already highly degraded.  As family fields become too degraded to farm, husbands allow women to cultivate these parts of the farms.  Such plots are also often very small, so women are required to cultivate several scattered plots. The fragmentation of plots leads to an inefficient use of women’s time, especially since they only have the right to work on their own fields after they have completed their work on the main family plots, which is usually when the sun goes down.  This leaves women little time for their own activities.

Despite these constraints, women make enormous efforts to produce food in order to meet their needs and those of their families.  For example, I recently spoke with Tantamba, a 45 year old woman who is a leader who lives in Tibga village.  Over the past two years she has produced enough in her field to feed her family. The plot that her husband’s family granted her is largely barren and eroded by water runoff.  In her first year working the plot, her efforts were entirely unproductive, as she cultivated with a hoe and barely producing enough for 5-6 months of the year.  But through perseverance and the opportunities provided to learn improved agroecological farming techniques, she is now produces enough food for her family for all 12 months of the year.  To conserve and improve her soil she uses the techniques of mulching (dead leaves and branches laid on the ground); working with her children to collect the manure of animals in the wild and transporting it in small containers to integrate into her fields; and transporting rocks to construct stone bunds, or rock barriers for soil conservation.  With these approaches and hard work she has managed to restore part of her plot and increase its production.  She is continuing her efforts to improve the land through locally accessible technologies.  Tantamba expressed great satisfaction that she is able to produce enough to meet her family’s cereal requirements for the entire year, while generating some surplus to sell so she can invest her earnings in other income generating activities.  Last year she received support and guidance from an NGO, including a cart, plow mules and a compost pit, allowing her to further increase her production.

In the latest edition of its report on the global status of food and agriculture, the FAO said if women in rural areas had the same access as men to land, technology, financial services, education and markets, it would be possible to increase agricultural production and reduce the numbers of hungry in the world by 100 to 150 million people.  The report adds that by giving women farmers in developing countries the same access as men farmers to agricultural resources, women-managed family farms could increase their production by 20 to 30 percent.  This would increase total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent, and would reduce from 12 to 17 percent the number of undernourished people worldwide (the total of 100 to 150 million people).

In the area of ​​livestock management, women are responsible for watering the animals, a task they perform with the help of their young children.  In some areas they can engage in fattening livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats, and can raise poultry, which can generate income and/or be bartered for grain in times of need.

Another example of a woman improving her life is Lucie.  She is the president of the hygiene and sanitation committee in her village in Mali, and she has also maintains a garden plot.  She received training in agroecological production and some basic equipment from an NGO.  When I recently interviewed her she said: “Earlier, our food supplies ran out before we reached the next harvest, and my family had problems obtaining money to buy food.  Now my vegetable production has allowed me to feed my family and even to buy a sheep.  And the sheep has now had offspring.”  Like other women, Lucie has been able to meet the food needs of her family by diversifying and improving her production.

3.2 Women’s Roles in Natural Resource Management

Women also play an important role in the management of natural resources, and because of that are key sources of knowledge about biodiversity.  As one of their tasks is to gather fuel wood for the household, they are very familiar with different species of trees and their uses.  They also are responsible for gathering wild fruits and leaves for family needs, or for sale to generate income to help ensure food security for the family.  Women also earn substantial income to purchase food for their families by exploiting species such as shea butter, tamarind, baobab, locust, and balanites, etc.  Locust seeds are rich in protein, and women process them into foods to improve their family diets and contribute to the recovery of malnourished children.

3.3 Women’s Roles in Processing and Marketing Agricultural Products

Women also engage in non-farming activities, including the processing, preservation and marketing of agricultural products.  Food security is not limited to agricultural production, as there are many important activities required to manage beneficial linkages between producers and the market.  These activities include processing, marketing and distribution.  Women play central roles in allowing products to be stored, transported to markets, and circulated according to consumer demands.  At the same time, women play crucial roles in the development of local markets.  Given these primary responsibilities, much flexibility and decision making is in the hands of women and they can develop strategies to improve family and community wellbeing.  Ways to provide support at this level include improving rural roads and transportation infrastructure, local food storage facilities, and appropriate technologies for processing agricultural products (such as husking fonio, processing rice, or making shea butter).  All of these would help create more favorable conditions for local markets and improve the condition of women.

4. Challenges and difficulties

Despite the importance of their roles, women farmers are often not involved by policy makers and funders in decision making regarding development programs and policies.  Even while some efforts have been made over the last two decades on behalf of women in agriculture, these are still not sufficient.

Women are investing in agro-ecological practices that are more sustainable, respectful of the environment and biodiversity, and better adapted to the conditions of small-scale farmers.  Yet they face many difficulties in accessing resources.  They have little access to training on technical and management issues, because their specific needs are not taken into account either within organizations or in the design and content of training sessions.  In many cases, they are not able to access equipment and inputs that are intended for the family farms, yet are controlled by men.

In recent focus groups with women we discussed their access to use family farming equipment.  Without exception women expressed that they are not entitled to use the equipment at peak seasons, and when their husbands do give consent it is generally too late for required agricultural activities like plowing or weeding.   Likewise, they expressed that animal manure or compost, an important source of organic fertilizer, is reserved for family fields, even though women play a key role in filling and maintaining compost pits.  The quantities of compost produced are not even sufficient for the family farm fields, so none is left for women’s plots.

5. The priorities of rural women

The important role of women in agriculture is evident.  It is also clear that development strategies to improve the food security of small rural producers in the Sahel should emphasize support for women.  So this raises the important question:  What is the best way to support women and to ensure that this support is sustained?

One of the proposed solutions to boost agricultural production in Africa, in particular since the 2008 food crisis, is the Green Revolution.   While the model of Green Revolution of the 1960s that was introduced in Asia and Latin America produced some spectacular results in terms of increased productivity, it has also had devastating effects on the environment and the social fabric.  Now these same experts are trying to introduce a Green Revolution in Africa that supposedly has been cleared of its past imperfections.  African farmers do not seem convinced.  Nearly a half century after the introduction of the Green Revolution much of humanity is still suffering from chronic famine, so it is doubtful that the problems of hunger and poverty can be solved by this solution.

On the other hand, a number of African organizations and national and regional networks are working to promote alternative solutions, based on the experiences of African farmers and that are appropriate to the African context.  These include the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and the We are the Solution campaign.  It is in this context that organizations of rural women in Africa are seeking to express their concerns and interests.  Key concerns are the loss of diversification of crops and seeds, and the reduction or even loss of the ability to farm and produce in a way that allows them to sustain their families during the lean periods.  These factors undermine the resilience of families to respond to food shocks such as price spikes or droughts.

Women have analyzed their needs from a practical and strategic point of view, and have identified the following priorities:

  • Training on sustainable farming techniques
  • Access to information on markets and training in value added processing for agricultural products
  • Strengthening their organizational capacity
  • Access to credit and equipment
  • Land tenure security
  • Agricultural research based on traditional knowledge
  • Documentation and enhancement of existing knowledge of women
  • Access to appropriate technologies to reduce the burden of food processing
  • Access to literacy, education and services for reproductive health.

6. The Role of Groundswell International

The Sahel is extremely vulnerable to disasters, droughts, floods and invasions of pests.  In such a fragile and vulnerable environment, the slightest shocks can send hundreds of thousands of families deeper into a vicious cycle of poverty.   In this context, the NGO Groundswell International is working to address the structural causes of food insecurity by strengthening the capacities of farmer organizations to promote agro-ecological approaches to improve the resilience of their farming systems, sustainably manage their natural resources and preserve the biodiversity upon which they depend.  While successful local alternatives and agroecological practices exist, in general they have not been supported by governments and development agencies, so their potential has remained untapped.

Groundswell’s strategy in Burkina Faso is to:  a) support a network of local organizations to identify sustainable agricultural practices that are being implemented by communities and are showing a promising impact in the fight against poverty and hunger; b) to further support, diversify and strengthen these practices and examples; c) to strongly prioritize the leadership and involvement of women and women’s groups in the process;  d) and to spread and multiply the adoption of these practices through support and knowledge sharing between farmers, women’s groups, communities and local organizations.

Groundswell International is a partnership of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and resource people in Africa, Latin American and Asia that is committed to strengthening the capacity of rural communities to achieve positive social change.  The founders and members of the Groundswell partnership have decades of experience in methodological and technical support for rural development process that strengthen the capacity of local organizations to promote environmentally friendly farming practices that protect the environment, biodiversity and strengthen the resilience of local food systems. These approaches are an important part of sustainable solutions to improving food security and overcoming poverty in rural communities.


Whatever the level of global and national food supply, development policies and practices should directly address the root causes of poverty and malnutrition among the majority rural populations.  This includes the lack of sustainable strategies for the rural poor, especially women and children, to access adequate, healthy food.   Women have little access to land and other productive resources, and their involvement in the survival of their families and households is undervalued.  In spite of this, many women have demonstrated their ability to overcome family and community-level challenges and to successfully diversify and increase their food production and income, sustain their families and become more resilient in the face of crises. Women must be seen as important leaders and an undervalued resource in the struggle to end poverty and hunger in Africa.

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Fatou Batta holding baby in Burkina Faso village.

Fatou Batta, Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa.

Today, the 100th International Women’s Day, is the perfect time to honor Fatoumata Batta, Groundswell’s Co-Coordinator for West Africa. Fatou has made immeasurable contributions to the health and wellbeing of women in her native Burkina Faso as well as women-led initiatives across West Africa.

Fatou is presently leading a Groundswell program in eastern Burkina Faso that aims to strengthen a nascent network of local community based organizations and local non-governmental organizations in order that they might scale out proven agroecological practices and improve the food security of 29,500 rural families. This work focuses on improving the capacities of women farmers and strengthening women’s organizations to work collectively to improve income generation, food security, nutrition and gender equity.

At the same time, Fatou represents Groundswell on the steering committee of the “We are the Solution! Celebrating African Family Farming” campaign of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA). Fatou and representatives of 15 organizations and networks of organizations of rural women recently met in Dakar, Senegal, where they worked to finalize and validate a strategic and effective framework for a three-year campaign on food sovereignty, organic agriculture in Africa and the role of women farmers. This campaign will help ensure that rural women’s associations in five West African countries (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Republic of Guinea, and Senegal) have the tools they need to preserve, improve, promote, and share their traditional agricultural knowledge and position it as a viable alternative to the “new green revolution” interventions, such as AGRA, that African farmers’ organizations are concerned will have similar long-term negative effects in Africa as they have in Asia and Latin America.

Women program participants watering their crops.

During a field visit in February, Fatou took this photo of women program participants watering their crops.

Finally, on April 1 and 2, as a panelist at a session on Food Solutions at the Pacific Northwest Funders Conference in Seattle, Fatou will share her experience with the “We are the Solution!” campaign as well as the major issues and challenges facing small-scale farmers in West Africa. Fatou’s voice at events like this one provides donors and participants with a well informed, African perspective on a proven, people-centered approach that enables rural women farmers and their families to improve their wellbeing as they regenerate their natural resources base and build a sustainable future.

After the conference, Fatou will stay in Seattle for two days (April 3 and 4) to meet with local groups interested in local food systems, agroecology, and sustainable development in West Africa. If you want to invite Fatou to speak to your group or attend a meeting that is already planned, please write us at info@groundswellinternational.org.

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Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet

"Africa’s Soil Fertility Crisis and the Coming Famine" appears in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011

“In Koboko Village in Malawi in September 2009, some 30 mothers and their children were gathering under a huge shade tree—the traditional site for the village’s meetings. Gradually they squeezed together on an assortment of hand-woven mats and rough-hewn wooden chairs. The village chief and a few of his advisors faced the women, seated next to an outsider who was there to ask a series of questions. “What,” the outsider began, “is the most important single problem that prevents you from having enough food to feed your children well?”

Without even waiting for a village male authority to answer, one of the taller women spoke up: “Our soil is tired out. And it’s getting worse every year.” Almost before she had finished, four or five other women chimed in, all talking at once: “Yes, what she says is true.” “Last year I harvested 35 bags of maize. But this year I only harvested 27, even though it rained well.” “We no longer have any way to keep our fields fertile.” “Our soil has become so hard that even when it rains, the water just runs off.” When things died down again, the village chief, calmly and authoritatively, put his stamp of approval on the obvious consensus by voicing his heart-felt agreement.

The visitor was surprised. Malawi, just five years earlier, had suffered one of Africa’s worst droughts ever. People became so hungry that they were cooking up and eating the bark off of trees. Millions would have died if tons of emergency food had not been distributed throughout the country. Yet in this village, everyone concurred that soil fertility was an even greater problem than drought. The outsider asked why. The women explained that, sure, the droughts had been horrible. But droughts had only occurred a couple of times in more than a decade, whereas soil fertility was threatening to destroy their food supply permanently—forever.

The women were absolutely unanimous, as were the men. They were adamant. And they were obviously scared. Even though they were among the planet’s poorest people, they had never in their lives faced such a long-term and apparently insoluble threat to their survival. Over the next year, as part of two major studies, interviews were conducted with farmers from more than 75 villages in six African nations (Malawi and Zambia in Southern Africa, Kenya and Uganda in East Africa, and Mali and Niger in West Africa). With very few exceptions the same story was repeated everywhere. People no longer had any way of maintaining soil fertility. Harvests were crashing, dropping 15–25 percent a year. Most people expect that in five years they will harvest less than half what they get now. Yet they are already in desperate straits. Some villages now depend permanently on food aid. Whole villages are planning to uproot themselves and wander across the landscape looking for fertile land, a reasonable survival strategy back when Africa was not so full of people. But today, in most of Africa it is a strategy with very little chance of success.

That Africa is facing a soil fertility crisis is no news to the well-informed. But that the tragedy is rushing at us so quickly that tens of millions of people could starve within the next four or five years is big news indeed. The continent faces an imminent tragedy: a Great African Famine.”

This is the introduction to the article titled “Africa’s Soil Fertility Crisis and the Coming Famine”, by Roland Bunch, world renowned agroecologist, author of Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement, and Mali Program Coordinator for Groundswell International.

The full text of the article may be found in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

The findings of the Nourishing the Planet project were gathered over the course of a year spent researching on the ground in 25 sub-Saharan African countries, and the book draws on these experiences and hundreds of innovations that are already working to outline 20 proven, environmentally sustainable prescriptions for alleviating hunger and poverty. With the global food and agriculture crisis reaching dangerous new heights, there is no time to waste: read the State of the World 2011 to learn how the world’s leading agricultural thinkers, including Groundswell’s Roland Bunch, are working with farmers to ensure a sustainable, healthy future for Africa.

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Ekorural, a Groundswell partner organization based in Ecuador, along with Wageningen University’s Communication and Innovation Studies Group, and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences recently won a grant from WOTRO, a division of The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research that supports scientific research on development issues, in particular poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

The project partners will explore how scientific insights can strengthen and complement the most promising positive deviance (i.e., uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies of farmers that enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite having no special resources or knowledge) in ways that address both people’s immediate and long term needs. Among other things, the work will seek to develop and test methodologies to identify and strengthen positive deviance in resource poor households that effectively respond to food security priorities. Building on earlier studies and recent stakeholder consultations, the project will focus on positive deviance in two strategic areas for enabling farming families to defeat poverty and hunger:

  • Creative utilization of water for food production in the context of growing climate variability; and
  • Strategic utilization of food production for family nutrition, in particular for assuring the health and well-being of vulnerable mothers and infants.

The re-positioning of agricultural science around endogenous potential in Ecuador holds global implications. The food crisis and growing international interest in local food as a means to addressing resource constraints and climate change guarantee that this project will be closely followed by serious foodies.

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In Mali, women play a key role in farming as well as other household responsibilities.

In Mali, women play a key role in farming as well as other household responsibilities.

Mali is facing a severe soil fertility crisis that must be met with major efforts to support farmers to develop farming methods that will significantly improve their soil fertility at little cost and without displacing their crops.  Population pressures have all but ended the traditional practice of fallowing land that had maintained soil fertility.  Chemical fertilizers are not a sustainable alternative because of cost, availability and because they don’t address the need to improve soil organic matter.

In September 2010, Groundswell launched a three-year program in partnership and with financial support from Oxfam America to work with 26,000 women in 200 villages 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 program coordinator Roland Bunch’s first progress report covering August through October 2010.

Village Selection

We have selected 20 villages for the first year’s pilot work. They contain a total of 77 savings groups, for a total of about 2,000 women. I have visited most of these villages two or three times. All 20 villages chosen are generally very enthusiastic about working on their soil fertility.

Short-Cycle Seeds

The goal of distributing short-cycle cowpea seeds has been completed six months ahead of time.  Short-cycle cowpeas (which can be harvested 60 to 70 days after planting) have three extremely important advantages for smallholder farmers in the Sahel.  First, they can still produce a crop if unpredictable rains stop falling.  Second, the short-cycle cowpeas are ideal for intercropping with maize, millet or sorghum.  Third, the cowpeas can be harvested by early to mid-August, thereby providing fresh, high-protein food right in the middle of the Mali’s hunger season – which is precisely when women have to do the heaviest agricultural work.

It now looks like there is a very good chance that the cowpeas will be a major success.  I returned to both Kobana and Basabougou (Kolokani), two of the three villages where I first distributed the seed.  Some 15 to 20 women proudly showed me the 20- to 27-day-old cowpea plants in their gardens.  They are growing very well.

The Improvement of Water Management

We have started implementing water projects in five villages.  In Basabougou I made a demonstration of the system, but the women (rightfully) said they wanted bigger hoses and a bigger bucket. On a second visit, I set up another demonstration, using a bigger hose and a much larger bucket. The women have decided to experiment, with the idea that in the end, they will make the necessary decisions.

The Improvement of Soil Fertility

According to my interviews, the Gliricidia trees have been growing too large to be properly transplanted in June.  So we have decided to plant the tree nurseries in March 2011, rather than October 2010.  Except for this change in plans, the tree planting is ready to go.  Women in a good number of groups are asking for the seeds, and are anxious to get started.  I have bought 5 kg. of Gliricidia seed to do significant trial plots in all the villages (300 trees per village).  But with the women’s enthusiasm and demand rising, I have decided to buy even more seeds.  We are working to identify where to obtain the seeds.


We are working on a training manual to be used by animators in order to scale up the adoption of appropriate soil fertility improvement in Mali. We spent many an hour talking with farmers and learning from their rich and varied experiences.

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