Posts Tagged ‘Africa soil fertility crisis’

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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Steve Brescia, Groundswell’s International Coordinator, recently returned from a three-week trip to Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali. He visited our programs there and met with key local partners and many West African farmers. This slide show captures some of what he learned.

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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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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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Mali, West Africa

Mali, West Africa

In September Groundswell launched a program in Mali, West Africa, in partnership and with financial support from Oxfam America.  The program will be led by our long-time colleague Roland Bunch, a respected global expert on sustainable agriculture.

In recent years Oxfam has developed an excellent approach of savings-led formation of women’s groups in Mali, leading to a “Saving for Change” movement involving over 260,000 women in some 2,000 villages.  While this has generated multiple benefits for women and their families, including access to credit that the groups manage, women have identified the need for additional strategies to improve their wellbeing and break the cycle of poverty.  Specifically, they need to sustainably improve their agricultural production – starting by addressing a crisis in collapsing soil fertility. Over the next three years Groundswell will partner with Oxfam to work with 26,000 of these women in 200 villages to sustainably improve their agricultural production by introducing simple technologies to improve soil fertility, seed quality (short cycle seeds), and water management.

As Roland Bunch has written, “Africa is, right now, facing a perfect storm in terms of its ability to maintain the fertility of its soils, and therefore, its capacity to produce food.  Four major and several minor factors are coming together, especially in the semi-arid and sub-humid lowlands of Africa, to create what could well become one of the worst famines in world history.”  The contributing factors are the price of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizer, population pressure on the land leading to reduced fallowing, declining ability to support animal herds which in turn results reduced availability of manure for soil fertility, and climate change that is altering rainfall patterns.

Bunch writes: “The only sustainable solution to Africa’s soil fertility crisis is that of using what are called ‘green manure/cover crops’, including ‘dispersed trees’….  For 25 years, scientific researchers, agricultural extensionists and innovative small-scale farmers have developed some 500 different [green manure/cover crop] systems.… We know green manures and cover crops can sustainably maintain or improve soil fertility and productivity because they did so for millennia, all across the world.”

Read more about Groundswell’s Mali program and Roland Bunch’s analysis of the problems and proposed solutions.

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