Context of Mali Rural Development Program
In 2012, for the third time in seven years a bleak narrative of yet a new food and nutrition crisis across the Sahelian area of West Africa captured media attention. Similar food crises occurred in 2005 and 2010. This time the United Nations agencies issued communiqués for urgent humanitarian action to help an estimated 18.4 million people who face severe food insecurity, including 3.5 million in Mali and 2.85 million in Burkina Faso.
Collapsing soil fertility and climate change are two interacting causes of this chronic food crisis. Historically, West African family farmers maintained soil fertility by fallowing and using manure from their own livestock or transhumant herds. But with a fast growing population, agricultural land has become increasingly scarce, leading farmers to greatly reduce or eliminate fallow periods. Irregular rains and drought have made dryland farming much more risky. Food production deficits in bad years have caused poorer households to sell their livestock to buy food, resulting in further reduced access to manure for improving soil fertility and steadily declining yields. To compensate, farmers have greatly extended the areas they cultivate.
These factors create a cycle of declines in fallowing, reduced tree, pasture and vegetative cover, increased water and wind erosion, and denuded landscapes.
Many development agencies and governments have responded by promoting “new green revolution” technologies highly dependent on external inputs, including fertilizer. However, the increased price of nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers is unaffordable for most rural households even when subsidized. Drought, erosion, and low levels of organic matter to retain moisture make fertilizer highly risky and uneconomical for poorer farmers. Providing food aid has become a regular fall back solution to alleviate chronic food deficits. These are not long term solutions for the vast majority of small scale farmers or for regenerating the natural resource base. In Mali, Burkina Faso and northern Ghana (which faces problems similar to the Sahel) some innovative farmers have successfully developed agro-ecological solutions, but scale up is inhibited by formidable policy and institutional forces.
Groundswell’s Response to Development Challenges in Mali
In response to the soil and food crisis in Mali, Groundswell implemented a three-year (2010-12) program in Mali in partnership with Oxfam America. The program, called Saving for Change Plus Agriculture (SfC Plus Ag), responded to requests for sustainable ag 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 eco farming technologies to improve soil fertility (using nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops), seed quality (short cycle seeds), and water management.
Beginning in January 2013, Groundswell launched a two-year initiative called “Scaling Farmer-led Agroecology in West Africa”, which partners with experienced organizations in Mali (Sahel Eco), Ghana (Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development), and Burkina Faso (Association Nourrir Sans Détruire). These organizations have excellent track records and complementary skills in strengthening farmers’ organizations, promoting agro-ecology, generating documentation for spread of effective practices, policy analysis and advocacy, and this program amplifies their current work strengthening farmers’ and women’s organizations (e.g., the directors of CIKOD and ANSD are on the steering committees of the women’s led “We are the Solution” campaign in their countries). Groundswell International, Food First, and ILEIA provide strategic support for program development, documentation, policy analysis and scaling.
Program partners are working together in Mali, Burkina Faso and northern Ghana to strengthen and amplify existing farmer and women-led initiatives and organizations in order to spread agro-ecological farming systems, reinforce movements for food sovereignty, and advocate for supportive policies.
Mali and West Africa Program Objectives 2013 – 2014
The objectives below provide a framework for exchange and learning on effective scaling strategies across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana:
- Improve and scale out existing farmer-led agro-ecological initiatives to improve soil fertility, production and address climate change in selected regions of Mali, Burkina Faso and northern Ghana. This will strengthen the base of an effective alternative model of agricultural development appropriate for small scale farmers – in particular poorer households and women.
- Strengthen the engagement of small scale farmer and women’s membership organizations (including the “We are the Solution” campaign) in advocacy platforms, in order to change local and national policies and programs to be supportive of agro-ecology.
- Document, systematize and disseminate lessons learned on spreading and scaling agro-ecological approaches. Strengthen the evidence base for farmer learning and policy influence. Tailor policy analysis and documentation of practices to the specific contexts of Mali, Burkina and northern Ghana.
Each partner will use program resources strategically to strengthen the most relevant objectives and activities within its context.
Activities for Objective 1: Improve and scale out existing farmer-led agro-ecological initiatives
- Identify strategic areas and communities for spreading of agro-ecological practices.
- Work with women and men leaders of community-based organizations to identify other farmers and communities interested in engaging in learning processes on agro-ecology.
- On the basis of a participatory diagnosis, small groups of farmer-leaders/promoters will select potential solutions for small-scale experimentation from a basket of identified agro-ecological options. After testing and assessment, most promising options (technologies, methods, seeds, etc.) will be implemented and shared, farmer-to-farmer.
- Organise learning cross visits between farmers, community leaders and local organizations on relevant agro-ecological techniques. Foster the creation of local agro-ecology learning networks.
- Provide grounded technical, methodological and organizational support to farmer groups to adopt, spread and sustain these agro-ecological techniques.
- Use local radio, farmer fairs and prizes to amplify awareness and spread of farmer innovations.
Activities for Objective 2: Strengthen farmer led advocacy for agro-ecology
- Adapt and facilitate “Citizens’ Jury” processes (where feasible) allowing family farmer leaders (women and men) to undertake “Participatory Action Research” (PAR), designed to empower marginalised groups to have a direct voice in programs and policies.
- Through the PAR process, collect grounded evidence in selected regions on the comparative effectiveness of conventional Green Revolution vs. agro-ecology to meet family farmer needs.
- Involve regional farmer organisations, the “We are the Solution” campaign, local government, Ministry of Agriculture, national NGOs and other relevant stakeholders.
- Ensure key events of the PAR process are covered in the local media, particularly rural radio, in order to raise awareness and stimulate wider public debate.
- Research the effects of national agricultural policies on small scale farming communities. Make this information accessible to the PAR group.
- Convene a conference of key actors within the region to present the PAR evidence, debate the issues, reach a “verdict” and make policy and program recommendations reflecting farmers’ voices.
- Use the PAR process and outcomes to inform and strengthen wider food sovereignty networks.
Activities for Objective 3: Document, systematize and disseminate information on agro-ecology
- Determine the main documentation and learning materials needed to strengthen the partners’ work in each country context.
- Identify the existing evidence base for agro-ecology and documentation of scaling processes.
- Develop and apply a tailored documentation, systematization and dissemination strategy as resources allow, in each country, in support of objectives 1 and 2.
- Document and disseminate lessons and recommendations across the three countries on viable strategies for amplifying agro-ecological alternatives.