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.
Regional Agroecology Project in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali
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. Learn more about Groundswell’s agroecology project in West Africa.