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The Agroecology +6 Framework Builds Rapid Resilience in the Sahel

In Africa’s Sahel region, the trifecta of drought, erratic rainfall and degraded lands make farmers particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Groundswell and its partners in West Africa promote resilience strategies for the nearly 12 million small scale farmers in this ecologically fragile and risk prone area. Peter Gubbels, Groundswell’s Director of Action Learning and Advocacy for West Africa and Tsuamba Bourgou, Executive Director of ANSD, our local NGO partner in Burkina that specializes in agroecology, recently presented their “Agroecology +6” innovation framework as part of a learning and outcomes conference in the Netherlands.

The history of the framework begins in 2015, when Groundswell International was named as one of ten finalists in the Global Resilience Challenge (read more about the project here) to receive funding to address some of the worst problems facing the world’s most vulnerable populations—namely women, ultra poor households and chronically malnourished children. Led by Gubbels, what emerged out of this project was the “Agroecology +6” framework, a model for approaching agroecology through the lens of resilience. This approach incorporates social and cultural aspects of agroecology into existing ecological frameworks, addressing in particular the equity, gender and nutrition dimensions, which pose significant challenges for many practitioners.

In the Sahel region, “chronic vulnerability” is exacerbated by these trends: growing food insecurity and dependence on food aid; increasing poverty caused by falling into the hunger/debt trap; and negative coping mechanisms which lead to debt, selling of assets or skipping meals. All of these trends are worsened by the negative effects of climate change, particularly drought, erratic rainfall and increasing temperatures. As a result, scientists predict that by 2050, parts of the Sahel could experience a decrease in agricultural production by 48%.

In such a vulnerable region, agroecology is the foundation on which all resilience efforts must be based. Farming systems are the mainstay of rural livelihoods, and without transforming them to become productive, sustainable, and resilient, all other strategies will only produce short term gains. These will dissolve if root causes are not addressed. Since implementing the Agroecology +6 model model, roughly 98,835 people have directly and indirectly benefited from the innovations and strategies it provides. That is roughly 14,518 households and 184 villages in West Africa. But in order for agroecology to continue to take root in a meaningful way, where resilience structures are embedded across large swaths of land, they need to be supported by the cultural and social structures of those communities.

Agroecology +6 promotes this holistic perspective and focuses on the following:

Foundational innovations. These innovations must: a) be low cost enough for farming households and rural communities to learn and adopt; b) generate tangible benefits quickly and; c) have the potential to spread within the social and ecological system. Groundswell has seen measurable results with the following foundational innovations:

  • Tree-based farming restores degraded lands and staves of further degradation.
  • Soil and water catchment basins known as Zai rehabilitate degraded lands while permeable rock contour barriers retain rainfall.
  • Fast compost production retains moisture and nutrients in soil.
  • Crop rotation and intercropping with legumes restores nutrition to the soil.
  • Using seeds with short growing cycles increases the potential for positive harvest in the context of unpredictable rainfall.

Scaling out. In order for agroecology to reach farmers on a large scale, it is essential that it be spread from farmer to farmer through community-managed learning and extension networks. The following strategies help farmers spread their agroecological knowledge:

  • Clustering of villages supports the spread of successful models from farmer to farmer and village to village through agricultural extension.
  • “Champion” farmer model successful strategies to other farmers.
  • Farmer field schools facilitate local discovery based learning.
  • Use of rural radio to share successful strategies amplifies farmer voices.
  • Farmer competitions and prizes for successful agroecology farms build interest and incentive.

Equity & Women’s Empowerment. Agroecology enables the poorest rural households (particularly women) to develop resilient, self-sustaining livelihoods and escape the debt/hunger trap. The following strategies help build equity and better livelihoods for the most vulnerable populations:

  • Women farmers are enabled to farm more productively when they are provided access to crucial resources including material assistance (seeds and tools), land, water wells, agroecological training and revolving animal loans.
  • Group savings and credit strategies allow women to invest in their own livelihoods.
  • Women’s group formation promotes solidarity and support on and off the farm.
  • Community dialogue facilitates conversations about gender relations.
  • Access to the warrantage (community grain storage and credit system) reduces dependence on middlemen and in turn builds assets and long-term financial stability among community members.

Nutrition. It’s a sobering reality that those that grow most of the world’s food supply often go hungry, and have children affected by chronic malnutrition. Agroecology is one of the quickest, most reliable methods for small scale farmers to produce more food, a greater diversity of crops, and nutrient rich types of foods. The following strategies support agroecology programs to have a greater impact on improving family nutrition:

  • Nutrition education of agricultural staff who work with communities, as well as women’s savings and credit and vegetable gardening groups, builds awareness about what to plant and eat.
  • Agricultural techniques including crop diversification, dry season gardening, and watering techniques to increase yields all year.
  • Collective gardens bring more nutritious food closer to home.
  • Planting baobab and moringa trees in home gardens and continuously trimming them to grow as shrubs, allows for year round access to highly nutritious green leaves.

Local Governance. Strengthening the capacity of family farmers to govern their land while pushing for local, national and international support for agroecology is crucial for smallholder farmer success. Groundswell has seen results with the following strategies to help farmers build their capacity for local governance:

  • Workshops with multiple stakeholders build awareness about resilience.
  • Farmers engage with local officials to review existing municipal plans and budgets from a resilience lens, and negotiate changes to plans.
  • Strengthening community organization and leadership allows local people to have a greater voice in local decision making.

The “agroecology +6” model supports a holistic view which enables the foundational innovations of agroecology to thrive within the social, cultural and political context of the communities and villages they reach.

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