Africa Market Garden: A Smarter Approach to Agriculture

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This is the first blog in a series about our visit with the International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics in Niger.

At first glance, the road from Niamey to Tanka village in Niger looks very much like the Africa that many Americans have come to expect—children with bloated bellies from malnutrition play outside huts with thatched roofs; soldiers with machine guns guard very crowded food distribution centers where rice is handed out; and cattle, their ribs showing through their hides, search for fodder in the parched soil along the side of the road. And one more thing, the military overthrew the government in a coup in February of this year.

In Tanka village, 50 women have started farming using solar drip irrigation to grow okra, tomatoes, eggplant, and other vegetables, as well as moringa and fruit trees. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

But first impressions can be deceiving. While some 8 million people are at risk of starvation in Niger, according to the United Nations, there are some innovative projects that not only helping feed people, but are helping increase incomes and protect  the environment. And the military government—who is promising to leave power next year—is not hiding the threat of famine (like its predecessor), but cooperating with the World Food Program and UNICEF, as well as NGOs, like World Vision, to help distribute  food aid.

The International Center for Research in the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is helping take the lead on finding solutions that can help people in the short and long term.  Dov Pasternak, the charismatic—and sometimes controversial—head of ICRISAT’s international program takes a no nonsense approach to combating hunger, desertification, climate change, and the often misguided intentions of the global funding community.

“Farmers,” says Pasternak, “go hungry not because of drought but because there isn’t money to buy food.” All of the activities he promotes, including agroforestry, agricultural training for students, and market gardens, are not for increasing food security, he says, but for increasing income. “The bigger your wallet,” says Pasternak, “the more food self sufficient you are.”

“This is wealth,” says Pasternak, pointing to Pomme du Sahel—a tree native to India—and the other fruit trees in ICRISAT’s demonstration plot.

Pasternak says it doesn’t make sense for farmers in Niger to try to grow grains on their small plots of land, which typically are less than 3 hectares. Planting crops by hand, weeding, harvesting all take hours and hours of labor, with little economic return—“asking people to grow their own grain,” according to Pasternak, “is not smart.”

A smarter approach to agriculture, he says, is for farmers to produce more vegetables for home consumption and sale in urban areas.  As a result, Pasternak has developed the Africa Market Garden concept. In Tanka village, 50 women have started farming using solar drip irrigation to grow okra, tomatoes, eggplant, and other vegetables, as well as moringa and fruit trees. The women each manage their own plots, but share tools and water—and skills—with one another. They all contribute their earnings to a group savings account to pay for things like fertilizer or to replace hoses and other materials. By selling their vegetables at nearby markets most of the women have tripled their incomes from about $USD 350.00 per woman per year to more than $1,000.00. And that extra income means that their families eat better, that they can send their children to school, and buy clothes and other things they need.

A farm supervisor works with the women, teaching them how to intercrop, use organic compost, manage the solar pump, and other new skills, but the hope is that he—and ICRISAT–will eventually no longer be needed and that the women can run the farm on their own.

In the meantime, these women work together as part of a cooperative, meeting monthly to decide how the garden should be run.

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