Innovation of the Week: Calling for a More Secure Livelihood

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By Janeen Madan

In the Tominian district of eastern Mali, farmers have to rely on the short, three-month rainy season to grow the crops they need for the rest of the year. The region’s dry season lasts up to nine months, leaving farmers vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns.

Tominian farmers protect a shea tree seedling in their fields. (Photo credit: Sahel Eco)

But farmers are finding ways to cushion themselves from these uncertainties and ensure a steady source of income to feed and care for their families. They are selling nuts, fruits, and honey that they collect from trees in the surrounding forest. Growing trees can be more reliable than cultivating crops because they are more resistant to drought. And, they have a different growing pattern, enabling farmers to sell their products year round.

Farmers are growing a variety of fruit trees, including shea—a popular tree across the dry Sahel region that stretches from Senegal to Sudan at the southern fringe of the Sahara desert. Women farmers collect shea nuts, which they process into shea butter products, such as creams, lotions, and soap, that they sell at the local market. And, because the shea fruit ripens at the beginning of the rainy season, it is an important source of food security at a time when families may not have much to eat.

Tree Aid, a U.K.-based non-profit, is collaborating with Sahel Eco, and using cell phones to help communities advertise these forest products to potential buyers.

Farmers use their cell phones to call Sahel Eco’s local hub office with information on the type and quantity of items they want to sell. The local team based at the hub office sends this information, including the telephone number for the seller, to local radio stations and newspapers. Interested buyers are then able to contact the farmers directly on their cell phones.

Using this system, Tominian farmers are successfully connecting with small businesses in urban areas, including Mopti, and the capital Bamako. The access to technology and the ability to advertize their products, allows producers to reach a wider customer base, providing a steady and reliable source of income. This extra income helps them feed their families better, send their children to school, and pay for medical costs.

And while the Tominian area has no electricity, farmers are using solar panels to recharge their cell phones. Energy from the solar panels is also helping to run the equipment they use to process shea nuts.

And, this technology also brings another added benefit. According to Tony Hill, program support director with Tree Aid, farmers are realizing that they have an incentive to reinvest in the trees. They are planting new trees and promoting the natural regeneration of these forests, securing an important source of food and income for themselves, their families, and surrounding communities.

Do you know of other technologies that are helping farmers in developing countries? Let us know in the comments section!

Janeen Madan is a communications associate with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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