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The European Commission predicts a shortfall of 410,000 metric tons in cereals in Niger. Due to this, more than 7 million people in that country are hungry now and in the coming months because of poor rains last year. But scientists say that this crisis could have been avoided and even averted in the future if scientific innovations are widely mobilized for application by farmers, rather than relying on costly emergency aid.

Hunger is not new in Niger  

In one of the world’s poorest countries, Niger, over 7 million people (more than half of the country’s population) are now threatened by hunger. Wracked by recurring droughts, the picturesque mud-and-thatch grain stores that dot the countryside have run empty, months before the September harvest could replenish them.

The European Commission predicts a shortfall of 410,000 metric tons in cereals, based on the country’s consumption. Due to this, emergency aid is being rushed to the region. The World Food Programme alone will invest US$ 125 million.

But rather than reacting with costly aid, which may not reach all the needy in time, scientists say prevention could have been better. By mobilizing science and technology, the current hunger in Niger could have been averted at a small fraction of the cost. More importantly, this could drastically reduce and even eliminate the need for aid in the future.

As a semi-arid tropical country, the food crisis in Niger is mainly caused by frequent droughts and degraded soils. If ever they come, rains are extremely variable and different places will therefore have different rainfall patterns. Hence, this year’s drought is not particularly exceptional and Niger faces a chronic problem of not being able to produce enough food for its growing population.


What could have been done – Fertilizer microdosing on a wide scale

Scientists at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) with a regional hub based near the capital city of Niamey, point out that a wide-scale application of farming innovations that have been long-tested in Niger could have wiped out the shortfall.

“Severe droughts will continue to occur in Niger,” says Dr Bettina Haussmann, ICRISAT’s pearl millet breeder in Niger. “But food aid doesn’t have to. With new methods, Niger could produce surplus millet in good years and store it to ride out the bad years,” she further points out.

One of the most intensively tested solutions is called ‘fertilizer microdosing’.

Tiny amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer, about one-sixth of the quantities normally applied on grain crops in Europe and the USA, increase millet grain yields in Niger by an average of 55%, ICRISAT experiments show. The large response is due to the nutrient-impoverished state of the country’s soils.

“If only one quarter of the country’s farmers had practiced fertilizer microdosing in 2009, the grain shortfall would have been erased,” says Dr Jupiter Ndjeunga, ICRISAT’s economist in Niger. “This would have cost the country only a small fraction of the cost of food aid that is now needed. Even though fertilizer is expensive in Niger, microdosing is quite profitable because of the high response to such a small amount of fertilizer,” he adds.

If it is profitable, why haven’t farmers snapped up the technique? Dr Ndjeunga explains: “The main reason is that farmers here are so poor that they have difficulty paying for a bag of fertilizer which can cost from $13 to $20. Likewise, because of transport inefficiencies, fertilizer isn’t always available when and where the farmers need it,” he laments.

Excited about the potential of microdosing, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) tackled the financing problem by developing a system known in Niger by the French term ‘warrantage’. In this scheme, farmers receive a loan in exchange for depositing some of their harvested grain into a community store. When market prices for millet rise as food supplies tighten in the following months, the grain is sold into the market and the extra earnings are returned to farmers, paying off their loan and then some. The added profit enables them to buy fertilizer the following season. Warrantage offices also establish ‘input shops’ to buy fertilizer in bulk at better prices to resell at the right time to member farmers.

“If done properly, warrantage allows farmers to grow more food and increase their income,” reports Ake Olofss, FAO’s rural finance expert. He says that for ‘warrantage’ to succeed, three elements must be in place: a well functioning farmers association, an interested local bank or other financial institution, and a safe place to store the produce. Towards this, FAO has established 50 warrantage operations, 250 input stores and hundreds of grain stores over the past 15 years benefitting about 13,000 farm households in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

“The critical need now is to multiply the microdosing and warrantage system across Niger and its neighboring countries that are experiencing the same problem,” says Dr Farid Waliyar, Director of ICRISAT in West and Central Africa. The Institute is headquartered in Hyderabad, India.

A major new project sponsored by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which draws on support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), is trying to do just that. AGRA aims to help an additional 100,000 farm families across 175 villages by increasing warrantage operations over the next 3 years.

“Drylands need not be barren lands,” exhorts Dr Namanga Ngongi, President of AGRA. “We have seen farmers pilot the use of microdosing to nourish their crops and increase their incomes. Our new partnership with ICRISAT will scale up efforts to reach hundreds of thousands of farmers,” he adds.

“Providing farmers with credit and inputs opens up a world of possibilities,” says Dr William Dar, ICRISAT’s Director General. “Since most of the poor are farmers, these kinds of innovations can reach wide and deep into the countryside to tremendously reduce suffering,” he projects.

Other tested farming innovations

In the dryland tropics like Niger, short duration crop varieties are very important since they flower within a relatively short period of time, escaping drought. One example is the millet variety “SOSAT” developed by ICRISAT in collaboration with the IER, the Institute for Rural Economy, in Mali. SOSAT flowers within 58 days compared to the local variety, which takes 12 days longer. SOSAT is widely planted in Niger since it is more adapted to shorter rain periods.

Fruit trees are also very promising in Niger since these are drought tolerant, highly nutritious and have a potentially high market value. For instance, the indigenous Pomme de Sahel (Sahelian apple) can survive with minimum water and still give good yields of 6 to 10 kg in 3 years.

When rains are not sufficient, water needs to be fetched from the ground. In this regard, ICRISAT developed with AVRDC (World Vegetable Center) the “African Market Garden” (AMG), a horticultural production package based on low-pressure drip irrigation. This farming innovation improves growing conditions of fruit trees and vegetables and saves water, labor and energy, giving farmers about US$1,000 profit per year from a 500 sq. m. lot.

Due to desertification, lands in Niger have been degraded and considered too infertile for cultivation. But with a technique called “Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands (BDL),” lost lands can be brought back into productivity. Combining traditional water harvesting techniques with hardy trees and indigenous vegetables, ICRISAT and its partners designed this farming innovation spearheaded by rural women.

Outlook  

Once cereal supplies are stabilized and hunger is eliminated, Dr William Dar underscores that farmers could invest in growing a range of high-value crops to multiply their incomes. Delicious local fruit species can be cultivated in orchards and exported as juice. Inexpensive drip irrigation can be used by women’s groups to grow vegetables for high-profit sales and to improve household nutrition.

“These methods have been developed and tested on the exhausted soils of Niger and are ready to be applied on a wider scale. Just like microdosing, their application across the country is a much better investment than emergency food aid,” Dr Dar emphasizes.

Aside from the foregoing issues, contemporary challenges such as climate change, land degradation, loss of biodiversity and rising food and fuel prices are also being addressed by ICRISAT and its partners to help address poverty and food security in the semi-arid tropics.

Indeed the bigger challenge is to mobilize science to prevent the occurrence of famine and ultimately bring prosperity to the long-suffering farmers of Niger and the entire developing world.

For more information, contact:

Dr William D. Dar,
Director General, ICRISAT,
E-mail:
w.dar@cgiar.org
Visit us at: www.icrisat.org