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In Niger, IFAD and partners achieve results against the odds

©IFAD/David Rose

Farmers pump water up from the bore hole using a foot operated vacuum pump in the Village of Launi, Aguie, Niger.

In many ways, Niger is a country on the edge. Geographically, its productive farmland is confined to a narrow, semi-arid band across the south. Politically, it remains stable in the wake of peaceful elections held last year, but crises in neighbouring Libya, Mali and northern Nigeria have driven thousands of refugees across its borders. Socially and economically, its human development indicators are low, and it is among the poorest nations in the world.

In other ways, however, Niger is on the cutting edge. Even as the latest Sahel food crisis and renewed instability in Mali garner international headlines, IFAD-financed agricultural development projects in Niger are achieving results against the odds. This may not be the story that usually makes the news, but it is a compelling one nonetheless.

Vincenzo Galastro is IFAD's Country Programme Manager for Niger. When he speaks about the projects there, his passion for sharing this largely untold story is palpable. "The people of Niger are dealing with a challenging situation," he says, "but a lot of positive things are happening."

Long-term prospects

The immediate situation is certainly difficult. Alarmingly, climate change has led to more frequent droughts, which threaten the viability of staple crops such as millet and sorghum. This year, amidst a poor harvest and rising food prices, the country is heading into a lean season that will test the ability of aid agencies to respond – as similar crises did in 2005 and 2010.

Yet Galastro says long-term prospects are brightening – in some areas, at least – as a result of effective cooperation between the government and its partners, including IFAD.

Since 1980, IFAD has provided $153 million in loans and grants to finance 10 projects and programmes in Niger. Four of these initiatives are on-going. The newest of them is the Food Security and Development Support Project in the Maradi region, approved by IFAD's Executive Board in December 2011. The project will help smallholder farmers improve the quality and quantity of their crops and livestock for sale in five rural markets. One of its key goals is to ensure that smallholders have additional income to feed their families between harvests, when grain stocks run low.

Strategy for food security

In keeping with IFAD's food-security strategy in Niger, the project in Maradi will support family farming as an efficient means of diversified crop production. By growing a variety of crops, smallholders are better equipped both to meet household nutritional needs and to market their produce.

Galastro points to other food-security initiatives with great potential in Niger. One prominent example is IFAD's partnership with the NGO Accsa-Afrique Vert, which involves exchanges between food-surplus and food-deficit areas through a cereal stock exchange in the capital, Niamey.

He also highlights IFAD's support for schemes in which women plant household gardens to help feed their children. Beyond food security, cultivating a small plot of land close to home adds a measure of control to the lives of Niger's women, most of whom lack secure land rights but have large families to care for.

On the critical issue of women's empowerment, Galastro stresses the efforts of Mata Masu Dubara ("women on the move" in the Hausa language), an association of rural women engaged in microfinance and leadership development. CARE Niger has supported their activities, and IFAD is now working with the association. Demonstrating their resolve in a society known for its patriarchy, several Mata Masu Dubara leaders have become mayors of towns in the Tahoua region.

Adapting to climate change

On another signature issue for IFAD and Niger – the impact of climate change – a proposal is now in the works to expand micro-irrigation projects, adds Galastro. Micro-irrigation is an inexpensive technique enabling smallholder farmers to save water and fertilizer by maintaining a low but regular flow of water to their fields. In turn, they can plant larger areas, maximizing crop yields and income.

In Niger's limited arable zone, where rainfall is erratic, the impact of such interventions can be decisive for smallholder farmers adapting to a changing climate.

Galastro reports, as well, that IFAD and its partners are studying ways to expand "re-greening" methods that smallholders in Niger have used to reclaim 5 million ha of unproductive land. The farmers have done this by planting trees or simply protecting seedlings that sprout naturally. When fully grown, the trees nitrogenize the soil, control wind erosion and protect crops from excessive sun. In addition, they provide fruits for supplemental food, and firewood that girls and women would otherwise have to gather far afield.

In Aguié Department, southern Niger, IFAD is working to identify which tree species allow for maximum agricultural productivity. Its research partner is the University of Copenhagen, represented by Chris Reij, a specialist in the sustainable management of natural resources. "This is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa," Reij has said. "With trees to buffer the wind and anchor the soil, farmers need sow only once."

Peace and development

These projects all continue apace at the same time as Niger copes with the effects of regional instability.

"Niger has kept its borders open, minimized instability and maintained basic food security for the refugees," says Galastro. He explains that cross-border ethnic ties – among the Hausa people in the south and the Tuareg in the north – have made it easier to absorb those fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries. Still, it is a complex situation that could have spun out of control in a nation less focused on peace and development.

Against a backdrop of poverty, drought and conflict, Galastro observes, the government and people of this predominantly rural country are taking important steps forward. "I think Niger is a very positive example for the region," he says, "and IFAD is helping."