On September 20, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies in Rome David Lane completed a five-day trip in Burkina Faso where he met with farmers, government officials and representatives of non-governmental programs working to improve food security. During the visit, he viewed sites supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the World Food Programme (WFP), The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and their partners. Five international journalists accompanied the Ambassador to villages throughout the country, learning about the challenges the farmers face and the innovative approaches that are helping to raise them out of poverty and improve the health and nutrition of their families. They and many local journalists who joined the trip will share the stories of agricultural development challenges and successes in Burkina Faso with their audiences in Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger, as well as throughout Burkina Faso.
The challenges are many. Burkina Faso ranks 181 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index. Approximately 47 percent of the population live below the poverty level and a quarter of children under the age of five are malnourished. Eighty percent of the population is employed in agriculture, mostly farming small plots without irrigation.
However, as great as the challenges are, progress and potential were just as visible. Innovative approaches combined with reviving and adapting effective traditional practices have increased farmers’ yields while also improving soil fertility for the future. Farmers and their families described how these programs are improving their food security, nutrition and economic conditions.
In explaining why the trip was so important, Ambassador Lane stated, “U.S. President Barack Obama has made ending extreme poverty and hunger a top priority for his administration. Over the years we have learned a lot about what is needed to increase agricultural productivity and ensure access to safe, nutritious food. This trip allowed me to see how this knowledge is working on the ground in Burkina Faso.”
Among the many lessons learned, four stand out.
- One size does not fit all. Like many African countries, Burkina Faso’s terrain and soil conditions vary, so different approaches have to be matched to each location. Small projects to improve soil fertility and water management at a village level are complemented by infrastructure development to improve conditions for a large region.
- Improving farmers’ resilience – the ability to survive and even thrive despite climate shocks – is a critical part of development. Burkina Faso is prone to droughts and occasional floods, and farmers report that the rainy season has become even less predictable recently. This year, rains began early, but then disappeared for two months before resuming. Crops and cultivation methods that better survive such challenges are essential as the world’s climate changes.
- Malnutrition, especially in the crucial early years, robs future leaders of both physical and mental development. With over 65 percent of Burkina Faso’s population under 25 years of age, ensuring that they are healthy and well-nourished also ensures that the nation will thrive in the long term.
- Women must be part of any solution. Over half of Burkina Faso’s farmers are women, but they often farm marginal land with fewer tools and lower quality inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. Any efforts to improve agricultural production must include strategies to enhance their capacity as producers and marketers.
The programs visited by Ambassador Lane and the journalists offered examples of innovative work in each of these areas.
Diversity of approaches
Improved seeds, new planting practices, and bicycle-driven pumps for irrigation are just a few practices that have improved crop yields on farms visited by the delegation.
With support from IFAD, FAO, and WFP, the residents of Goubi improved 20 hectares of lowland rice fields. Seventeen local leaders, including eight women, decide how to apportion the land among the villagers and what inputs to use. Prior to its development, this land averaged 500 kg of rice per hectare. Now, the same land produces 3,500 kg per hectare. The development of the lowlands has resulted in greater food security, expanded financial opportunities, and an increase in land ownership by women. One local farmer, Nocré Abzeta, explained that now she can go beyond barely feeding her family. This year, with the surplus she sold, she purchased a bicycle so her son could attend school. She has bigger plans though, and looks forward to increasing market access, so they can get even better prices for their crops.
By reintroducing and refining Zai, a traditional planting practice that includes spacing plants more widely and fertilizing each separately with organic compost, USAID beneficiaries in Koudiere have increased sorghum and millet yields 250%, while decreasing their fertilizer and dramatically improving the fertility of marginal land. Sombo Kaburi, one of the first farmers to try the new approach, said that many farmers were resistant to new ideas at first, but after seeing the results, they are convinced.
At the other end of the size continuum, as part of Burkina Faso’s $481 million Millennium Challenge Compact with the United States, farmers have helped rehabilitate and improve a regional irrigation system in Di and the Sourou Valley, resulting in increased agricultural yields on 2240 ectares. Road development is increasing the farmers’ ability to profit from these improvements by making it easier to get their surplus products to market. Though the project required a large initial input from the MCC, the key to the program’s long-term success is still the local farmers. By forming Water Users Associations, they have learned how to maintain the system and are taking responsibility for managing their own water resources.
USAID focuses on climate smart agriculture as a way to help farmers move beyond struggling to feed their families to producing a surplus to sell, even when weather does not cooperate. In one example, farmers in Wattigué village built dikes around their fields to increase their ability to manage the water needed to produce high quality rice. USAID provided tools and training in effective dike design and WFP paid the villagers for their construction work. Their improved fields retain water longer, helping their plants weather dry periods, yet they can also drain the fields more efficiently when the rains are heavy. In the next step, boreholes will be added so that irrigation may continue through portions of the dry season. One beneficiary, Dominique, explained that for the first time in her life, she can harvest enough rice to both feed her family and sell the surplus to cover family medical costs.
Although long-term development is the goal of all efforts by the United States and United Nations, many of Burkina Faso’s children need nutrition support today if they are to develop to their full potential. WFP’s Arbollé Health Clinic treats malnourished children, as well as pregnant women and nursing mothers. Over 10 percent of the children under five years old from the 13 villages served are malnourished.
At the clinic, children are weighed and measured. Children between 6 months and 5 years of age who are malnourished are given Plumpy’Sup and CSB+ dietary supplements to provide the needed nutrients. Pregnant and nursing mothers also receive dietary supplements, as well as education on how to use the supplements for the greatest benefit. Of the 267 children treated at the clinic this year, 138 have already reached an acceptable weight. Regular clinic visits ensure that the children’s nutrition will remain strong.
USAID takes the effort to the next level to help mothers keep themselves and all of their family well nourished. Women in USAID’s Families Achieving Sustainable Outcomes (FASO) project, form Care Groups, and elect Leader Mothers who are trained to teach other mothers how to guarantee a nutritious family diet. Leader mothers have already reached 43,650 Burkinabè women with important health and nutrition messages. The Wattigué Care Group has gone one step further. A leader mother described how her Care Group combines locally grown cereals and pulses to create a nutrient rich porridge for their children. In 2013, with the help of this home-grown nutrient-rich food, the percentage of children who ate an adequately nutritious diet more than tripled. By replacing supplements provided by donor organizations with their own nutritious product, their health benefits will continue even when the project ends.
At the recent African Leader’s Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama reconfirmed his commitment to supporting economic growth in Africa, but also stressed that the decisions about how to achieve that growth must be made on the ground, stating, “ultimately, Africa’s prosperity depends on Africa’s greatest resource – its people.” Ambassador Lane added “Burkina Faso’s prosperity depends on the Burkinabè, and the prosperity of each village depends on its own citizens. After seeing the hard work, creativity, determination of these villagers, I am confident that Burkina Faso has a bright and prosperous future.”
To learn more about the projects viewed by Ambassador Lane and his colleagues, visit the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/US-Mission-to-the-United-Nations-Agencies-in-Rome/201163534554