Climatic conditions make agricultural work in the Sahel more and more difficult. One of the countries most affected by this reality is Niger, where a large majority of farmers work in precarious conditions. Many initiatives are emerging to respond to local and regional challenges. The role of young entrepreneurs.
Mahamadou Abdou is delighted with the visit. For months, no technician has visited his plot of land to listen to his advice, which was once a regular business of the state’s technical services. This gardener from Gamkallé, a suburban area of the city of Niamey, the capital of Niger, cultivates half a hectare of land with little knowledge, and without technology or external support. Like many other Sahelian farmers, Abdou watches the soil that feeds him become more arid and less arable every year.
In this geo-climatic belt that crosses the African continent from east to west – from Djibouti to Senegal and which acts as a transition between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanese savannah – the phenomena of desertification as the degradation of fertile soil due to productive activities and desertification (the natural transformation of a zone into a desert) threaten to merge the Sahara and the Sahel into one region, making life even more difficult for the people who inhabit this particular part of the world.
As demonstrated at COP15 – the United Nations conference against desertification held in May of this year in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) – the African continent is the most vulnerable to climate change, which is the main cause of agricultural land loss due to degradation. Studies have shown that reforestation in some areas of the Sahara-Sahel area could help reduce higher temperatures, favouring the development of indigenous vegetation, and warn of the need for immediate action.
There are many political commitments and efforts which, based on scientific evidence, seek to address this phenomenon. The Great Green Wall (GMV) for the Sahara and the Sahel is perhaps the most publicized. Led and approved in 2007 by the African Union, this mega-project aims to green 150 million hectares, which would block 250 million tons of carbon, and create one million jobs. All this must be achieved by 2030.
Eleven countries participate in the project. In Niger, one of the countries most exposed to this crisis, the goal is to green 3.6 million hectares on 4% of the territory through remediation techniques such as assisted natural regeneration and the planting of two tree species particularly resistant to drought: Bauhinia rufescens and Senegalia Senegal.
One problem that afflicts the Nigerien agricultural sector is the lack of control, information, and sensitivity. The state does not have the resources to control the markets for plant protection products. As the Niger Chamber of Agriculture Network (RECA-Niger) declares, across the country, there are many products not approved by the Sahelian Pesticides Committee (CSP) and many fake products whose labels closely mimic those of approved products. “Many of them are highly toxic”, says Adamou Haougui, a researcher at the National Agricultural Research Institute of Niger (INRAN) and a member of the CSP. “An example of this are products based on organophosphates. We find them in all eight regions of the country, and they are a real risk to people’s health”. Unapproved products are priced lower than approved ones, which attracts customers.
All of these products require a minimum of knowledge and awareness for their use and, again, the Nigerien state does not have the ability to impose this requirement.
Once again, the Nigerien state does not have the capacity to take charge of the situation. A study published in 2018 showed that Nigerien farmers far exceed the recommended doses of pesticides and fertilizers. They treat crops too frequently and rarely respect carry-over time, which is the recommended period of time from the last treatment to harvest. All this has serious consequences for the health of people – exposed to all types of poisonous and carcinogenic products – and for the environment, which is irreparably degraded and polluted.
One thing to keep in mind is the rural exodus. Life in much of the country can be extremely hard and young people often decide to move to cities, where there are more career opportunities. Niamey is the main urban centre and, as such, attracts thousands of citizens every year.
In 2020, the city’s growth rate was 3.22% and is expected to reach 5.25% annually by 2030. As a result, the city is home, among others, to the country’s most educated young people, many of whom have obtained masters and doctorates from the best universities in West Africa.
Given the importance of agriculture in Niger – and in countries throughout the region – and the challenge represented by such a technically and technologically underdeveloped sector, agronomy is, after health subjects, the most studied degree, followed by those related to the environment. As a result, more and more young Nigeriens see agriculture and the environment as a good way to earn a living and to offer sustainable solutions to their continent’s serious food and climate crisis.
Abdoul-Kader Issoufou is one of them. This young entrepreneur founded the Agri’Innov’Inspire company in 2016 after two years of specialization at the Shongaï Center in Porto Novo (Benin), a point of reference in the training of young people in organic production techniques on the continent. “ Agri’Innov’Inspire is a research, incubation and training centre in the agri-food sector, but our ultimate goal is to create a great agroecological training school in Niger, to give the new generations the opportunity to become trained farmers, which this country urgently needs”, explains Abdoul-Kader Issoufou. His company attracts more and more interested organizations for the quality of his work.
Kadidiatou Souley Yéro holds a PhD in geography and works at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD); she worked on the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to study the causes, predict desertification, and take corrective measures. At the end of 2021, Souley Yéro created a small organization called Terroir d’Ici (our land) and started a reforestation project of very specific areas with endemic wood species to provide food and income. “We have an infinite number of local plant resources that, in addition to improving our soils, can be used to obtain food and economic benefits. We work with the local population to choose the most interesting plants”.
Many initiatives are emerging in Niger to respond to local and regional challenges, but good ideas and training are not everything, and local entrepreneurs face a big problem: getting funding. There are several ways of financing: on the one hand, there is the government, whose support is almost non-existent; on the other hand, there are the banks. They offer loans, yes, but at such high-interest rates that few ventures to apply for them. Finally, another source of funding is represented by international development organizations, such as NGOs, whose attention is increasingly directed to this type of entrepreneurial initiative, but whose strategies are very rigid and are based on a predefined terrain, leaving little room for manoeuvre. This is a common cause of the failure of their interventions. (Text and photo: Carlos Nombela)