Mali's women take up arms against 'miniyamba'

Wednesday, 18 March 2015 10:37 GMT

Sitan Traore takes part in a sorghum variety tasting session in southern Mali. Credit: ICRISAT/Jerome Bossuet

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Through greater crop diversity, women take a lead in fighting the ‘fear of devastating drought’

In mid- February, despite the wind blowing the dry red dust around, the temperature has already hit 37 degrees, in Segou, a city along the Niger river at the heart of Bambara region in Sahelien Mali.

One of the older craftsmen at the Ndomo traditional art centre (known for its beautiful Bògòlanfini fabric - handmade Malian cotton fabric traditionally dyed with fermented mud) explains the legend behind this region’s dry weather.

The locals refer to the story as Miniyamba, the fear of devastating drought. Every year the rulers of the 8th century Ghana Empire used to offer their most beautiful maiden to appease the sacred python Bida who lived in the forest of Nara – near today’s Koulikoro, west of Mali’s capital Bamako.

One year, a young man saw his promised bride Siya being prepared for this annual sacrifice to Bida and so hunted down and killed the snake. The death of the sacred snake was followed by 7 years of drought which forced the region’s inhabitants to migrate to the current Bambara settlement in South Mali.

Malians still see themselves at the mercy of the climate. Eighty percent depend on rainfed smallholder farming and droughts and chaotic rain patterns often destroy their livelihoods. Agriculture contributes about 30 percent of Mali’s export revenues but only 5 percent of the fields are irrigated, so timing and quantity of rainfall is crucial for farmers’ success.

Significant warming is predicted by 2050 and over the last few decades the desert has progressed towards the South. The sorghum-millet producing regions in the North have expanded 50 kilometers further south due to the drier climate since 1950.

BRINGING WOMEN INTO THE TALKS

A shift to more climate-smart agriculture is recommended by scientists to limit the impact of climate change. Women should be at the centre of this dialogue for greater climate resilience as they are at the frontline of this climate uncertainty.

In addition to their active contribution to farm work, they play a strong role in family nutrition and food security. Yet, their access to land and assets is limited and any farm investment is controlled by the husband. Consequently, they are often sidelined when it comes to discussing adaptation strategies.

But women can drive change within their household and community if they get the right opportunities. One way is to ensure their full participation in farmer participatory research. Here are a few examples.

37-year-old Sitan Traore from Mpessoba village near Koutiala in South Mali has participated in a nutrition field school through the An Be Jigi initiative (An Be Jigi means “Hope for all” in the local Bambara language).

She learned about a more nutritious version of the traditional sorghum porridge (Tô) she gives her child. She now knows that mixing To with legumes like cowpea adds more protein, and she can also enrich the porridge using local ingredients like iron- and zinc-rich moringa leaves or baobab fruit.

Following the communal cookery sessions, she convinced her husband to give her a small plot to grow cowpea, groundnut and legume trees, as well as new varieties of sorghum. This kitchen garden now provides complementary food for her family and means that at a household level, crop biodiversity will increase, which is one important adaptation strategy.

Traore also is one of 15 women participating in culinary testing of five sorghum varieties. Three groups of five women prepare the traditional Tô after which community members do some blind tasting to note varieties according to taste, porridge consistency etc.

This approach is important to ensure adoption of new resilient varieties. Researchers are ensuring women are asked for feedback so traits like ease of decortication (removing the outer seed coat) are taken into account as this helps reduce  women’s workload. In fact, labour saving innovations are often high on the agenda for women farmers. Saving time means you are more likely to be ready for sowing when rains come, or harvest grains before they fall on the ground or are eaten by birds.

Access to new seed varieties that are climate adapted and productive is one major climate adaptation tool.

WOMEN'S BUSINESS TOO

In Mali, seed production is often seen as a man’s affair but Sitan Sidibe, a mother of 10 from Ngolobougou village, shows how seeds can be a woman’s business too.

When she noticed that rains were ending 15 to 30 days earlier than usual, when sorghum plants have not yet flowered, she was keen to experiment with early maturing sorghum varieties in her fields. She visited a seed fair organised by the local Dioila farmer organisation (Union Locale de Producteurs de Céréales – ULPC) and bought a 1kg sorghum hybrid seed pack.

These new sorghum hybrids were developed by the International Crops Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Malian Institut d’Economie Rurale and have 40 percent higher yields than the farmers’ best local variety. She convinced ULPC to supply her with 1 to 5 kg seed packs that she sells to her neighbours who wanted to follow her example.

She does not receive any commission for seed sales. She wants her village to have access to better seeds and is proud to be a woman selling seeds to show “she is able to work as a man”.

Eva Weltzien-Rattunde, ICRISAT’s principal sorghum scientist working in Mali for 18 years, pioneered farmer participatory research. She is convinced that women have a lot to say about ways innovations can be introduced in farms in Sahel. From what she sees, women are keener than men to experiment with new seeds and farming practices.

Making nutrition and gender a higher priority in agricultural research will certainly increase women’s contribution to building greater resilience among Sahelien rural families. This will be translated into more entrepreneurial and nutrition-sensitive households, and greater biodiversity on farms.

See Closing the gender gap in farming under climate change: New knowledge for renewed action, including an event in Paris on March 19, 2015.