By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, Sept 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Investing hundreds of millions of dollars to boost agriculture in Niger by improving water availability, upgrading road networks and developing markets will benefit at least four million Nigeriens, a U.S. aid agency said on Thursday.
The U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced in June a funding package worth $437 million for the West African nation, where four in five people work in farming and agriculture is the second-largest export after uranium ore.
Niger is among the world's poorest countries and consistently ranked bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index.
Frequent floods and droughts have decimated the crops of many of its some 18 million people and left them struggling to survive.
Climate change is expected to make the country even more prone to drought, erosion and loss of forested land, exacerbating difficult conditions, according to the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
"We are investing in the economic backbone of the country - agriculture - as financial growth can help accelerate the fight against poverty," said Dana Hyde, chief executive of the MCC.
"It is not just about agriculture, but considering how to help farmers produce, transport and sell their goods," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from an event in New York to promote the deal with Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou.
The MCC funding will be also used to rehabilitate and develop three large irrigation systems, set up new markets and establish natural resource and land use management plans.
Farmers will be trained in climate-smart agriculture, with a focus on women and young people, according to the MCC.
"Empowering women - who play an integral role on Niger's farms - can pull up entire communities while young people - who make up half of the population - can drive growth," Hyde added.
One of the biggest obstacles to boosting agriculture in Niger is a lack of reliable data on crop production and yield, according to the MCC, which said it would work with the government ministries to improve their data collection.
Sanitation charity WaterAid welcomed the MCC project but said it should ensure that people's basic water needs are met alongside a focus on large-scale agriculture in a country where four in 10 people do not have access to clean drinking water.
"The programme must make sure that the poorest people's basic right to water - including nomadic populations and those in remote or rural locations - is accounted for," said Sarina Prabasi, chief executive of WaterAid America.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)