Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Dov Pasternak is a retired professor from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. After 30 years working on agricultural research in Israel's Negev desert, he has spent the last 10 years at ICRISAT-Niger trying to find solutions for poverty eradication in the Sahel, one of the world's most difficult regions.
Across most of rural West Africa, women's social status is inferior to that of men. It starts with the division of labour.
Husbands work the fields, and bring food and income to the family. Mothers and daughters do the rest. They collect firewood, fetch water from wells, grind the grains, prepare the daily meals and much more besides, not to mention working on the farms.
Agriculture in West Africa is rain-fed. Once the four months of the rainy season are over, men are out of work. They either sit idle waiting for the next rainy season or migrate to big cities seeking temporary jobs. In many cases, they spend the money they earn on themselves.
In most of West Africa, women have no inheritance rights. If the husband passes away, his closest family or male children inherit his possessions. If a woman starts a successful vegetable garden, the husband can expel his wife and take it over.
Nor are women allowed to own agricultural land. In many instances, they do small trading and small-scale animal fattening to generate some income for themselves. Traditionally, the money earned by women is their property.
ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) is the only international agriculture research institute with a permanent presence in the Sahel. At ICRISAT-Niger, we believe women's status can be dramatically changed by boosting their income and helping them organise themselves into strong interest groups.
In Sadore village, 45 km south of Niger's capital Niamey, we constructed a simple fruit-tree nursery, and gave it to 30 women to operate. Each member of the nursery group earns $800 per year, almost three times the average income in Niger.
MAKING USE OF DEGRADED LAND
More than half the land in the West African Sahel is degraded and not suitable for cultivation. In most cases, it is composed of crusted red soils impermeable to water.
ICRISAT has developed a system for rain-fed horticulture production adapted to this land, known as "Bioreclamation of Degraded Lands" (BDL). It involves digging small ditches (called demi-lunes in the Sahel) to collect and store rainwater, and planting drought-tolerant fruit and vegetable trees. Women cultivate high-value traditional vegetables such as okra between the trees.
In West Africa, degraded lands are community-owned and the village chief is responsible for allocating them. The chief of Sadore village readily agreed to allot a parcel of such land to the local women's association, ensuring their ownership.
Women's associations can be found in most West African villages. Their main task is to provide micro-credit for members.
Strengthening these associations to take responsibility for all women's economic activities creates a powerful tool for protecting women rights.
With the BDL system, the degraded lands are handed over to an association, not to individual women. Husbands can no longer take over their wives' successful economic activities because the land belongs to the group.
In addition to the money from their fruit-tree nursery activities, the Sadore women get an annual income of $100 each from the BDL project and plenty of nutritious food.
One valuable tree grown here is the African Moringa whose leaves are one of the most nutritious vegetables known: they have seven times the Vitamin C in oranges, four times the Vitamin A in carrots, four times the calcium in milk, double the protein in milk and three times the potassium in bananas.
CLOTHES AND MOBILE PHONES
Oumou, 35, is the head of the Sadore women's group. Her husband is a millet farmer, but frequent droughts meant the family of seven often went hungry. In 2009, the area received very little rain and the main crop, millet, was also attacked by the insect raghuva. Even though Oumou's husband's millet crop failed, her income from the nursery and BDL project saw them through this difficult period.
"I can definitely say that the status of all the women in our association has changed," she says. "We are less dependent on our husbands and we are more respected by them as we contribute to the family expenses. I have my own mobile and have also bought a few sheep."
Women in Sadore have used their new income to buy clothes and mobile phones, to build mud brick houses, and to help the family overcome the perils of a drought year.
The social status of Sadore women totally changed over a period of just four years, both at the family and at the community level.
The fruit-tree nurseries and BDL system were also tried out in three villages in the Zinder region of Niger in 2009-2010, with similar success. In 2011, BDL will be expanded to 50 villages in Niger, directly benefiting 8,000 women.
It is my strong conviction that Africa's new Green Revolution should start by women becoming a significant productive part of the rural economy. The improvement in women's social status this will bring is a pre-requisite for the economic leap forward so many are hoping for.