Can global farm innovators help re-green the Sahel?

by William Dar, ICRISAT | ICRISAT
Tuesday, 4 February 2014 09:08 GMT

A young girl waters her family garden in Mali. ICRISAT/Alina Paul Bossuet

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Innovations to help small farmers are already out there, but adoption is still too limited given the huge needs

Inventors, investors, development organisations and farming experts are gathered in Abu Dhabi this week to reinvent the future of agriculture. On the agenda are innovations to produce more, better and in a sustainable way.

Big agribusinesses are calling for a new vision for agriculture to feed 9 billion people by 2050, while preserving threatened natural resources. They already claim to be investing in tomorrow’s farming to produce more with a smaller environmental footprint.

You may be surprised to hear that Google Ventures is investing in a start-up biochar enterprise, a biofuel and bio-fertiliser. Other futuristic examples include an artificial burger and wheat that can fix its own nitrogen to reduce the need for fertiliser.

But where does that leave the Sahelian farmer? In Niger, with rapid population growth of more than 3 percent, and an expected temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, the future is worrisome.

If we want to resolve the global food crisis and grow food more sustainably, we need to first find solutions for the millions of farming families surviving on less than one hectare in the southern hemisphere. They are the ones producing more than half the world’s food, while paradoxically make up most of the under-nourished.

Solutions already exist to reduce hunger in the arid regions, some of which will be discussed in Abu Dhabi. There are extremely water-efficient irrigation methods such as underground drip systems which reduce plant water needs by 80 percent. Research has also developed pest and drought-resistant seed varieties like the arerti (‘not afraid of drought’ in local language) chickpea being grown by farmers in Ethiopia.

But the adoption of innovations like these is still too limited given the huge needs. New ways of collaborating between local and international levels and the public and private sector would enable more farmers to feel the benefit.


To innovate for smallholder farmers also requires a different research approach. Innovative techniques must be adapted to small farm sizes with fewer resources.

In the Sahel, soils are often deficient in nutrients. With tiny quantities of fertiliser manually added to the base of each plant (a technique known as microdosing which uses a sixth of the usually recommended dosage), yields could double.

Microdosing research by ICRISAT in Niger has estimated benefits of $120 million over the two decades from 1994 to 2013, with a return on investment as high as $44 per $1 invested. To date, close to 1.2 million hectares is now exposed to microdosing practice and scaling this up across the Sahel would bring a much-needed boost in yields.

Research should also include farmers, to take into account their needs and preferences - be it the colour of seed or labour demands – and to consider local innovations that may be easier to replicate.

Enterprises need to integrate small farms into their strategy by re-thinking how to adapt their products to reduced land areas. Leldet Seeds, a Kenyan seed company, sells small packets of improved seeds that are better adapted to droughts. These seed packs include millet and sorghum, and are sold for about a dollar, mainly to women who are more open to experimenting with crops besides maize. This pays off in better harvests at times of poor rain, when maize would struggle.

For large-scale adoption, techniques need to be accessible and affordable, with a rapid return on investment, and a minimal risk for the farmer. So for large numbers of farmers to use microdosing, they also need the finances to be able to buy the fertiliser – for example, by grouping together to buy inputs at a cheaper price. Farmers can also negotiate better prices for their grain by storing it in community grain banks to avoid having to sell their entire harvest at the same time.

Farmers then enter a positive cycle – with better fertilisation they get better harvests, and by organising themselves into a co-operative, they sell their grain for more profit, which they can then re-invest back into their farm and innovative methods to improve their productivity and incomes.


Businesses also get the opportunity to tap into smaller-scale markets, drawing in farmers who were not able to access fertilisers before at affordable prices. This kind of inclusive market development could be a real economic and social driver in poorly developed rural areas.

Small-scale farmers often lack information about how their products get from farm to plate, safety and quality standards, and seasonal demands of markets.

Access to information is of huge value to isolated farmers, such as goat rearers in Mozambique. By setting up goat sale pens at local markets to display their animals, farmers get better prices for their goats, invest more in their animals’ health and see a rapid return on investment compared to when they were selling them informally.

In Tanzania, small-scale sorghum producers have regrouped themselves as a co-operative, benefiting from training in agronomic practices, storage, managing inputs and marketing. They have been able to sign a contract farming deal with the World Food Program under the HOPE initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

NGOs also have a big role to play in connecting farming families to the market. For example, One Acre Fund has enabled 130,000 farmers to double their income thanks to a package of inputs, including mini packets of resistant seeds and fertiliser, microfinance, training and better access to markets.

New communications technologies could also revolutionise small-farm productivity. From the arid plains of Rajasthan to villages on the Ethiopian plateau, mobile phones are everywhere.

Reuters Market Light in India already has 13 million subscribers who have access to a personalised service including prices, farming advice and market trends, for over 300 crops. This has helped them make more informed decisions, and farmers have reported an increase of up to a quarter in their incomes.

There is still a lot that needs to be invented to help drive the farming revolution for millions of dryland farmers. But, with the right investment, this will happen.

William Dar is director general of ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. He is speaking at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture this week.