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Archive for the ‘Economic Development’ Category

Nigerien Agriculture – from my experience

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development on March 14, 2014 at 8:04 pm

(For the record – in English – someone from Niger is a Nigerien, someone from Nigeria is a Nigerian.) 

An acquaintance asked me to describe my experience with smallholder farmers in Africa, this is what I ended up writing for her.

My most intimate experience was as a Peace Corps volunteer living in a rural Nigerien village.  Farmers would generally have “ownership” or at least control over 1-3 hectares of land where, if the rains were perfect, they’d grow enough millet and sorghum for most of the year.  Land was not “owned” in our northern sense though, it was apportioned by the village chief or county chief (Chef du Canton).  Farmers could not take out loans against their land titles, there are no titles per se.  So, if a farmer wants to improve his yield – the options are (and all include money):

  1. To work WAY harder: rehabilitating degraded soil which you need tools or to employ manual laborers for, in which case they need the funds for these tools or laborers, which they almost never have.  Animal traction is difficult because of the soil but it depends on the geography.
  2. To purchase fertilizer/improved seeds: all the various scientific studies about Niger (google ICRISAT) and farming millet show that the only way to improve yields is to use fertilizer or invest in improved higher/faster yielding seeds.  For this you need money, but it also entails significant risk because this is an entirely rain-fed exercise; if you invest in fertilizer or improved seeds and the rains are inconsistent or otherwise deficient, you lose your investment.
  3. Irrigate: This is almost a non-starter as it’s so expensive or the field has to be in a perfect location close to a water source.  Definitely possible for some farmers that I knew along rivers or seasonal lakes, some of them invested in pumps and would irrigate their fields, planting more water-intensive crops such as maize.

The other issue is the whole market situation – most of the farmers I knew were straight-up subsistence farmers.  They were almost never selling their harvest unless it was a dire situation or something unusual like a wedding.  They otherwise needed the food to survive, and barely survive.

I found that in general my villagers were experts at managing their risks, they knew the bare minimum they had to do to avoid a huge loss but to keep their family alive.  In rough years like in 2005 and I think 2009/10 (I can’t remember the last really bad year) they lose/deplete their coping mechanisms, which are basically selling assets like their cattle/sheep/goats, sending family members away to earn money (sometimes young children), or migrating to urban areas as a last resort. These really bad years used to be far enough apart that people could recover, but now they’re closer together, leaving people vulnerable.  Also, population growth, even with intense family planning interventions from the government and NGO’s, is very high (something like average 7 living kids per Nigerien mother) so any improvements are negated by population growth; there’s not enough to go around.

In some cases the environment has degraded slowly enough that villagers still maintain their mental model of their home villages being a place where Allah should allow them to farm – but the land has become so degraded and dry over time, through deforestation and erosion – that harvesting a survivable crop is all but impossible.  These people make up the majority of those accepting WFP food distributions and literally living off of aid.  There are ways to rehabilitate the land; there’s a thing called “Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration” that has had great success using indigenous trees and grasses but it takes years to show an effect.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now

IRD in Niger

In Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps, Philanthropy, Sustainable Development on October 7, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Note:  This post is also cross posted on the Official IRD Voices blog.

I love working for IRD because they sent me to Niger.  Most people wouldn’t make a statement like this, because by all statistical measures, Niger is one of the worst places on earth.  It’s the poorest country in the world on the UN Human Development Index, 182 out of 182.  Fifteen percent of children die of largely preventable diseases before reaching the age of 5.  Most people live on less than one US dollar per day.  Niger is currently emerging from an epic famine that most development experts consider being one of the worst in recorded memory – with up to twenty percent of the population considered to be severely malnourished, according to FEWS-NET.

I’m happy I went to Niger for two reasons – first, because I get to work for an organization that helps Nigeriens, among the most perennially and consistently vulnerable people on earth, and second, because I lived in Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1997-2001.  I had not visited since then, and this was the kind of homecoming I had always hoped for.  With the statistics that I highlighted above, I never wanted to come back to Niger as a tourist.

IRD has been operating in Niger since 2005, working under two consecutive US Department of Agriculture Food for Progress Title II grants, as well as grants from the UN’s World Food Program and UNICEF.  In total, IRD has monetized over 9,100 Metric tons of commodities, funding almost $ 4 Million in projects benefitting 170,000 people.  These proceeds funded our Pastoralist Livelihoods Project, which reconstituted goat herds decimated by drought and flash floods, provided cash for work on pastoral rehabilitations, and supported the creation of cereal and feed banks for women’s groups, all in the Abalak region of the Tahoua Department.

My colleague Mamadou Sidibe, a Senior Monitoring and Evaluation specialist here, was able to visit the sites in the northern regions of Niger, and IRD’s work indeed did make the desert bloom.  The simple act of paying local men to dig long trenches against the slope of a barren desert, has yielded hectare after hectare of arable grasslands, where the semi-nomadic Tuareg and Fulani herders can graze their livestock.  This has the benefit of both increasing disposable income to spend on food, and of decreasing the chances of conflict – wherein the herders encroach on farmlands in search of fodder.

Because of the current food security crisis, IRD Niger is also distributing almost 6,000 Metric Tons of food, including Corn-Soy Blend, Sugar, Beans, and Oil, on behalf of the World Food Program.  These Blanket Feedings, Protection Rations, and Free Food Distributions have been in the regions of Magaria and Tillaberry, and have benefitted 67,000 children and over 1,100 pregnant and lactating women.

IRD will soon be starting up a more long-term development project to compliment our emergency relief and stabilization activities – the World Bank funded PRODEX project, focusing on developing the Onion Value Chain.  This project will last for 4 years and help develop Niger’s competitive advantage in growing the highly regarded “Galmi Red” onion.

My visit to Niger was, to me, a working vacation.  I not only got to see old friends and refresh my local language skills, but I was able to combine my personal goals of helping Nigeriens with those of IRD – to help the most vulnerable people help themselves.

See pictures on the IRD Flickr Feed here.

The Field

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Career Development, Economic Development, International Development, Microcredit, Niger, Organizational Development, Peace Corps on September 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm

I’ve been in Niger now since Sunday afternoon.  I built sufficient buzz amongst my little zeitgeist that people are asking me, “what’s it like to be back?”  That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked.

It’s awesome, really.  It’s good to be here, slowly getting into being here, getting to know the field office I’m supporting from HQ.  I kind of wish I knew more people here so I could hang out a little bit more, get out to the Grand Marche, etc.  I’ve got a whole list of things I want to buy while I’m here…  I’ve actually been working a lot.

The sounds are still there – the fast Hausa or Zarma, the revving motos, occasional prayer calls or African music.  Chaotic traffic.  Dust.  Some heat, although not nearly as bad as it could be, and to be honest, after a DC summer I’m loving the “dry heat.”

Because of the AQIM kidnapping 7 people, including 5 French, 1 Togolese and 1 Malagasy, France sent what seems like a garrison of soldiers here, and a handful of them were staying at my hotel.  I don’t want to get beat up by any French soldier that I could offend, but man if they don’t look silly in their short shorts.  They’re all decked out but with these 1980, daisy-duke camo shorts.  They almost look like they’ll break into a boy-band dance at any time.  But I digress…

The Niger River is really high, almost to touching the bottom of the bridge.  So I feel awful for the farmers and fisherman’s families whose campements next to the river have been washed away.

I’ve had Tele Sahel on for about an hour now while I’ve been online, and I’ve actually been very pleasantly surprised by all the industry that seems to have developed in Niger.  When I was here before, I remember the milk company and maybe the pagne company.  Now they’ve got lots of nice looking, Nigerien businesses advertised on TV (bottled water, various grocery stores, long-haul passenger bus systems, pesticides, hadj tour companies) which means they’re successful enough to pay for advertising, which is saying something here.

The other cool thing about Nigerien TV is they seem to broadcast a lot in Hausa and Zarma, in addition to French – in fact, most of the commercials are in either Hausa or Zarma.

As for the politics – all indications in my purview make it seem like the current military government is interested in helping regular Nigeriens.  My NGO colleagues say that the last Tandja regime was very anti-NGO and restrictive of many kinds of project, especially food-for-work.

A representative from Zain Mobile communications came and gave us an interesting presentation on using mobile phones to make cash transfers to rural beneficiaries.   We like this a lot and hope to integrate this – there are so many development advantages to this that it’s worth helping Zain enrich themselves and increase their customer base.  It promotes literacy and numeracy, the phones can be used for long term monitoring and evaluation, it does all the other proven things that cell phones have been linked to – such as what I’ve mentioned and other things like flattening commodity price fluctuations.

So, I’ll be more on my own with the local staff the rest of my time here, my M&E colleague Mamadou is heading up north for an assessment for the next 6 days.  Hopefully I can get some stuff done and leave the program in better shape than I’m finding it, which is not all that bad.

Alheri.

Literacy Tipping Point

In Appropriate Technology, Capacity Building, Economic Development, International Development, Niger, Peace Corps, Sustainable Development, Technology on September 15, 2010 at 10:51 am

Just read this interesting article on a Literacy Project in Niger.

It’s a CRS project using cell phones in literacy projects. As it turns out, if you give illiterate people cell phones and include literacy classes, they will retain their knowledge and use their literacy skills to send text messages. This is brilliant and I consider this a tipping point: where literacy is increased, living standards will go up.

I worked on a village based literacy program in the Torodi area of Niger in the late 90’s, and one major thing that kept people from retaining their literacy skills was that there was nothing to read in Fulfulde or Zarma. If you give them something to write and read, they’ll use their skills. Otherwise literacy isn’t of much use to them in their daily lives.

Cash on Delivery Foreign Aid

In Capacity Building, Economic Development, International Development, Sustainable Development on July 14, 2010 at 1:52 pm

This is intriguing.  I used to read William Easterly’s papers in grad school.  As I’ve been reading up more on development lately I’ve come across his missives from his aidwatch blog.

In any case, there’s a debate about a resurgent approach called Cash on Delivery.  Read the article on it just now.   It’s an interesting approach.  Basically, you help the recipient country develop the goals, and you promise to basically reimburse the country when they’ve achieved the goals.

My initial thoughts are that this could only work if the policy environment is altered to make it easier to achieve the results.  For instance, if your objective is to increase overall crop yields in a country, it would be helpful to make the inputs more affordable to the producers.  Then, once the commodity has been grown/produced, it would then be helpful to make it easier to export said commodity.  They also raise some valid points in the article about the capacity of the host country to perform the work in the first place.

This is basically like cash-for-work on a much, much larger scale.

End the poverty cycle

In Appropriate Technology, Economic Development, Governance, International Development, Niger, Sustainable Development, Technology on July 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I’ve been recently reminded of the overwhelming factors working against those in the super-poor parts of the world that I work on helping every day.   The UN’s IRIN news service published this helpful article on “Preventing the Sahel’s next food crisis,” which is already in full swing.

In the international development field, as in many others, we all have our specialties.  This may be more of a function of how competitive it is to work in this field – that many people hyper-specialize to make themselves marketable and to stay employed.  This inevitably leads to tunnel vision, where we feel like what we’re focusing on is integral to the larger objective – which in our case is reducing poverty.

With that in mind – this list of how to prevent the food security crisis currently manifesting itself in the Sahel has both macro and micro level suggestions.  (Sahel – to those unfamiliar – means roughly the region of West and Central Africa between the Sahara Desert and the densely forested equator region, it stretches from Senegal to Sudan)

I’m in a spot professionally where the programs I help support are short term interventions that basically keep people alive and at worst maintain the prior status quo.  (would I then say status quo ante?)  We can do these interventions successfully and meet all our goals.  But what frustrates me is that in Niger and Chad (the two countries that now occupy my time) are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Yes, there are nifty administrative ways we can get food aid shipped to these places quickly – we can all communicate better, have more eyes on the ground, use social media to attract attention and allocate resources more efficiently… but when does it stop?

I want to see the system change.   Nigeriens and Chadiens need a better deal.  We need a massive reallocation of policies and resources to help bring up the poorest of the poor.  And the more I work in the development field, the more I’m convinced that it has to come from the private sector.

I don’t have time right now to really delve into this – many have earned doctorates in more specialized aspects of this problem… But, landing my plane here… I think the best way forward is to see the poorest of the poor as regular, hardworking people who will work their tails off for the chance to help their families.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Lets give them the chance to help themselves.  Lets invest in the poor.

Calling on Kenya

In Economic Development, International Development, Sustainable Development on April 4, 2007 at 3:49 pm

I’m marginally a fan of Tom Friedman’s – he’s got good ideas, even if he skimps on the hard data – but you can’t expect a journalist to be an academic. If you have a NYT subscription – I recommend reading this article:
The African Connection – New York Times

The call centers that have been most associated with India of late are now working in Kenya. It was only a matter of time before this kind of business was set up in English-speaking Africa. What I like about this development is not just the reasons that Friedman highlites – internet infrastructure, reverse brain-drain, etc. – but also the fact that now there will be direct connections between Kenyans and Americans. This will, over time, allow all the Kenyan employees of the call center to see the things that Americans take for granted, especially rule following, organization, orderliness.

What I mean is that no matter how many modern things you see in Africa, there is often still something missing. When I lived in Niger – there was often the mistaken assumption that if you build something that looks nice and modern, that it is as such. But it’s the way things function, not how they look, that matter. I hope I’m making sense.

These Kenyan call center employees can hopefully act as messengers and catalysts for a wider Kenyan transformation – from middlingly poor to truly up-and-coming, with better governance and institutions being the difference.