(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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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