Archive for the ‘Natural Resource Management’ 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


Water for Bangol

In Ethiopia, International Development, Natural Resource Management on September 15, 2011 at 10:04 am

On August 31-Sept 1, I visited seven Kebeles (villages) throughout the Dolo Ado and Dolo Bay Woredas (counties).  These villages were assigned to us by the Woreda administration as highly vulnerable villages that were in urgent need of emergency water delivery.

Dolo Addo and Dolo Bay (pronounced like “bye”) are in the southern Somali state of Ethiopia, along the southern border region where Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia meet, and the people are all Somali. Most of the Somali refugees from the Somalia side of the border live in four different UNHCR administered refugee camps in and around Dolo Ado, which has become the base of operations for all international NGO’s serving refugees in southern Ethiopia.  Dolo Ado is therefore a bustling, booming town, with NGO workers buzzing around monitoring and catering to the refugees, and enterprising Somali businessmen selling everything from building materials, vehicle fuel, and bottled water to cell phone cards and espresso to the NGO’s.

While the refugees come to Ethiopia with their own heartbreaking stories of malnourishment and violence from al-Shabaab controlled Somalia, the surrounding host communities of southern Ethiopia are in the midst of a crippling drought.  The region has received barely any rains in two years.  The Somali people are pastoralists – they live off of their animals.  Somali families live in sedentary villages near usually consistent water sources, and the men and boys herd sheep, goats, and cattle around the region in search of grass and water.  The villages subsist on milk and purchase their food through selling various animal products such as milk, hides, and meat.  This lifestyle depends 100 percent on the rains – just 200-400 millimeters of rain per year can support hundreds of thousands of villagers, replenishing grasslands and the leaves on trees, filling up watering holes and maintaining the water table.

However, barely any rain has fallen in the region in two years.  Villagers have various coping mechanisms which include digging hand-dug wells and constructing “burkits” – which are basically like constructing an open-ended, cemented in-ground pool with a roof on it.  In the intense rainstorms that normally occur, water rushes into the burkits and can be safely stored for several months until the traditional water sources dry out.  Each village has a water committee comprised of select members of the community (including women) who help maintain equitable and fair water access for the community.  In the villages we visited, notably Bangol, the burkits had just dried out, within 48 hours of our visit.

Along the road to Bangol in the Dolo Bay Woreda, Somali State, Ethiopia, 9/1/2011, photo by Scott Webb


The Burkit in Bangol. 9/1/2011


IRD Ethiopia Emergency Relief Coordinator Abdulahi Muse listens to the villagers of Bangol explain their situation, 9/1/2011.

Bangol’s Burkit was drying up.

Villagers left their jerry cans next to the dried up burkit.

Thanks to the generous support from the Prem Rewat Foundation, Latter-Day Saint Charities, UNICEF, and other private donors, IRD was able to help the people of Bangol, and 15 other communities in the region.  On September 2, immediately after visiting the region, Abdulahi Muse and I negotiated a temporary water trucking contract with Egal Mohammed, a local water-trucking company.  Water was delivered to the target villages starting that very day, and by September 7, all villages, including Bangol, had been given 5,000 liter water tanks, hundreds of extra jerry cans, and daily deliveries of purified, clean water.

The short rainy season from October to December is approaching.  IRD will continue to deliver water until the rains come.  Should the rains fail to materialize, IRD will require further financial support to continue delivering water to our communities.  In the coming months, IRD will be proposing further emergency relief and disaster-risk reduction activities in the same region, including emergency animal feeding for livestock, as well as livelihoods support for irrigated agriculture along the nearby Ganale and Dawa rivers.

Dollo Ado Trip – Bringing Water to Dollo

In Environment, Ethiopia, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Sustainable Development on September 2, 2011 at 10:53 am

Note: these blog posts were originally posted on the IRD Voices blog: http://www.ird.org/voices/


Dolo Ado, Ethiopia

Arrived in Dollo Ado on a UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flight this morning. Nice plane, only about half full, almost all expats decked out in REI gear. First time I’ve landed on a dirt runway. It’s good to be out of Addis.

Dollo couldn’t be more different. Where Addis is cool, rainy, and verdant, Dollo is dry, dusty, and hot. The Addis airport is an international hub, the Dollo airport is really only for expat aid workers and their colleagues. When we arrived, there was an army of white land cruisers lined up, to pick up the people arriving and drop off those that took my plane back to Addis.

There is a windy, flowing river here, the Ganale. Some of our proposals have involved encouraging irrigated agriculture along this river, which flows year-round. The town seems to be set up on a kind of grid, all mashed together with whatever is around – cast off tents, old brush serving as compound walls. Lots of people walking around. From the plane I could see one of the camps for the Somali refugees that come here. Nearly 200,000 of them are spread out into 5 UNHCR managed camps. There are dozens of NGO’s here catering to them, studying them, observing them, serving them.

I’m here to help start-up our water trucking project. It’s a daunting task, we’re starting from nearly nothing. We’ve got a collaborative partnership with a local NGO, and Save the Children is letting us crash at their compound (where I’m typing this.) This compound is sprawling – low-slung cement buildings with corrugated roofs, when there’s power the TV is turned on and there is a wifi hotspot, although unconnected a lot of the time.

Hopefully by Friday when we leave, we’ll have more figured out – such as the exact villages we’re going to work in, who will work for us, etc… How we’re going to do it, really. Just the basics.

Tuesday, 30 August, 2011

6:45 am

We felt like we were imposing on Save the Children, so my colleague Abdulahi, a Somali (they don’t like to be called Somali-Ethiopians) got us some space at the government guest house about 100 meters away. This is like old-time Peace Corps hostel bush living again. Foam mattress on the floor, pit latrines, bucket bathing.

I got to walk around town a lot yesterday. I get the feeling that expats don’t stroll around Dollo Ado much. They have the good old stare-at-the-foreign-guy thing going here. I had to pull out my decade-old coping mechanisms. Abdulahi assures me that this is a safe place. I just try to smile and be friendly.

Went into a local restaurant yesterday and they greeted Abdulahi like he was a returning hero – he’s spent a lot of time here in former jobs. They seated us in the back away from staring eyes. The food was three separate plates of rice, meat, and sliced veggies (onions, bell peppers, tomatoes). They included lime, which Abdulahi slathered around – I followed his lead, feeling like it would disinfect. Not bad, especially if you’re hungry.

The best was afterwards, I noticed there was an espresso machine near the door, an old, beat-up La Pavoni push-lever one, which is a good idea if you don’t have reliable electricity. The barista very happily made me an espresso, which tasted well enough for the only game in town, and especially for 5 Birr (about 30 cents US).

Tuesday, when we got here, was Eid – the day after the end of Ramadan, a national holiday in Ethiopia. So there wasn’t much we could do – government offices were closed. So we ended up hanging out at the guest house all afternoon and Abdulahi napped. He was wearing a wrap, a leg-length cylinder of fabric that he would tuck around his waste, he’d use it to shield himself for privacy when getting dressed. We later got one for me in town, it ended up being great for sleeping.

Today we will rent a car with a driver, and drive out to some of the villages we’re going to deliver water too. I’m excited to get out to the real field.

Thursday, Sept 1, 2011

Yesterday was the bush trip I’ve been wanting to make since I completed my Peace Corps service and left Niger over 10 years ago. Loaded up in a 4×4 with funky music, rolling way out on donkey cart paths to remote places where they could use a hand.

We visited 4 villages (or, kebeles, as they’re officially called here) in the Dolo Ado woreda. They all need water. Desperately. There wasn’t much point in talking about anything else – it’s the reason we were visiting them, we didn’t have a lot of time, and I’m not about to make perfect the enemy of the good.

Our route took us west along the Ethiopia-Kenya border, at one point my colleague pointed out a spot where all three countries meet – Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia – the Horn of Africa countries (minus Eritrea and Djibouti). Most of the Kenya/Ethiopia border that we followed was a river, and it seemed to be the only real source of green for many, many miles.

This place hasn’t had any real rains in over 2 years. The trees are almost all dormant or dead. The villages look abandoned. We formally visited 4 different villages – three that desperately need water, and one that will likely supply the others from their bountiful well. In one village, they showed us their water source – a large area that looks like it could be lush in better days, supporting several animal watering stations and four round cement wells. When we looked into their well, the water was barely there, you had to literally scratch the surface for more water. There’s just a profound feeling of dread that you must feel when you see something so essential, barely out of your grasp, slipping away.

I told them we’d do the best we can.

6:15 pm

We spent the day in the Dolo Bay woreda. I thought the Dolo Ado woreda was a dry place, but Dolo Bay (pronounced like “bye”) is more parched and desiccated. We visited a village where their water literally ran out 2 days ago. In fact, they thought we might be coming to them with water – which is exactly what the Dolo Ado government rep had told us the day before – that these people don’t need any more visits, they need help. NOW. The area has hardly had any rains for 2 years now.

In these villages, a common way to save water and prepare for drought is to build “burkitts”. These are basically covered rainwater catchments – you build where a lot of water will run in a storm, dig a deep, cemented in area, cover it up with a good roof to prevent evaporation, and lock it up until your regular water source runs out. In one village we visited, their burkit had a little bit of water. In the other, it was dry – a wet spot drying where they drew their last drops only 48 hours before.

It’s just so damned frustrating – IRD, my NGO, needs the money to help these people as soon as possible – we will be helping them within the next week, but no faster than that, unfortunately. All we can say is that help is coming, but many of them may just leave their villages for water before then. In the village where their water had run out, their other nearest water source was at least 20 kilometers away – they would have to send a kid on a donkey cart to bring back enough to make any difference.

These villages look like they’d be functioning well in any other time – they have schools with latrines, some of them look like they had shops at one point. Water really is life. No water, no life.

Tomorrow we fly back to Addis, then on Tuesday I leave for home. Sunday is my daughter’s 5th birthday. I haven’t had internet here in Dolo, I haven’t checked my email since early Tuesday morning. I was able to leave a short voicemail on my home phone so my wife knows I’m OK, but that was on Tuesday evening. Hopefully the Save the Children compound will let me hook in to their wifi later. I need to let them know I’m OK.

Friday 2 Sept, 2011

My Somali colleague and new hero Abdulahi was a beast this morning, he was so motivated to get things going. Within the space of 3 hours, we made a contract with the water trucking company, hired a temporary staffperson from the target region to facilitate and monitor water delivery, went to the local Woreda administration to get their full buy-in and personally meet the water-trucking company owner, and closed a few other loops (various inputs and driver/vehicle fees), all before racing to the UNHAS flight back to Addis.

This morning when we woke up, 5 different villages in the Dolo Ado woreda were completely out of water. By this afternoon, they will have water. It has been a good trip. IRD can hold it’s head high that we did the right thing, acting in an emergency to save lives and rebuild livelihoods. I’ll post pictures as soon as I can.

(and here are the pictures!)

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.

Design for the Poor

In Appropriate Technology, International Development, Natural Resource Management, Sustainable Development on May 30, 2007 at 3:27 am

This speaks for itself – a NYT article on innovative design for the poor.

The one thing that I saw as totally brilliant is the rolling water jug. Of course – that will just free up more room on the person’s heads. Now village women in Africa (the intended beneficiaries) will be pulling water behind them, probably in trains of 3-5 jugs per woman, with 60 lbs of stuff on their heads, and a baby on their backs. It’s the productivity/technology curse, right? The more we invent to make our lives easier, the more time we have to get more work done…

Niger is greening?

In International Development, Natural Resource Management, Niger on February 10, 2007 at 8:04 pm

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted something, you know how the holidays can get, plus having two young kids and being a full-time student and part-time employed…you can clearly see where I find the time…

Just reading this article in the New York Times about trees in Niger. Apparently, Niger has more trees than 30 years ago, based on a detailed analysis of satellite imagery. If this is indeed true, this is really, really good news.

It’s been six years since I left Niger, and I was only there for just over 3 years. So, the Niger I know is more of a snapshot; However in the vegetation category I wouldn’t say they were doing so well. But, everything mentioned in this article, especially regarding the Gao tree, was very accurate. We were trained to help encourage this kind of natural resource management – trees are to be cultivated, not cleared.

The other good (or bad, depending on your P.O.V.) thing about this article was that there was no mention of invasive or non-native trees there, especially the Neem and Eucalyptus trees. Eucalyptus trees are cool because they grow really fast and you can use them to sustainably meet your fencepost or roofing needs, but they have a tendency to suck a lot more water than other native trees. In fact, when I visited South Africa in ’99 they were telling us that SA was going to cut down all their apartheid-era eucalyptus forests to replace them with native species, for this very reason – there were so many eucalyptus trees planted that they were having a depreciative effect on SA’s water table. They are therefore not really sustainable for widespread use across Niger – maybe only near the river or the couple of permanent lakes/tributaries.

The neem tree is an awesome tree too, don’t get me wrong, it has tons of uses and grows really, really well in Niger, but it’s not native. The Gao and Baobab trees are – and farmers using these well-known native trees is very sustainable. Here’s an interesting Niger UNFAO Agroforestry project report that was probably background for the NYT article.

Mature, old Baobab and Gao trees are extremely beautiful trees, too (try doing a Google image search for them). They’re the kind of tree that gets etched into your mind; when you picture Niger you see these trees silhouetted against the sandy, orange sunset-lit sky with a Fulani kid herding a million dusty cattle across the fields. Just like the picture above.