Sahel region faces task of increasing crop yields to meet population boom

Farming in the Sahel, 2012. [CGIAR/Flickr] [CGIAR/Flickr]

This article is part of our special report Putting agriculture at the heart of Africa’s rising.

With their populations set to double by 2050, the Sahel countries – Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina-Faso and Chad – have to develop their agricultural productivity to feed their populations. EURACTIV France reports.

Alain Billand is the chief policy officer of the Environment and Societies Department at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).

What is the situation with regard to agricultural production in the Sahel countries?

The Sahel is a transition zone between the Sahara and humid areas, such as the Ivory Coast. In this zone, the soil is poor and the temperatures are extreme, both in terms of heat and in terms of precipitation. Agriculture in the Sahel is therefore highly constrained and the windows for sowing seeds are very narrow, sometimes only a few days. This is a region where agriculture is not in an optimal situation. In order to deal with these conditions, local people have developed appropriate agricultural strategies. The term “resilience” is very strong in this region.

In addition to these natural factors, socio-economic factors also constrain Sahelian agriculture. The Sahel countries are among the poorest countries in the world, according to the human development index.

In this region, there are many challenges for farmers.

The Sahelian populations are, for example, very poorly equipped to deal with climate change. The planet is getting warmer on a global scale. In the Sahel, there could be an increase in temperatures in the warmest areas. These remain projections, as it’s a difficult region to predict because there is little data available. When it comes to rain, there is the risk there will be further concentration of the rainy season. So, systems will have to be found to collect water.

Moreover, Africa has around 1.3 billion inhabitants and should see its population double within 20-30 years. According to projections for 2100 – in other words, in three generations – the African continent will have around 5 billion inhabitants.

This demography will have consequences, particularly in the Sahel, where the demographic transition hasn’t really started yet. For instance, in Niger, the birth rate is reaching 7.6 children per woman. The country has one of the highest fertility rates in the world and is placed second-to-last on the UN’s human development index. So, we’ll have to educate, find jobs for, and also feed this population.

Is the food supply in the Sahel sufficient to respond to the population growth?

While the demography in the Sahel has increased, so has the quantity of food. In the Sahel, the agricultural production curve has increased in a roughly similar way to the increase in population. There isn’t a chronic deficit of food in the Sahel but there can be seasonal deficits, caused by climate or accessibility problems. Currently, the main obstacle to the food supply is not the lack of agricultural production, but a lack of accessibility and of funds. For a large proportion of the population, food remains too expensive. As for accessibility, the most glaring lack of food is being felt, for example, in the areas occupied by Boko Haram.

So, there isn’t a productivity problem in the Sahel?

The Sahel has increased its agricultural production because of the increase in arable land. By cutting back on the savannah and the land around villages, the Sahelians have extended agricultural areas and increased production. But, now the availability of arable land is beginning to become a problem because all of the good land has already been cultivated and the arable land isn’t infinite to feed the Sahel, so the crop yields will have to be increased. However, the Sahel does not have the money of Saudi Arabia to grow intensive crops in the desert.

Currently, people aren’t dying of hunger in the Sahel. But the issue of malnutrition remains very problematic, particularly among children.

How can the Sahel increase its agricultural productivity?

Europe could easily double its wheat production and send it to Africa but that’s not the solution. The Sahel needs to develop its agricultural productivity.

The seeds used are a major issue. A large part of the seeds are of rural origin, such as millet and sorghum. This is very advantageous because these seeds are free. They have also been selected over generations and are therefore highly adapted to the soil. However, they are not very highly productive.

Moreover, crops have to be promoted which can be fairly profitable, such as market gardening. Currently, there are crops which aren’t very healthy, particularly in urban areas, where the crops are grown near stagnant water or in highly polluted soil. In order to have a balanced food supply, we need to develop local agriculture, especially in cities, where the African population is increasingly concentrated.

Young rural Sahelians no longer want to stay in villages. So, they move to cities and often become destitute because there hasn’t been the development of industrial or tertiary sector employment as has happened in Europe or Asia. Relocating to cities is therefore often synonymous with poverty. So, we need to come up with something else, particularly in regional urban centres, which may provide access to some services which don’t exist in villages, such as food processing, while also maintaining agricultural employment.

How can the Sahel develop its agricultural productivity while avoiding the pitfalls of intensive farming, which Europe is struggling to get out of?

You can’t really apply the Northern models to the Sahel, with the extensive use of chemicals. However, we are staring from an almost blank state of affairs because almost no fertilisers have been used in the Sahel. Rather than multiplying the use of chemicals tenfold, it is important to immediately develop agro-ecology, particularly by using digital tools. But you can’t completely reject chemicals either. These may allow yields to be increased in order to deal with the demographic change.

How can CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) and the Ouagadougou Declaration support this agricultural transition in the Sahel?

CIRAD and the national institutions of agricultural research in the Sahel countries adopted the Ouagadougou Declaration. This declaration had the intention of supporting the agricultural objectives of the Sahel Alliance, which aims to coordinate development solutions for the region. The Ouagadougou Declaration has eight priorities for agricultural development in the Sahel and stipulates that the signatory institutions pool their knowledge to accelerate the search for solutions.

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