Boosting agricultural productivity in the Sahel region is crucial to reduce chronic food insecurity, improve families' nutrition, promote economic growth and help build people's resilience, say experts, but governments still under-fund the sector, as do international donors who favour short-term fixes.
While there has been a renewed interest in investing in agriculture over the past five years, partly spurred by a drive towards more self-sufficiency given rising food prices (which spiked in 2008 and remained high), the sector is still under-served.
In 2009 the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) renewed the 2003 Maputo pledge to commit at least 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture. But as the accord approaches its 10-year anniversary later this month, only 10 of the 54 African Union countries have met this goal.
While growth in small-scale agriculture can benefit the poor twice as much as growth in other sectors, global development aid for agriculture declined by 77 percent between 1983 and 2006, according to a report by NGO Oxfam.
In Senegal, for example, where agriculture accounts for nearly 14 percent of the country's GDP and employs more than two-thirds of the labour force, NGO ActionAid says the government invested just 4.7 percent of its budget on agriculture in 2012.
Consciousness did rise, however, in 2008, when food prices spiked and West African governments realized they were overly dependent on imported staple grains.
"Many countries realized that being too dependent on the international market was not sustainable, and from that moment on, said 'OK, if we want to be able to feed ourselves and if we want to improve the food security of our populations, we need to have a minimum level of food sovereignty. And to do this, we need to invest more in agriculture'," said Eric Hazard, campaign manager for Oxfam's GROW campaign. Since then "agriculture has been back on the agenda in the region."
But in those countries that have achieved the 10 percent goal, such as Burkina Faso and Niger, Hazard said the quality of the investment remains an issue.
"When you secure, say, 17 percent of your budget for agriculture, but only spend 65-70 percent of that on farmers, and the rest goes to expenditures of the Ministry, such as meetings, salaries, 4x4s, etc., you haven't really hit that 10 percent mark," he told IRIN.
Benefiting the poor
Investment in smallholder farmers is especially important, as not only do they contribute to an estimated 80 percent of the continent's food production, but they are also among the region's most vulnerable and food insecure people.
"In most countries in West Africa, the majority of the population lives in rural areas, where agriculture is the main provider of food and income," said NGO Catholic Relief Services' (CRS) regional technical adviser for agriculture Mireille Totobesola Barbier. "But production assets and financial access constraints, limited knowledge of improved production techniques and marketing skills, all impede growth [in the sector]," she said.
In the Sahel, repeat drought also impedes projects to boost production. It can take 3-4 years to recover from a crisis like the 2012 drought, and only if those years are good, said Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) regional head Patrick David. "There has been a gradual erosion of farmers' livelihoods in the Sahel - more and more farmers are moving to cities," he said.
When a harvest fails, small farmers will sell the few animals they have; pull their children from school; become further indebted; exhaust their food and seed stocks; become more food insecure; and will be all the weaker in the face of the next crisis. This is the cycle of impoverishment in the Sahel, said David.
Burden on aid agencies
The lack of or poorly directed government funding has put increased pressure on aid agencies to secure donor funding, which is a struggle.
"Donors are often more keen to give money toward emergency or crisis situations [as opposed to long-term development projects], where you might not see the impact of the investment right away," said the World Food Programme's West Africa focal point for its Purchase for Progress scheme, Isabelle Mballa.
FAO for example, called for US$122 million to aid agriculture in the 2012 Sahel food security crisis, but only 48 percent of the requested funds were received. Activities that suffered included seed distribution, soil and water conservation projects, vaccinating animals, sending fodder to animals, and other schemes.
This year, agriculture has received just 23 percent of the agricultural funds it has called for, for the Sahel.
This underfunding has especially affected smallholder farmers, who often cannot afford basic inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, and cannot access credit. Not only does their overall agricultural productivity suffer, but a lack of investment puts them at an increased risk of vulnerability during times of crisis and increases their dependence on external food aid.
FAO has three main areas of emergency response in the Sahel: supporting families to plant market gardens in the dry season; supporting rain-fed planting during the July-September rainy season; and helping families practice planting when water recedes from flood plains from August to December.
This year's poor funding response means "it's too late to do any more for this year's rain-fed harvest," said David. As Robert Piper, humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, put it, "The window is closed."
What smallholder farmers need
Todd Crosby, the assistant director for YaaJeende, USAID's Feed the Future's Senegal programme, told IRIN: "The idea [behind investing in smallholder farmers] is to give them everything they need in order to succeed. It's to provide them with things like seeds, fertilizer, tools, and crop and livestock insurance. Teach them better land preparation and irrigation techniques, if they need. Help them get their product to the market."
By doing so, farmers can not only produce more, high-quality crops - which will increase their incomes - but can also help reduce the rates of undernutrition and malnutrition in the country.
Research from Feed the Future, which works with 12 African countries to reduce poverty and undernutrition through investing in agriculture, says it was able to increase the value of food exports by $84 million in 2012 by focusing on smallholder folders. This has meant that more than seven million smallholder farmers in the region saw increased profits last year.
CRS's Development Assistant Programme in Burkina Faso helped increase the crop yields of millet and sorghum by an average of 30 percent between 2004 and 2010, simply by teaching smallholder farmers how to better manage water, preserve good seeds for replanting, and other activities.
Despite these and other successes, donors shy away from funding smallholder farmers, favouring emergency aid or larger-scale agribusiness.
"These small farmers, they are seen as not being competitive with large-scale producers, because they don't have the tools, the technology, the resources or the means," said WFP's Mballa. Many believe smallholders cannot produce quality products in sufficient quantities. "But if they [smallholder farmers] are just given a little help, they too can be successful. Being a small-scale farmer does not mean you can't be productive and that you cannot earn money."
USAID's Crosby said there now needs to be shift towards mechanized agriculture, as well as agricultural credit for smallholder farmers. "Smallholder farmers often lack tractors and other machinery in the field, and there's only so much you can do with a hand hoe. But in order to get those tools, you need to have access to credit." He told IRIN.
While there are currently a variety of microfinance schemes that offer farmers' agricultural credit, Oxfam's Hazard said most have loan rates of 14-30 percent, which makes it nearly impossible for small farmers to earn enough money to pay back the principal plus interest within the six-month lending period, and still earn a profit.
Many of these microfinance schemes also tend to target larger-scale, urban producers.
"It's a lot harder to work with small, rural farmers because they're much more dispersed and also riskier, than a few big companies or producers," Crosby said. "Their [smallholder farmers'] livelihoods - and the ability to pay back the loan - often depend on weather and other factors outside their control."
Crop and livestock insurance is one answer - it could help reduce some of the production risks, and make farmers more adaptable and resilient to climate change. The question is: where are the investors to make this work?