Ways out of Hunger

Expedition: Sahel
Project: NutriGreen

Can the moringa tree or the baobab tree alleviate hunger and poverty in the Sahel zone? This is topic scientist Silke Stöber is investigating with a research team and local people in the "NutriGreen" project.

Life is hard and laborious for small farmers in Burkina Faso. The barren soil is tilled by hand, and there is hardly any agricultural machinery. Those who are lucky have a donkey they can harness to the plow. The fields are only a few hectares in size and can only be cultivated during the rainy season, which begins in May and ends in October. In November, millet, sorghum and corn are harvested - these are the staple foods of the population and at the same time goods for trade.

Researcher Silke Stöber in Burkina Faso, with seeds of the Parkia globosa tree. Among other things, they are used to produce the vitamin- and protein-rich spice soumbala.

The agricultural economist Silke Stöber from the Seminar for Rural Development (Seminar für Ländliche Entwicklung, SLE) has just returned from a two-week visit to the central plateau in the middle of the country, north of the capital Ouagadougou. Now, in September, the trees in the region are still green, and the millet and corn in the fields are standing tall. Soon the harvest will begin. But this time of year is particularly hard for the people here: "This is usually the hunger season," explains Silke Stöber. "Because the stores are empty and the next harvest is not yet ripe."

Poverty is Particularly Prevalent in Rural Areas

Like the people from rural areas in Burkina Faso, millions of small farmers worldwide are affected. "It is precisely the food producers who are at the same time mainly affected by hunger," explains Silke Stöber. "Poverty and hunger are a predominantly rural problem." Climate change and population growth exacerbate the hardships. In the EU-funded research project "NutriGreen", the agricultural economist, together with researchers from Burkina Faso, Germany, Senegal and Sweden, is investigating how local smallholder women farmers can improve their income through new healthy products. The goal of the project is to alleviate hunger and poverty in the model regions of the Sahel via innovative products made from indigenous nutrient-dense fruits and leaves. The researchers are focusing on traditional food crops, which are often neglected by researchers and politicians.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

Products from traditional crops: The spice soumbala and dried moringa leaves. Photo: Silke Stöber

The moringa tree is such a plant. It is native and copes well with the dry conditions and poor soil in the Sahel. The feathery leaves can be used fresh or dried. "A little bitter, but deliciously hot and spicy," Silke Stöber describes the taste of the plant. "You won't get full from it, but together with staples like millet or corn, you have a very vitamin-rich, nutritious meal that contains all the important micronutrients." Food fortified with moringa could counteract widespread malnutrition. People are particularly deficient in vitamin A and iron. Moringa contains both in abundance. In addition, the fresh or dried leaves can be sold on the market, providing a source of income for small farming families.

The dried leaves of the baobab tree are also traditionally used and sold here at the market. Photo: Silke Stöber

And there is another point in favor of giving leafy vegetables more space than before: women in particular take care of the crops, because cultivation, harvesting and processing do not require as much physical strength as working in corn or millet fields. For the women who do not have land rights, the traditional crops offer opportunities for additional income and more independence.

New Sources Of Income With Hibiscus Or Baobab

There are already cooperatives in Burkina Faso that are promoting the cultivation of moringa. On her trip, Silke Stöber visited a smallholder cooperative and its gardens and was amazed: "The young trees stand close together in a fenced garden and are harvested for three years by the members of the cooperative. This provides a small income for the women. But the best part is the after-use: after three years, the leaf yield wears off, so they are planted in the dry Sahel, where they contribute to the greening of the Sahel." Cultivating moringa with this system could counter not only hunger, but also advancing desertification. On a small scale, the method has been established and worked well so far - and could become a model for expanded cultivation of the tree.

A typical field in Burkina Faso: Sesame is grown here, and the furrow system channels water to the plants very efficiently. Photo: Silke Stöber

Over the next three years, Silke Stöber will be part of the research team helping local people to boost moringa production and find new ways of processing and marketing it. The smallholders also want to cultivate and market more baobab, hibiscus and cassia - also traditional crops and food plants - in the future. Together with the researchers, they are developing new products and business models - such as a vitamin-rich juice made from hibiscus flowers - in order to find new income opportunities. Starting next year, there will be climate field schools once a week, in which everyone will evaluate together what is happening in the fields. How much yield are the trees giving? Are there problems with diseases or insects? How do you optimize the drying of the leaves?

Research Together With The People

Another new aspect is that the farmers are to collect their own weather data. Silke Stöber calls it "agrometeorological learning". Maximum and minimum temperatures and the amount of precipitation are measured every day. "There are more and more heat days with over 35 degrees Celsius," the agricultural economist describes. "The need for irrigation is increasing." By keeping a close eye on the weather, smallholder farmers can respond more quickly and specifically to such situations and better manage their land to increase yields. After two years, the measured values will be evaluated in detail and compared with historical data. The participating farmers from the project region will thus become part of a citizen science project.

In workshops, farmers learn how to grow and market traditional crops even better. Photo: Silke Stöber

Drought-resistant seeds, wells, agricultural machinery, education, knowledge of modern farming methods and agro-ecological interrelationships - all of these are in short supply in countries like Burkina Faso. The country ranks 182nd out of 189 nations on the United Nations' Prosperity Index. The researchers are determining the extent of poverty and hunger here in parallel with the other work using a standardized household survey. Targeted questions about food security - including, for example, "In the past four weeks, was there a day when you or your household members went to bed without a meal?" - provide information about how precarious household food security really is. The standardized questions give researchers a quick result that is comparable to other regions.

For Silke Stöber, it is clear that the traditional forms of agriculture in countries such as Senegal or Burkina Faso are no longer sufficient to feed the growing population and withstand the changing climate conditions. She sees her research as a service and a tool to find solutions that help people. "We can't do research disconnected from practice; we have to be solution and development oriented," she says. And there's something else that's important to her: "We no longer want to do research about people, but only together with them. We see that as an opportunity to support, as researchers, the solution capacities of people on the ground by promoting community-driven research - that is, co-research."


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