Amidst the intricate challenges of climate change and escalating conflicts in Niger, a beacon of hope shines for smallholder farmers. Since 2023, the "Market for Crop Livestock” project has intervened in the Maradi region of Niger, rigorously testing and introducing improved, locally adapted legume forage cultivars. This initiative seeks not only to alleviate feed shortages but also to transform agricultural landscapes by enhancing feed availability, improving soil quality, boosting economic performance, and overall increasing food productivity.
Participatory Field Trials: Insights from the Ground
During the 2023 cropping season, participatory field trials involving farmers were established at different project sites to facilitate the introduction and promotion of various tropical forage legume crops.
Four legume crops were introduced at each site: Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), Mucuna (Mucuna pruriens), Improved pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), and lablab (Dolichos lablab). To ensure the suitable identification of forage legume crops for specific agro-ecological and socio-economic contexts, a participatory evaluation of introduced tropical forage legume crops was organized with the intent to select the best-fit forage legume crops for each site. The evaluation involved 248 smallholder farmers, of which 41% were women. Farmers were given an opportunity to select various legumes introduced based on tolerance to drought, length of the production cycle, accessibility to seed, and fodder yield and production.
"The project is a catalyst for reshaping the future for our farmers. This is not just about introducing crops; it is about sowing the seeds of change," said Dr Clarisse Umutoni, Project Coordinator.
Livestock, crucial for the sustenance of Niger's smallholders, grapples with a critical concern—the scarcity of both quantity and quality feed. During the trials, farmers' preferences proved to be as diverse as the ecosystems they cultivate.
"I have been actively participating in this initiative since its inception. Surprisingly, I was unaware that pigeonpea could be utilized as fodder. In our community, it has always been known as a medicinal plant. Now, witnessing the prolific production of fodder and the water stress tolerance of both pigeonpea and dolichos during the trials, I am eager to adopt them," shared Ms Mariam, a participant from Ballayara in the Tillabéri region.
Reflecting on the trials, Ms Mariam noted the initial splendor of mucuna's growth, describing it as "outstanding and beautiful." However, as the cropping season advanced and rainfall diminished, mucuna faced challenges due to its sensitivity to water stress. Consequently, Ms Mariam expressed caution about adopting mucuna in the region.
However, in Balagaja, a rural community in the Maradi region, southern central Niger, mucuna took the lead among farmers.
"We used to grow cowpea, and mucuna was unfamiliar to us. Curiosity led our group to engage with the project, and we decided to allocate 0.5 hectares of land to cultivate mucuna. I am thrilled with our decision; the sight of mucuna in the field has become a source of community pride, attracting admiration from everyone who passes by," said Ms Dizé Oumarou, President of a women's group.
The Role of Awareness : Understanding Perceived Benefits
Before the project, many farmers lacked information on the economic returns associated with adopting tropical forage legumes. Crucially, the project underscored the importance of equipping smallholder farmers with a comprehensive understanding of the perceived benefits of improved legume forage crops.
"Illustrating the gross economic benefits and profitability of growing these crops can kindle interest among smallholders, fostering widespread adoption," stressed Dr Umutoni.
"Working hand-in-hand with local champions was pivotal; it amplified exposure to tropical legume crops, fostering awareness and adoption within their communities. We are igniting a movement for transformative change," Dr Umutoni added.
Seed Production and Supply
Ensuring the sustainable adoption of these transformative crops necessitates the establishment of a robust seed production and supply system.
With the "Market for Crop Livestock" project, the journey towards sustainable agriculture in Niger holds promise. Smallholder farmers are at the forefront of this transformative endeavor, sowing resilience in the face of challenges towards a future rich with hope and agricultural abundance.
"Supporting farmers and community-based organizations in seed production is pivotal. It serves as the gateway for the successful promotion of legume forage crops. We are not merely cultivating crops; we are nurturing hope for a better future," concluded Dr Jaqueline Hughes, Director General of ICRISAT, emphasizing the collaborative efforts required for a sustainable future.
From left to right: A pigeonpea field and a mucuna field at Bargaja in Maradi.
Project: Enhancing the productivity and resilience of agro-pastoral systems, and income, food and nutrition security through market-oriented innovations in Niger.
Funder: USAID through University of Florida Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems
Partners: Dan Dicko Dankoulodo University of Maradi, University Abdou Moumouni, Amate Seed Farm, Ainoma Seed Farm, Association for the Promotion of Livestock in the Sahel and Savannah (Association pour la Promotion de l’Elevage au Sahel et en Savane [APESS]), Arizona State University and Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA).