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November 10, 2011

Mali farmers adopt short-season crop as rainfall shifts

by Soumaila T Diarra

Mariam Coulibaly surveys the leaves of groundnuts growing in the fields outside her village. The crop is a traditional one in this west African country, but the seed variety is not.

“We no longer grow tikaba (a traditional variety of groundnut)… It has disappeared from our region,” Coulibaly says.

Shifting patterns of rainfall, likely associated with climate change, have shortened the rainy season in Mali to no more than three months. But the old groundnuts took four months to grow, which dramatically cut yields as conditions changed.

Now, Coulibaly and other women in the farming cooperative she heads cultivate a variety of groundnut with a growing cycle of just three months.

“As these groundnut seeds grow rapidly we always harvest before the end of the rainy season,” she said.

The seeds were first provided in the region by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which creates short-cycle seeds adapted to the changing climate.

The new seeds, which the women of Wakoro have been planting since 2002, yield a harvest of 30 bags per hectare (2.5 acres). Before the switch in varieties, the women were able to harvest only two to three 100 kg (220 pounds) bags of nuts.

At local prices, a 100 kg bag of nuts can fetch around 23,000 CFA francs (about $50) - less than in the cities but enough to grant the farmers improved economic security as harvests rise.

While farmers in the region mostly grow staple crops for food, groundnuts – grown largely for sale - are their most important source of income, and have helped make up for failures of other crops.

“The husband of a member of the cooperative was jailed because he couldn’t pay back his loan when his cotton (crop) failed. Her wife sold her groundnut harvest to pay back the loan,” said Amadou Traore, a researcher at ICRISAT who looks after the cooperative members’ farming.

Villages pay other expenses such as their children’s schooling out of their income from groundnut cultivation, Traore said.

The Wakoro cooperative has enabled its members not only to address the problems of a changing climate, but to strengthen their economic position in a country where women are not allowed to own land themselves and must ask their husbands for plots to use.

The cooperative began in 2000 with 25 women who had grown mostly sorghum, a staple crop in the region.

To boost their harvests, the members began planting three different groundnut varieties using seeds received from ICRISAT. From the first harvest on Coulibaly’s plot, the other women received 5 kg (11 lb) of seed for the upcoming farming season.

“The success of the groundnuts we grow encouraged other women, and now there are 65 members coming from different villages,” said Coulibaly.

After every harvest, each cooperative member brings 20 kg (44 lb) of groundnuts to store in a communal warehouse. Each member has the right to take 10 kg (22 lb) later in the season for her own use. Storing part of the harvest helps ensure that farmers don’t run out of money before the next crop is ready.

The other half of the stockpiled nuts is sold, generating 150,000 francs ($320) for the cooperative. The money is then loaned to cooperative members for their individual projects or other needs.

“The only problem we have is that we may not have all the space we need to farm, but if you ask your husband for a plot you will get it,” said Seba Mariko, a member of the cooperative.

The cooperative’s seeds have been certified by the Malian government for sale to other famers, and the women of Wakoro are looking for bigger export markets.

“People from our village and the nearby villages come to buy groundnut seeds from us,” Coulibaly said.

Reuters

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