The Power of a Garden

11 Apr

This piece was originally published in USAID’s Frontlines Magazine for their series on resilience. You can read it on Medium here, or below:

As an oasis garden protects land against droughts and floods and provides fertile soil for fruits and vegetables, it brings health and economic security to a women’s group in Niger.

A member of the Albarka women’s group in Iguéfane village holds up a ledger of fruit and vegetable sales from the oasis garden. / John Torres, NCBA CLUSA

In Hausa and Zarma, two of the main languages of Niger, albarka means “blessed.”

So a group of 54 women who tend an irrigated community garden, or oasis garden, in Iguéfane, Tillaberi region, named themselves the Albarka women’s group. Because the crops are consumed at home and sold at the market, the garden has allowed many of the women to increase their income and improve the health of their families. They feel blessed.

The Albarka women’s group meets in the shade near their oasis garden. / John Torres, NCBA CLUSA

Niger is a part of the Sahel region, an arid stretch of land in Africa that spans over 3,300 miles and sits just south of the Sahara Desert. It is an area directly impacted by climate change and is a prime location for environmental stresses like the desertification of farmland. Communities in these agriculture and pastoral areas are chronically vulnerable to shocks such as drought and crop failure, and often rely on humanitarian assistance.

Through USAID’s Resilience in the Sahel Enhanced (RISE) initiative, the U.S. Government is working to strengthen the vulnerable populations in these areas so they can mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stresses without emergency assistance, and ultimately achieve sustainable economic success.

In Iguéfane, USAID, through its implementing partner NCBA CLUSA, is working to promote sustainable livelihoods, strengthen governance, and improve health and nutrition through the Resilience and Economic Growth in the Sahel-Enhanced Resilience (REGIS-ER) project, part of the RISE initiative. Integrating nutrition and livelihoods training can help groups determine what sort of vegetables to plant in commercial gardens to both improve income and address nutrition needs. Strengthened governance of local groups is important for disseminating nutrition and livelihood training. It is the integration of these three approaches the Agency hopes will strengthen communities in Niger and Burkina Faso so they can better respond to climatic and agricultural shocks.

Members of the Albarka women’s group are trailblazers in their community, showing how integrated livelihoods, governance and health investments can multiply dividends and unlock a path to prosperity.

With the profits from her sales of the oasis garden produce, Rabi Ousmane can take care of her needs and help other women in the group as well. / John Torres, NCBA CLUSA

Women Leading

Rabi Ousmane grows a variety of crops in the oasis garden and uses the profits from the sale of these crops to provide more nutritious food to her family. Djamilla Modi took advantage of a small loan to practice animal fattening, using the proceeds from her sheep sales to pay school fees for her children. And Hassiatou Abdou is working to improve the health of her family through lessons learned in REGIS-ER-sponsored mother-to-mother groups.

The oasis garden in Iguéfane was originally started in 2012 and, since that time, organizers have obtained a land deed, installed a solar pump for the garden well and started a tree nursery.

Before she began working in the oasis garden, Ousmane used to weave tangaras, or straw mats, to sell in the market, but this brought in very little income. She often struggled to meet the needs of her family. Now she grows moringa and vegetables in the oasis garden. Moringa is a tree with leaves that are high in nutrients and can be mixed with rice and peanut butter, made into a juice or incorporated into other local foods. Ousmane sells some of her moringa harvest, and takes some home to feed to her family.

“Now we can take care of our own needs and we can even take care of others’ needs,” Ousmane said.

Recently, she sold moringa from the garden worth 5,500 West African francs (CFA), or about $9.40 — roughly equivalent to a rural household’s income in one month. She gave 10 percent back to the garden fund to support reinvestment, and used the rest of her profits to feed her family. “With the profits, I buy sugar, milk, oil, peanut butter and onions. REGIS-ER brought us change. Everyone has moringa. We can eat; we can meet our needs,” Ousmane explained.

The oasis garden was built using bio-reclamation of degraded lands, a way of gardening and farming that works proactively to secure the land against droughts and floods. The topsoil in this garden is protected by rock terraces, which slow rainwater and allow it to settle rather than to wash away topsoil.

As the land became more fertile, the women moved from planting only moringa to planting a wide array of nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. The garden is now 1.2 hectares and the women plant moringa, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, okra, onions, tomatoes and melon throughout the year.

With a portion of the profits from the oasis garden, the women’s group supports income-generating activities for Iguéfane community members. Reinvesting the oasis garden profits not only provides the community with access to more local produce, but helps the women become more economically resilient as well. This is often done through small loans.

With her fourth loan from the Albarka Group, Djamilla Modi purchased multiple sheep, doubled her credit and paid school fees for her three children. / John Torres, NCBA CLUSA

Fattening the Bottom Line

Djamilla Modi, a member of the Albarka women’s group, received one such loan for 100,000 CFA, or approximately $170. Modi used part of these funds to buy a sheep, which she fattened for four months and resold for 125,000 CFA ($215). With time still left to pay back the loan, she bought two more sheep, one to keep for herself and the other to fatten and sell again. By the time the loan was due, she had nearly doubled the value of the loan.

Modi will use the profits from the loan to pay for school fees and buy supplies for her three children. In the zone in Niger where this project is implemented, credit and animal fattening cycles provide employment and revenues for 329 people, including 297 women.

Hassiatou Abdou learned about the mother-to-mother group from a friend at the oasis garden. At one group meeting, Abdou discovered that contaminated water can cause diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and often serious illness or death in infants and children. One way to combat this is exclusively breastfeeding for six months.

Hassiatou Abdou learned about the mother-to-mother group at the oasis garden. / John Torres, NCBA CLUSA

“Everyone used to give their babies water along with breast milk before we did this training,” said Abdou. Part of the new mother curriculum also discussed proper sanitation, such as washing hands with soap, especially before handling food.

“By learning new techniques to improve their health and that of their families, the women of Iguéfane are working to build the resilience of their community,” said USAID/Senegal Mission Director Susan Fine.

On a recent visit to Iguéfane, Fine and Bill Stringfellow, chief of party for REGIS-ER, spoke with some members of the Albarka women’s group. When Fine commented on how healthy the children of the village looked, one woman proudly proclaimed, “Our children look like the children in Niamey [the capital].”

As Modi, Ousmane and Abdou know, one garden can be the beginning of so much more.

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