21 July 2010
Last updated at 14:38
Drought in Niger has left about 8m people, more than half the population, needing food aid. But scientists say a simple farming method - fertiliser micro-dosing - could have averted the crisis. Farmer Seydou Boubacar and his wife Zaina use the technique.
Using a bottle cap, they apply tiny amounts of fertiliser - about one-sixth of the quantities normally put on grain crops in Europe - directly to the plant roots. Research shows this increases yields in Niger by an average of 55%.
Since using the method, Mr Boubacar has almost tripled his harvests and increased his wealth. "When I started micro-dosing in 2000, I had only two sheep, but today I have 20 sheep, 20 goats, two cattle and 10 donkeys," he says.
This time of year is known as the hungry season. “If only one quarter of Niger’s farmers had practiced fertiliser micro-dosing in 2009, the grain shortfall could have been prevented,” says Jupiter Ndjeunga of the agricultural research group ICRISAT.
It is not the only agricultural method that could be practised to increase yields, the researchers say. Low pressure drip irrigation is very successful. Instead of taking hours to water a plot with watering cans, a drip kit takes 10 minutes to turn on.
These women can produce year-round vegetables in this arid region. Water is applied directly to the roots instead of the entire plant and pumped from boreholes using solar power.
Another method to counteract poor yields during drought, and the famine it brings, is known as bioreclamation of degraded lands: The exhausted soils of the Sahel are replenished using rainwater storage methods and planting indigenous trees and crops.
In the dryland tropics, like Niger, indigenous plants are hardy and natural survivors - they have adapted to tolerate drought. [Photos and words supplied by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics (ICRISAT)]