Seeds of hope emerge across the world’s drylands


Rabi Saadou with a young Combretum glutinosum tree in her millet field. Photo by Charlie Pye-Smith/ICRAF

Drylands occupy 40% of the earth’s land area and are home to 2.5 billion people – nearly a third of the world’s population. People in dry areas are forced to contend with severe environmental degradation and increasing climate variability, as population soars. A groundbreaking paper heralding a new integrated systems approach to agricultural research in the drylands, was published in the journal Food Security this week .

This is good news for 400 million people in the developing world who depend on dryland agriculture for their livelihoods. But what is new?

To begin with, the authors distinguish between households with a low asset base, whose livelihoods are dominated by vulnerability, and those with a stronger asset base. For the first group the priority is to reduce vulnerability and improve their resilience whereas the second group are well placed to benefit from sustainable intensification, focused on improving productivity per unit of land and water. “In reality, households are spread along a continuum from low to high resilience and productivity,” said Fergus Sinclair, Science Domain Leader at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), and one of the authors of the paper,

“But, there is a threshold of vulnerability that you have to cross before people are able to invest in increasing productivity, rather than protecting themselves from the sort of catastrophic collapses that we saw affecting close to 10 million people in the Horn of Africa in the 2011 drought.”

The paper proposes an approach to research for development that integrates action horizontally (across sectors) and vertically (across scales) all along impact pathways, from research activity, through outputs (new research findings), outcomes (how the findings are applied to change what extension, development partners and policy makers do), and impact (improved food security and nutrition, reduced poverty and enhanced environmental integrity in the drylands).

“For rural households’ says Sinclair ‘food, water and energy are intimately connected but often fall under different institutional settings in terms of local and national governance. In dry areas, there are important interactions across scales. For example, pastoralists move livestock across landscapes where other people are farming crops.”

It is testimony to a commitment for integration that the paper is authored by twenty scientists from across dryland, agroforestry, crop, biodiversity, livestock and water management centres of the CGIAR and their development partners.

“For sustainability,” says Sinclair “we not only need to boost productivity but to do so in a way that is consistent with protecting the environment. There is widespread land degradation in the world’s drylands and we desperately need to restore this land to higher productivity and protect key biodiversity hotspots. These requirements combine actions under the UN conventions to combat desertification (UNCCD) and on biological diversity (CBD).

The authors go beyond conjecture to ground their proposal for integrated systems research in experience from four case studies that provide a proof of concept. These include development of index-based livestock insurance in Kenya; integrated improvement of tree-crop-livestock systems in the Mashreq and Maghreb; development of Andean agriculture; and, integrated watershed development in South Asia. These examples, spanning four continents, illustrate the importance of maintaining agrobiodiversity to secure a resilient production base and diversified livelihood options.

“But a key issue,” says Sinclair, “is being able to make impact at large scales so that many people benefit across many hectares of dryland. This is not easy and requires a new focus on local adaptation of interventions to cope with variation in context across large scaling domains.” (See video clip).

The authors put their new initiative in the context of the development of systems and participatory research approaches in agriculture over the last half a century, and stress the importance of new forms of partnership amongst researchers, development agencies, extension systems, market actors, policy makers and the private sector, to deliver on the promise of more resilient and productive dryland agriculture. Measures targeted specifically at women and young people will be particularly important given the rapid population expansion in dry areas.

Antoine Kalinganire of ICRAF, who co-ordinates the Dryland Systems research programme in the West African Sahel and Dry Savannas, said “in this region, we are focusing research along two contrasting transects. The first runs along a north-south rainfall gradient from Niger to Northern Nigeria and the second spans a demographic and infrastructural gradient west-east from Mali through Burkina Faso to Ghana.”

Sibiry Traore, from ICRISAT, who mapped the action transects explained that ‘they both span livelihoods that range from acute vulnerability to a high potential for sustainable intensification. This region is exciting from an agroforestry perspective because of the vast area of farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR) of trees referred to as the ‘re-greening of the Sahel’. This reaches over five million hectares in southern Niger alone, impacting the lives of 2.5 million people.

Frank Place, who runs impact assessment at ICRAF, said that “a recent evaluation across four countries revealed 15-30% higher crop yield amongst farmers practicing FMNR, depending on the crop, the tree species and the location. As well as more food, farmers were selling tree products and earning on average, 200 USD extra income a year from the sale of only 10-25% of what they harvested. Positive benefits were correlated with higher tree density,” stated Place.

Jules Bayala of ICRAF recently quantified variation in impacts of trees on crop yield across parkland systems in the Sahel, revealing that tree species, age, density and location were key factors in determining impact. (Read more in Bayala et al., (2012) Cereal yield response to conservation agriculture practices in drylands of West Africa: a quantitative synthesis. Journal of Arid Environments 78: 13-25.

The food security article published this week was developed under the auspices of the CGIAR Research Programme on Dryland Systems  led by ICARDA, that was officially launched in Amman, Jordan in May of this year.

The article is available under open access: Van Ginkel M, Sayer J, Sinclair, F et al. (2013). An integrated agro-ecosystem and livelihood systems approach for the poor and vulnerable in dry areas. Food Security DOI 10.1007/s12571-013-0305-5

Related publication

Booklet: The quiet revolution: how Niger’s farmers are re-greening the croplands of the Sahel

Related Blog

One small change of words – a giant leap in effectiveness!'

Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

You may also like...