Instead of continuously providing food to the starving year after year, donors are looking at farming methods such as drip irrigation to instead improve agriculture. But getting the African farmers to think more like businessmen who want to improve yields not only for themselves but for their own self-interest will take years of changing mindsets.
From Reuters, writer David Lewis tells us of one such farmer who has been successful with drip irrigation.
"With the watering cans, we couldn't do more than one harvest per year. With this innovation, we can do as many as three, so our earnings are multiplied by three," said Yamar Diop, a 73-year-old father of ten.
During a visit to the region last week, U.N. aid chief John Holmes appealed not just for the tens of millions of dollars needed to keep people alive, but for more action to address the root causes of the recurrent food crises.
Farmers like Diop say they are doing just that. He is one of about 2,500 farmers across the Sahel who, over the last few years, have taken part in the African Market Garden, an Israeli initiative to use low pressure drip irrigation to break dependence on rain and boost crops, nutrition and incomes.
Diop's harvests will earn him 800,000 CFA francs ($1,624) over the year, while the U.N. will spend $190 million over the same period to get through the food crisis, prompting calls for the donorsto invest more on long term projects.
"Niger is going to have a big problem this year," said Dov Pasternak, the head of the Sahel programme at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), referring to the rush to bring aid into the land-locked nation.
"This will cost millions but how much is being spent on agriculture? I have a gut feeling the ratio is huge in favour of food relief," he said. "It is the poverty that we have to deal with, rather than providing food security."
ICRISAT says the African Market Garden irrigation system means returns on land, water and labour are multiplied by two, four and six, respectively, when compared with traditional vegetable production systems on the continent.
That could allow places like Niger to shift from perennial sites of hunger into producers of food for the regional market of around 250 million people, Pasternak said.
Contrary to the area's drought-ridden image, Pasternak says water is available. Most obvious are the billions of litres that flow down Niger's eponymous river. But, with technology and investment, shallow underground bodies called dallos, or deeper regional aquifers, offer trillions of litres of potential water.