By Chika Ezeanya Ph.D.
The current definition of food security explains the concept as, the availability of food to individuals within national boundaries. That definition in some way, mandates governments to encourage individuals, and by extension, communities to engage in farming practices that will ensure their food security. What this means is, that rather than focus investment in commercial large scale farming, governments should search out ways of supporting local efforts at food security.
At the core of agricultural efforts at the local and community level, is traditional farming techniques. Traditional or indigenous knowledge based agricultural practices, are easily accessible and inexpensive, and governments that have supported citizens to build-on or scale-up traditional farming practices, have recorded successes. An example that will be explored here, is the predominantly Muslim nation of Niger in West Africa, which has, by scaling-up a traditional irrigation technique known as Tassa, proven that food security at the community level need not be founded on expensive and difficult-to-sustain, imported western technology.
Niger is, by land mass, the largest nation in African South Sahara, with a 94 percent Muslim population. 80 percent of Niger’s land area of 1,270,000 km, is covered by the Sahara desert, making the arid nation much insecure in the area of food cultivation. Niger’s food insecurity situation, is reflected in its ranking consistently at the bottom in the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) – 186th out of 186 countries ranked in 2012. Niger’s land locked position and the low level of education, has led to very poor quality of life for the country’s populace, reflected in the dearth of infrastructure, poor healthcare quality and environmental degradation.
Several failed attempts were made by the World Bank and other agricultural funding agencies, to commercially irrigate large areas of the patchy terrains of Niger . Through that process, the Government of Niger has incurred tremendous amount of debt, in efforts to apply western irrigation technology, in pushing back desertification, and to improve soil quality towards increased agricultural output. However, a simple, inexpensive and sustainable Nigerien traditional farming technique, known as Tassa, has succeeded tremendously in boosting household food security and holds substantial promises, if adequate investment is made, of mitigating agricultural risks.
Origin of Tassa
Tassa is a traditional practice in the Sahel, that is located in the use of planting pits to reclaim land lost, or about to be lost, to degradation. The modern and improved practice of Tassa in Niger, can be traced to the predominantly Muslim Yatenga province of Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso, it can be said, learnt the hard way: earlier on than Niger; in the 1960s and 1970s, international donors and multi-lateral institutions invested heavily in two unsuccessful major projects in the Yatenga province of Burkina Faso, aimed at reduction of soil erosion over thousands of hectares. The project was single handedly formulated and implemented by donors. Indigenous farming knowledge and practices of the Burkinabes, was considered of little or no use in policy action. The dismal failure of both projects, brought the Yatenga province back to a worsened state of soil erosion, across previously farmed spaces . Local farmers, left with no other alternative, resorted to the traditional practice of planting pits to check against soil erosion. Burkina Faso calls its planting pit Zai, and the successes experienced by farmers who utilized this age-long practice, include rehabilitation of tens of thousands of hectares of land and up to 94 per cent of cultivated land in the several villages, which adopted the practice.
Tassa in Niger
Thirteen local Nigerien farmers from Tahoua, went on a study tour of the Zai practice in Burkina Faso, in 1988. The farmers realized, that what they were learning, was a more developed variation of their own rarely used traditional land rehabilitation technique of planting pits. The farmers returned home and most decided, to revive their own traditional planting pit technique known as Tassa. With four hectares of land, which included a display field close to a major road, the farmers began a pilot Tassa project, that rapidly expanded to 70 hectares in that year alone . The farmers who cultivated using the Tassa technique, ended with a reasonably higher harvest than their peers, notwithstanding that it was a drought year. Tassa has been credited with the rehabilitation of thousands of hectares of land in Niger, and by 2008, had become “an integral part of the local farming scene and is still spreading at a rate of about two to three hectares per year.”
How Tassa Works
Tassa aims to fully rehabilitate severely degraded farmland, that is impenetrable by water. By digging a grid of planting pits on very hard – rock textured – soil. Nigerien farmers were innovative in their approach, by increasing the depth and diameter of the pits, and adding “organic matter, such as manure, to the bottom of the basins.” The planting pits are able to hold water for unusually extended periods of time, which then allow crops in the farmland to survive drought. Since farmers are able to dig the pits during dry season, the land is ready and waiting for cultivation, by the time rainy season approaches, cutting out several months of wait time. In addition to its previously enumerated benefits, Tassa has enabled Nigerien farmers to “effectively raise their yields from virtually nothing, to 300 to 400 kilograms per hectare in a year of low rainfall, and up to 1,500 kilograms or more per hectare in a good year.”
Chika Ezeanya Ph.D. is an Africa focused researcher, writer and public intellectual. Chika emphasizes indigenous knowledge and home-grown solutions in her writings on Africa, some of which can be read on her blog – www.chikaforafrica.com.
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