Climate change winners and losers in Sahel

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
22 December 2010

Earlier this month, I spent a week in Mali, going back to the villages which I have studied for the past 30 years. While international climate negotiators met in Cancun, Mexico, for the UN summit on climate change, I was keen to catch up on how climate change was affecting livelihoods in the West African Sahel.

This year has brought heavy rain to much of the region and with it, a mixed bag of impacts on yields of the local staple crop, millet. For farmers in the Kala region north of Segou in central Mali, the heavy rainfall has been good for the long-cycle sanyo millet, which takes 6–7 months to mature. But the fast-growing souna millet, which matures in 3–4 months, has performed poorly. This is partly due to impoverishment of soils. “When rain falls heavily you need a lot of power in the soil — that power is supplied by animal dung. That’s what creates the heat that supplies energy to the crop,” says local farmer Ganiba Dembele, showing me the yellow leaves of the souna millet. He and other farmers recognise that their plots need to be replenished with dung each year if they are to produce well, particularly in wetter growing conditions. “We’ve increased the size of our fields so much, we can’t get enough dung from our flocks and herds to keep them well-fertilised. It’s lucky we have sanyo to make up the deficit,” he adds.

Open sesame

[flickr-photo:id=5281923073,size=m, class=image] Farmer Jiarable Traore is hoping for 300 kg from his half-hectare plot of sesame

But if the picture for millet has been mixed, the sesame story has been remarkably positive. Farmers in Mali have been trying out sesame for the past decade and have rapidly expanded their efforts in the past couple of seasons. This growth has been driven by rapidly increasing sesame prices worldwide, driven by soaring demand for sesame seed as an ingredient in Middle Eastern foods, and as an oil seed in China. Demand has been rising so fast that traders have begun visiting distant villages to search for sesame supplies. This means farmers don’t have to take the crop to market themselves.

The crop seems to do well on land that has lain fallow for a few years and so needs no fertiliser to get a good yield. It also seems to thrive in both wet and dry conditions. Many households are now setting aside some of their land to grow sesame, with bigger families harvesting more than two tons this year. Individuals are also investing what little spare time they can find to farm a plot of sesame and boost their income. “Sesame is a really handy source of cash”, explains one farmer, Babani Toungara. “This last year, there were eight new motorbikes bought by people in the village — that gives you a sense of the money it brings in,” he adds. Another farmer, Jiarable Traore, is hoping for 300 kilogrammes from his half-hectare plot.

But with so many people rushing to use their land for sesame, Babani — and others — are worried about the fate of millet. “You can’t eat sesame, so let’s not abandon the food of our fathers,” he says. There are also concerns that people might pursue their individual interests in sesame at the expense of their larger household’s ability to meet its own needs. “If young men spend their evenings farming their private plot, they won’t be full of energy when they need to go out into the household’s field the next morning, will they?” challenges Babani.

Seizing new market opportunities and balancing collective versus individual interests are key features of managing survival in the uncertain climatic and economic environment of the West African Sahel. Risk and change are constant elements in strategies for making ends meet and doing well. Sesame is the crop of the moment for farmers in the Kala and, whatever climate change holds in store for the Sahel, at least for now market prospects are booming.

Camilla Toulmin Director, IIED