Sub-Saharan Africa blooms with Israel’s cooperation

Prof. Dov Pasternak, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Issaka Dandakoye of Niamey, Niger at the inauguration of a four-acre AMG vegetable farm. One wouldn’t necessarily imagine a Jewish Israeli professor and a Moslem African vegetable farmer striking up …

Prof. Dov Pasternak, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Issaka Dandakoye of Niamey, Niger at the inauguration of a four-acre AMG vegetable farm. One wouldn’t necessarily imagine a Jewish Israeli professor and a Moslem African vegetable farmer striking up a friendship. But Prof. Dov Pasternak, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has formed a unique partnership and a special personal relationship with Issaka Dandakoye from Niamey, Niger.

For the past five years, Pasternak has been busy in Niger – in the sub-Saharan area of Africa called the Sahel – developing a horticultural production system called the African Market Garden (AMG) for farmers with small parcels of land.

Known throughout the land affectionately as ‘Professor Dov’, the former head of the university’s Institute for Agriculture and Biology developed the system based mainly on vegetables with a few fruit trees placed in the field. It is irrigated with a gravity (low-pressure) drip irrigation system, with field size is limited to about 500 square meters.

When ‘Professor Dov’ was looking for farmers to experiment with the AMG, he approached Dandakoya, a 4th generation vegetable farmer in the area. Dandakoya volunteered to set one up in one of his fields, and was duly impressed with the results.

As a result of that experiment, at the end of April, Pasternak and Dandakoya inaugurated a four-acre AMG vegetable farm in the presence of the General Secretary of the Ministry of Agricultural Development of Niger featuring the first farmer operated pressurized drip irrigation system in Niger, and probably in all of West Africa.

The inauguration provided dramatic proof of the success of a three-year campaign to demonstrate the AMG concept in one of the poorest countries in the beleaguered continent faced with grinding poverty and lack of food security.

Pasternak sees the AMG as a way a way of optimizing the use of scarce arable land through the production of high-valued crops, such as vegetables and fruit, with high efficiency, thereby providing the farmer and his family with a steady source of income.

From the beginning, Yitzhak Apt of Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Co-operation, grasped the significance of the concept and threw the Ministry’s weight behind the project.

The AMG is based on drip irrigation, which Israeli farmers developed in the early years of the State, when it was faced with the challenge of feeding the flood of impoverished immigrants from its arid lands, and scarce water resources. In drip irrigation, water is directed to the crop through tubes laid along the rows in which the crop grows. Orifices that pierce the tubes at intervals along their length deliver a continous, drop-by-drop, flow of water directly to the roots of the plants. The efficiency of water use is about 50% higher than by other methods of irrigation. If fertilizers are added to the water, they too are used more efficiently and more effectively because they are delivered directly to the roots of the plant.

The variant of drip irrigation used in the AMGs, Gravity Drip Irrigation, is adapted to the primitive conditions found in much of Africa – no electricity, no pumps, technically unsophisticated farmers. The design of the system was carried out in the light of a wide experience of drip irrigation and the deep knowledge of the requirements of the particular crops. The water flows under gravity from a simple tank standing one meter (40 inches) above the level of the field, and fitted with a filter and a tap. The tank is designed to deliver the exact amount of water that the crop loses by evaporation, and the flow rate of the water is controlled to prevent its leaching nutrients from the soil.

The operating procedure is simple. The farmer cleans the filter every day, fills the tank using buckets, and opens the tap. This takes very much less time than the traditional method of bucket irrigation, thus freeing the farmer for other tasks. In order to maintain the condition of the soil and supply nutrients to he plants, he top-dresses the soil with manure and mixed fertilizers before planting.

The World Bank provided the funds for a two-year demonstration of the AMG in Niger. A number of the NGO’s that were active in the country were recruited to guide the selection of farmers, and to act as liaisons between them and the Israeli technologists. 850 AMG units were set up, 200 hundred of them on one-eighth-acre lots, and 700 on one-twentieth of an acre. A variety of vegetables, melons, and some fruit was planted.

According to Pasternak, 80 percent of the original AMG’s are still operating a year after the end of the two-year demonstration period. He pointed out that the yield and the quality of the produce of the AMG’s is markedly higher, and the revenue at least four times that given by traditional farming methods – a single farmer working a one-eighth acre lot can earn $4,000 per annum in a country where the per capita GDP is $800.

USAID is sponsoring the introduction of the system in neighboring Bukina Fasso and Ghana. A total of 400 of the one-eighth-acre AMGs will be installed. The training of the NGO agents and the first group of farmers started at towards the end of this month.

At the other end of the continent, Mashav, and the South African NGO, Ikamva Labantu have introduced AMGs in a depressed, semi-arid region near the town of Cradock. 140 members of the Masizakhe Farmers Association work separate eighth-acre AMGs, and collaborate in marketing the surplus produce. The early results are impressive.

Alex Goniwe, one of the Association’s leaders told ISRAEL21c, “We are very, very happy with it. We are planting vegetables throughout the year, instead of once. Before, we struggled with the water. This help from the Israeli Embassy has really put us forward. We are doing well.”

He is confident that the AMGs will be profitable, but also expects that they will contribute to the solution of the community’s severe social problems. AIDs sufferers have been allocated two plots and disabled youth another two. In order to encourage the youth to return to agriculture, plots have been set aside in which pupils of the local school can work.

Encouraged by the promise of the Cradock project, Ikamva Labantu is planning to set up similar enterprises in other parts of the country.

The guiding spirits behind Israel’s efforts to improve agricultural practice in Africa, Pasternak and Apt, agree that the introduction of AMG’s only represents the first stage of the work that requires to be done. The next stage is to introduce fruit trees and optimal varieties of the traditional crops. To this end, IPALC has set up an experimental station in Niger with the aim of selecting the strains of vegetables and fruit best adapted to the climate and soil conditions of the region. A similar function will be performed in South Africa by the Israeli agronomist who is responsible for the technical management of what promises to be a large enterprise.

Yitzhak Apt put the AMG potential in a broader context. “Subsistence farming, on which 45% of Africa’s rural population depends, is less sustainable than it once was. Because of population pressure, farmers can no longer allow their land to recover its fertility by lying fallow for several years between crops.”

Gravity Drip Irrigation, with the judicious application of fertilizers, allows the available arable land to support more people.

Abt believes that the technology will also alleviate another of Africa’s growing problems, the exodus of rural people to the cities. By revitalizing the rural areas it will lessen the need to seek work elsewhere; if it is adopted in the peri-urban areas, will help increase the food security of the growing urban populations, and provide employment for some of the migrants.