Burkina Faso: Replenishing depleted soil with zai and half-moons

| September 4, 2017

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Saïdou Ouédraogo is playing tour guide this morning, showing farmers around his three-hectare field. But the farmers are here as students, not tourists. The lush, green plot has become a model of effective soil recovery practices. Outside Mr. Ouédraogo’s fence, the soil is barren.

The 60-year-old farmer lives in the small village of Komnongo in central Burkina Faso, about 50 kilometres from the capital, Ouagadougou. Mr. Ouédraogo and his twelve brothers inherited several hectares of land from their parents, but much of it was unsuitable for farming. He managed to harvest between 600 and 800 kilograms of maize and millet per year, but it was not enough to feed his family.

Mr. Ouédraogo recalls, “I was really hungry. I could not feed myself with what I farmed.”

The soil in the village is dry and depleted. Some types of grass and bushes are disappearing from the area, as they can no longer grow in such poor soil. This represents a loss of biodiversity. Burkina Faso’s environment ministry says a third of the country’s land is no longer suitable for agriculture.

Many farmers in the area have abandoned their farms in favour of other activities. But Mr. Ouédraogo decided to stay and fight to replenish the soil, hoping to feed his large family.

In 2009, he decided to experiment with two techniques called “zai pits” and “half-moon ditches” to improve the soil. These methods involve digging holes, either circular holes or larger crescent-shaped ditches, that help control rainwater and channel it toward crops.

half-moon ditches or demi-lune

Half-moon ditches or demi-lunes. Credit: Harouna Sana

Zai pits and half-moon ditches can increase yields even in the first year. The farmer does not need to wait for the land to fully regenerate before sowing.

The soil remains bare between zai pits, but inside the hole the earth is damp and fertile. The pit collects and retains moisture and prevents the rich soil and seeds from being washed away by the rain.

Mr. Ouédraogo planted trees and watered them regularly. Then he dug zai and half-moon ditches between the trees for planting forage grasses. The grasses grew at the same time that the soil began to recover.

Mr. Ouédraogo built a wire mesh fence around his field with a subsidy from the association Tee Palga, which means “new tree” in the Mooré language. The fence keeps out hungry animals and people who might cut firewood in Mr. Ouédraogo’s plot.

Mr. Ouédraogo managed to renew his soil. He also planted maize and other grains. Production increased by 80%, which allowed him to feed his family and cover their expenses. He even sold part of his harvest. During the first half of 2017, he earned about 250,000 CFA francs ($455 US) from selling fodder and wood. He also sold some of the rocks he had cleared from his fields.

Mr. Ouédraogo gave some fodder to his fellow farmers, and exchanged some for organic fertilizer. Villagers come to his farm to collect bark and tree roots for medicines, because these ingredients are hard to find in the village.

Ousmane Compaoré is a farmer in his fifties who farms three-and-a-half hectares in a nearby village. He visited Mr. Ouédraogo’s farm to learn about his methods. But repeating his colleague’s success hasn’t been easy.

Mr. Compaoré says: “I was interested by what he had accomplished. There are species of trees and [forage] grasses that have disappeared in the region and that can be found here. I wanted to try this technique. But I do not have the means to build a fence.”

Farmers in this area struggle to guard newly-wooded lots from animals and other intruders.

But many small-scale farmers are unable to afford a metal fence. For a three-hectare farm, such a fence would cost more than a million CFA francs (about $1,820 US).

Mr. Ouédraogo found a solution to these threats. He dug a 60 x 40 centimetre ditch around the perimeter of his plot, where he planted thorny acacia trees to form a long-lasting and effective barrier. As the mesh fence deteriorates, this living barrier will take its place. This species of acacia produces gum arabic, which will be another source of revenue in the years to come.

Ouérmi Elijah is an agricultural expert who works with farmers in Komnongo. He says Mr. Ouédraogo’s farm is a model for soil restoration. He acknowledges that, without the subsidy to build the fence, Mr. Ouédraogo may have had more difficulty maintaining and protecting his trees. But, he adds: “He has also made a significant personal investment. Some farmers have fences but have not managed to restore the depleted soil because they have not been as committed as Mr. Ouédraogo.”

The Burkinabe government hopes to see other farmers join Mr. Ouédraogo in the fight to save the land and conserve biodiversity. Elisé Yaro is in charge of environmental and social protection for the government’s National Land Management Program. He says: “If 20 farmers can do what he did on three hectares, we’ll have 60 hectares of protected forest in this village for integrated agroforestry-pastoral production. And the economic benefits will allow farmers to thrive.”

Mr. Ouédraogo says his fight will continue. He plans to use the same techniques on ten additional hectares of arid land in order to plant trees and grow grain and fodder.

Photo: Saidou Ouédraogo talks about half-moon ditches