In Mali, hardy sorghum is helping farmers bring in a harvest even when drought destroys other crops.
Last year, when drought hit southern Mali in the middle of the growing season, Baba Berthé lost his entire two-hectare maize crop. “I harvested nothing at all,” says the white-robed farmer with a greying goatee.
But he had also planted a crop of drought-resistant sorghum. Disaster was averted when it flourished despite a lack of water.
That crop “saved me,” says the 56-year-old farmer who lives in rural Siby district, about 45 kilometres southwest of Bamako, the capital of Mali. Mr. Berthé harvested 2.4 tonnes of grain from one hectare of land, despite the drought.
As climate change brings wilder weather to the Sahel—and in particular, worsens drought—planting crops that can withstand extremes can help avoid crises ranging from worsening hunger to migration, according to experts.
Hardier crops are gaining ground in southern Mali, particularly as farmers see the results in their own fields.
Mr. Berthé says, “I really understood the importance of these new strains last year.”
He adds that maize is a grain that needs a lot of water, something southern Mali no longer has reliably.
Abdoulaye Diallo is a seed breeder and the head of the Rural Economy Institute’s (IER) sorghum program. He says that new hardy grain varieties were developed by IER scientists to respond to the varying levels of rainfall in the country and to climate change.
Over the past 60 years, he says, rainfall has fallen 15 to 20 per cent in Mali, and this has hit harvests.
Malian farmers work their fields during the rainy season, which lasts from June to October in some parts of southern Mali. But further north, the season is shorter, with some areas getting no more than two months of rain a year.
To cope with the harsh conditions, Malian researchers have in some cases created hybrids that crossbreed traditional local crops with other varieties.
Mr. Diallo says hybrid grains, like the sorghum that Mr. Berthé planted, can yield three to four tonnes per hectare, compared to non-hybrid varieties that manage just two to three tonnes even in a good season.
According to Aboubacar Touré, a seed breeder at IER, “The challenge was to find varieties that can withstand drought after flowering.” He says that, to withstand drought, varieties usually need to flower early, be drought-resistant, or both.
As a growing number of farmers in Siby turn to new seed varieties to protect themselves against climate shocks, local seed producers are enjoying a boost in their income.
Alou Camara is president of the Siby Seed Growers’ Cooperative. He says the co-op buys seeds that are capable of dealing with the changing conditions from its members. The co-op pays 500 CFA francs ($0.86 US) per kilogram and sells them to other farmers for 750 CFA francs ($1.30 US), five times what traditional seed costs.
Despite the cost, he says, “Everything we produced in the way of seed was bought last year, and the previous year was the same.”
Mr. Touré at IER says small-scale farmers have given the new sorghum varieties names in the local language that “speak volumes” about their success. Seguifa, for instance, means “full basket,” while Jakumbè means “anti-drought.”
But praise for the new varieties is not unanimous. Some farmers complain that they can’t always afford to buy the drought-resistant strains they have come to rely on.
In previous years, farmers simply used seeds from one harvest to plant the next season’s crop. Also, the benefits of the new, hybrid varieties decrease over time, according to farmer N’fally Coulibaly, which means that he and other farmers want to buy new seed each year.
He says, “The problem with the new varieties is that they are not free, and just before the rainy season, we don’t have any money.”
Another problem, he says, is the shortage of information about the characteristics of the new varieties—and the bad publicity that accompanied their introduction.
Mr. Coulibaly says, “Lots of people were hesitant at first because they thought these were GM [genetically-modified] crops.”
He would like to see more effort spent on explaining to farmers the difference between hybrid seeds, which are developed with natural breeding techniques, and genetically modified seeds, which are created in a lab. Mr. Coulibaly says that would have had a major influence on uptake in the beginning.
He adds, “But, once the droughts came, people quickly saw the superior yields and changed their minds.”
This story was adapted from an article titled, “Seeds of change: Mali farmers fight drought with hybrid crops,” written by Soumaila Diarra for Thomson Reuters Trust. To read the original article, go to http://news.trust.org/item/20181106102012-drqw1/ 
Photo: Alou Camara visits his field of anew sorghum variety Jakunbè in the village of Siby, Mali. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Soumaila Diarra