(Originally published June 17, 2013)
Under a blazing sun, Zeinabou Illa picks tomatoes and places them carefully in a shoulder bag. On the ground beside her, bags of aubergines, lettuce, carrots and onions reflect the variety of products she grows on her tiny plot of land. She obtained this land after participating in a national project to restore the fertility of damaged soils.
Mrs. Illa used to work in the family field alongside her husband and brothers-in-law. But today, she divides her time between the family’s land and her own plot.
Fifty-two-year-old Mrs. Illa belongs to a group of women in the central-western Tahoua region of Niger, east of the capital city, Niamey. The women are part of a soil restoration project. They are nicknamed “bulldozers” because they have revolutionized farming by taking on tasks which used to be considered men’s work. The women dig half-moon ditches, embankments and trenches, and plant trees on stony soils. At the end of the day, they are paid in-kind with millet, sorghum, or cooking oil, or with cash, earning 1500 to 2000 CFA francs ($3-4 US) per day.
Since 2001, Nigerien authorities have intensified their efforts to recover and restore degraded soils across the country. Each year, approximately 18,000 hectares of wasted land are restored to health. Within three to five years, these sites can support vegetation and even become fertile. The lands are then made available to farmers. Landless women have been the main beneficiaries.
Rabi Hassan grows potatoes, lettuce and aubergines on her plot. This allows her some independence. She says, “For my small purchases, I do not have to wait for my husband [to give me money]. I can buy them with the money from the sale of products from my garden. ”
Hadiza Idi works for a civil society organization in Niamey. Ms. Idi says that restoring land also restores women’s dignity. She adds: “Many women who were deprived of good land previously through socio-cultural considerations have now become owners of highly productive fields.”
Every morning, Mrs. Illa carries a basket of produce from her garden to the village market. She is proud of her economic independence. She says: “From the sale of these vegetables, I earn about 3,000 CFA francs ($6 US) per day. With this money, I contribute to the daily expenses of the family. I can even save 7500 CFA francs ($15 US) per week.”
To irrigate her plants, Ms. Illa relies on her physical strength to draw water from a well. But her dream is, one day, to buy a motorized water pump.