Farming on the Edge: Smallholders in Africa’s Sahel

Context Global Development
4 min readMar 25, 2021



Getting his shoes dusty helped open Joe Funk’s eyes to the realities of Africa’s Sahel region. As a writer documenting Context Global Development®’s (CGD) work in evaluating agricultural development programs, it was Funk’s first time on the ground in the region. “I had read and written about Africa’s low-income, small-scale farmers,” he said, “but it was not until I walked through their fields, visited their communities, and got their dust on my shoes that I began to understand and appreciate their lives and challenges.”

Funk accompanied a CGD team in 2017 throughout Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria, as it assessed programs funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). These programs — designed to help improve farm productivity and increase family food security — are being administered by international non-government organizations (INGOs).

Two-thirds of the developing world’s three billion rural people live and farm on land plots smaller than five acres, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Many of these 475 million farm households are poor and food insecure, with limited access to markets and services. Yet despite their constrained choices, they produce food for a substantial proportion of the world’s population.

A Race Against the Weather

The Sahel is a semi-arid transition zone in the agro-climatic zone south of the Sahara Desert and north of the wetter North Sudanian region. It stretches across the African continent from the Atlantic Ocean eastward to the Red Sea.

Rainfall — or more specifically, the absence of significant rainfall — is a significant challenge for farmers in the Sahel. Droughts periodically cause severely reduced crop yields. Annual rainfall ranges from 8 inches in the north to 24 inches in the south, with variation from week to week and year to year.

It’s crucial that farmers time crop planting with the weather, especially in the northern regions where rainfall is more limited. There is a short window of opportunity to ensure that crops receive enough rain before the dry season begins. Therefore, labor needs for planting intensify in June or July, at the beginning of the three- to four-month wet season.

In addition to rainfall challenges, farmers in the Sahel lack the established economic and physical infrastructures taken for granted by farmers in more developed countries. Funk observes, “The American images I had of what it is to be a farmer simply do not apply to these resource-poor regions.” The supply chains to provide farm inputs, credit, extension services, and transportation to markets are poorly developed to almost nonexistent in some areas.

Most farms in the Sahel are smaller than 1 hectare (2.5 acres), and the vast majority of production is consumed on farm. While farm families do earn a small amount of income by selling some production, there is typically little disposable income for purchasing inputs. Therefore, farmers traditionally plant seed saved from the previous year’s crop. Not only does this seed lack modern genetic potential for improved yields, it is often damaged by disease and insect infestation during storage.

“To raise farmers’ incomes and improve families’ food security, ag development programs aspire to help farmers get the most out of the few pennies they have,” says Mimi Gaudreau, an agronomic consultant with CGD. “There are no easy, short-term solutions. Whatever assistance an outside organization provides needs to be sustainable so that when a program ends, these farmers will not be plunged into an even more difficult financial crisis.”

Depending on soil and climatic conditions, the main food crops produced by smallholder farmers in the Sahel are maize, sorghum, cowpeas (black eye peas), and millet. Sorghum and millet–more drought tolerant than maize–are most common in the drier, northern areas of the Sahel. Farther south, maize is more prominent, with yams and cassava providing a large portion of farmers’ caloric intake in Nigeria. Cotton, ground nuts (peanuts), and rice (both dryland and paddy) are produced as cash crops.

Harvesting crops is less time-sensitive than planting. Sorghum, however, needs to be harvested promptly at maturity to minimize bird damage. After the heads are gathered and put into storage, threshing can be done at a more relaxed pace, although the entire farming cycle is continuously a race against the weather.

Unless a farmer has an animal like an ox, horse, or small donkey to pull agricultural equipment (such as a simple cow-plow or cultivator), all field operations, including harvesting are performed with hand labor. One of the BMGF programs is reviving a simple, animal-traction planter that greatly reduces the time needed to plant crop seed. In addition to programs like this one that aims to boost agricultural productivity, other BMGF programs under evaluation strive to achieve other goals, from improving market access, to providing technical farming education and access to improved seed, or strengthening participation among men and women alike within Sahel communities.

Understanding the impact of extreme conditions on Sahelian farmers and their everyday lives is central to CGD’s work in assessing programs’ ability to be sustainable, replicable, and scalable. As writer Funk discovered, the dust of the Sahel is a way of life there. More important, CGD’s team appreciates that smallholder farmers in the Sahel will weigh their decisions against a complex set of factors that pivot around the well-being of the household. Food security for the family will always trump what might be seen as straightforward agronomic or productivity benefits through an American farmer’s frame of reference. CGD’s Gaudreau says, “We never lose sight that farmers in the Sahel need to feed their families first and foremost, and their investment decisions will reflect that priority.”



Context Global Development

Context Global Development® (CGD) is a non-profit organization that leads agricultural and social impact programs worldwide.