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Mali is a large landlocked country in West Africa. Its harsh and variable climate and poor soils make farming challenging. Food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread. Along with the development and large-scale dissemination of improved varieties of pearl millet, sorghum and groundnut , ICRISAT aims at improving the productivity and resilience of smallholder agriculture in the climate-risky Sahelian and Sudanian zones.

38% - Percentage of children under five in Mali who are stunted

45% - Share of Mali's population that is 15 years old and younger

69% - Share of sorghum and millet energy intake for children in Mali


General context

Mali is a large landlocked country with severe climatic and natural constraints. It is crossed by the rivers Niger and Senegal. Northern Mali is a very arid Sahara desert region hosting nomadic tribes (eg, the Touareg). Rainfall increases as one goes southwards (Sahel). More than 80% of Malian people depend on agriculture (mainly rainfed) for their living.

Mali has a very rapid demographic growth (+3.6%/year) and one of the highest fertility rates in the world with 6.86 children per woman. This puts even more pressure on the already food insecure population that largely depends on a not very productive smallholder agriculture.

Like other neighbouring Sahelian countries, the country faces recurring nutrition and food insecurities due to the harsh, dry and variable climate. Many rural households face food scarcity in one out of three years. About 78% of the population lives in rural areas and over half the Malian people live on less than US$ 1.25 a day. Malnutrition is high with 38% children under five being stunted, according to national malnutrition statistics.

Agriculture accounts for almost 34% of the GDP. The majority of Malian farmers are subsistence-oriented: about 85% of them have less than 10 hectares of land, are poorly equipped, with poor access to credit. Forty-five percent of the population is less than 15 years old. Though the youth could be tapped, there is high unemployment, lack of training and employment support opportunities for them.

Crop yields of staples are very low due to poor soil fertility, high climate variability and rarely use improved inputs.

ICRISAT research in Mali

Improving food security and resilience and initiating market-oriented development for smallholder farmers

ICRISAT works with Mali's main agricultural research institutes such as the Institut d’ Economie Rurale (IER) in improving the productivity and resilience of smallholder agriculture in the climate risky  Sahelian and Sudanian zones. Apart from the development and large-scale dissemination of improved  varieties of pearl millet, sorghum and groundnut , ICRISAT also focuses on better soil fertility management, productive and nutritive crop-tree farming systems, safer and inclusive crop value chain options, as well as approaches to improve family nutrition and women’s status in agriculture.

Developing and disseminating improved varieties of key staple crops: In Mali, farmer seed producers and cooperatives are the major sources of improved seed being marketed by emerging private seed companies. Improving their capacity is key to meeting local demand. In 2012, 70 tons of improved sorghum seeds were produced by local seed companies while the demand is over 500 tons (only 20% of total sorghum area is cultivated). Farmer participatory sorghum and pearl millet breeding in the Sikasso and Mopti regions aims at improving access to better seeds such as sorghum hybrids with 30% higher yields than the best traditional varieties.

Promoting diversification and better farming practices: Crop diversification [ref CODE-WA project] improves farm resilience and productivity. As a response to low soil fertility, limited access to fertilizers and difficult climatic conditions in the Sahel, a lot of effort has been put into developing appropriate fertilizer technologies such as fertilizer microdosing, the manual application of a sma ll quantity of fertilizer into planting holes which improves yields, productivity and incomes. Mechanized application using an innovative combination of planter and disk which enable seeds and fertilizer to be sown at the same time has also been developed to work six times faster than the manual method. The use of locally sourced phosphate rock is also an interesting fertilization option for Malian farmers.

Under Africa Rising, several options for biological intensification are being tested, such as cowpea intensification, "food banks" with nutritious and resilient Moringa and Baobab, sorghum hybrid intensification, groundnut aflatoxin management, a mechanized microdosing trial with hybrid sorghum and a local fruit tree establishment trial.

But what drives the adoption of such agricultural innovations? A study in the Office de la Haute Vallée du Niger shows that policies that improve farmers’ education and facilitate access to credit to purchase agricultural equipment catalyze the adoption of soil and water conservation practices.

Linking smallholder farmers to markets through efficient, safer and inclusive value chains

Conditions are being set up for an inclusive market-oriented development  that enable smallholder farming families to go beyond subsistence farming to produce surpluses that can be stored and sold to markets. However in Mali the majority of small farmers are not benefiting from markets because of inefficient linkages and low quality of the produce. Between 30 to 40% of crop production is lost before it reaches the market. It is important to build farmers’ awareness of the importance of quality, and the benefits of fighting crop contaminations like aflatoxin as featured in this video in Bambara.

Gender and nutrition: Sorghum and millet provide 69% of total energy intake of children and 75% of the total energy intake of mothers in Mali. The vulnerable population especially children and women often suffer from severe micronutrient deficiencies. To combat such malnutrition, an integrated approach is required combining nutrition education (eg encouraging exclusive breastfeeding), use of biofortified staple crops and participatory research on nutritive recipes using local tree produce such as vitamin-rich moringa leaves, legumes (eg groundnut) and dryland cereals. ICRISAT is also looking at the feasibility and impact on nutrition of biofortified (iron and zinc rich) pearl millet and sorghum, including the impact of crop preparation eg grain decortication on micronutrient intake.

Upcoming research priorities include anticipating the impact of climate change on Malian farms. ICRISAT Mali hosts West Africa’s coordination of the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)  programme.

Key documents on Mali

Rural poverty country profile, IFAD

Mali Feed the Future strategy

Adapting dryland agriculture in Mali to climate change, Noragric

Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT
NGOs, staff and researchers from Ghana visiting a farmer’s hybrid sorghum plot in Namposela village  as part of the Africa Rising project.
Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT
Women farmers appreciating improved groundnut varieties. ICRISAT released many improved varieties in Mali, like Alason, Fleur 1, Samakélé, Denbanyuma and Wallia Tiga.

Seed entrepreneurs in Mali boost food security in the region with improved sorghum and groundnut varieties. The Guardian Global Development photo story

Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT
A farmer checking a new sorghum variety during field visit in Koutiala – training for better seed production.
Demonstration of mechanical fertilizer application, six times faster than the manual method. Will be tested in Nigeria too.
An example of on-farm help adapted to Malian small farms – fertilizer microdosing.