Niger: An arid, very poor and food insecure country
Named after the Niger river which crosses this landlocked, poor and food insecure country, Niger is located in the Sahara–Sahel belt, in West Africa. Its population is over 17.8 million and growing fast as the fertility rate is among the highest in the world, at 7.6 births per woman. The population is expected to increase to over 69 million by 2050 (source: UN population prospects 2012). Niger ranks last on the 2013 Human Development Index (186th of 186 countries), and life expectancy at birth is 55 years.
It is estimated that 2.5 million people in Niger (15% of the population) are chronically food insecure and unable to meet their basic food requirements even during years of average agricultural production. The malnutrition rate is high even during non-crisis years, especially among children and women: one in eight children never reach the age of five and 42 % of children are chronically malnourished.
Agriculture in a challenging environment
Eighty percent of the Nigerien territory is covered by the Sahara desert and only a small portion of the South Niger is fertile. Over 80% of the active population is engaged in agriculture, generating over 40% of the GDP. However, agriculture relies heavily on climate conditions, meaning a low productivity of the various farming systems. When rainfall is deficient, Niger has difficulty feeding its population and must rely on grain purchases and food aid to meet national food requirements.
In addition to severe dryland stresses, the farming constraints include poor water management, land degradation, poor access to equipment and inputs, weak farmer organizations, weak market linkages apart from a few value chains such as vegetables (eg, onions), insufficient storage and post-harvest facilities and poor food processing capacity.
Farming systems: Apart from the Aïr mountainous region and oasis where fruit and vegetables are important cash crops, the Sahel Sahara zone (north of Niger) is the territory of pastoralism. In the Southern belt (south of Tahoua and Zinder), rainfed crops and crop-livestock farming systems dominate. The main crops are dryland cereals (mostly millets and sorghum) and legumes like cowpea and groundnut. Millet is the main staple crop in Niger covering 65% of the cultivated land. The most productive (and irrigated) lands are located along the Niger river, at the Southern border with Nigeria and Benin. Many farming households depend on agroforestry systems with planting or farmer-managed natural regeneration of drought-resilient multipurpose trees.
Following several years of political instability, the new government has launched the 3N initiative (Nigeriens nourishing Nigeriens), reinforcing the role of the agriculture sector for the development of Niger. Fighting malnutrition, increasing farm productivity, diversification of the farming systems using synergies between crops, trees and livestock, improving resilience against climate shocks and linking farmers to markets are among the 3N priorities. [Reference: 2012-2015 national development plan (axe3)]