As Blaise Compaore, the immediate former president of Burkina Fasso fled his country in a convoy of heavy military escort, he left behind streets full of demonstrators and farms full of uncertainty.
According to World Bank estimates, a staggering 80% of Burkina Faso’s 17.3 million people rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods. The country itself depends on cotton, which is its main source of income.
In the short term, the current unrest will definitely not boost revenue for Burkina Faso’s agricultural sector. This sector is replete with smallholders whose tiny farms produce barely enough food for them, leaving little or no surplus to sell and earn livelihoods from. Many other farmers can’t even cultivate their farms because they have abandoned them, thanks to soil erosion, decreasing fertility and slanting topography that complicates farming.
When Blaise Compaore’s entourage crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire, the former president was ironically doing what thousands of his countrymen and women do or a regular basis. Burkinabe often migrate to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana regularly for seasonal agricultural jobs. For these seasonal migrants, migration is the golden bridge that promises greener pastures on the other side. One of these migrants was Traoré, a father of three from the southeastern town of Diabaga.
When Traoré fled from Diapaga town in August this year, he wasn’t running away from blazing guns or ethnic conflict. Diapaga was very much peaceful. He was running away from poverty into what he hoped would be a much better life in Côte d’Ivoire. He could have travelled for 350 kilometres to Ouagadougou to try his luck at the capital, but a former school mate who is a seasonal migrant to Côte d’Ivoire kept telling him about the good money in the farms of Burkina Faso’s larger and richer neighbor.
Ironically, Traoré left behind the gold that western companies had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to come and mine. Although huge amounts of gold hadn’t really been discovered yet, mining was ongoing. But Traoré had three children and a wife to feed, not to mention the extended family of his ageing mother and three younger brothers who were also jobless. Traoré and his family couldn’t eat the dreams of gold. So he took the plunge to Côte d’Ivoire.
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world despite the fact that it is the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa, behind South Africa, Mali and Ghana.
‘Where is the gold?’ the Burkinabe like to ask whenever their country’s golden status comes up in conversation.
They never ask where the farms are because they interact with these farms almost daily and reap from them millet, maize, rice, sweet potatoes, mangoes, cassava, beans and a host of many other crops that feed them. Among them is fonio, a tiny indigenous cereal that has been planted in West Africa for millennia.
It is within this dynamic agricultural context that the World Bank is funding the Africa Union’s great green walls initiative. In Burkina Faso, this project seeks to ‘support restoration and protection of natural resources, forest and biodiversity in the larger ecosystem landscape related to agricultural expansion.’
One major challenge facing not just agricultural expansion but existing agricultural land is the fact that half of Burkina Fasso is semi-arid savannah land. It’s hardly the kind of land that would attract the average farmer.
But Burkinabe farmers are not average. They are innovative and resilient. They have accumulated decades of indigenous knowledge that has equipped them with innovative coping strategies. One such strategy is known as zaï. It is a small hole that the farmers dig on barren land then fill it with organic matter. The small holes then become scattered islands of fertility within which crops can be planted. How cool is that!
These farmers may not be in the streets Ouagadougou, on the front lines of the Burkinabe revolution, but they are on the front lines of feeding their country against great odds. As for Traoré, he too is on the front lines of feeding his family, even if it means doing so from farms of another country.