Acting early to ensure food security for farmers in southern Madagascar

When you rely on the rain to live, what happens when it doesn’t come?

In Ankily, Soalay and his fellow villagers in southern Madagascar have experienced repeated droughts and failed harvests. These changes in climate have damaged the resilience of farmers and fed the vicious cycle of poverty. ©FAO


At 56 years old, Soalay has seen more droughts than he can count in Ankily, his village in southern Madagascar. Like many, he has been forced to migrate to find work when the crops have failed, trading chickens in Mahajanga, a northern port city in Madagascar, where many southerners go in hard times.

The latest drought in southern Madagascar has proved especially difficult, and the father of 12, with six grandchildren, has struggled to keep his land and his oxen. “This drought was very hard. We adults ate only once a day. The children ate nuts they collected in the bush,” recants Soalay.

Worldwide, the intensity and frequency of natural hazards, like droughts, are increasing. Natural hazards, for example, now occur nearly five times as often as they did 40 years ago. In some of the worst-hit places, one crisis will follow another, each time stripping away more of the hard-earned but limited assets of the poorest and most vulnerable people.

As an island, Madagascar is particularly subject to extreme weather conditions such as cyclones, floods and droughts, all of which are intensifying with climate change. Smallholder farmers make up approximately 70 percent of the Malagasy population, and the challenges of farming in southern Madagascar’s dry, semi-arid climate are exacerbated by recurrent droughts, strong winds and silting. Poor harvests as a result of climate extremes create a vicious cycle of poverty.

Madagascar already has one of the highest poverty rates in Africa, with 75 percent of people living on less than USD 1.25 a day, the international poverty threshold.

Most farmers in southern part of the country cultivate very small parcels of land, less than a hectare, primarily to produce food for their families. Any loss in production makes even meeting household needs more difficult. Often in remote areas that lack roads or infrastructure, farming communities have limited access to basic services such as water and electricity, as well as markets to sell their products. Alternative ways of generating income in this area are almost impossible to find.

Since 2014, three successive agricultural seasons have failed in southern Madagascar because of repeated droughts. Many households were forced to rely on precarious survival strategies: selling their animals at low prices, migrating in search of temporary employment or living off wild foods, such as red cactus.

The early warning system put in place in March 2017 predicted another severe drought. FAO distributed short-cycle vegetable seeds and irrigation equipment to ensure their food security. ©FAO

For Soalay’s fellow villager, Zarafonomeny, collecting firewood and growing small amounts of a local green leafy vegetable known as braid is her fallback in times of severe drought. But this is not enough for the 23-year-old mother of four to sustain her family and build a more stable future. She and the other villagers needed better solutions for coping with drought.

In March 2017, FAO, together with the government and other partners, put in place an early warning system and an early action plan to monitor the risk of drought and consequently mitigate its impact. In September 2017, all the information pointed to the occurrence of another severe drought. When the agricultural season began in November 2017, the early warning signs were proved correct. Many areas suffered failed or nearly failed harvests.

Thankfully, FAO’s early action project had provided Zarafonomeny and other farmers in her village with quality, short cycle seeds of cereals, legumes, vegetables and tubers, together with micro-irrigation systems, water pumps and water storage tanks. This combination allowed the villagers to start the agricultural season on time and to obtain at least two good crop harvest in a period of six months. Farmers were also trained on better agricultural practices, including diversifying crops, using organic fertilizers, fighting plant diseases and improving crop storage.

Zarafonomeny and her fellow villagers were happy for the introduction of an irrigation system that helped them be less reliant on rain for their food and incomes. ©FAO

Zarafonomeny and her community were especially happy with this irrigation system. “The irrigation equipment from FAO meant I was able to produce a variety of vegetables, some of which we ate; the rest I took to the local market to sell,” she describes. “The money I earned meant I could cover some daily needs, such as buying rice, oil and soap.”

 “The community celebrated the arrival of the equipment,” Soalay adds.

The benefits of irrigation and vegetable seeds together were by far the most significant help for vulnerable farmers. Using irrigation equipment allowed them to grow up to three times more than the usual crop cycle. Households also worked closely together to make sure that equipment was maintained and fairly used, contributing to the sustainability of the interventions beyond this specific drought.

Working with national governments and partners in the humanitarian, development and scientific fields, FAO’s Early Warning Early Action approach monitors risk and translates warnings into early interventions. By working for poor people, who are vulnerable to climactic changes and other shocks, FAO strives to ensure that they maintain their livelihoods, self-confidence, and above all, dignity to face future challenges. Acting early saves lives and livelihoods, builds people’s resilience, eases pressure on strained humanitarian resources and brings us closer to #ZeroHunger. 

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1. No poverty, 2. Zero hunger, 13. Climate action