Food and Agriculture Organization of the United NationsFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Drought within an ocean

Cabo Verde, a Small Island Developing State, hits back against climate change with skills passed on through South-South Cooperation


Willy Gonçalves clicks his tongue to get the goats to run a little faster up the tall dirt hill in front of his farm. The goats are in search of grass to eat.

Despite its name, Cabo Verde (translated literally to “Green Cape”) isn’t so green at this time of year. The brutal dry season turns the island of Santiago into even shades of light brown. It will only get hotter, and there are still three months until July when the rainy season arrives, if it starts when it is supposed to.

Leaving the goats to find their own breakfast and make their regular commute back to the farm alone, Willy goes to feed the chickens and begins watering the seedlings that they will hopefully sell that day at Ze Nena’s nursery.

He lifts the sheets that protected the plants overnight, uncovering rows of tomato, onion, cabbage and cassava plants, and fetches a can to fill it from the electric pump spouting out the most precious resource they have in this season: water.

When their farm finishes the reserve of last season’s rain, they have to rely on bought water. It is desalinized, now a major way of producing fresh water on this island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

As with many countries, the temperatures have only gone up, while the precipitation has gone down, leaving farmers more reliant on other water sources, but buying water digs into their profits.

Willy picks up a plant envelope, soil and seedling wrapped in a black plastic blanket. This is his favorite part of the day, planting seedlings, or creating life as he sees it.

It is an act of love that reminds him of his father who died when Willy was just four years old. With his mother’s attention divided between work and six other kids, Willy often felt overlooked. He sought out friendship at the house of his neighbour, Delfina or Nena, as she is better known.

Beginning at the age of nine, he went almost every day to help Nena in the garden and found happiness there. Nena treated him as another son. This is how Nena is. When a farmer needs help, she is there. When Willy’s mom needed someone to care for her kids while she worked, Nena stepped in.

Despite being a good student, Willy left school, but stayed determined to continue his path as a farmer even when his teachers came to try and dissuade him.

Willy describes, “When my teachers came round, they asked me what I want to do with my life because I was a good student. I always responded that this is a dignified job, and it's profitable… It's all about good management.”

Willy and Nena worked together on the farm, and it has grown to three times its size.

Now at the age of 71, Nena has left the reins to Willy. He manages the farm, takes care of the land and finance, but Nena’s presence is still very much felt. She is everywhere on the farm, taking care of odds and ends, making food for the workers, overseeing all the activities with the confidence and authority of a woman who has dedicated her life to agriculture.

Willy beams when he talks of her, “She's always there for everyone who has a problem, from support for building houses to food for those who need it. They always speak highly of her. She's an example for me to follow, hard-working and respectful of everyone. Everything I learnt was from her.”

Willy and Nena’s dedication and eagerness to learn new ways of working presented an open door for the call that came from the Ministry of Agriculture. They invited Willy to a training on soil management and pest control offered by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as part of a project under the FAO-China South-South Cooperation (SSC) Programme.

With the changes in climate, soil erosion has augmented and soil fertility plummeted, not to mention the explosion of plant pests in the country. The rising temperatures have made Cabo Verde a home where these new pests can thrive. Fall armyworm arrived in 2017 and has since wreaked havoc on maize stocks, not sparing Willy’s crops. Fruit flies that attack mango harvests, in particular, and tomato leafminers, named after their favored target, are other formidable foes.

Through FAO, Cabo Verde requested assistance in fighting these growing challenges and that is exactly what China could offer, having lived through many of these difficulties itself in the vastness of its own country.

The South-South Cooperation projects matches the technologies and experience of visiting countries with the needs and requests of host countries, transferring knowledge and expertise through partnership. China is passing on to Cabo Verde what it has learned in its own rural landscapes, remarkably similar to that of this small island’s interior.

Willy, always interested to learn more, talks about the training, “It was a great help to me. It's the first time I've taken part in a training programme that talks about what we really need.”

Fighting pests with innovation

The sun has gone down in the sky and Willy moves on to collecting fruits from the orchards. The mangoes he picks are just a fraction of what the trees used to produce. The seasons have changed. Plus there are fruit flies. They infest the mangoes by the thousands. Then comes the rainy season when fall armyworm launches its attack on the corn.

Willy points out a pest trap that looks like an ordinary, plastic container hanging on a pole. But it is a veritable piece of technology. Inside there are pheromones concocted in a lab to attract the male fall armyworm. By eliminating the males, there is no way for the females to reproduce. This innovation can significantly curb the number of these devastating pests without using chemicals to harm the land.

Willy also keeps an eye on the soil. He didn’t pay much attention to it before. It was just a basic input, but Yanhua Zeng, a horticulture and soil expert sent by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, soon changed that.

“Our soil is weak; the water is salty,” says Willy. “Sometimes we blame the seeds, the plants. It was in this training that I learnt how to deal with the soil.”

Willy learned to recognize a lack of nutrients in the land, increasing production of the crops. Now they use the manure from the goats and crop residues to add nutrients to the soil.

“Willy was telling me that he used to buy organic fertilizer. Now he has learned how to do it. And the money that he will potentially save will support another part of his farm. So he can, with the savings, invest in other things in his own farm,” describes Katya Neves, Assistant FAO Representative in charge of Programme in Cabo Verde.

Willy also knows how much to water plants now. Zeng could see from the soil that Willy was overwatering some of the crops. In a period as arid as it is now, this savings is like money in the pocket.

Though many farmers are reluctant to try new things, Willy is always keen to get more training. It fits well into his dream:

“Now I dream of having my own nursery; where I can produce my own plants and sell them to the farmers. To be my own boss in the future.”

Since Willy took the training, he has been working with all the other farmers to share his knowledge and what he learned from the experts, passing on the knowledge even further. This is an aim of the project, that the training passed on to farmers is spread even further by the farmers themselves:

“We hope to be able with him [Willy] to propagate these techniques through his influence with other farmers, to promote these techniques and see how we can together, farmers and technicians, face these problems of pests that we have in Cabo Verde,” says Gilbert Silva, Plant Health Protection Engineer for the National Institute for Research and Agricultural Development.

Situation in Cabo Verde
as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS)

Cabo Verde, an archipelago of ten main islands, nine of which are inhabited, is a SIDS in West Africa where approximately 22 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their main income, but less than about eight percent of the country’s GDP comes from this sector. Though physically detached from the rest of the continent, Cabo Verde is nonetheless part of the Sahelian arid belt.

Like most other SIDS, Cabo Verde relies heavily on imports: 80 percent of its food is imported. This makes the country’s food security vulnerable to worldwide shocks like conflicts or disasters.

In 2018, a severe drought hit the country that dried up the Poilão dam on Santiago Island. Since then, rainfall has been scarcer and more unpredictable than in years prior.

This drought has led to a significant drop in food production and grazing land losses, which, together with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the important tourism sector, culminated in a peak of food insecurity across the country in 2022.

“The experience of five years of drought recently has really had an impact on agriculture and livestock in general... So we have several climatic factors that are impacting us more and more... The erosion of the soil, unavailability of access to water and the difficulties of distributing, transporting and receiving goods, those are key challenges for our farmers,” says Ana Laura Touza, FAO Representative in Cabo Verde.

Though food security has since improved, food production and agriculture are still suffering. At the same time, the country has potential to make more productive use of its land and to harness its fisheries sector more fully.

The Government of Cabo Verde highlighted the management of horticulture and soil fertility, plant protection, the improvement of animal production and enhancement of animal genetics as some priority areas for South-South Cooperation assistance. Later this year, there will also be a study on the potential of seaweed cultivation and value chain enhancement for this product.

“What we need is to adapt the production system to these challenges and build a smart agriculture. This needs finance, capacity building, innovation and what we see is that we also need very strong cooperation with our partners,” states Gilberto Silva, Minister for Agriculture and Environment of Cabo Verde.

“The South-South cooperation with China facilitated by FAO allows us to develop many policies for the transformation of agrifood systems. We consider this a very good example for a Small Island Developing State… Because it helps also to face climate change and to improve the strength of our farming system,” continues Silva.

“Within the framework of the cooperation agreement, the Chinese expert team introduced to Cabo Verde a number of practical technical experience and advanced scientific and technological achievements… to help Cabo Verde's agricultural producers and operators effectively deal with the adverse effects of global climate change, increase production efficiency, reduce import dependence and improve food security,” states Jie Xu, Ambassador of China to Cabo Verde.

The beat and battle of livestock production

A little farther north on the island of Santiago, a beat begins, rhythmically, melodically, like a drum calling people to dance. It is Celestina Tavares preparing the butter for the day. In a big plastic water jug, she sloshes the milk back and forth, forward and sideways, in a type of music that makes the milk wave and separate into curds.

It is energetic work for 5:00 am, but they can sell this butter for EUR 25 a litre instead of the EUR 1.5 they get for 1.5 litres of milk.

Her work makes up the difference in price though not many are there to witness this art form. She’s had decades of practice at this point in her 47 years, but for her, it is just her morning routine.

With the curds separated and strained into a bowl. She washes them and adds salt before refrigerating. On the weekend, she will boil them on the open fire that they build on the unfinished upper floor of their house, a space reserved for this activity.

With the morning’s work safely in the fridge, Celestina joins up with her father, Francisco, to board their truck and make their short journey to their farm just 10 minutes but a world away.

Down a narrow dirt road, past fields and other farmland that may or may not be used, they finally reach their animals, located within sight of the island’s coastline, a black stretch of unused beach, with emphatic waves that pound against both the sand and the jagged rocky cliffs that plummet into the ocean.

Her milk cows, Marianna and Eloisa, are waiting for her, as are the chickens, pigs, geese and turkeys. She, her father and her son begin the long task of feeding these many animals.

It is three generations in one barn and though Celestina is happy to have her son’s help, she senses that he wants to do something else, like many of the young people on the island. The youth here see agriculture as too laborious for its return and prefer to go to the cities or abroad to find work that is more economically rewarding and more stable.

“I was born and found my father working with animals, and it's a routine that motivated me,” recounts Celestina. “Everything I learned was thanks to my father. I deepened some knowledge later with that training, but everything I learned was taught by him.”

She always had the desire to work with animals and the dream to become a veterinarian. She started pursuing that with a degree in Primary Care in Animal Health but couldn’t go beyond that with the time and money required. She still dreams to do it one day, a dream that her father shares for her.

Francisco talks proudly of Celestina and her vision, “She is my right hand. Without her, I am nothing… I wanted her to become a veterinarian, but we didn't have the means; so, she went part of the way and stopped.”

For now, she is happy working with the animals that provide her family the money they need to live.

She feeds Marianna and Eloisa the imported barley they bought. It is more expensive than the local feed, but Francisco states that it is better quality. Feed is very important for an animal’s health and productivity. Poor quality feed can lead to diseases and to a reduction in milk.

This is one of Celestina and Francisco’s main concerns: the growing cost of feed, most of which is imported in this island-state. In fact, Cabo Verde, like many SIDS, imports the majority of its food products. This makes the country very vulnerable to market shocks that affect food and feed prices. The last couple years have seen a slew of those, and this has had a huge impact on household incomes and poverty levels.

Not to mention the economic impact of water scarcity. The animals need water. Celestina and Francisco, like Willy, have had to purchase desalinized water to bridge the gap in their needs.

“The challenge we face here is the lack of rain, the lack of water. When it's like this, we struggle with pasture. And as you can see, we don't have water for the cattle; we have to transport water here. That's the biggest difficulty,” explains Celestina.

Zhiqi Li comes by the farm in the afternoon. He is a livestock expert sent by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. He and Zeng visit model farms to run trainings for farmers. Today the training is just for Celestina and her dad, and it focuses exactly on this worry: fodder.

Li asks Celestina and Francisco to cut down the elephant grass on their land, grown specifically for feed. Running the stalks through a machine, they then pack a barrel of this green grass without letting it dry as they would normally do. This maintains more of the nutrients, Li elaborates. It is also cheaper than buying feed.

"It is much better if the green corn stalks are utilized for the fodder right after harvest,” says Li. “With this method, the fodder is more nutritious. It is also a good practice for circular agriculture.”

Francisco is keen for these kinds of tips: ways for them to use what they have on their land and reduce their costs, keeping more of their income for other necessities.

The cows love this green meal, slurping it up with their long tongues. Celestina pets Marianna as the cow eats this tasty grass. “The moment I like the most is feeding the animals. I like to see them eating; you can tell they are happy.”

With land scarce on this archipelago of islands, most rural people own livestock, but not farms. Their animals are a principal source of income. 85.6 percent of the rural population is involved in livestock production, explains Analina Pereira de Barros Olende, Director of the Livestock and Animal Health Service at the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment.

“It is a means of subsistence, but people also consider livestock a savings bank, especially pigs. They raise pigs so that, in moments of necessity, they can sell them and meet their needs,” she adds.

Analina has worked with Francisco and Celestina for 20 years and is proud of what they have accomplished, even more now with the help of the Chinese experts.

This is the way forward for the future for the island: finding more sustainable ways of using decreasing water resources, reducing reliance on imports and the sometimes-volatile prices and learning new methods for dealing with pests and other consequences of rising temperatures.

Climate change on island states is palpable. It is on every farmer’s mind and in their daily realities. Innovations, shared expertise and replicable practices are key to facing these challenges.

With all countries battling climate change in different ways, it is critical that experiences and solutions are shared among them. Partnerships, like the FAO-Cabo Verde-China one, are helping bring everyday solutions to the country’s farmers and smallholder livestock producers.

“I really appreciate the fact that the South-South Cooperation is bringing in scientists, experts from China, to work with national counterparts, sharing day by day their experiences…,” summarizes FAO Representative Touza. “They are looking with Cabo Verdean eyes, bringing Chinese expertise. This is very valuable because countries that have faced similar situations and have found possible solutions come to share them.”

Simple is the key to innovation and it is the best solution when talking about methods that can be implemented and replicated easily, cheaply and effectively. These types of practices that make an impact in food produced and money banked might be a reason to keep Cabo Verdean youth in their impressive rural landscapes, ones that tourists come from afar to see. Agriculture holds within it the potential to decrease poverty and fight a changing climate with smart and innovative practices. The expertise exists. It needs to be passed on.

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