Mali Die Ernte der Frauen

Women's harvest

In northern Mali, women smallholders are providing good and healthy food. Thanks to new vegetable varieties, goat farming and improved methods of growing rice, they are enhancing not only their income, but also their standing in the community.

: D.T. Romain Georges Arnaud Akéminou
: Katrin Gänsler

Nine tonnes. This one figure is enormously important for Zainabou Cissé. The 63-year-old’s last rice harvest was nine tonnes per hectare. It is a result she is proud of. The mother of six, and grandmother of three, lives in the northern Malian municipality of Alafia, which is home to some 4,000 people. It is situated about an hour from the city of Timbuktu, whose clay mosques and mausoleums are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Alafia has its own school, mosques and a health centre, but few opportunities to earn a living.

While most men in the region raise animals or farm, the women generate an income from what is termed ‘petit commerce’. They sell everyday consumer goods such as tomatoes and onions, soap, washing powder, salt and sugar at small, wooden stalls. And they grow vegetables and rice on a small scale. Farming in the Sahel may initially sound like a contradiction in terms. Many people will visualise an arid desertscape, but in fact the Sahel is a complex, fragile zone with a very wide variety of vegetation. There are barren regions with leached, hard soils, but in parts of the Sahel trees and shrubs flourish. The banks of the River Niger offer excellent, fertile conditions. This is where Zainabou Cissé and 42 other women farm a total of 16 hectares of land. Together, this group of smallholders is called the ‘Coopérative agropastorale Nafagoumo’.

Bildergalerie Accordion

People were trained in sustainable agriculture and the cultivation of nutrient-rich vegetables - almost half of them women.
(as of Febuary 2022)


Women now have more diverse diets. Previously, they were at risk of malnutrition.
(as of Febuary 2022)

> 95.000

Thanks to the valorization of irrigation areas, people have better access to rice and nutrient-rich vegetables.
(as of Febuary 2022)

In an effort to achieve good yields, they used to rely on lots of fertiliser and seed which they sowed on the paddies, but their harvests stagnated, Cissé recalls. ‘Per hectare we harvested about five tonnes.’ Although that was by no means a bad harvest, the turning point came when they were introduced to a modified method for growing rice – the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The members of the cooperative found out how this system works at a training session organised by the Food and Nutrition Security, Enhanced Resilience programme (ProSAR) in Mali. GIZ is implementing the programme with partners on behalf of the German Development Ministry (BMZ).

SRI aims to use less fertiliser and seed, while increasing yields. Nursery beds are set up and the seedlings are transplanted after only eight days. They are planted in well-dug soil, individually, widely spaced and in a grid pattern. Although this involves more work, it means that the plants then no longer compete for nutrients as they did when several were planted together. SRI also uses less water than conventional rice-growing methods because the plants are irrigated in a much more targeted manner. Thanks to the introduction of this method to Mali, Zainabou Cissé has seen her harvests almost double, she reports jubilantly.

This not only boosts the household budget – it also enhances safety and security. When enough rice can be grown locally, there is less need to undertake the hazardous shopping trip to neighbouring towns or even Timbuktu. The risk of being attacked by bandits is high, particularly on long-distance roads. They set up roadblocks, threaten travellers and force them to hand over their money. ‘Every trip is terrifying,’ admits Cissé. But she is not going to let that get the better of her, even if insecurity has been the dominant issue in the region for years now. ‘We can’t give up. We must find a way to live with it,’ she says.

Aissata Mahamane mit Frauen ihrer Kooperative.

Aissata Mahamane with other women from her cooperative. Since attending training, they have been growing particularly nutritious vegetables.

In northern Mali, sections of the Tuareg population rebelled against the state at the start of 2012. A military coup followed, and the north of the country was occupied by two terrorist groups. In spite of international military missions and the 2015 peace agreement, the region remains unstable. Another coup followed in August 2020.

Aissata Mahamane, who also lives in Alafia, does not care to look back either. ‘They were hard times,’ she says brusquely when asked about the 2012/2013 crisis. ‘Women were often raped and we were afraid to work in the fields.’ That has now changed for the better, says the 60-year-old. The region is no longer controlled by terrorists who resort to violence to impose ‘their rules’.

In retrospect, Aissata Mahamane can only shake her head – also about the way they used to farm. ‘Back then, we only grew onions and tobacco.’ Like the other women in her cooperative, she gave little thought to a balanced diet. That changed in 2019, when a training session about growing a variety of nutritious vegetables gave them new ideas. Mahamane, who has five grown-up children and also looks after her seven grandchildren, has since completely overhauled her own kitchen garden. ‘Now I grow potatoes, cabbage, pumpkins, tomatoes, aubergines, onions and lettuce,’ she explains. Some of the vegetables were new to her. The training course also gave her the opportunity to try out new recipes. She likes cooking potatoes and pumpkins best. ‘Pumpkins are very nutritious, so they are good for malnourished children,’ she explains.

It is my dream that everyone receives a good education, because that prepares them for the future.

Aissata Mahamane

The vegetables are not only for her own family though. Her harvests are now so good that she can sell some of her produce. Customers come to her kitchen garden directly. She also supplies two markets. The extra income is welcome as she funds her grandchildren’s education. She pays the equivalent of almost EUR 23 per child every year for school fees, books, pencils, clothing and a rucksack – that is a lot of money in Mali, where almost 43 per cent of the country’s approximately 20 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and have to survive on less than USD 1.90 a day. Mahamane is proud that she can support her grandchildren with the profits she makes from selling vegetables. ‘It is my dream that they all get a good education.’ That will prepare them for the future and make them adaptable. Of that their grandmother is quite certain.

Local crops mean greater security

Fadimata Moulaye also looks after her grandchildren. She lives with them and her son in Goundam, 85 kilometres south-west of Timbuktu. To feed the family, the 48-year-old rears goats and sheep. She began doing so in 2016, when she was given four goats and one buck as part of the ProSAR project. The white goats with the floppy ears were the basis of her success. She has since sold some of the animals she has bred and has reinvested the money. ‘14 têtes,’ Moulaye reports proudly on her growing herd, which now numbers 14 animals. That is good for her grandchildren who can drink goat’s milk every day. The animals produce three or four litres per day. ‘I give some of the milk to friends and neighbours and sell what is left.’ That gives her an additional EUR 1.50 a day.

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POPULATION: 19.66 million



Sources: World Bank, UN, WFP

Fadimata Moulaye gives her grandchildren milk from her goats every day.

Fadimata Moulaye gives her grandchildren milk from her goats every day.

Multisectoral approach

GIZ is working in a number of areas to improve nutrition for people in Mali. The approach combines extensive activities in nutrition-sensitive irrigated agriculture and livestock farming, communication on healthy, diversified diets and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Best practices at local level are shared with the relevant bodies and institutions and mainstreamed within the appropriate structures.

Contact: Raymond Mehou,

But that is not the only source of income. Moulaye knew immediately what she wanted to do with her first profit. She made a dream come true. ‘I set up a small business. Today I sell tomatoes, dried onions, oil and salt.’ The higher income has improved the family’s diet too. Today they eat more frequently and at regular intervals. ‘I can always make breakfast and an evening meal,’ she nods happily. She is not worried that things might change for the worse. For the times when the goats produce less milk, her small business represents a second source of income.

Her herd has become her private bank. If anyone in the family falls sick, an animal can be sold in an emergency, to pay for medicine or hospital bills for example. Fadimata Moulaye reflects for a moment and then says, ‘But I hope it never comes to that.’

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals