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Sustainable Smallholder Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa

Winter 2011 • Benin, West Africa

The 2011 National Geographic-Blackstone Innovation Challenge Grant has been awarded to three emerging explorers who have done cutting edge work in solar energy based irrigation in West Africa, ecological sanitation in Haiti, and biodiversity and pollination work in East Africa. With this grant, they will combine their efforts to enhance the sustainability of smallholder agricultural projects in the villages of northern Benin in West Africa and develop model projects that can be replicated in other villages in Benin, around West Africa and potentially in similar environments around the world.

The Solar Markets Garden project in Benin has successfully provided farmers with solar powered energy pumps for drip irrigation in a part of the world that is heavily dependent upon seasonal rains and expensive fuel. Yields have traditionally been low and farmers are at the mercy of seasonal employment and increasing drought. The solar powered energy pumps have allowed women farmers to generate increased incomes over time and use their money to start other businesses, send their children to school and attract further funding support. But they have relied on chemical fertilizers because they cannot produce enough organic fertilizer through existing manure composting efforts. Such fertilizer is both expensive and environmentally destructive.

The SOIL project in Haiti has successfully recycled human waste as fertilizer and built 300 public ecological toilets that generate 3000 gallons of compost a week. It has dramatically improved the quality of sanitation facilities as well as provided organic fertilizer for small farmers. It will build similar toilets with the farmers of the Solar Markets Garden project as a way to provide an abundant and ecologically responsible supply of fertilizer. The combination of these efforts will result in sustainable irrigation and renewable supplies of organic fertilizer, the basis for successful agriculture. The efforts will be complemented further with programs in biodiversity cultivation and pollination management developed by an emerging explorer from Kenya, and training programs that will enable other villages to develop similar agricultural models.

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