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By: Robert Sanou
Published: 2017-08-01

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Figure 1. Traditional field of millet. Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

Facing Climate Change

One of the sectors most threatened by climate change in West Africa is agriculture. In recent years, it has suffered severe damage. Sometimes there is flooding, sometimes  drought, high winds, and/or unexpected cold. Many initiatives are being undertaken to adapt agriculture to climate change.

While it is true that climate change presents itself as a scourge, a difficult challenge for people to handle, it is no less true that one of the solutions is to develop strategies of adaptation to climate change for our brave farmers. FFF presents itself as a serious option capable of helping our farmers.

Brief definition of concepts

Foundation for Farming (FFF) is often translated into French as "Les Fondements de I'Agriculture." In the Sahel it is mostly known as "Zaï" or "agricultural holes". In practice, FFF is much more demanding.

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Figure 2. Traditional cotton field. Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

What is FFF?

The technique was updated by a Zimbabwean farmer by the name of Brian Oldreive who, starting from the fact that God planned everything for the earth and concluding that man is at the source of the degradation of his environment. Agriculture is possible on the condition that we do it according to God's plan, hence the name of "Farming God's Way." It consists in not plowing the soil, digging holes about 20 centimeters in diameter and 15 centimeters deep, spaced about 50 to 70 centimeters (depending on the cultivated variety) and putting organic manure there before sowing. After planting, it is advisable to cover the pockets with straw. The seedlings will be separated, leaving only two plants per hole. It is advisable to eliminate the middle or the smallest one.

To practice FFF, the farmer needs only three tools: a hoe to make the holes, a rope to establish the boundarieis, and a stick to measure the spacings.

The position of the piles of soil must take into account the slope of the field to block the passage of water (Figures 3 and 4).

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Figure 3. Teaching FFF. Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

Interest in FFF for small-scale farmers south of the Sahara

Several practices such as the Zaï have been carried out in the subregion for several years but FFF is quite recent. In Burkina Faso, for example, it was only after the ECHO forum in 2010 that it was implemented by some of the participants. As a result, the practice has continued to spread.

Ecological benefits

Contrary to the widespread practice of plowing the soil, FFF discourages plowing. Plowing has some advantages, but the disadvantages should not be neglected. Among others, we must mention the leaching of the soil, its impoverishment, and its exposure to the weather. By turning it over every year, erosion carries away the vital nutrients from the soil. Other exposed nutrients are destroyed by the sun. Unfortunately, the same operation is repeated every year.  FFF, on the other hand, utilizes small planting stations (holes), feeds the soil by adding organic fertilizer, and protects the soil by covering it with straw. It should be noted that the same holes can be used the next two years without the need to add other fertilizers especially if you can rotate seedlings.

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Figure 4. The FFF Method. Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

The other ecological interest of FFF lies in the recovery of degraded soils. In most villages, fields are distanced from dwellings over the years because soils around the villages degrade day-by-day and small-scale farmers tend to go farther away to clear new land. This poor land around the village is almost uncultivated. With the practice of FFF, these "impracticable" soils are reusable. This is the challenge that one of ECHO's partners has encountered in his village. The soils on the outskirts of the village of Kouka have been abandoned by everyone because they are completely washed away by erosion and overgrazing. The soil had become lateritic. It is one of these terrains that Emile chose to farm three hectares of maize. In the early days, everyone called him "crazy" because they thought he would not produce anything on such bare ground. He implemented FFF and the results have been incredible. FFF could solve the issue of the availability of cultivable soils because it allows the most degraded soils to be restored and could allow small-scale farmers to reuse them. FFF enriches the soil, restores it, and could be of great ecological utility.

Economic interest

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Figure 5. FFF: Emile in his field. Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

In terms of economics, the price of tillage per hectare varies between 20,000 FCFA and 25,000 FCFA in Burkina Faso. With the practice of FFF, there is no need to bring a tractor or oxen to plow the field. It is sufficient to have two people prepare one hectare per day according to the FFF method. The savings are so obvious! The other aspect of FFF's economic interest lies in the purchase of fertilizers. In Burkina Faso, technicians advise the following for a one hectare cornfield: 4 bags of NPK fertilizer and 1 bag of urea fertilizer. The average cost of a bag of NPK is 13,000 FCFA per bag against 17,500 FCFA for Urea. A quick calculation shows that for the maintenance of one hectare in fertilizer, the  farmer must spend 56,000 FCFA. ECHO provides training on how to produce organic compost in less than a month using only local materials.

It must be recognized that the high cost of fertilizer is one of the causes of the impoverishment of our valiant farmers. In the case of FFF, only compost which the farmer can produce himself is used almost free of charge (see article on preparing compost, page 3).
Some of the producers we met used the organic fertilizer they spread throughout the field. They used an average of 16 donkey cart loads of organic manure per hectare. But with FFF training, since fertilizer is used only in the planting station, they only need four cartloads per hectare, or a quarter of what they used before.

Figure 6. Comparison of a traditional field (on left) and FFF field (on right). Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

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Figure 6. Comparison of a traditional field (on left) and FFF field (on right). Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

Health interest

On the health front, the agricultural production of FFF is 100% organic without chemical fertilizer, whereas the traditional productions are based on chemical fertilizers which carry a lot of health risks. It is common knowledge that many diseases these days are linked to the excessive consumption of chemicals in our diet.

Interest in Farm Performance

Our study made it possible to observe the comparative evolution of an FFF field and a traditional field using chemical fertilizer. Experience shows many differences. From heading, the FFF field grows with rather strong plants while the traditional field often needs the extra input of the chemical fertilizer before recovering. Over the next three weeks, the traditional field that used chemical fertilizer grows faster than the FFF field. But after a month, the FFF field catches up and overtakes the traditional one. At flowering, the FFF field blooms more and has higher crop yield. We compared this experiment on five fields, two maize, two cotton and one sorghum. The results were approximately the same (Figures 6 and 7).

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Figure 7. Traditional field (left); FFF field (right). Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

A farmer who complies with the FFF standards produces practically twice as much as the farmer who uses fertilizer on the same area. In some partner fields, production of 5 to 6 tons of maize per hectare was observed, while fields using chemical fertilizer very rarely exceeded 3 tons per hectare.

Advantage in combating climate change: Resistance to weather

Another FFF advantage shown by our study concerned the resistance capacity of two fields. In one case, the drought was very strongly felt by all neighboring fields whose foliage began to dry while the FFF field did not appear to be affected by the drought. On average, a well prepared field can withstand up to three weeks of drought. Another observation from the study is the particular case of farmers whose fields were in a flood zone. Over the past three years, there had virtually been no harvest due to flooding, the effects of which are more detrimental when the field is plowed. This year, these farmers experimented with FFF on the same lowland areas. The field withstood the floods and will be one of the best harvests they have had in the past three years. The practice of FFF, in fact, because it takes place in the uncultivated lowlands makes the plants firmer and more resistant in the event of flooding (Figure 7).

In cotton fields (Figures 2 and 8), the positive impact appears to be greater than in corn and sorghum fields.

On average, the comparative study shows that an FFF field produces 2 to 2.5 times more than the traditional field

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Figure 8. FFF: Siméon Keita in his cotton field. Source: ECHO West Africa Impact Center Staff

The beauty of the FFF field

"In a field of FFF, everything is so well organized," confided to us a producer. Indeed, the FFF field is so well aligned, that it makes the job easy for the farmer.In view of all the above, it must be recognized that FFF shows real potential, and a way forward in order to improve the working conditions of small-scale farmers. One is tempted to say after this research, that the more one seeks, the more one discovers, and the better one can adapt it to our climatic realities. In our view, this is truly an alternative for combating climate change.