In my work as a Canada-based evaluation consultant, I recently visited the Food for Progress III Program in Mali, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and implemented by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). This program is extremely important to people who live in Mali’s central Mopti Region, which has experienced recurring food shortages for decades. There the project seeks to help nearly 30,000 people in 53 villages—including farm families growing rice, millet and sorghum, and vegetables—as they improve their harvests and income.

My two-person consulting team visited 12  villages to gather evidence of progress and to witness some of the program’s successes and challenges at the local level. We found that Food for Progress has changed the lives of thousands of men and women who can now aspire to beat the threat of food insecurity in their households. In one of the world’s poorest countries and harshest environments for farmers, that represents a big step.

Improving Farming Techniques in Mali

Farmers with the program are discovering that sound farming practices and small investments can improve crop productivity. They are also learning how to get the best value from the part of the harvest that they sell. For these farmers, these improvements basically mean:

  • Getting organized with their farming or village associations to generate the highest profit, taking full advantage of each crop’s value chain;
  • Knowing where and when to obtain and use inputs and improved seeds;
  • Knowing how to find the right financial products (small loans, for example) that match their farming cycle.

Opening Minds to Farming as a Business

Success also comes when farmers keep an open mind about new ways of engaging in farming, and think of it not only as a means of feeding their family but also as a means of earning a profit. This is exactly why the program’s “Farming as a Business” training is so important.

Ultimately, what my team looked at was the capacity of farmers to apply what they learned so they could find their path out of poverty. Our evaluation focused on people’s opinions and experiences. Hard evidence that farmers are actually getting out of poverty will be more available towards the end of the program. Still, what I saw and heard in Mali suggest that countless farmers, male and female, have already increased their income by a significant margin—50 percent, 75 percent, even 100 percent—simply by applying what they have learned. As a result, they can better cope with the recurring food shortages. I repeatedly heard from farmers who, with good harvests in 2013-2014, finally managed to feed their families throughout the year. For the first time in their lives, many of these farmers had disposable income to save for difficult times and to support community projects.

Overcoming Challenges and Building Long-term Success

Progress was especially evident in Syn, a community that has received support from the Aga Khan Foundation and has become a driving force of development for the entire region. The village organization in Syn now supplies inputs and improved seeds to neighboring communities. Furthermore, the village cooperative has pooled funds to make an infant delivery room and develop a cooperative garden that supports the local midwife (through proceeds from the sale of vegetables). The funds also help to run a kindergarten, a school canteen and various other facilities. Every community member benefits from having taken their development into their own hands. Because they have learned to reinvest part of their profits from agricultural production, Syn is now very successful at attracting public and private investments.

Of course, the road to development in the Mopti Region still holds many obstacles, including many associated with climate change: droughts, storms, flooding and pest infestations. Yet the villagers I talked with were so motivated to improve their families’ living conditions that they might very well overcome these challenges.

They will probably need more support to adopt new production techniques, increase their control over water, make more use of infrastructure for post-harvest crop storage, and get access to better financial products that help them profit from price fluctuations. Still, the project will have proven that providing such means to villages allows them to take their development in their own hands.

It seems to me that this mid-term evaluation has supplied valuable findings and lessons to inspire the design of similar programs elsewhere in West Africa. The program is not over yet, and I am really looking forward to learning about its outcomes. My guess is that the anecdotes and stories my team collected will be confirmed through outstanding results.

By Louis-Pierre Michaud, Development Consultant