Wageningen University & Research: A closer look at challenges in the Sahel

WUR offers research associates in the Sahel region a single location for knowledge and expertise from Wageningen. With this, WUR hopes to have an even greater impact on solving the Sahel crisis.

The Sahel is a region of extremes. Spanning 15 countries in Africa, the wide strip transitions from the bone-dry Sahara in the north to the wetter savannahs and tropical rainforests in the south. The fertile river basins like that of the Niger also form a stark contrast to the driest places where hardly any or no crops grow.

Besides major differences in climate, there is also a stark contrast between wealth and poverty. The region is rich in oil, gas, gold, diamonds, metals, and precious woods. Furthermore, the area has great biodiversity and there are remnants of ancient kingdoms and mythical cities such as Timbuktu. Despite this, it is now one of the poorest areas in the world.

Complex crisis
The Sahel region faces immense challenges. Eight out of ten farming families live in poverty and have few opportunities to get out of it. The increasing unrest and the accompanying violence are a cause of international concern, especially because refugees flee to Europe as a result of this.

The crisis that continues to manifest itself has ecological, economic, and political causes. Meanwhile, climate change is also having an increasing impact on the situation. “Regional and international politicians are now seeing this as well,” says WUR researcher Food Systems Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters, “but the understanding of the relationships between all factors is often still lacking.”

Position paper
Wageningen University and Research has been conducting research in the
Sahel for more than 50 years. This is pioneering research which, among other things, helps farmers in the area, but which, in De Steenhuijsen Piters’ opinion, is also fragmented. Together with 14 researchers from the WUR-wide Wageningen Sahel Platform he therefore wrote a position paper entitled Sahel urgent need for change: Food systems transition in a conflict area. In this he highlights the challenges the Sahel region faces and how this complex situation came about. It discusses youth unemployment, gender inequality, climate change, and other topics.

Food at the base
However broad the issues may be, the researchers believe that the basis for many of the problems lies in the food systems. De Steenhuijsen Piters: “Of course we cannot solve major problems such as conflicts and migration, but we do see that the roots of these problems also lie in low prosperity and a lack of food security.”

Disrupted relationships
De Steenhuijsen Piters cites the conflicts between nomadic herders and arable farmers as an example. They always lived side by side in relative peace, but that is changing due to drought and decreased soil fertility. This increases the tension between the groups and results in casualties among livestock and the population. “These conflicts arise due to the scarcity of resources, such as water and fertile land, which means that farmers and herders have almost no security in their livelihood. The relationship between the two forms of agriculture should be restored, as the conflict only exacerbates soil fertility problems.”

A different role
Unlike in the past, WUR now sees itself more in a supporting role. There’s a good reason for that. “We don’t want to immediately explain exactly how things are. We can’t either, and it feels uncomfortable. To top it all off, research can be coordinated much better in the region than from Wageningen,” explains De Steenhuijsen Piters. By supporting research associates in the countries themselves with Wageningen knowledge and expertise, the initiators hope to be even more useful than by conducting their own research.

Local partners
WUR is therefore seeking to cooperate with regional partners such as research institutions, government institutions, international organisations in the region and consultancy firms with a social institution. Together with these partners, the Wageningen Sahel Platform drew up a research agenda. The partners in the region, in collaboration with WUR, will then examine the questions from the agenda and ensure that the results reach government agencies and public bodies as well as NGOs. “The dialogue between the users and the national research associates is key,” says De Steenhuijsen Piters.

In addition to the agenda and the network of research associates, WUR also offers support via the platform by making data from previous research available, training research associates, and helping them find funding. “From now on, from Wageningen, we want to stand next to the researchers from the Sahel countries and no longer take the lead, so that they can step into their role.”