06/22/2012 11:41 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Giving Sahel Farmers The Tools For Success: Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration

By Lauren Fisher, World Vision emergency communications manager

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel or find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

With his weathered hands deep ingrained with dirt, it's easy to tell Rabiou Mahamadou is a farmer. Like many people in Niger, it's how he's fed his family for his whole life. In the past, he would have used only techniques handed down from generation to generation. But today, things are different.

Today Rabiou has on a suit, excited to greet the man who helped send him from Zinder to special training at an international research institute in Niamey. There, he learned a new way to farm, one that has made him so successful that other farmers in his area are constantly seeking his advice, trying to figure out how he does it.

"Before on my farm I used to sow five, even seven times before the crops would sprout. But now the first time it's a success," Rabiou says. "... even though the harvest was bad, I'm thankful. I filled a granary for myself and filled another one for my mother from my farm."

He proudly shows us around his nursery, and then his farm. It's the dry season, and to my untrained eye, I see only the left over stalks from past harvests, broken up by the occasional cluster of trees poking through. It's those trees, I'm told, that hold the key.

And that, although seemingly so simple, is at the root of the success of a program called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

"Before we used to cut all the trees from the farm and let the field just lay barren, but now we learned that we're supposed to leave the trees where they are," Rabiou says.

It's something that sounds almost counterintuitive. All over the world you see farmers clear their fields of all other foliage. After all, they're trying to grow grains, beans and other staples, not trees. But here in areas like Zinder, where the soil is dry and crops may fail, trees make the difference.

"Where there are trees, you can double the production and thus the yield, the annual yield," says Niger FMNR expert Salifou Yaou. "[The leaves that drop from the trees] help to fertilize the soil, and whenever the soil is fertile, the production will be much higher than when it is not."

Farmers are encouraged to leave as many as possible, not just of the large trees but also some of the small saplings and tree sprouts. They're then instructed only to prune to keep them growing. It's a technique that was pioneered by Tony Rinaudo, Natural Resources Advisor for World Vision Australia. Since the program was adopted in the 1980s in Niger, World Vision estimates that around half of the country's farmland has been transformed. In 2009 alone, estimates show farmers in Niger were able to produce enough through these techniques to feed an extra 2.5 million people.

"Many farmers are doing it because they can see the impact of it," Yaou says.

An impact that he says is showing up not only with increased harvests in good times, but also in years when the harvest is poor. In the lean years, farmers can harvest their largest trees to sell for firewood and timber. But because they've kept the saplings and shoots as well, they won't wipe out all they have.

"With the income you generated out of it, you can buy some food for your family," Yaou says.

It's similarly simple, yet effective, techniques that make up other parts of FMNR. Another part of the equation is using nurseries and grafting to create better plants, and therefore better food.

Rabiou shows us a tree he's grafted, taking the hardy local tree Sisyphus and combining with a Sisyphus tree from India. The result is a plant that will survive Niger's harsh weather, and that produces fruit nearly five times the size of the original tree. But perhaps best of all, the fruit contains vitamin A, a nutrient children in the region are often sorely lacking.

"We say thank you to World Vision. What we have learned is a true gift that is making our lives better," Rabiou says.

By now, several more farmers have gathered round, taking us to see their newly grafted trees, each waiting excitedly to speak with Yaou. They show us that here a little know-how is making the difference, between barely surviving and thriving in this difficult farming land.

Lauren Fisher is an emergency communications manager at World Vision. She recently returned from Niger, where she witnessed the growing hunger crisis firsthand.