Field Research in Niger Leads to Improved Farming Technique

Professor Jenny Aker's work is improving crop conditions and strengthening rural communities.
Nigerien Village

Fletcher Professor of Development Economics Jenny Aker has dedicated much of her career outside the classroom to researching ways of improving the productivity of farmers in some of Africa's poorest countries. It's a passion she has pursued since earning a MALD degree in 1997.

Over the years, fieldwork has taken her to Morocco, Mozambique, Rwanda, Mali, Senegal, South Sudan, and other African countries. Although most of her time now is spent in Fletcher classrooms, she still travels to Africa multiple times a year to conduct research in support of struggling agricultural communities.

One of her current projects is focused on educating farmers in Niger about a technique that can improve their crop yields and revitalize degraded soil. More specifically, she is working on a multi-year research project aimed at finding the best way to encourage farmers to adopt the use of demi-lunes, half-moon shaped basins that farmers can create across their farms. When constructed properly, demi-lunes bring more moisture into the soil, which results in immediate and significant improvement in crop yield.

Demi-lunes can even revitalize the soil's nutrients, making farmers still more productive if they stick with the technique. With 70-80% of the Nigerien population working as farmers, this kind of improvement in crop yield is significant: It reduces food insecurity and abandoned farmland, encourages asset ownership, and strengthens communities.

"Although the use of demi-lunes is a proven technique that is a couple decades old, what we are trying to understand is why only 10% of the farmers in Niger are using it," says Aker.

Demi lunes

To that end, for the last four years Aker's been tracking the progress of five different groups of farmers from 180 Nigerien villages. One important finding she has uncovered is that encouraging demi-lune use through training is more effective than providing farmers with cash incentives. And she found that with training alone, the percentage of farmers adopting the technique skyrocketed from 4% to 95%.

"The significance of this finding," she says, "is that trainings are very easy to scale, and less expensive than cash transfers. From the budgetary perspective of an NGO or the government, this is extremely helpful information. They now know they can get more bang for their buck by focusing their efforts on training programs."

At this stage, Aker says, "We need to find out from the government what their priorities are and where they think we should go next. We need to think about what new questions we should be asking as part of our research work, and what adjustments we can make to our training programs."

Aker is now applying for funding to continue her work and hopes to obtain enough to scale up the training programs and develop some other intervention techniques that she can bring to 400 more Nigerien villages. Eventually, she'd like to introduce the programs to villages in other African countries that are also struggling with deforestation and soil degradation.

In the meantime, Aker plans to bring her research from the field to the classroom.

"I'm teaching a course this semester called Impact Evaluation, and we'll use the research work I've done to date as a case study. We'll examine questions such as how can you be sure if the training was really responsible for the improved agricultural outcomes? Could there have been other factors that came into play? We'll talk about the way in which we did the research, and we'll talk about the things that worked and the things that didn't work."

Such classroom conversations benefit Aker's work. "Students offer new perspectives that help me think about things differently," she says. "Oftentimes, student feedback helps me improve my research."