The government of Burkina Faso has responded to long-standing demands of farmers for greater support for small family producers with the launch of "Operation 100,000 Ploughs." Smallholder farmers say this will strengthen the country's food security
"The operation is welcomed by the Confédération Paysanne du Faso," said Bassiako Dao, who is president of the country's largest smallholder farmer organisation. "Because today, the difficulty facing our agriculture sector is that it is not mechanised. Mechanisation would allow us to quickly reduce the labour time needed.
"Instead of having five people working year-round on two hectares, with an animal-drawn plough, just one person can work two hectares in four days, covering half a hectare per day. The four others are freed up to do something else," Dao said.
The operation, launched in June, will make 20,000 ploughs available to the poorest rural households in each of the next five years, half of them to be given to women. According to Dao, the ploughs will be made affordable thanks to an 80 per cent subsidy from the government.
The agriculture ministry says that half of the farmers in the cotton-producing regions of the country have access to some level of mechanisation, but in other zones this falls to just one or two per cent.
The agriculture sector generates 40 per cent of the gross domestic product of Burkina Faso and the authorities hope that with funding for agricultural mechanisation over the next four years, it can raise the proportion of farmers who are mechanised country-wide from the present 20 per cent to 75 per cent in 2015.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Water, draught power is the most widespread form of mechanisation in Burkina, where 30 per cent of households own at least one draught animal; 30 per cent of these households also possess a tool for tillage and 20 per cent have a cart.
Farmers also say that tilling with a plough allows the soil to better absorb water, preserving moisture far longer than a field tilled with a traditional hoe, known in Burkina Faso as a daba. Sawadogo also explains that animals provide a natural fertiliser in the form of manure.
Women, who constitute an important part of the agricultural labour force will receive half of the ploughs. "They will till more than the usual quarter of a hectare – they'll be able to cultivate as much as four hectares," says Dao. "The sight of women bent over, working in a field, babies on their backs; that will be finished, thanks to this initiative."
Since demonstrations against the high cost of living in the country in 2008, the government has provided around $15.7mn dollars of support to farmers in the form of agricultural inputs.
"We have to encouarge this initiative which will benefit families. On the other hand, we are opposed to those who have plenty of money, and buy 150 hectares and a Caterpillar and then strip the land of trees and plant cotton or maize," says SOS Sahel's Sawadogo, who is critical of authorities' encouragement of agri-business operators in recent years.
"It's a bad form of agriculture which will destroy our environment and our soils which cannot support work with tractors for a long time. If there is not adquate support so that there is organic fertiliser with livestock to enrich the soils, the tractors will turn our soil into sand," warned Sawadogo.