The Cowpea Millionaire: Farmers in Nigeria Are Doing What Was Once Thought Impossible -- Feeding Themselves and Their Families by Cultivating Arid Desert Margins, and Turning a Tidy Profit into the Bargain. (Farming Desert Margins)

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THERE IS A MYTH THAT THE WORLD'S DESERTS ARE ON THE MARCH. That they are advancing remorselessly into the world's arid farmlands, with towering sand dunes leading the way, thanks to the poor farming techniques of farmers forced to work these thin soils. That, in such regions as the African Sahel, poverty and fast-rising populations and environmental degradation go hand in hand. Some say the Armageddon escalator is unstoppable, that every effort African farmers make to feed themselves in the short term will only make matters worse in the long term. A few believe that only a technological miracle -- such as GM seeds -- could halt the cycle of decline.

But what if it is all a myth? What if the real, untold story from the desert margins is that farmers can reverse soil erosion, grow more crops to feed their families, and sometimes even grow richer in the process? What if the real story is that Africa can feed itself and protect its environment?

A mirage, you say? Well, maybe you haven't met the cowpea millionaire. On the outskirts of Kano, northern Nigeria, Binta Abdulkarim has built a small land inheritance from her grandfather into a big business by growing the bean that almost everyone in Nigeria eats. Last year she grew 50 tonnes of cowpeas -- or black-eyed peas -- in the sandy soils here, despite poor rains. She is, by local standards, rich. And she is producing her bumper crops with little fertiliser, without the benefit of GM varieties and without destroying her soils.

Binta had come to meet me at the Kano offices of BB Singh, an agricultural researcher extraordinaire, who believes that this inauspicious land -- densely populated but near-desert with erratic and declining rainfall -- is harbouring the start of the turnaround for African agriculture. And Binta is one of his prize pupils.

"People say you cannot grow good crops in a place like this on the edge of the Sahara -- at least not without expensive irrigation systems that most farmers will never be able to afford," Singh says. "But it isn't true, and Binta is living proof. We can double farm yields here easily and improve the environment at the same time. We can do the same thing all over Africa."

This view goes against conventional wisdom, which holds that farming in a place like northern Nigeria is doomed, and that where it is tried, it will only hasten the southerly advance of the Sahara. But I found that Singh's optimism is echoed by farmers and other agricultural researchers and geographers both in the region and more widely across arid Africa.

Singh is head of the Kano station for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, a non-profit research and development agency backed by the World Bank. Kano is Nigeria's northern capital and the surrounding agricultural area is one of the most densely populated in Africa, with as many people per square kilometre as Belgium. Population has doubled in the last 30 years. Virtually every scrap of spare land is used for farming. Geographers have a special name for it: the Kano close-settled zone. Its soils are thin and sandy; dust storms blow off the Sahara and rainfall is in long-term decline. A prime candidate for desertification? Singh says not, and if environmental pessimism can be turned on its head here, then why not elsewhere?

Power to the people

Singh's blueprint for promoting successful farming is to do good research and trust farmers to know how to use it. Binta's life was transformed when, six years ago, he gave her two new varieties of cowpea, bred at IITA's laboratories to resist striga, the number one weed menace in Africa. The institute's researchers had found a naturally resistant variety growing in Botswana and its gene has been bred into local varieties. Average yields have doubled as a result.

"Doctor Singh gave me eight kilograms of seed. When the crop grew, I got back 500 kilograms. I planted it all and next season got back ten tonnes," says Binta. …