Millennium Villages Project-Mali

The headwaters of the Niger River collect themselves far up in the humid forests and damp savannas of the Guinea Highlands, near the Sierra Leone border on a granite and quartzite plateau 1,500 feet above sea level. Less then two hundred miles from the Atlantic, the river nevertheless turns away from the sea, sliding inland toward the northeast, through the heart of Bamako, Mali’s tropical wet-dry capital, past Segou, into the dry Sahel and then all the way to Timbuktu, where it reaches out to touch the dusty edge of the Sahara desert–only to turn abruptly to the right and flow southeast, down into the corner of Niger and through Nigeria, its two namesake nations, before spreading into the Atlantic.

For hundreds of years the strange path of the Niger river confounded the geographers of Europe, most of whom were convinced that it was two separate watercourses, hundreds of miles from each other. The river and its tributaries are Mali’s lifeblood, the source for most of what grows and lives in this dry place—especially toward the north, where a semi-arid landscape becomes even drier. Most importantly, irrigated agriculture of any sort depends on the rise and fall of the great river through wet and dry seasons and years.

The project focused on combining innovative irrigation strategies with microfinance funding models to create self-sustaining irrigation systems to increase yields, food security, nutrition and profits for both men and women farmers. Through value chain analysis, the project helped these farmers decide on and plan for the most profitable cropping, thus making optimal use of existing water resources. In addition, by taking into account long-term pump management needs and challenges, the project was able to direct development funds to interventions that are most likely to be maintained over the long term.


For generations the people of Toya and surrounding villages eked out a meager but balanced existence at the southern edge of the Sahara. Land use was shared between rice-growers, nomadic fishers and

New pumps for Toya

pastoralists. The system began to fall apart in the 1980s, however, when rainfall declined and all of Mali entered a prolonged drought.

Lack of water wreaked havoc on already spare vegetation. Without a reliable flood, traditional non-irrigated rice cropping grew untenable and many of the region’s bourgoutiéres (bourgou fields) never recovered.

International aid agencies responded by building a relatively crude network of unlined canals designed for a gravity-fed water system and replaced traditional rice with modern, high-yielding varieties designed to work with this kind of irrigation. The new systems worked in the short-term, seeming to provide periodic respites and boosts in wellbeing but sustained improvements in livelihood were never realized.

Based on extensive meetings with residents, along with the findings of other NGOs in the Timbuktu region, the Columbia Water Center team developed a strategy to provide better irrigation access by purchasing new pumps and designing a system to maintain them.

In order to promote the most effective adoption of the pumps, the team:

  • Initiated outreach among the communities to explain the benefits of a new approach to efficient use of water pumps
  • Purchased two pumps that had replacement parts readily available in the region
  • Identified two attendants and a site engineer, and trained local residents on the management and maintenance of the pumps
  • Established a mechanism to monitor the management of pumps on an ongoing basis (including the creation of a daily monitoring sheet and regular site visits from team members, among other steps)
  • Arranged for the rehabilitation of existing irrigation infrastructure, including the construction a of catchment, lining of canals at the top of the network and reprofiling of all canals in the ground
  • Engaged the community to ensure strong local involvement in the management process and input supply (including diesel, filters, oil, etc.)
  • Signed a memorandum of understanding notifying recipients of cooperative responsibility and commitment of both parties (beneficiaries and MVP) regarding responsibility for the pumps. Beneficiaries were given to understand that money for the pump purchase was a loan, not a grant.

    Fields irrigated from new pumps

Mechanics and the four pump attendants received training at the GTZ-funded facility in two phases, with the first phase primarily involving theory and the second hands-on, including fieldwork.

The cost for the two pumps was $40,000 yielding additional gross revenue of $84,000. In the first year, farmers paid off $6,000 of the cost of the pumps.

This expansion highlights the longer-term potential for upscaling the project; Columbia Water Center project coordinators calculate that using such approaches, a second rice season could be added to 25 percent of the land area in the Inner Niger Delta region, amounting to greater productivity and income from thousands of hectares of land.


Tiby is one of the poorest areas of Mali and is characterized by high rates of child mortality, malaria and food insecurity. Soil degradation and loss of vegetative cover in the last forty years along with the breakdown of traditional farming systems have contributed to environmental losses that also take their toll on agricultural productivity.

Most villagers here are subsistence farmers, growing rain-fed millet, sorghum and some irrigated rice. However, as in Toya, irrigation practices are inconsistent and limited, and both irrigated and non-irrigated crop yields remain low.

Tibibas is a 365 hectare (901 acre) plain near Tiby where residents grow irrigated rice using an adjacent canal from the months of August to January when the Niger River rises. A crop of millet is typically grown from July to October. However, during the dry season from the months of February to June when river levels are low, the land was typically left barren or used as pasture for sheep and goats.

A New Approach

By April, the land which borders the canal and the pond is dry; traditional rice season, however, doesn’t begin until July. Seeing the potential offered by the three months of dry land situated along the permanent water reservoir of the canal, Sidiki Darago, a forward thinking man from the village of Koila-Markala, near Tiby, created a garden in a small section of the rice growing plain to grow vegetables and melons during the off-season, during a time of the year that was otherwise unproductive for the peasants. Women from the village of Koila-Markala also began cultivating along the canal banks. Their primary crops were melons and cucumber, followed by okra and a few watermelons.

A meeting of women farmers of Tiby

In 2009, an MVP/CWC initiative was put into place to assist the women in the commercialization of the produce grown at Tibibas. In order to help the women maximize their income, the team also researched different ways to design a more lucrative business model. After studying the produce value chain as it applied to local markets, the team determined that the women were undercharging for their produce. By working with them to coordinate their efforts as a cooperative, they convinced the women to charge a fairer, higher, price for their labor.

The project team then took a series of actions to boost the women’s ability to gain a fair price. First, the producers agreed that they would stop selling individually; a sales committee was nominated which would undertake all of the negotiations with buyers. The team also studied the melon value chain and shared with the women information on pricing throughout the chain. Thirdly, larger-scale wholesalers from the neighboring city of Ségou were brought to Tibibas, where they negotiated with the sales committee.

The result was an immediate 18% jump in prices, from an average kilogram price for melon of 65 francs to an average price of 77 francs. Following that meeting, the Ségou wholesalers continued to purchase melons from the women, and the women reported reaching average prices of 100 francs per kilogram by the end of the season. The women earned a fair price for their melons, and were paid cash at the garden.

When asking the women why they did not cultivate a larger area they responded that the expense and difficulty of gathering brush to build a fence and the exhausting task of hauling water in buckets to water their plants by hand were limiting factors. Through many discussions with the men and women of the village, the team designed a plan to overcome these two challenges.

To address this problem, the team designed a system of chain-link fencing supported by bamboo poles, which was installed by a group of men from the village. The bamboo poles reduced the cost of the fencing, and made it easier to remove at the end of the season.

Promising Results

Initial results of this work are promising, with an overall increase in revenue of more than $30,000 for the entire project, or a more than doubling of income for most of the women. On a per hectare basis, vegetable growing yielded over five times the revenue of rice growing.

With improved fencing the women reported that no produce was damaged by animals–a significant improvement from previous years, when small goats were able to get through brush fences. In the past, animals ate a significant percentage of the fruit and vegetable crop.

Furthermore, as a result of the project some 34,000 people living in surrounding villages now have access to improved nutrition, as the gardens provide melons and watermelon to markets at a time of year when fruits and vegetables are normally not available.

Using the ideas of the existing pilot, the team estimates that it would be possible to involve 25 percent of families in off-season vegetable gardens in the area. Each family could add $300 per family based on current yields, with four families per hectare. Given that average per capita income in the nation is less than $700 per year, that extra money would amount to a significant increase in income for a large number of families.

The success of the project has also attracted the attention of neighboring villages, whose residents now approach project coordinators to ask for assistance in setting up their own interventions.

Blog Posts on the Progress in Mali:

The Garden on the Tibibas Plain, Mali; Women’s Ag. Project Takes Off

Irrigation Project Success in Mali

More Photos of the Columbia Water Center’s Work in Mali.

For more information on the Millennium Villages Mali Projects in Toya and Tiby, follow these links.