Building food systems resilience in the West African Sahel

By Harun Cicek, Lauren Dietermann and Miguel de Porras from FiBL

Agro-silvo-pastoral landscape during the rainy season. A mosaic of millet and groundnut fields dominated by Faidherbia Albida trees (defoliated during rainy season). Niakhar, Senegal. Audebert, CIRAD, August 2018.

The West African Sahel is at the frontline of climate change with severe land degradation, water scarcity and soil erosion problems that are expected to increase in the coming years. Due to the Sahel region providing food and basic income to millions of people, several social and economic factors are increasing the pressure on the region’s natural resources. 

The Sahel is already experiencing challenges that many other areas of the world might face in the near future. Agricultural and food systems in the region are becoming more and more dependent and vulnerable to external shocks, resulting in strong impacts on the local ecosystems and communities. Countering challenges such as the loss of biodiversity, political instability and increased migration flows, the Sahel region will enable other regions to learn and adapt.  

The EU-funded project SustainSahel is based upon systemic approaches which aim to combat these pressures through enhancing food systems resilience in the Sahel region. SustainSahel has been working in the region since 2020 with a specific focus on three countries of West Africa; SenegalBurkina Faso, and Mali. The project combines natural and social sciences with a transdisciplinary approach that brings together researchers and farmers to implement sustainable food systems. Partner in GFAR FiBL is coordinating with 18 partners from 10 different countries, both in Europe and Africa, who join their forces with local stakeholders to transition to resilient food systems. 

This 5-year project is designed to contribute to achieving many of the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs). SDGs 2, 13 & 15 are targeted by developing and supporting practices to improve soil water capture/holding capacity and organic matter content and increase productivity and climate mitigation. Through capacity and partnership development, networking, and a multi-actor approach, enhancing the conditions for innovation, SustainSahel will also contribute to SDGs 1, 5, 16 & 17. 

Researchers are implementing the CSLP approach (Crops, Shrubs, Livestock, and People) in solving the Sahel-specific food system problems. The project aims to develop concrete “on-site” solutions putting together scientists and farmers using transdisciplinary methods. This systemic integration aims to increase biophysical and social/human conditions by forming innovation platforms (IPs) in seven geographical sites: NiakharOuarkokh, and Tambacounda in Senegal; Koulikoro and Sikasso in Mali and Saria and Yilou in Burkina Faso. 

These project sites have been selected considering their specific characteristics in terms of precipitation, farming systems, and ecology and implementing different field experiments according to their specific conditions. Each IP will act as a cluster allowing the collaboration of researchers, farmers, and other value chain actors to ensure the uptake of the project innovations and build local capacities in a transdisciplinary way. 

In the dry season, livestock owners find fresh fodder from trees and bushes. Koulikoro, Mali. Cicek, FiBL, March 2021.

Harun Cicek of the Department of International Cooperation at FiBL and Coordinator of SustainSahel explains:

“Systematic integration of crops, shrubs, and livestock together with organic and conservation agriculture practices, such as mulching crop residues and reduced tillage, have significant potential to enhance soils, yields and build resilience. For dryland regions such as the Sahel, which provide food for millions of people, significant yield increases between 100 and 800% are achievable by introducing, for example, woody perennials in arable fields to improve soil and water availability1”.

“The project’s overall aim is to boost the resilience and sustainable intensification potential of agricultural production systems in West Africa,” concludes Harun Cicek, “and support fruitful co-operation across the Sahel as well as between African and European institutions.”    

SustainSahel Project Video 

SustainSahel website 


This blog is part of the GFAR Partners in Action series, celebrating the achievements of our diverse network of partners who are working together to shape a new, sustainable future for agriculture and food. Each month we will be showcasing stories related to a key theme in agri-food research and innovation. The theme for November is Building resilience to climate shocks.

Join the conversation in the comments below or share this article on social media using #GFARinAction.


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