IAEA Impact: How Nuclear Technology Helps Women Farmers in Sudan Move Out of Poverty

Nuclear science helps Sudanese women turn dry lands into vegetable fields. (Photo: N. Jawerth/IAEA)

Kassala, Sudan — On the edge of Sudan under the blistering sun, women covered colourfully head-to-toe chatter away as they harvest lush green vegetables to feed their families, their neighbours, and their wallets. Their fields thrive among long stretches of parched earth because nuclear science has helped them make the most of limited water supplies and optimize fertilizer use.

“We used to have nothing. We had little food, and we had to buy it at the market. We did not even know how vegetables were grown,” said Fatima Ismail, a farmer from a small village outside of Kassala in eastern Sudan where this IAEA-supported drip irrigation project has been ongoing since 2015. “We now know how to deal with the soil and how to grow our own food. We are very eager to expand and to have all of our neighbours and other women in the village use this method, too.”

These hundreds of women have been living constrained lives with few opportunities for change. They and their families, many of whom are refugees or internally displaced, had limited food resources and relied on their husbands’ meagre income. While their husbands are allowed to work, the women did not have an option to grow their own food or leave their homes to work and earn a living. Due to the cost of buying food, sometimes at prohibitive prices, particularly during the off season, many people in these villages are malnourished.

FileHow nuclear technology helps women farmers in Sudan leave poverty behind

 

Now, through small-scale farms and home gardens optimized using nuclear science and technology, the women, their families and entire villages benefit from access to all sorts of vegetables, from onions and eggplants to okra and leafy greens (see this photo essay). Agriculture is the primary source of income and livelihood for up to 80% of the population in Sudan.

“Before this, my child suffered from malnutrition, and I had to take him to the doctor very often,” said Haleema Ali Farage, another woman farmer participating in the project. “Now with more food and more nutrition from the vegetables, he has not gone to the doctor for months.”

Science was the starting point of a new change for these women. Local scientists from the Agricultural Research Cooperation (ARC) were trained and provided technical support by experts from the IAEA, in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The scientists learned to use the soil moisture neutron probe technique to measure and determine moisture levels in their soil at Kassala Research Farm, to quantify the amount of water needed by the crops, and to use the nitrogen-15 isotopic technique (15N) to optimize nitrogen  fertilizer applications (see The Soil moisture neutron probe and nitrogen tracking). These scientific studies then formed the basis for how much water and fertilizer to deliver through the watering system known as drip irrigation.

“Studying the atoms in soil, water, fertilizer and crops is a very precise way to narrow in on and determine what works and what doesn’t. It helps us strike that fine balance between protecting soil and saving as much water as possible while still allowing crops to flourish,” said Lee Heng, Head of the Soil and Water Management and Crop Nutrition section of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

If women are empowered, they can share in the decision-making in the family and the community. It helps to reduce poverty, and it makes future planning more effective. When women are empowered the community is more empowered.
Rashid Sir El Khatim, Coordinator, Talawiet Organization for Development, Sudan

Every drop counts

The low cost drip irrigation system is easy to install and simple to use: it involves a giant raised tub of water that is controlled by an on-off valve, which, when switched on, uses gravity to draw the water mixed with fertilizer down into a series of tubes placed directly at the base of the plants. Using this method of combining water and fertilizer through drip irrigation is called ‘fertigation’.

“Although not a new technology in itself, it is only when set up correctly and optimized using scientific data that drip irrigation can be effective with very little water waste,” said Heng. This system and fertigation method is promoted by the FAO for countries and regions where water is scarce and at a premium.

“What makes this drip irrigation system new and innovative is what has been released from ARC,” said Rashid Sir El Khatim, Coordinator from the Talawiet Organization for Development. The ARC provides local NGOs like Talawiet with a complete package for setting up and using drip irrigation and fertilizer, optimized through the scientific work done with IAEA support. “If you compare this drip irrigation system to other systems, there is a big difference. It can save water by 70%, which means there is enough water for more farming.”

Pilot studies were conducted in fields around Kassala state, along the border with Eritrea. This area is often called the ‘bread basket’ of Sudan as the soil is rich with nutrients, and when combined with adequate water, has shown to be an excellent environment for growing food. However, water supplies increasingly run short due to warming temperatures and climate change.  

“Water, soil, temperature: it’s all a complete package,” said El Saddig Suliman Mohamed, ARC’s Director General. “Without a proper irrigation system, you can’t maximize yields, but on the other side, without using fertilizer right you can’t reach the soil’s full potential. Every component without the others is nothing. So we have to look at the whole package.”

Once the scientists determined the optimal amount of water and fertilizers needed for the crops to thrive, they helped set up and train farmers to use the drip irrigation system and properly apply fertilizer. The training was distilled down to easy-to-follow instructions that reflected the scientific findings. This has allowed the farmers to benefit from the science while taking ownership of the process, from growing and cultivating the fields to monitoring their crops and marketing their produce.

The success of the IAEA pilot project in reducing water use by more than 60% while increasing food yields by more than 40% drew the attention of other organizations throughout Kassala, such as the Sudanese Red Crescent (SRC) and Talawiet. With funding from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), FAO and the World Food Programme, among others, these organizations have worked closely with IAEA-trained scientists from the ARC to set up and run more than 50 small-scale farms and home gardens for over 400 women. Following the success of these projects, the ARC, Talawiet, and the SRC are now working with their partners to establish more than 40 new drip systems for over a thousand women.

 

Women’s empowerment for sustainable change

While the whole village benefits from these agricultural projects, women have been the primary focus because of the important role they play in family well-being. Women invest much more of their earnings in their children’s education and health than men do: 90% of their income compared to 30-40% by men. This trend has the potential to break intergenerational cycles of poverty, according to the World Bank.

The women for these projects are generally selected based on key criteria that take into consideration their ability to participate as well as their level of need. The NGOs, through support from international organizations, have launched these small-scale agriculture programmes with wider initiatives involving, among others, educational courses, microfinance opportunities and business guidance.

“If the women are empowered, they can share in the decision-making in the family and the community,” said Sir El Kahtim. “It helps to reduce poverty, and it makes future planning more effective. When women are empowered, the community is more empowered.”

The drip irrigation system has also been identified by the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) as effective for sustainable climate change adaptation and mitigation. It is now labelled as a UNFCCC National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) model for use worldwide.

The women, in the meantime, are eager to continue building on their success.

“We want to do more,” said Ismail. “We want to expand the area and grow more and new types of vegetables. We want to help educate others to do this. We need another water tank, so all of our neighbours and all the women in the village get involved. We want everyone to have a chance. We are ready.”

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This project, and how it can be further deployed or replicated elsewhere will be discussed at this year’s Scientific Forum on 28-29 September in Vienna,  which focuses on the contribution of nuclear science and technology towards the achievement of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.