Blowing in the wind: farmers in Cape Verde aim for sustainable food production

A hot, dry wind whips over the dusty fields of Santo Antão, the most northerly of ten islands that make up Cape Verde, 800 km off the west coast of Africa. The strong gusts of wind also threaten to remove the hat of farmer Alfredo Sendim, who is showing a group of young people how to enrich the sandy soil with compost.

“The conditions here are really harsh,” explains Alfredo, who is working in the Casa do Meio experimental field - a testing ground for new, sustainable farming practices near the coast. “It’s really tough to transform what is essentially a desert. The lack of water, the wind and the sun make it a really difficult process. But we are determined.”

Alfredo and his fellow farmers from the Montado Freixo do Meio co-operative on Santo Antão live on the very edge of climate change. Seven out of every ten islanders live in rural areas and are heavily dependent on agriculture - yet unpredictable rainfall patterns, droughts and desertification are increasingly a way of life. The strong Atlantic winds which blow all year round cause significant soil erosion.

𝙋𝙧𝙤𝙟𝙚𝙩𝙤 𝙎𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙢𝙖𝙨 𝘼𝙜𝙧𝙤𝙛𝙡𝙤𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙞𝙨
Photo: Amupal - Casa das Caldeiras

“Unfortunately global warming is increasing the the degraded areas in Santo Antão,” local farming expert Amilton Lopes told a recent workshop on sustainable food production. “Every day we witness the issue of the wind - the wind is without a doubt the biggest enemy of farming. It causes intensive erosion and combined with increasing temperatures it is having a big impact on the soil. We are living in a vicious circle.”

Amilton, a technical coordinator with ADPM Mértola, is one of those supporting Cape Verde’s farmers as the take on the biggest challenge yet - how to grow food sustainably in this unforgiving landscape. As part of the five-year EU-funded €12 million GCCA+ West Africa programme, the Cape Verde Agro Floresta project covers a wide range of sustainable agriculture techniques such as growing drought-resistant crops and planting ground cover to tackle desertification.

“Agroforestry is an ancient agro-ecological technique which aims to increase farming productivity,” he explains. “It’s come back into fashion because it conserves water and increases the amount of organic matter in the soil.” Traditional, low-tech solutions not only cost less but are often more effective. For example, nests made from straw or waste sugar cane are built around fruit trees and other plants to retain moisture, provide protection from the wind and enrich the soil.

Back in the Casa do Meio, Alfredo explains the importance of agro-ecology to his students. “We established this field last year, but setting it up was only five percent of the work. The real hard work comes in maintaining the land - it needs years and years of maintenance. We take a lot of organic vegetable matter, cut it, mix it and put it back into the soil. That way, the trees grow faster and feed back into the soil - it’s a sustainable cycle,” he says.

High on the central plateau of Santo Antão, at the Planalto do Leste experimental field, Amilton is planting tagasaste, or tree lucerne, one of nature’s true wonder-plants. It can capture nitrogen from the air to improve soil fertility, grows up to seven metres tall to act as a wind-break, and can be fed to cattle and poultry. “You can feel the soil is damp, which is what we want,” he explains. “Tagasaste is excellent for composting and improving the soil, helping it to retain moisture. We will also dry it to produce animal feed, then we can start training farmers on animal nutrition and animal feed production.”

𝙋𝙧𝙤𝙟𝙚𝙩𝙤 𝙎𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙢𝙖𝙨 𝘼𝙜𝙧𝙤𝙛𝙡𝙤𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙞𝙨
Photo: Amupal - Casa das Caldeiras

Water shortages are a constant challenge in Cape Verde - according to the World Bank, around a fifth of all rainfall is lost through surface runoff, and two-thirds of it simply evaporates. As well as encouraging sustainable food production, the EU GCCA+ project will implement a system for capturing water from fog, collecting rainwater and installing drip irrigation powered by solar panels.

“We have a triple crisis,” said the country’s Minister of Agriculture and Environment Gilberto Silva on a recent visit to the GCCA+ project. “A climate crisis, a crisis provoked by the pandemic and a food crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. We are a small island state very vulnerable to climate shocks, and these crises have impacted a lot on our country. We need to find and accelerate solutions for the farming and food sector in Cape Verde.”

Alfredo Sendim agrees. “We are all in this together. For a long time we have been only dreaming of doing this, but now we are solving problems in a way that is compatible with nature. That’s what we are re-learning, isn’t it? How to create self-sufficient systems that do not need things brought from the outside, that are in harmony with our ecosystems.”

“That’s very important because it will give us resilience,” he concludes. “It will give us food sovereignty, it will give us independence, it will give us dignity as human beings in a very different way.”