April 7, 2016 / 11:01 AM / a year ago

In drought-hit Burkina Faso, the plant doctor is in

TAMISSI, Burkina Faso, April 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - D ieudonné Sedogo waits patiently in line to see the doctor in the scorching 49-degree Celsius heat of this village in central Burkina Faso.

But the ailment he's seeking to address today isn't his own. Instead, it's the one afflicting the wrinkled aubergine with yellowing leaves he's carrying in his hand.

"Every year during the dry season I have the same problem," confesses Sedogo, who has been farming the same patch of land for 15 years. His aubergines, he said, each year become as dry as prunes, rendering most of the harvest useless.

But today two "plant doctors" - Maurice Albert and Rihanata Sawadogo - have set up a one-day clinic near a maize field in the village.

They question Sedogo: Has he changed the crops he's planting? Or where he plants the aubergines? What fertilisers does he use?

Sawadogo examines the sickly plant under a miscroscope while Albert carefully takes notes.

Their verdict: an insect agricultural pest, most likely spider mites, is responsible for Sedogo's ailing crop - and the pest is resistant to many chemical insecticides.

But they have a prescription to offer too: an environmentally friendly, natural pesticide to be applied twice a week until the damage subsides.

The doctors also advise Sedogo to plant a wider variety of crops, to plant them in new areas each season and to convince his neighbours to bring samples of their own crops in for a consultation. Otherwise the infection might return, they say.

TRAINING DOCTORS

Albert and Sawadogo, who tour village markets across the region, are trained by the Ministry of Agriculture as part of the Building Resilience to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) programme, supported by Britain's Department for International Development. They have been in the job for a year.

The ministry's accreditation gives the plant doctors credibility among farmers, and is a source of pride for the doctors themselves, who are agricultural extension agents.

"I think of myself as a real doctor", beams Albert. "I diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatment to cure plants, which ultimately improves people's food security."

The doctors see an average of 20 farmers per session, with most patients returning for a follow-up consultation.

Sedogo is satisfied with the advice he's received - though he says he still faces plenty of other issues in making sure he gets a harvest.

"I don't have enough water or fertilisers. And I'm on my own in the field - my kids can't help because I want them to go to school," he said.

Erik Dirkx, who works for Welthungerhilfe, a German non-governmental organisation that has helped establish the plant doctor system as part of BRACED, said the programme is gaining in popularity.

"The plant clinics took a while to get off the ground but are starting to bear fruit," he said. "The farmers we speak to appreciate getting expert advice that's available to them locally."

A GROWING THREAT

Tamissi, like many Burkinabe villages, is battling more frequent and ever-longer droughts, experts say. The dry season, which traditionally lasted from mid-February to June, is increasingly extending into July and August, delaying the start of much-needed rainfall for planting.

In a country where over 80 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, that is a problem with big implications for hunger.

The government is ramping up efforts to help rural communities combat food insecurity and adapt to climate change. These include providing fertiliser and seed subsidies, as well as training technicians and doctors - like Sawadogo and Albert - to teach new farming practices on the ground.

"We may not control drought, but we can prepare for it," said Maurice Traoré, the country's deputy minister for vegetable production.

"My hope is that we ultimately create a collaboration at the village level, rather than perpetuate a top-down approach relying on subsidies only," he said.

He laments the fact that international aid to the country often arrives on the heels of a disaster rather than being provided in a long-term manner aimed at addressing underlying problems.

"Money helps, of course, but what we need is people and capacity to help us become self-sufficient, food-wise", he said. (Reporting by Zoe Tabary, editing by Laurie Goering.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)

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