In many ways, Niger is a country on the edge. As a result of droughts, lost harvests and rising food prices, it is now facing its third food crisis since 2005. According to a new report from Save the Children, the country ranks as the worst place in the world to be a mother, due in part to the devastating impact of chronic child malnutrition.
In other ways, however, Niger is on the cutting edge. Even as the latest food crisis understandably garners international headlines, agricultural development projects involving Niger's small-scale farmers are achieving results against the odds. This may not be the story that usually makes the news, but it is a compelling one nonetheless.
Vincenzo Galastro manages the Niger programme of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) - a United Nations agency that specializes in reducing rural poverty. His passion for sharing this largely untold story is palpable.
"The people of Niger are dealing with a challenging situation," Galastro says, "but a lot of positive things are happening."
The immediate situation is certainly difficult. Alarmingly, climate change has led to more frequent droughts across the Sahel, threatening the viability of staple crops such as millet and sorghum. Yet Galastro asserts that Niger's long-term prospects are brightening - in some areas at least - as a result of effective cooperation between the government and its development partners.
As one of those partners, IFAD has provided $153 million in loans and grants to 10 agricultural initiatives in Niger since 1980. The newest one, a food security and development project in the Maradi region, is designed to help smallholder farmers improve the quality and quantity of their crops for sale in five rural markets.
One of its key goals is to ensure that farmers have additional income to feed their families between harvests, when grain stocks run low.
In keeping with IFAD's food security strategy in Niger, the project in Maradi supports family farming as an efficient means of diversified crop production. By growing a variety of crops, smallholder farmers are better equipped both to meet household nutritional needs and to market their produce.
Other food security projects have shown great potential in Niger as well. IFAD's partnership with the non-governmental organisation Accsa-Afrique Vert, for example, moves grain from food-surplus to food-deficit areas through a cereal stock exchange in the capital, Niamey.
IFAD also supports a project enabling poor rural women in Niger to plant small household gardens. Besides helping women feed their families, cultivated plots of land close to home allow mothers to spend more time with their children. This kind of approach lends a measure of security to the lives of Niger's women, most of whom lack the right to own land but have large families to care for.
On the critical issue of rural women's empowerment, the members of Mata Masu Dubara ("women on the move" in the Hausa language) have broken new ground in Niger.
Long supported by CARE, this association of women, engaged in microfinance and leadership development, is now working with IFAD. Demonstrating their resolve in a society that remains essentially patriarchal, several Mata Masu Dubara leaders have become mayors of towns in the Tahoua region.
On another signature issue for Niger - the impact of climate change - a proposal is now in the works to scale up IFAD's support for micro-irrigation projects there.
Micro-irrigation is an inexpensive technique enabling smallholder farmers to save water and fertilizer by maintaining a low but regular flow of water to their fields. In turn, they can plant larger areas, maximizing crop yields and income.
In Niger's limited arable zone, where rainfall is erratic, the impact of such interventions can be decisive for smallholder farmers adapting to a variable and unpredictable climate.
At the same time, IFAD and its partners are studying ways to expand "re-greening" methods that small farmers in Niger have already used to reclaim 5 million hectares of unproductive land.
The farmers have done this by planting trees or simply protecting seedlings that sprout naturally. When fully grown, the trees add nitrogen to the soil, control wind erosion and protect crops from excessive sun. In addition, they provide fruits for supplemental food, and firewood that girls and women would otherwise have to gather far afield.
FOOD DESPITE INSTABILITY
These efforts all continue even as Niger copes with the effects of regional instability.
"Niger has kept its borders open, minimized instability and maintained basic food security for the refugees," IFAD's Galastro says. He explains that cross-border ethnic ties - among the Hausa people in the south and the Tuareg in the north - have made it easier to absorb people fleeing conflicts in neighbouring Mali, Libya and northern Nigeria.
Still, it is a complex situation that could have spun out of control in a nation less focused on peace and development.
Against a backdrop of poverty, drought and conflict, the government and people of this predominantly rural country are taking important steps forward.
"I think Niger is a very positive example for the region," Galastro says, "and IFAD is helping."
Timothy Ledwith is a writer at the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which is co-organising Agriculture and Rural Development Day on 18 June, ahead of the Rio+20 Summit in Rio de Janeiro.