Education in the Sahel
Quality education is one of the surest ways for an individual to escape poverty. However, when education is either inaccessible or of low quality, individuals have limited chances for social advancement. Such is the case in the Sahel region of Africa. Due in large part to regional instability and a lack of classroom resources, education in the Sahel currently yields some of the poorest learning outcomes in the world. Fortunately, a coalition of Sahelian governments recently came together and jointly declared their plans for education reform.

The Sahel

The Sahel is the transitional zone in Central Africa that separates the Sahara Desert from the tropical savannas of sub-Saharan Africa. Within the Sahel region is the G5 Sahel, which is a developmental partnership between five Sahelian countries: Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Donors like the World Bank and the U.N. Development Programme have backed this alliance. The alliance stands as the focal point of international assistance in the region.

The Sahel is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world —  the G5 Sahelian countries have an average fertility rate of 5.6 births per woman, which is more than twice the global average of 2.4 births per woman. As a result, the Sahel produces almost 1 million school-age children annually, which places a massive strain on the region’s school systems and educational infrastructure.

Education in the Sahel

The state of education in the Sahel may appear promising at first glance: The number of Sahelian children enrolled in primary school rose by roughly 50% from 5.9 million in 2005 to 10.8 million in 2018 while the number of students enrolled in secondary school more than tripled from 1.4 million to 4.6 million Sahelian students. However, the current quality of learning outcomes is troubling. Only 60% of children complete primary education and roughly 90% of children cannot meet the minimum standards for reading and writing upon primary school completion.

These low levels of educational attainment are due in large part to a lack of classroom resources. According to the World Bank’s Sahel Education White Paper of 2021, only one in six primary school students in Mauritania have class textbooks. In Niger, the number drops to one out of 11 students. The G5 Sahel region also has one of the highest primary student-teacher ratios in the world at 41, which is roughly three times the average ratio in high-income countries. In such conditions, it is difficult for students to receive adequate attention and instruction.

Gender Inequality

Educational outcomes are the poorest for girls and women. Because four G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger) possess the world’s top 10 highest rates of child marriage, many female students from these nations drop out before they reach secondary school due to marriage and pregnancy. As a result, the G5 Sahel rate of adult female literacy is an abysmal 27.4% according to each country’s most recent data, compared to the global average of 83% in 2020.

Nouakchott Declaration on Education

Despite these grim circumstances, there is cause for optimism. In December 2021, the leaders of the Sahel countries convened in Mauritania’s capital of Nouakchott to discuss the current challenges in education. Here the nations signed the Nouakchott Declaration, which provides a framework for improving education in the Sahel. The Declaration consists of four main objectives:

  1. Support Teachers: Governments will work to equip teachers with the tools necessary for student success. This includes training programs, technology resources and renewed school curricula tailored to meet regional needs.
  2. Systematic Inspection: Governments will create independent systems to monitor school conditions and ensure improved learning outcomes. These systems will identify students at a high risk of dropout and will also promote gender inclusivity in the classroom.
  3. Increase the Education Budget: Governments will allocate more funds to their schools. Around 3% of Sahel’s GDP goes toward education, which is lower than the sub-Saharan average of 4%. By 2030, the Sahel must at least meet this 4% standard.
  4. Prioritize Out-of-School Children: Government outreach programs will help strengthen the basic literacy and numeracy skills of young people who have already left the education system. This will help them find proper employment and at least partially compensate them for their lack of opportunity during early childhood.

Looking Ahead

While current conditions are grim, the countries of the Sahel are beginning to increase their investments in education and the Nouakchott Declaration signals an important first step in ensuring equitable access to quality education and social advancement across the region.

– Jack Leist
Photo: Flickr

Electricity Access in the SahelOn March 11, 2021, the World Bank approved $22.5 million of funding for the Regional Off-Grid Electricity Access Project (ROGEAP) in the Sahel region of Africa. This region is one of the most impoverished areas in the world and few residents have access to electricity. However, the funding expects to increase electricity access in the Sahel by turning to a new source of energy — solar power.

Electricity Access in Sahel Region

The Sahel region stretches across the Sahara desert and includes the countries of Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, among others. Besides having arid climates, the common denominator for countries in the Sahel region is poverty. None of the countries mentioned above have a GDP per capita of more than $3,000, and with this lack of capital, comes a lack of electricity access. Furthermore, approximately 50% of the 340 million people living in the Sahel region do not have access to electricity, representing one of the lowest modern electricity consumption rates for any region on Earth. Insufficient generation, high petroleum prices and lack of financing for large electricity grids have all contributed to the area’s low connectivity.

This lack of electricity access in the Sahel has had destructive physical and economic effects on regional residents. Several public health centers lack sufficient energy generation, which puts the lives of patients requiring electricity for survival at great risk. Furthermore, rural areas of the Sahel often lack any electricity, forcing residents to use firewood in traditional stoves for cooking, which has led to adverse health effects from smoke inhalation and the dangers of cutting trees for fuel. Even if the electrical grid reaches some rural areas, most families cannot afford the cost. Many countries in the region currently generate more than 90% of their energy from expensive diesel or heavy fuel, which results in high energy costs for both the urban and rural impoverished. Without any policy changes, energy poverty will continue to ravage the Sahel region for the foreseeable future.

Turning to Solar Power Solutions

Thankfully, solar power presents an exciting new possibility for expanding electricity access in the Sahel. Experts see the Sahel as an area with massive solar potential, as many people living there, especially those in rural communities, have access to vast areas of flat land needed for solar panels. Furthermore, off-grid (individually owned) solar power systems present the lowest-cost energy option for 65% of the rural population in the Sahel region. Off-grid power sources are already becoming regional hallmarks as many residents live a significant distance from the power grid. According to the International Energy Agency, about 70% of Africa’s new rural power will come from off-grid power sources by 2040.

Seeing this potential, the World Bank increased funding for the Regional Off-Grid Electricity Access Project (ROGEAP) by $22.5 million. Grants from the International Development Association and the Clean Technology Fund have made this funding possible. The main goal of ROGEAP is to support the development of stand-alone (off-grid) solar products and the advancement of the solar market in a unified effort to boost electricity access in the Sahel. This project will assist in accelerating the deployment of stand-alone solar products, provide credits and grants for off-grid solar home systems and coordinate policies and standards to develop a prosperous regional solar market.

How ROGEAP Will Help

  1. It will provide electricity for public health centers and schools, which will, in turn, improve health and education in the region. The projected increase in the standard of living will likely lead to more people being able to secure well-paying jobs to support themselves and their families.
  2. It will create jobs within the blossoming solar market for people of all skill levels. Transitioning to solar power creates the need for jobs in installation, transportation and infrastructure industries. Additionally, entrepreneurial ventures in solar power will likely sprout from the new funding.
  3. It will improve the output and ease of production for many different jobs. For example, farming communities can use solar water pumps for easier irrigation and milling communities can use new solar milling equipment for more efficient production.

Lighting the Way Forward

By supporting the advancement of stand-alone solar products, ROGEAP aims to enhance electricity access in the Sahel for more than a million residents. The project will increase the use of solar power across the region and subsequently provide electricity for homes, schools, hospitals, farms and small businesses that previously lacked connection. The new funding will likely have a positive impact on health, education and employment in the region for decades to come. If the World Bank and other international agencies hope to continue this endeavor of expanding electricity access in developing regions of the world, projects supporting stand-alone solar power sources like ROGEAP seem to be a winning solution.

Calvin Melloh
Photo: Flickr

SWEDD projectThe Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend SWEDD) regional initiative was launched in 2015 with its conclusion set for 2018. The call for the initiative came from six African presidents to accelerate the empowerment of women as a transitional power in the region. The Sahel region is reeling from a host of issues like climate issues, terrorism, organized crime and much more. Lack of food, clean water and medicines are prevalent concerns and the region has suffered a set of humanitarian crises in response. The region’s crises garnered the attention of the United Nations and the World Bank Group, which initiated the SWEDD project and its phase two continuation.

Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD)

The main objective of the SWEDD project is to increase women and adolescent girls’ empowerment and their access to quality reproductive, child and maternal health services. It also seeks to promote social and behavioral change and reinforcement of advocacy at policy development levels to support these objectives.

Nine countries are currently involved in the SWEDD project, creating an inclusive economy that centers on gender equality issues. These countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

As of 2014, women made up a majority of the population in every country listed in the program. Based on this fact, the future envisioned by policymakers would have to embrace and empower the female population, driving a new paradigm for the Sahel.

SWEDD’s Impact

Through this initiative, the establishment of improved societal, financial and health structures have developed in the region. The benefits of the program are seen in various key development sectors.

  • The completion rate for girls in secondary schools rose from 35.1% to 40.3% between 2015 and 2018.
  • The program led to increased access and use of contraception, with more than 4,302,000 women using more modern methods.
  • A whole 10,154 midwives have gained training in new technologies, increasing the overall growth of the field by 15.2% in the initiative’s first four years of existence.
  • The completion rate for girls in secondary schools rose from 35.1% to 40.3% between 2015 and 2018.
  • The program created 1,640 clubs for husbands and husband-to-be in the region, which sets its aims on the education and participation of men and boys for gender equality.
  • The average income of women in the region has risen.
  • A notable decrease in the number of child marriages has been linked to educational attendance.

Continuation of SWEDD

The impact of the SWEDD project in the Sahel region is substantial. The changes stemming from the initiative, have begun a societal restructuring of communities throughout the Sahel, at a critical moment in African post-colonial history. The overwhelming success of the initiative has been rewarded by continuing well beyond its initial end in 2018 to 2023. Phase two of the program ensures that even more women in the region are empowered.

– Christopher Millard
Photo: Flickr

west african super grain
Fonio is a millet with small grains native to West Africa. It is a staple of many dishes in the Sahel region of Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Mali. Also, it has been compared to quinoa and teff by several food scientists. The grain, which has a nutty flavor, can be roasted, pounded or boiled to make bread, couscous and porridge. Also, its swift maturity cycle of two months and its health benefits (gluten-free and fiber-rich) has skyrocketed the popularity of this West African super grain across the Atlantic to Western grocery shelves.

The rise of fonio will benefit the farmers in the Sahel struggling with food security and poverty. A semi-arid region, the 10 Sahel countries experience only 12–20 inches of rainfall per year, making it difficult to sustain agricultural prosperity. Additionally, the GDP in this area ranges between $900 to less than $3,000 per capita — with oil and minerals being the main sources of income. Importantly, due to these nations’ fragile, political environments, business relations tend to suffer. Financial experts are looking at crops like fonio already native to the region so citizens in these countries can help grow the economy. In this same vein, activities like farming will help. Here are some ways the West African super grain will bring prosperity to the region. 

Fonio: Loyal to the Homeland

For thousands of years, fonio has flourished in the arid soil of the Sahel region, just south of the Sahara Desert. Land that is not arable is beneficial for it, as the plant grows in poor soil with little to no need for fertilizers. Its long roots assist in providing topsoil and supplying the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Farmers in the Sahel are familiar with its low-maintenance and use the crop’s ability to self-fertilize to grow other crops in conjunction. It is rotated with other crops to keep the desert land as fertile as possible. Since fonio favors dry, arid soil, the Sahel is one of the few regions in the world where mass production is possible. As the West African super grain continues to grow in popularity, its environmental selectiveness will be an advantage for Sahel farmers in monopolizing production and generating wealth in the region.

Fonio in the Culinary World

Pierre Thiam, an acclaimed Senegalese chef, restaurateur, author and culinary ambassador, founded Yolélé Foods to bring formerly unknown West African staples to the Western palate. In particularly, fonio. Earlier this year, Yolélé released a series of pre-seasoned fonio pilafs intended to be ready within minutes of opening. While the company focuses in the Brooklyn area, it imports fonio directly from the Sahel. To help farmers increase productivity, the company partnered with SOS Sahel, a nonprofit focused on improving conditions in the region. Additionally, Yolélé built the first industrial-scale mill in Dakar, the capital of Senegal (where Thiam is from). With the increased demand for the crop, hopes are high that farmers in the region will have a steady source of income for their labors.

Win-Win

If the popularity of the West African super grain is any indication, fonio could reach quinoa’s status in the culinary world. In Western homes, it is quickly becoming a key ingredient for those with celiac disease, as well as in gluten-free households. While citizens of these nations incorporate the grain into their salads, bread and cakes — farmers in the Sahel are working to ensure their way of life is not endangered by poverty and hunger.

Faven Woldetatyos
Photo: Flickr