MALI : The agro-pastoral sector


The role of agriculture as the bedrock of the country is undeniable. The rural sector occupies an important place in Mali’s economy, employing around 80% of the working population (75% of those working in agriculture are agro-pastoralists, 10% are solely livestock herders, 9% are solely crop-growers and 3.6% are fishermen) and bringing in more than 60% of the export income. Most of the rural population (men and women) work in forestry during the long period of the dry season (General Agricultural Census-2004). In constant prices, the rural sector has grown by 10% on average, with considerable annual variations due to climatic conditions, livestock diseases, external factors (world cotton, gold and fuel prices) and social and political events.


Overall, the prominence of agriculture is increasing, whereas the role of other primary sector activities is decreasing. Industrial crops are dominated by cotton, which is the economic engine of the southern regions. Rice holds an important place in the national production and consumption of cereals (representing around 19% of production and meeting 76% of demand). With the exception of rice, plant production is made up largely of rain-fed food crops, predominantly staple cereal crops (millet, sorghum, maize) intended for human consumption.

Agricultural production and productivity vary considerably from one year to the next, due to the unreliable climatic conditions. Observations made over the past 30 years show an increase in temperatures, a general decrease in precipitation, a shift in the seasonal calendar and a marked increase in desertification. We also see an increase in the number of extreme climate events, such as droughts and floods. The climate variability and climate change are aggravating anthropogenic pressures on the land, water and other natural resources.

Today, the agricultural sector just about manages to feed a population of 14.5 million inhabitants, which could grow to 24 million by 2025. This projection gives a glimpse of that serious nutrition and food security problems that lie ahead unless actions are taken. Meanwhile, less than 10% of land is under cultivation, but farmers have to deal with the desert encroaching further every year. It covers more than 60% of Mali’s land. The sub-desert zone is estimated at around 27% of the country.

Eighty per cent of farmers produce food crops, which account for 17% of agricultural income and are grown mainly on the shores of the Niger River, between Bamako and Mopti, and in the southern regions of the country (Sikasso). Rice is used as an alternative crop to "bridge the gap" between harvests, but producing it requires extensive irrigation systems. Rice production in Mali has recently become competitive compared to imported rice, which is subject to import duties.

In order to deal with the anticipated demographic growth and the risk of food security problems, 10 years ago the government launched a national competitiveness and agricultural diversification programme (PCDA) that is aimed at enhancing high-growth agricultural production chains and eliminating obstructions to the export of their products. The programme is also intended to facilitate access to finance and the development of infrastructure, and to develop access to technologies aimed at improving "the productivity and income of farmers". In other words, the introduction of GMOs and the mass use of fertilisers, which farmer organisations in Mali are criticising and fighting. This is, however, an uphill battle, as they are faced with a very effective industrial lobby.

Export crops are, above all, cotton and groundnuts. Groundnuts are grown mainly in the regions of Ségou and Mopti, in the centre of the country. Cotton, grown almost entirely for export, is concentrated in the southern regions of the country and forms an important part of national exports. The sector, which employs around 3 million smallholders, regulated by a single national operator – the Compagnie malienne pour le développement du textile (CMDT – the Malian Company for the Development of Textiles) – suffered from a serious administrative crisis in 2009-2010, at the same time as it was facing fierce international competition, notably from China and Brazil. To save the "white gold", the Malian state and the sector’s employers and trade unions may  privatise the CMDT to enable it to compete with the American and European giants in the field who are driving down world prices by means of massive subsidies.

Livestock herding

Livestock herding is the main economic activity of people living in the semi-desert regions of the north, where environmental conditions do not permit the cultivation of cereal crops. This is a vital occupation, historically performed by the nomadic Moors and Fulani people, and one that has shaped the demographic distribution in Mali for millennia. Herding provides 80% of the income of rural populations living under the pastoral system and 18% under the agro-pastoral system. It contributes 10% of GDP, and after gold and cotton is the country’s third-biggest export resource, sold exclusively to neighbouring countries.

In central Mali, and particularly in the Mopti region, where rainfall is irregular, populations practise diversified economic activities related to agriculture and herding. The vast savannah grasslands are particularly favourable for livestock herding, even though climate change has had a considerable impact on the region during the past 40 years. Every year drought threatens the herds, which grows thinner year by year. Today, herders are increasingly settled and diversified, branching out into fishing and agriculture, adding extra stress to the competition for natural resources and access to arable land. With no heed for the cycles of the ecosystem, herding itself contributes to the progression of desertification, as animals feed on young plants, preventing reforestation.

Mali’s cattle population is the biggest in West Africa. There are 13.2 million head of sheep and goats. The remainder of the livestock is made up of donkeys, camels (dromedaries), horses and pigs. Apart from raising livestock for to sell for food, herding leads to the development of other related activities, with by-products such as milk, hides and skins. Milk production, however, is insufficient, as the country has to import 15 to 20 billion CFA francs’ worth of it every year.


The presence of big rivers (the Niger and Senegal rivers) and the Niger inland delta favours the development of fishing. More than 180 species of fresh water fish have been recorded, despite the disappearance of around 100 over the past 20 years as a result of overfishing, water pollution and a decrease in rainfall which is drying out water courses. This sector, which is widely practised at an artisanal level, employs more than 100,000 people and permits the production of a million tonnes of fish per year. Twenty per cent of production, in the form of dried fish, is exported to the coastal countries of the region - Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
*Agrobusiness et développement agricole. Quels enjeux pour quelles perspectives? Le cas de la zone Office du Niger et Mali - Florence Brondeau
*PROMISAM - Les grandes réussites du secteur agricole malien : Regard sur les 30 dernières années
*ODHD PNUD - Effets économiques et financiers de la crise politique et sécuritaire 2012 au Mali : analyse de la situation et énoncé de mesures conservatoires