Four figures bend intently over their work in one corner of the large vegetable garden near the western Niger village of Dioga. Months after the village's main harvest has been brought in – and eaten up – the irrigated green of the garden is welcome relief in a part of the country where hunger never seems far away.
The three-hectare garden is managed by women from this village and surrounding settlements in the rural district of Torodi.
Lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage; onions and peppers, aubergine, okra, and squash – Aminata Douramane may be 60 years old, but she shows few signs of slowing down as she ticks off the list of vegetables she grows here. Oh: and mango, guava, lemon and orange trees.
"I've also been growing moringa for the past three years," she said, showing off a plot of land adjacent to her lovingly-cared-for vegetables, where she has a stand of 80-odd Moringa oleifera trees.
"The three children that you saw helping me are my grandchildren. The eldest is 13, and the youngest is eight. They're all going to school, so it's only when they're not in class that they come to lend a hand," Douramane told IPS.
Elsewhere on the lushly green site, covering an area of three hectares, other women are also busy caring for their plants.
"I'm here to make sure the labourer who helps me waters the plants well," said Zeïnabou Boureïma. "It's very hot now, so it's important to do it right because the plants need lots of water."
The women all belong to an association called Cernafa, which means "cooperation" in the local language, Djerma. "We were about fifty women at the beginning in 2002, when we got started here on a plot the chief made available to us," said Douramane, who is president of the group.
"It was very difficult at the start, because of a lack of water. People took us for fools," she told IPS.
"But now the group has more than 100 women, and through this garden we have become the pride of the village and the Torodi district. Three years ago, we had saved enough to buy 4.2 hectares of land for about 400,000 CFA francs (around 772 dollars) to respond to requests and diversify our range of produce," she added.
"What motivated the women of Dioga to start growing vegetables was food insecurity, which is chronic in this region," said Salou Moumouni, principal of the village's school and an informal advisor to the group.
"Immediately following the harvest each year, their husbands leave for cities in the region, often leaving the women and children without enough food," he said.
"Now they look after their households with the income from selling vegetables while the men are away," Moumouni told IPS.
"I decided to volunteer to support the group because I saw it was led by very courageous women, ready to overcome any obstacle to avoid being dependent," he said.
Bibata Garba, another member of Cernafa, told IPS: "When the project started, I would earn 60,000 CFA (around 115 dollars) from the growing season between December and April. But this time around, I got more than 210,000 CFA (405 dollars) over the same period, thanks to a good harvest."
The women's efforts have attracted support from beyond their village.
"The determination by the women of Dioga to fight against hunger and poverty through their gardening scheme led us to begin assisting them in 2004, strengthening their capacity, particularly in agricultural techniques and organisational matters," said Amadou Boubacar, president of Action for Sustainable Development (ADD), an NGO based in Niamey, the Nigerien capital.
"We provided the group with four modern boreholes, a water tower for a drip-irrigation system which we installed on the site with support from ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics), and a motorised pump. We supplied them with seeds and fertiliser and we also taught some of the members to read," he said.
Boubacar told IPS that ADD also helped the women get financial support from Crossroads International, a Canadian NGO working to reduce poverty with a particular emphasis on empowering women.
According to Aïssa Boukari, Cernafa's treasurer, the Nigerien authorities and other partners, such as the international charity Oxfam and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, have also provided assistance in the form of watering cans, rakes, hoses, hoes, and seeds.
"It is difficult to give exact figures for the production of lettuce and vegetables which are sold before harvest, or harvested and taken directly to the market by producers; but we do know that the total return from sales from December 2011 to April 2012 was around five million CFA (more than 9,500 dollars)," Boukari told IPS.
"And the harvest's not over, since for the past three years we've decided to spread production over the whole year."
According to the government, irrigated farming, including market gardens, has this year allowed the country to produce the equivalent of 325,000 tonnes of grain, against an overall deficit of 600,000 tonnes recorded during the 2011-2012 agriculture campaign.
This shortfall is at the heart of the food crisis which is still affecting 8.3 million of the 15.7 million people in this West African nation.
Find out more about cooperatives at