5 unremarkable things that stop people dying from hunger

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

We're all familiar with scenes of famine and crisis appeals. There are pictures of malnourished children on the news, and aid workers who are seen as Bear Grylls-esque heroes dropping food packages from a helicopter over the desert.

The thing we don't often think about is how it gets to that stage. There are large swathes of planet (about 805 million people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa) where people live precariously without access to a reliable supply of nutritious food. All it takes is for something to go wrong – conflict, not enough rain, too much rain – and the balance is tipped the wrong way.

Climate change has exacerbated things. It affects weather patterns resulting in unpredictable harvests – one year the rains will be ok and people will be able to grow enough, the next year they can't and they don't have much spare.

So is it possible to hope for a world that has enough to eat before things get critical, before the distended bellies, before the food aid drops?

There has been significant progress in recent years. The number of people going hungry has decreased, and, as I discovered when I visited a number of Christian Aid projects in Burkina Faso, the things that make the difference are often surprisingly simple. In Burkina, one of a number of countries in the Sahel region that experienced an acute food crisis in 2012, things as mundane as compost, water and the way you dig holes to plant seeds can make a real difference to life in rural communities. Truly unglamorous though they may be, they are often the difference between being able and unable to feed their children. So here they are:

1. Improved seeds

These are the nearest things to magic beans outside of literature (at least that aren't narcotic). They're produced locally at an affordable rate and one of the major benefits is that they take a shorter time to grow, which is important given the rainy season has got shorter.

They're not genetically modified, but are a cross between different varieties. For example, a sorghum plant that is particularly productive might be crossed with another variety that is more resistant to drought.

They won't provide a route to fictional castles and great wealth, but they do help ensure people can grow their staple crops.

2. Planting

Christian Aid

Something that sounds rather simple but is really rather clever. Instead of just scattering seeds on the ground, there are methods designed to give seeds the best chance of growing in soil that really doesn't look like it will grow much at all.

In one – the zai system – farmers dig holes, put compost in and then add the seeds. It sounds easy enough but when done manually over a large area it considerably adds to the work involved. Another is the demi-lune system, which involves digging semi-circular troughs around a group of planted seeds to catch the rainwater and keep it in the soil.

While these tried and tested techniques can be really effective, people the world over can be resistant to trying new things. Rural farmers have been planting in the same way for generations, so getting them to adopt new methods takes time, as well as training.

3. Compost

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

In Britain, compost is like the icing on the cake; great if you have it, but if you don't, you can probably still get enough runner beans for a decent Sunday lunch.

The soil in Burkina Faso has been starved of nutrients because people have been repeatedly farming the same land and planting the same crops year after year.

So communities are being trained to save leaves and straw in time to make compost when the rainy season starts. Similarly, they're taught to use manure as an organic fertiliser, which also helps keep costs down.

This isn't quite as straightforward as it sounds; some of these materials have other uses – straw, for example, is used for making roofs, preparing meals or feeding animals. So along with teaching people to feed the soil, you also need to help them find other things to use to build their homes and feed their livestock.

4. Water

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

It's obvious, but the one thing most needed in the desert is water. The main difference between the sandy farmland in Burkina Faso and the much more fertile land in neighbouring Cote D'Ivoire is rainfall.

Burkina does get rain – the north gets up to 600mm in the rainy season – but the difficulty is working out ways to preserve it. How do you make it last through the dry, warm months of October-May?

Christian Aid's partners have helped farmers make dykes to store water and irrigate their crops. At a national level, the government (together with international support) needs to invest in building dams, reservoirs and irrigation systems, which require the kind of investment that farming communities cannot possibly afford by themselves.

It's remarkable to see market gardens with rows and rows of bright green lettuces growing during the dry season. But these rely on women watering their plants repeatedly every day – and each watering can involves huge amount of effort when filling up from very deep wells (I tried – it was embarrassing to watch). Some communities have been helped with buying motorised pumps to make this easier. Again, this takes investment to implement.

5. Rock belts

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

Who would have thought that putting some stones in a row could make much difference to how well plants grow? This truly unspectacular picture shows another way of preserving the rain that does fall.

When the earth is bare, and lacking other forms of vegetation, there is little to stop the rainwater washing straight across the land and into rivers, without penetrating into the soil and nourishing the crops. Farmers either use rocks or grasses placed in rows in the direction of the water flow to keep the water in the soil. What may look just like a row of stones is actually an essential way to get the most out of the land.

Unlike the miracle skinny pills we're offered in adverts as a quick fix to our opposite problem, these methods of survival involve a heck of a lot of hard work – and they won't result in the most salubrious of feasts. They won't end world hunger in and of themselves, but without them people could starve.

Christian Aid works with some of the poorest people in around 40 countries, through local partner organisations, to end poverty. This Christian Aid Week (10-16 May) thousands of volunteers across the UK will take part in Britain's longest running door-to-door fundraising week to raise money for its vital work with communities like those in Burkina Faso featured here. To make a donation visit www.caweek.org, call 08080 006 006 or text 'WEEK' to 70040 to give £5.

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