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The high price of hunger


Movement efforts to stem the food crisis in the Sahel focus on the economic roots of the crisis: lack of cash and sky-high prices.

The markets in the capital Niamey and other Niger villages are packed with food and vendors. Women with calabash bowls set up outdoor stalls and sell millet and other grains. Dried fish are set out under the sub-Saharan sun while large silver platters display a variety of food choices — manioc powder, local roots, spices and more.

But the market is not where Mariama* goes to find food for her family. Instead, she wakes up every morning at 06:00 and walks to the millet fields surrounding her village in northern Niger. There, she paces the ground row by row and searches for stalks of millet that farmers have left behind. Whatever she finds will feed herself and her family. Her husband died less than two years ago and she has no work and no money.

This widow’s story is not uncommon in northern Niger, a country that is facing a severe food security crisis. Although Red Cross workers in the West African country say there is food for sale in the markets, the droughts that devastated the recent harvest mean most people in Niger cannot afford to buy the food brought in from neighbouring countries.

The price of a 50-kilogram sack of millet grain has reached nearly 13,000 CFA francs (US$ 25). “That’s double the normal price of 6,000 CFA in October 2009,” says Ciaran Cierans, head of the Irish Red Cross’s sub-delegation in Niamey.

This year’s poor harvest also means those prices are beyond the reach of many farming families, notes Aita Sarr-Cisse, a food security officer for the IFRC in Senegal. She recalls one farmer’s story: “This year he kept all the harvest in his grain bins to feed his family. They did not have enough to sell, so now that there is nothing left, they have no money to buy food.”

Millions endangered
With more than 80 per cent of the country’s population relying on agriculture, the combination of drought, poor harvests and high food prices have put nearly 10 million people in the region at risk. According to a national survey published by Niger’s government, nearly 17 per cent of children underthe age of 5 are suffering from acute malnutrition — an increase of 42 per cent over the same period last year.

Amadou Tidjane Amadou, communications officer with the Red Cross Society of Niger, says the poor harvests have also meant a lack of work in the villages. “Before the people sold their animals, but now with the crisis all of the sheep and goats are dead. Without this usual source of income, people in the villages are suffering.”

This is why the Red Cross Society of Niger and the Irish Red Cross, with funding from the British Red Cross, are implementing cash-for-work and cashtransfer programmes to inject much-needed money into local markets.

One cash-for-work programme that ran during June and July employed 5,000 women in Tanout to build up and rehabilitate the reservoirs that collect and store run-off water that can then be used for livestock and crops.

Cash for cattle
In both Niger and Mali, the ICRC is reaching out to cattle herders who have lost, or are in danger of losing, their emaciated livestock. The droughts threatened nearly 70 per cent of cattle in the region, so the ICRC delegation based in Niamey developed a destocking and veterinary programme both to make herds healthier and to buy cattle from herders at pre-drought prices. The animals were then slaughtered on the spot and the meat distributed to villagers.
“It’s rare that you are paid for your cow, and on top of that you are given the meat and even the hide,” Moussa Ag Minar, the mayor of Gossi, told an ICRC video crew recently. “The farmers are delighted.” With many herders liquidating their stocks, the emaciated cattle brought into the Gossi market had fetched as little as 38 euros; the ICRC programme paid closer to 200 euros, which allowed the herders to reinvest in their stocks, feed their cattle, buy food or save for better times.

“There was no market for the animals, because they were either not able to sell their animals at all or forced to sell them at very low prices,” says the ICRC’s economic security coordinator based in Niamey, Dragana Rankovic. So far, the programme has helped more than 10,000 cattle herders in Mali and Niger to purchase and distribute roughly 38,000 head of cattle.

Next year, Rankovic says the plan is to implement the vaccination element on a larger scale, reduce the destocking element and provide training for the livestock owners on basic animal health and food issues. In the meantime, the ICRC and other aid organizations are also providing direct food relief.

Tackling drought drip by drip
By tackling food security with economic measures, the idea is to stabilize the markets and give more people the chance to buy food. But it won’t be easy. The food security situation is complicated by increasing desertification, inter-communal clashes between farmers and herders competing for land and scarce water — as well as armed banditry.

Everyone here knows these problems will not go away anytime soon and that long-term development is crucial. “For us, the main thing is water,” says Cierans, adding that the Irish Red Cross is now working on projects involving drip irrigation, which saves water by allowing it to drip slowly to roots of plants. “Besides the drip irrigation methods, we are also constructing new wells.”

The idea is to create more stable harvests. But in case crop failures continue, the Irish Red Cross and others are working on another way to stabilize food supplies and local markets: the creation of cereal banks in which grains are stored during plentiful harvests, and withdrawn during periods of drought. “During the harvest period, prices will drop,” Cierans says. “Then when the prices go up next year during the dry season, the farmers should be able to go back to the cereal bank and buy the cereal back at a lower price.”

By Ricci Shryock
Ricci Shryock is a freelancer writer and photographer based in Dakar, Senegal.
*Name has been changed.


A mother brings her child to a clinic at the health centre of Goudel, in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Like a growing number of infants the region, the child suffers from severe malnutrition.
©Benoit Matsha-Carpentier /IFRC









“Before, the people
sold their animals,
but now with the
crisis all of the
sheep and goats
are dead. Without
this usual source
of income, people
in the villages are
Amadou Tidjane
, Red Cross
Society of Niger











Animals with a chance of survival receive veterinary care and feed as part of joint efforts between the ICRC and veterinary services of Niger and Mali.



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