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
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.”
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
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
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.