By Sarah Oughton
Before mid-morning it is already hot in Tin Akoff and Mohamed Ingouda, 46, stands patiently in line waiting for his Burkinabe Red Cross food voucher.
“We are all suffering due to the bad rain and bad harvest,” says Mohamed, who is an agro-pastoralist. “I have 11 children to feed and, of course, I have a problem to find food.”
In February, the Red Cross distributed food vouchers to 5,500 people in Oudalan province in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, which has been badly affected by drought. But with 1.6 million people in Burkina Faso alone facing a food crisis, and more than 14 million people affected across the Sahel, there is an urgent need to scale up the response.
Failed crops, rising food prices and the underlying issue of poverty mean thousands of agro-pastoralist families can’t afford to buy food available in the market. In October 2011, the Burkinabe Government reported the price of maize had increased by 35 per cent compared to 2010.
Those who have livestock are having to sell them at lower than usual prices, in order to buy their staple foods, knowing they still have difficult months ahead of them until their next harvest, around October.
Families without livestock assets are turning to more extreme coping mechanisms, such as: searching for wild food; reducing the number of meals they eat; depending on friends and extended family; sending girls to the city to work as domestic help and men leaving to look for employment in the Ivory Coast.
In 1974, Mohamed moved to the Ivory Coast where he had a job as a fishmonger, but in 2007 he lost his job and went home to Tin Akoff. As an agro-pastoralist, like everyone else in the Sahel region where he lives, Mohamed now survives by growing his own food, mainly millet and sorghum, and tending livestock.
“People are not realising how bad it is,” Mohamed says. “But sometimes we spend a day without eating at all. Also, there’s no pasture for the lambs and they are not in a good state. We have to sell our lambs to buy some rice or millet, but the price we can sell them for is going down and the price of grains is going up.
“I’ve had to sell 15 lambs over the last seven months. I have never experienced it like this before. Last year one bag of millet cost 12,000 CFA francs and now it is double around 27,000 CFA. We don’t have enough money to buy millet to last us until the next harvest and we don’t have stocks of food, we are really suffering.”
The Red Cross food vouchers enabled families to buy basic foods at local shops in their villages to meet immediate needs without having to sell off more assets.
Jacqueline Frize, food security delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says: “The vouchers gave families the flexibility to buy the equivalent of one month’s food in either small instalments or in bulk, according to individual household preference.
“In most cases, vouchers are preferable to distributing food parcels as they have the extra benefit of stimulating local markets and ensuring food availability throughout the lean season. For example, if a trader knows the local people can’t afford to buy food in the market, they’ll take their produce elsewhere.”
Mohamed says: “Already, we are only eating once instead of three times a day and this has been going on for seven months.”
Despite his situation Mohamed has a generous smile. As he picks up his food voucher and heads off to the local store, he says: “This will help us survive for some weeks. After that, I don’t know what the future will be, but I must keep my family together.”