Bargaining for food in the Sahel

Published: 24 May 2011 14:40 CET

In 2009–2010, Niger once again suffered through another food crisis. These have been caused mainly by harsh climatic conditions and a lack of rain across the region, and exacerbated by regional and global market forces. In Niger, about 85 per cent of the population relies on agriculture to provide food and income to support their families. A lack of rain in 2009 meant that farmers were unable to plant crops, which pushed up the price of food in markets.

Many already impoverished Nigerien families could not afford the high food prices in markets – an estimated 85 per cent of the population lives on an average of 1.25 US dollars a day. Families who were lucky enough to have animals that survived the drought, or the floods in July and August, resorted to selling them for very little or exchanging them for food at market.

For those with nothing to bargain with, debt was the only option. Many either borrowed food from neighbours or cereal merchants.
El Hajj Mohammad, a cereal merchant in Agadez market, said that the shortage affected every part of his local community. “In the beginning, we were happy to help with our goods. When a neighbour came to me to ask for a food loan for his family, there was no way I could refuse him such a favour. We are only six merchants in town, and we know every family and every family knows us. I knew their wives and children, and I knew the conditions in which they were living. It was very hard for them,” he said.

“Later on, as the lean period progressed, we could no longer afford to loan them food because we had not been paid back, and the food situation had worsened for everybody. We loaned everything we had and there was not much left – even for our own families. I still have two goats in my house that a neighbour left me [as collateral] for a bag of maize because he could not afford to pay for it.”

Fatouma Moussa of Hamka-Tombo village in Dosso says: “It has been a very long time since I was able to provide my children with three meals a day. The memory of this is so distant that I can barely remember it. In the past, we used to eat in the morning and in the afternoon. In the evening, I would cook a big meal for my family and we would eat the leftovers at breakfast the next morning. We have not been able to do this for many years now. Now, I am very happy when my family can eat one meal a day.”

To help Fatouma Moussa, and thousands of others like her, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and its movement partners distributed food assistance, provided water and sanitation services, healthcare, and organized agricultural projects.

Mamane Issa, Executive Secretary of the Red Cross Society of Niger in Niamey, said: “Thanks to the support of our network of volunteers, we try to make our services reach as many families as we can, but obviously this is a very hard task. We do not have the means to help everyone. Thousands of other needy families, unfortunately, cannot benefit from our services because we do not have the funds to meet their needs.”

The IFRC and its partners set up a food assistance programme to respond to the food crisis in Niger and the Sahel, but it can only help families in the short term. Full recovery requires a different set of solutions.

The recurring food security problem faced by Niger over the last decade – and other Sahel countries such as Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso – requires governments and international agencies to provide longer-term commitments. Funding is needed for medium- and long-term programmes. Communities can better cope with drought cycles and other shocks when rural families improve farming practices, diversify their livelihoods, and have better access to local and regional markets. It is critical to extend health and nutrition services to the poorest, and fund efforts to improve dietary and child feeding practices. Only by tackling the root causes of the crisis will families be able to reverse the downward spiral and work toward recovery, gaining the strength and resilience to cope with future droughts.

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