Rising food prices and sporadic rains spell trouble for farmers in Niger

Published: 19 March 2012 14:28 CET

By Kalle Lindberg in Niger

Boureima Garba from Kourtéré village in Niger, is fortunate. He has land close to the river, can read and write, and has good access to local markets. Despite these advantages, there is still concern about the future because the rains were not as expected this year and his stocks are running dangerously low.

Another of Boureima’s problems is that food prices vary a lot. Rising fuel prices and increased demand has pushed up prices on staple foods like millet, sorghum and rice. At the same time vegetable prices have fallen since the insufficient rains have forced many farmers to switch from cultivating millet or sorghum to growing vegetables. Boureima used to be able to leave for the market with a basket of vegetables and return home with a sack of rice or millet. Now he has to sell twenty baskets of vegetables in order to be able to buy a sack of rice.

“I can’t eat five sacks of aubergines,” he says. “So we eat some and the rest is for selling to pay for other food items.”

Yet another of Boureima’s problems is that the river has become unpredictable. In the past they had the river right next to the village, but then the level started to vary. A couple of years ago the river reached its highest level in one hundred years and many families lost their houses. Now the river has receded to a much lower level, and the result is devastated fields and long walks in order to fetch water from the river to irrigate the vegetable garden.

“Over there, where there is sand now, we used to have rice fields,” says Boureima pointing at a field closer to the river. “But now everything is destroyed. It’s difficult to provide for your family. We’ve seen good times as well as bad times.”

It stands to reason that the farmers in Niger are used to bad times. They live close to the Sahara desert and know that they can’t count on the rains. That’s why they have their tricks to get by in bad times. One way is to reduce the size of the herds. But that doesn’t work so well today, when the prices of cereals are at record levels at the same time as cattle prices have collapsed.

“You sell your goat and what you get isn’t even enough for a sack of millet. So what are you supposed to do? You risk selling all your animals for three or four sacks of rice or millet.”

Another old survival strategy applied by the men in the villages is to leave looking for work in other places. But now conflicts in the neighbouring countries have forced many migrant workers to return to Niger. That means more mouths to feed and fewer respources with which to buy food.

“You’d think that this would suffice to support a family,” says Boureima as he casts his eye over the farm with the goats, the garden and rice field. “But the animals want hay and fodder and the children also want something to eat.”

Even though Boureima keeps repeating that the coming months will be difficult for him and his family, he’s well aware that they are lucky compared to many others in Niger. He has his garden, his animals and two sacks of rice. There are many who have nothing. And the number of people who have nothing keeps increasing day by day in both Niger and across the whole Sahel region.

“Life is difficult all over Niger. But there are many who are worse off than us. There are those who have nothing. If this continues, people will either leave or die,” he says.