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Analyzing the Sahel food crisis

Woman and children queue at feeding center in Mentao refugee camp
Woman and children queue at feeding center in Mentao refugee camp
July 27, 2012

In the last three to five years, the people in the Sahel have been confronted with either lower than average rain, normal rainfall or excessive rainfall which has resulted in floods. As a result of these conditions, harvests in the Sahel have been unreliable.

In order to cope with poor harvests, farmers and their families have cut back on their expenses. In the Sahel, families have sold their livestock and personal possessions. Given the average size of families in the Sahel (about 7-12 members per family), two million people have suffered reduced incomes. After three years, their assets have been depleted and now men, women, and children must look for additional work to supplement the family income.

Migrant Workers from the Sahel have had to go to Cote d’Ivoire, the Maghreb, and Libya to find work. However, conflicts in these areas have resulted in 200,000 workers having to return home. In addition, the arrival of Malian refugees has added an additional stress on food insecure areas.

Cultural Differences

The staple diet for the people in the Sahel is different than what is grown outside of the region. This means that countries on the west coast may have enough food to export to the Sahel, but these foods are not part of their diet.

Food has also been imported at prevailing market rates which has a knock-on effect on availability and cost. Thus, a food crisis does not necessarily mean a shortage in the quantity of food, but rather the inability to afford the food that is available.

Arab Spring

In addition to inconsistent harvest levels, market forces, and the inflow of refugees, the arrival of desert locusts add further complications.

In the past, the Gadaffi Government provided monetary funds for insect control in the border areas of Libya and Algeria where locust breeding grounds have been the most prevalent. However with the dissolution of this government, these funds have dried up.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) which monitors locust movement has reported sightings in northern Niger. If these swarms come southward through the agricultural belt, crops will be affected. Locusts have been known to devour acres of crops and trees within 30 minutes.

Out of School

To help their parents cope with the food crisis, children are leaving school to find work. Some girls work as domestic help in homes while others are begging on the streets. Boys who find work in the gold mines of Burkina and Niger face respiratory and other health-related problems due to the inhalation of dust and exposure to mercury, arsenic, and other toxins.

Children who work on plantations, in cotton fields, and in other types of farming also face risks of exploitation and potential trafficking.

Finding Solutions

At Plan we are trying to address the food insecurity, in a holistic way.

We are providing drought-resistant seeds, supporting the government to train farmers in drought-season activities, and we support the 3N program ("Niger Nourish Nigeriens"). One of its principal objectives is to reduce dependence on climate through irrigation and rainwater collection projects.

Plan is empowering communities to get involved in the cereal market and beat speculators at their own game. Through the creation of community-managed cereal banks, communities are able to store and sell crops to village members at low prices. The income is used to increase the storage capacity of the cereal bank and to support social infrastructure. This reduces a community’s dependence on spectators who buy cereal at low prices and then resell the crops at a higher price during a food shortage.

Plan is also implementing a micro-finance project for women and youth using the VSLA strategy. By providing economic empowerment for women, there is a trickle-down effect benefiting children who will receive balanced meals, medical care, and an education.

No Handouts

Plan has appealed to developing nations for assistance for the Sahel Food Crisis. It was not to address an annual chronic food shortage; it was to address an emergency that has put four million children at risk of malnutrition.

Plan is using aid money to prevent dependency on long-term aid by empowering and supporting the people living in the Sahel. Ultimately, hard work is in place to build resilience.

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