Niger: Prey to the hungry season

“We have organized the sale of cereals at a subsidized price and the free distribution of foodstuffs.”
Amina Liman
Coordinator of operations in Gabi

As a result of severe drought, the 2009 harvest in Niger produced less than a quarter of the country's annual needs. This meant that the hunger gap – the period between harvests – began in April this year, instead of June as is usually the case. Now half of all Nigeriens do not have enough food.

A recent national food security survey found that 7.1 million people, or half the population, suffer from food insecurity, of which 3.3 million suffer from severe food insecurity. Yet another survey found that the nutritional status of children had severely deteriorated; as much as 16.7% are acutely malnourished, far exceeding the high alert levels. As many as 455,000 children were found to be suffering from severe malnutrition, of which 87,000 from acute malnutrition.

To address the food crisis, Oxfam and its partners have implemented a humanitarian livestock destocking program in the most vulnerable agri-pastoral and pastoral areas. Weakened animals are purchased at above-market prices and then slaughtered. The meat is then distributed to vulnerable households. In addition, Oxfam's partners sell millet and animal feed at subsidized prices.

A very difficult year

Doga, a village of several hundred inhabitants to the South of Maradi, seems deflated, crushed by the mid-day heat. Where has the hyperactivity gone that characterizes this part of southern Niger, an area which borders with Nigeria and is reputed for its entrepreneurship? The village is practically deserted and only some women and children are sitting in the shade of the trees.

By contrast, it is very busy at the leprosy center of the neighboring Sudan Interior Mission. Abdoulwahab Saleye has been here since this morning. Cured from leprosy, he is 45 years old, but appears to be much older. "I used to work at SIM, but was laid off. Now, I beg to feed my family of five."

"It has been very difficult this year," he says bitterly. "I went begging all the way to southern Nigeria. But there, the authorities hunt down beggars and I was obliged to return."

Not enough to feed a family

The center distributes millet to the needy. But it is impossible to satisfy everyone. Sometimes it is necessary to go and come back several times before having enough to feed a small family, about 2.5 kg.

Haoua Mamane, 50 years, also here at the center, adds that it is not even enough to feed his family of seven.

Last year's harvest only lasted a month. The fields in the area have become smaller and smaller as each generation divides the inheritance. The earth is poor. Fertilizers are needed that these small farmers cannot afford. In addition, there hasn't been enough rain. Result: a poor harvest and a lack of enough food for a large majority of the inhabitants. Animals haven't been spared as there is not enough pasture.

The price of 100 kg of millet has jumped to as much as 22,000 CFA (34 €), which is out of reach for vulnerable households. "We have sold animals, mainly our goats," says Haoua. "Now, we don't have enough or they are in such pitiable state that they wouldn't fetch a good price," adds Haoua. "A billy goat used to be worth a bag [of millet], now it costs two billy goats to buy a bag."

Subsidizing cereal sales

Haoua used to earn a living selling utensils, plastic and beads. Today, she, together with other women from Doga, survive by working for better off families doing the housework or pounding the millet.

"Many people have left for Nigeria. Even today, many men have left, leaving the field work to the women and children," adds Abdoulwahab.

Abdoulwahab and Haoua are counting on the Association pour la Redynamisation de l'Elevage au Niger (AREN), Oxfam's partner for its humanitarian response in the Maradi region.

"We have organized the sale of cereals at a subsidized price and the free distribution of foodstuffs," says Amina Liman, the coordinator of operations at this distribution site in Gabi which serves the village of Doga.

Bridging the hunger gap

Vulnerable households can buy cereals at a subsidized price. A 100 kg bag of millet can be bought per household for 10 000 CFA (15.5 €). The free distribution of food is only for the most vulnerable households, and they receive one bag of millet per family. One bag is enough to feed a family of seven for a month.

The sale of animal feed at subsidized prices (3500 F or 5.5 € per bag-as opposed to 10 000 CFA on the market) and the free distribution of animal feed are done as a function of the number of animals owned by a family.

At the Gabi distribution site, upon which the village of Doga depends, 160 bags of millet and 700 bags of wheat are distributed in the first two days. As many as 1233 people benefited.

The beneficiaries were very appreciative. "But it is not enough," say Adbouwahab and Haoua. "There will have to be at least three more months before the next harvest."

Read more

Photo gallery: Food crisis in Niger

Read the blog by Kirsty Hughes, Oxfam GB's Head of policy and advocacy: Assessing the situation in Niger, part 1 and part 2

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More information: West Africa Food Crisis