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The race to beat the West Africa food crisis


Emilio Labrador under a CC Licence

In the town of Ségou in south-central Mali, Salif Kanté is grappling with the increased costs of basic cereals. ‘I recently purchased my family’s food stock for 2012. I spent almost twice as much as I did last year for the same quantity,’ says Kanté, a worker at the Malian agricultural NGO PRECAD. He knows he is better off than most: ‘Many people are struggling here.’

Throughout Mali and the Sahel, cereal shortages and rising prices are hitting households hard. Following drought and poor harvests in 2011, Mali has seen crops reduce by a quarter and a 50-60 per cent leap in food prices above the five-year average. Many have had to sell their livestock and reduce their daily meals, leaving some three million at risk of chronic malnutrition.

‘Food prices in the Sahel are particularly high for this time of year,’ confirms Julien Jacob, Action Against Hunger’s head of food security. In Mali, he says, ‘100 kilograms of millet meal currently costs around 22,000 CFA [$44], which is already a higher price that you’d expect in July. Poor families in Mali have an average monthly income of between 50-65,000 CFA ($100-150) so it’s clear that current prices – which could rise still – would leave them with almost nothing.’

It is a story that echoes throughout the neighbouring countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal and Chad. More than 13 million people are now at risk of hunger in the Sahel, and aid agencies are now warning of a humanitarian emergency.

Young children are often the worst hit. In Mali, experts predict that 175,000 children could soon be suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

In Tapoa in Burkina Faso, aid agencies have reported a 200 per cent increase in admissions of malnourished children compared to 2010, and in Kanem in Chad, 2,000 children were admitted to Action Against Hunger treatment centres in February alone, a three-fold increase compared to the same month last year.

Erratic rains

The current food crisis is largely down to erratic rains and localized dry spells in 2011. As agronomist Oumar Niangado explains, agriculture in the Sahel has always been vulnerable to low rainfall. ‘In certain places there are good systems of agricultural collectives, plus strong NGO support,’ says Niangado, ‘but with our dependence on rain-fed crops and poor irrigation, one bad rainy season can ruin everything.’

This was the case in 2010, when drought triggered an acute wave of hunger that affected 10 million people in the region. The global food price spikes of 2008 were another shock that pushed the vulnerable into crisis once more. Meanwhile, Oxfam has warned that the world is entering an era of permanent food crisis, predicting that global warming and resource pressures may cause staple crop yields in developing countries to plummet dramatically over the next 20 years.

Oxfam has warned that the world is entering an era of permanent food crisis

Governments and NGOs are scrambling to prevent a repeat of the Horn of Africa famine, which is thought to have killed up to 100,000 people last year. Early warning alerts late last year prompted several Sahelian governments to set up food distribution programmes and issue calls for international assistance. In February, the European Union pledged €125 million ($166 million) in aid to the Sahel, while Britain has donated £3 million ($4.7 million) to the region.

Over the last two months, the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Committee of the Red Cross, Save the Children, Christian Aid and Action Against Hunger have all launched appeals. Relief efforts have grown more sophisticated than handing out sacks of grain. These organizations are attacking malnutrition with ‘blanket feeding’ (nutritionally rich food to the most vulnerable) and high prices with cash-for-work programmes, food vouchers and cash hand-outs. ‘We have to support local economies, says Nancy Walters, WFP Country Director in Mali. ‘If we can get commodities flowing freely, we can begin to meet people’s food and nutrition needs.’

But the deepening food crisis has another aggravating factor: the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Mali. Since the uprising began three months ago, it has hampered relief efforts and caused thousands of people to flee their homes, including a 23,000-strong exodus into northern Niger. On 22 March, the insurgency precipitated a military coup in Bamako, the Malian capital. Unless a swift resolution is found, this political upheaval and accompanying refugee crisis threaten to tip an already fragile region into a full-scale humanitarian disaster.


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