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GIEWS Update-detail
FAO/GIEWS Global Watch

August 2005

Endogenous and Regional Factors Underlying Niger’s Food Crisis

Recent discussions on the roots of the food crisis in Niger have rightly highlighted the combination of poor rainfall and desert locust invasion which struck the country in 2004. Yet, the kind of severe food crisis we are witnessing today does not occur suddenly, but rather from an accumulation of events that gradually erode the capacity of poor households to deal with shocks. FAO and other institutions have emphasized on a number of occasions that the loss of cereal production caused by desert locusts and poor rainfall in 2004 was relatively modest in Niger. Broadly speaking, the impact on pastureland was actually greater than on cultivated areas. Following crop assessments undertaken in the Sahel region in October 20041, cereal production, compared to the previous year’s good levels, was estimated to have decreased by 66 percent in Cape-Verde, 44 percent in Mauritania, 35 percent in Chad and 27 percent in Senegal. In spite of severe localised damage, decreases compared to the five-year average were relatively limited in Burkina Faso, Niger (11 percent) and Mali, the major cereal producing countries in the region.

So why did localised crop failure turn into such a crisis in Niger? This note aims to highlight some important but commonly overlooked factors which contributed to or triggered Niger’s food crisis.

Root causes: widespread poverty and very high malnutrition rates

The classic underlying factors that contribute to severe food insecurity are all present in Niger, and at higher levels than in other countries of the region. Sixty-three percent of the population are poor2, including 34 percent categorized as “extremely poor”. Rural areas, with 85 percent of the population, make up most of total poverty3. These figures are based on household consumption surveys conducted in 1990 and 1993, and the situation has further deteriorated since that time, Niger by 2003 ranking 174th of 175 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index. Nutritional status, especially for children, has been worsening throughout, notably in rural areas. Food insecurity has been sustained by the volatility of food production, low farm productivity, limited assets, lack of alternative employment opportunities, high transaction costs in product and factor markets, scant access to poor health and sanitation services.

The 2004-2005 rise in food cost, combined with livestock mortality and very low prices have eroded the weak purchasing power among pastoral and agro-pastoral groups4. And yet, the combined scourges of desert locusts and poor rains do not, by themselves, fully account for the current crisis. Regional factors also played a major role.

Reduced food availability and high prices at the regional level

Niger is a food deficit country which, even in a normal year, imports significant amount of cereals to offset national production shortfalls. In return, Nigerien farmers export mostly livestock, cowpeas, onions, and groundnuts. The country’s trade regime is considered one of the most open in the region5, so commercial imports make up the bulk of requirements. Niger imports maize and other local cereals from coastal countries enjoying greater rainfall, including Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Côte d’Ivoire. There are also smaller trade flows with Sahel neighbours Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.

2004 cereal production fell in several coastal countries. Parts of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana were affected, but the largest shortfall was in Cameroon. As a result, grain prices rose, and several countries imposed food export restrictions. In the end, however, the chief factor was structural change in Nigeria’s agricultural and trade policies.

Nigeria’s trade policy and its impact on Niger

Officially, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire are Niger’s major trading partners in the region. Nigeria is the main export destination, while Côte d’Ivoire has been Niger’s principal source of imports6. However, informal cross-border trade between Niger and Nigeria, notably in cattle and agricultural products in the southern direction, and in fuel, fertilizer, and consumer goods in the northern one, is believed to amount to 40-50 percent of formal trade7.

Nigeria’s cereal imports have been rising in recent years, due to high urban population growth, changing consumption patterns, and weak incentives to domestic production. The Government recently embarked on a series of measures to improve agricultural production, subsidize fertilizer use, and remove tariffs on imported agro-chemicals. Key sub-sectors have been rehabilitated or expanded, including rice and cassava, and tighter controls imposed on illegal food imports. The Government is further planning to ban rice imports by 2006, and to impose the use of cassava and wheat composite flour for bread making. To stem the re-export into Nigeria of unwanted goods, federal authorities have also repeatedly closed borders with several neighbouring countries, including Niger and Benin. These measures have fostered a rapid growth in the domestic poultry sector and an expansion of milling capacity. Following a 2004 ban on imports of pasta, the domestic pasta and biscuit sector also surged. Maize prices, however, rose sharply, driven by increased feed use in the poultry sector and the ban on imports. In general, food prices rose as a result of higher oil prices, reduced rice imports, and the tightening of controls against informal cross-border trade. “The spiralling cost of food stuff” has been extensively covered by the media. For example, Vanguard reported in mid-May that “prices of food staples such as gari (a common cassava-based foodstuff), beans, rice and maize had gone up by between 60 and 100 percent in the previous few weeks”. The Daily Champion reported on 20 July that “such staple food items as rice, gari, beans, bread, tomatoes, among others, have all had their prices virtually doubled in the last four months. A measure of gari, which sold at N130 in a few months ago now sells for between N230 and N270, just as a bag of rice, which sold at a little over three thousand naira, now sells for six thousand naira and above”. The Newspaper pointed out that “no time in the last decade did food items cost this much”. Data from the Federal Office of Statistics confirm these claims: the July monthly bulletin reports that the Composite Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose by 16.8 percent in the last year, due to hikes in the prices of staple foods. To mitigate the impact of high food prices on consumers, the Government has reportedly released grain from its strategic reserves.

Aside from domestic price effects, Nigeria’s agricultural and trade policies have had a significant impact on public and private finances in neighbouring countries. They resulted in substantial losses of customs revenue, including in Niger. Interviews with a sample of businessmen in Benin also confirmed that the Nigerian trade measures were a major factor in the 2004 drop in Benin’s GDP. Considering the historic and deep economic and social links between Niger and Nigeria, the income and price effects on the smaller partner had to be considerable.

In conclusion, a combination of structural (increasing poverty) and short-term factors (depressed incomes, sharp rises in food prices) triggered Niger’s severe food crisis. The short-term factors owed less to the relatively small reduction in national cereal production than to powerful regional forces, in particular major commercial policy changes in Nigeria, which influenced supply and demand conditions well beyond its own borders. This was amplified by lower-than-normal food supplies in other coastal countries which usually export cereals to Niger. To the obvious question “why was this not understood, especially a few months into the hungry season?” one must respond that while there’s a widely shared and basic understanding of the importance of regional issues, food security monitoring and assessment activities unfortunately retain a national and narrow perspective. A substantial increase in resources, institutional links and information flows will be required to change this situation.

1. FAO/CILSS pre-harvest assessments, FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessments.

2. Niger PRSP, 2002.

3. 86 percent.

4. According to FEWS-Net, the terms of trade goats/millet have declined by nearly 50 percent between January and June 2005.

5. Niger’s trade restrictiveness, measured on a scale of one to ten by the IMF, rated at 2.

6.In 2003 Côte d’Ivoire was the source of about 14 percent of Niger’s import while nearly 29 percent of the country exports went to Nigeria.

7. Economist Intelligence Unit.