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A crucial time in the Sahel

Helping people survive, escape the hunger cycle

©FAO/Issouf Sanogo / FAO
Workers at an FAO distribution center with sacks of improved millet and green bean seeds, Abala Sani, Niger.

20 August 2012, Rome - In the Sahel belt of Africa that runs across the countries below the Sahara, the next two months will be crucial.  

Rains have been good in the region so far this year, after droughts in four of the five previous years. But if those rains stop early, or if a potential locust threat materializes, it would compromise the harvest due in October and push millions into hunger.  

Close monitoring of the agricultural season is needed in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger and Senegal.

This is the time known as the "Lean Season," when villagers' grain stores are  empty or dangerously low and the next crop has yet to ripen. It is a time when people are often forced to use up their savings, borrow money or sell off animals and belongings in order to buy food. This year is particularly hard because farmers and herders are already reeling from the droughts that have plagued the region for four of the past five years and food prices at market are rising.

FAO personnel in the field are doing all they can to stop a new disaster happening - either tomorrow or in the years ahead. Despite the limited resources at their disposal they are implementing a series of actions directed at achieving those results. Activities include supporting off-season vegetable production through distribution of seeds and tools, supporting animal protection and production, - including distributions of livestock, veterinary supplies and assistance, improvement of pastures,  and measures to prevent a threat of development of the Desert Locust upsurge in Chad, Mali and the Niger.

All interventions are designed to serve the twin purpose of helping people cope today while also building their resilience to face future crises. Scientists warn that climate change and higher temperatures will increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.

Two-pronged approach

Indications are that FAO's two-pronged approach is making a difference, - as testified by interviews with recipients in Burkina Faso and the Niger.  But fresh funding is urgently needed in order to greatly increase coverage. The alternative is to risk "applying band aid to staunch a hemorrhage", as one aid worker put it.

FAO's work in the Sahel centres on distributing seeds and livestock to the poor, mainly vulnerable women. The seeds include improved varieties of millet and niebé beans that should yield a good harvest even in difficult conditions. And as it is important that they are planted rather than eaten immediately, beneficiaries are often also given cash to tide them over until harvest time.

Until recently, farmers in the Sahel harvested just one meager crop a year, immediately after the three-month rain season from June to September. But now FAO is also handing out kits of assorted vegetable seeds that can be planted in the dry season and yield a second crop to supplement household diets or for sale at market.

A kit of seeds plus basic tools and inputs produces enough potatoes, carrots and green vegetables to feed an average household for two months.

Traditional savings

Also of vital importance are FAO's support to livestock feeding and veterinary care as well as distributions of small livestock as animals are fundamental to both short- and long-term food security in the Sahel and represent the traditional form of saving and wealth accumulation. But herds have been dangerously reduced by successive droughts.

FAO has distributed more than 32 500 goats and other small ruminants in the Niger alone, together with fodder and veterinary supplies.  Given good grazing, goat herds can increase rapidly, sometimes tripling in the space of a year, thus significantly improving their owners' finances.

Barring another disastrous year, the beneficiaries of FAO's assistance should emerge from the current crisis better able to withstand the challenges they will inevitably face in what remains one of the world's harshest environments.

The seeds and the animals they have received not only serve to feed their families but can also help them break the cycle of hunger and poverty once and for all. With increased funding, FAO can offer millions more in the Sahel the same chance.

Read related story, "Seeds and Hope in the Sahel"