The difficult lean season. Explanations and solutions.

Caritas International Belgium The difficult lean season. Explanations and solutions.

During the lean season, Nigerien farmers must work their fields, often with hungry stomachs. Why? What exactly is a lean season and what are the responses to this enormous challenge? An interview with Abdoul Moumouni Illo, director of Caritas Maradi.

What is a lean season gap?

Abdoul Moumouni Illo: A lean season is a period right before the first harvest when the grain from the previous harvest has all been consumed. The granaries are empty, and, at the same time, farmers have to work their fields in order to have a good harvest. There are shortages, and often sharp increases in millet prices, a grain cultivated by almost all Nigerien farmers. In Nigeria, the lean season lasts from June to September, but we’ve noticed that – due to repeated droughts and climate fluctuations – families’ reserves have been running out more quickly.

So, during the lean season, families are hungry?

A.M.: Exactly.

What can be done?

A.M.: We work on several levels. We’ve put into place cereal banks for millet. Families can join, and to do so they have to contribute to the base grain reserves. Our cereal banks are structured in three parts. First are the control reserves, which are available more than eight months out of the year and open in January. Member families in need can buy millet there. Second are the strategic reserves, which are only open during the lean season and help to limit the surge in prices because the price of millet, which is decided on by the members, cannot surpass 80% of the market price. If the community believes that the prices can be even lower, because families don’t have enough money, they can set the price at an even lower rate. Finally, the third part is called the “guaranteed” reserves. These reserves serve more of an economic purpose and allow communities to fulfill needs beyond their food needs. Other food items such as beans and peanuts are also stored in cereal banks. The community chooses how and under what conditions to sell this stock.

What advantages are there for cereal bank members?

A.M. : First, it’s important to explain that there’s a whole process of information sharing and awareness raising about cereal banks that has to happen before someone becomes a member. Then, the initial reserves, considered to be a sort of starting capital, are determined according to the number of member households.

As a way of empowering and respecting communities, Caritas provides 50 to 60% of the initial reserves. The members then must collect the remaining 40%. Therefore, for every 10 tons, members must bring 4, with a minimum contribution of 12kg (to be given one or more times depending on a harvest’s success, or lack thereof).

For members, a big advantage is the price, which they decide themselves with the community. Then, there’s the advantage of having millet in your village! There’s no need to walk for miles to go to markets in neighboring towns or villages. This is an enormous advantage and allows farmers to focus their work on their fields.

Is this enough to stop malnutrition?

A.M.: This helps to strengthen families, yes. We then work to strengthen food security on many levels: education, for example, and organizing income-generating activities. We also put in place community relays, called “relay” women, which we train in detecting early signs of malnutrition, in awareness about family nutritional practices (breastfeeding, hygiene, etc.), in family planning, and the like. These are some of the essential practices which we promote within communities. Another practice is health center visits. We must continue to encourage women to visit them in order to improve certain stages of their lives, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Malnutrition prevention is really integrated in our global food security projects. The objective is to assist communities in having food available, and to use it well. Our “relay” women explain, for example, that the Plumpy’Nut is made up of local foods. We educate families about this, and about how to cook for children of different ages. Beans, peanuts, salt, all of this is available, and families can make Plumpy’Nut themselves as a way of strengthening their children.

What challenges are there in Niger?

A.M.: Today’s challenges are climate-related. 80% of Nigeriens live off of agriculture and livestock; they are affected by climate fluctuations. The GDP also shifts depending on agricultural yields. We must thus help communities to survive in their environments and to confront these challenges head-on. We must equip people to cope when droughts and desertification arise. It’s a job that consists of reducing risks and catastrophes.

Another challenge is that of migration and the workforce. Migration is a survival strategy. Whenever agricultural yields aren’t enough, the able-bodied leave to find work elsewhere and support their families left behind in the village. The impact of this is two-fold: migration is emptying villages of their productive forces. Local fields, which are left poorly cultivated, are no longer valued and so harvests are worse off. However, families are able to get through the lean season more easily when they have a family member working in the city. In order to propose alternatives to these men, and help them decide to migrate, we also implement vegetable gardens and irrigation. These are projects that help to diversify food products.

I think that what we need is development projects that take all of these aspects into consideration and offer long-term solutions. There is a lot of need. We can’t sit by and do nothing!

An urgent call: help victims of hunger

Struck by extreme drought, Niger is suffering a food shortage of drastic proportions. This is a serious challenge in the Sahel! Food reserves are exhausted. Livestock is dying. All fear the return of the great famine. However, seeds of hope persist thanks to a miracle food: the peanut. Thanks to your peanut donations, a mother can immediately produce peanut butter, and oil, which she will use to feed her children in the coming months and make a valuable income to support her entire family. This is priceless. Your assistance is invaluable. Make a donation today!

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