The fragile Sahel region is a narrow band south of the Sahara desert that includes Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. A drought in the late 1960s to early 1980s created a famine in the region that killed a million people and affected another 50 million.
More recently, severe locust attacks in 2004, aggravated by a drought in 2005, left 3.5 million people in close to 3,000 villages facing acute food shortages. Niger was hit hardest, and Maradi region, where about 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, was hit hardest of all.
Food prices soared under the pressure of high demand from more affluent neighbouring countries; with no grain left in reserves, most rural families were forced to sell tools, seed, herds and flocks in order to buy what little food was available.
"In 2005 I harvested only four sacks of millet," said Nana Rabia Ada, a resident of Dan Aere village in Maradi. "So even before the planting season, we were left without millet in the household."
"My husband went to work on other people's fields to make money to buy millet," she said. "I had already sold my goat to get through the drought and I was left with nothing else to sell."
Innovation adapts a project to new circumstances
IFAD-funded cereal banks in Niger were traditionally used to store crops immediately after harvest so farmers could sell them during the dry season when market prices tend to rise. But in response to the 2005 food crisis, IFAD's Project for the Promotion of Local Initiatives for Development in Aguié created a new type of food bank in Maradi.
Known locally as a soudure bank, it lends food to farmers during the planting period to help them get through the 'hunger season' that precedes the harvest. The soudure, or pre-harvest,period goes from mid-July to mid-September, just before harvest when family cereal reserves are almost empty; during these months families usually eat only one meal a day. It is also the time when farmers are planting seeds and need strength to work on the farms.
The soudure bank concept is based on exchange. Every week, poor farmers receive cereal as a credit. Farmers then pay back the loan - not with money, but with cereals, once their own crops are harvested. They add 25 per cent interest to replace the stock and cover the cost of storage and maintenance. The villagers decided on this percentage themselves. At first glance this may seem like a high interest rate, but traditional usurers charge between 200 and 300 per cent.
"If the harvest is good, the bank managers are able to sell some of the surplus to do repairs on buildings, and to pay labourers to carry and move the grain," says Roumanatou Ekadé, a sociologist and the project's focal point for gender. "This way the bank can be autonomous."
"If there is a poor harvest, the village committee in charge of the bank will meet to decide how much the repayment should be lowered," says Ekadé. "This is an opportunity for the people to develop negotiation and decision-making skills."
In 2006, IFAD and a number of villages cofinanced 111 soudure banks in Aguié. The banks contained more than 680 tons of cereal, which can feed about 200,000 people during the harshest period. After one year, the interest received on cereal loans through the soudure banks increased the warehouse stock by 10 to 25 per cent, and at the end of February 2007 repayment rates reached 100 per cent on the capital and 97 per cent on the interest. In 2007, 50 additional banks have been built and 1200 additional tons of cereals were bought on the local market to geographically expand the impact of the banks and to reduce the soudure period in the villages.
Improving nutrition, keeping families together
In October 2004, men left their villages in droves much earlier than normal in search of work. Not only does this migration put a strain on families, it also puts more pressure on women and children who have to carry out even more tasks than usual on the farm. Consequently, agricultural recovery suffers further.
Nana Rabia Ada, who became one of the bank's clients in 2006, said there were two main benefits of having the soudure bank close by.
"From the bank I had 56 kilograms of millet that helped us to cope for one month and gave us something to eat other than just leafy vegetables," she says. "Without the millet, many heads of households would have had to leave the village."
Her neighbour Nana Ayouba agrees.
"If we wouldn't have the banks, our alternative strategies would have been to borrow from our neighbours or to send away the men looking for jobs."
The soudure banks are managed exclusively by women. Each week during the rainy season, the women involved in the project organize the distribution of the available cereals from the banks.
"This is significant because in Niger, women have traditionally had little to no control over decision-making," says Hubert Boirard, IFAD's country programme manager for Niger.
"This new approach gave us three main results," says Boirard. "First, for the first time, we were able to set up a local system at village level to prevent and manage food crises with a strong focus on poor families."
"Second, all women in the villages were able for the first time to be very actively involved in these activities with the support of their husbands," he says. "The soudure banks presented an opportunity to create new dynamic women's organizations in the villages."
"And third, the project is now able to work with these women's organizations to develop other activities that focus on issues such as health, child nutrition, HIV, and other challenges."
Planning for a sustainable future
After the drought and locust infestations of 2005, Niger ranked at the very bottom of the UNDP's Human Development Index, which measures human development in every country of the world through longevity, knowledge and standard of living. According to UNDP, average life expectancy in Niger is only 45 years, and child mortality is 256 for every 1000 live births.
The face of poverty in Niger is mostly rural. Coping strategies that helped poor farmers to deal with an unfavourable, semi-desert environment are struggling to adjust to the pace of climate change and desertification, and they are no longer effective.
In September 2007, a new IFAD-supported US$ 36 million project was launched. It will help about 340,000 people in Maradi cope with recurring natural disasters, increase their incomes and improve the productivity of their crops and livestock, as well as the level of poor rural people's access to social services. The project's core objectives will be to reduce households' vulnerability and to allow government and communities to prevent periodical crisis. The project aims to be a response, beyond the emergency aid, to the problem of food insecurity, malnutrition and rural poverty.
A wife and husband discuss the advantages of the soudure bank in Maifarou village, Maridi region
"In 2005, our agricultural production was not sufficient. In April we barely had anything left from what we harvested. With seven people to feed and my husband gone to work in a neighbouring village, I had to sell one of my goats to buy additional millet to ensure the survival of the household in addition to what my husband managed to send me.
"My husband came back for the rainy season but had to work on other people's plot to earn some money. With the little money he could make with that seasonal work, we could two bowls of millet a day combined with vegetables.
"In 2006, a soudure bank was established in our village. During three weeks, I borrowed 30 kilogrammes of millet. My husband no longer needs to go and work on others plots four times a week and can concentrate on our own plot.
"The bank is a good initiative. Today women in the villages are able to participate in meetings with the agreement and support of our husbands, and so we know more about what is going on outside of our homes. We could hardly do that in the past. We now want the stock in the bank to increase so that it covers a much longer period of the pre-harvest season."
"Before the bank, I was able to feed my family only for 3 to 4 months a year. With the bank, now this period is extended for two more months. The quantity we receive is still very low but at least we have been able to work effectively for three additional weeks in our own plot. So now I only go to work on other people's plot for one day per week to get a salary instead of four days in the past.
"With the bank, my own production has increased, I have less debt, and we don't have to harvest too early in the season. Our families can feed themselves much better. We can afford four to five meals per day for children and three for adults. With the banks, we are not forced to sell our goats and sheep anymore. This year our family sold just one animal while last year we had to sell four!
"In 2006, I worked, secured my production, sold niebe (cowpea) and bought millet to reimburse what my wife borrowed from the bank. My wish is that the bank opens earlier so that our food needs are covered during a longer period and allow us to concentrate in working on our farms. The general feeling in the village is that we are very happy with the establishment of the bank."