Senegal

As food crisis looms, the lean season hits early in northern Senegal

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An Oxfam team assesses the conditions around a group of small villages where many of the food reserves are now exhausted.

Feb 02, 2012 | Coco McCabe

For the Oxfam team conducting an assessment of communities in the Louga region of northern Senegal one thing is very clear: low rainfall, shrinking pasture, and high food prices have left herders and farmers deeply worried about what the future will hold for them. Will they have enough food for their families? Will their livestock survive?

Across West Africa a new food crisis is looming over a population that has already endured three of them since 2005. The last—in 2010—affected 10 million people.

But with early action, the hardship and loss so many have suffered through in the past seven years could be softened and that’s what Oxfam America’s humanitarian workers Isaac Massaga, Julie Savane, and Greg Matthews are taking the first steps to put in place. They are just back from Boulal, a collection of villages in the north, where they were working to identify the greatest needs and the responses that would best fill them—now, and longer-term.

“We’re in a good position now to mitigate the serious consequences of an acute food crisis and to help people not resort to selling assets and cattle to meet their basic needs,” said Matthews, speaking from the Oxfam office in Dakar, Senegal’s capital.

Selling valuables—livestock, farm tools—is one of the strategies poor families without cash employ as a last resort when faced with no other way to get food: They’ll use the money to buy it in the market. But in selling these important assets, they are also limiting their ability to make a living, and that drags them deeper into poverty. Halting that cycle is key to averting a crisis.

During the last growing season, rainfall in Louga was erratic, said Matthews, sometimes coming in great gushes and sometimes not at all. For the crops—millet, cowpeas, and peanuts—the result was dismal. The yields are off dramatically.

One farmer Matthews spoke with said he and his family had just consumed the last of the millet they had harvested in the end of October—300 kilograms worth. That was five times less than he would get in a good year. And the next planting season is still four months away.

How will people manage? Some, like the millet-grower, will pursue petty commerce, such as hunting for wood that they can sell as fuel in the market. But for many herders facing lean times, their strategy is to migrate with their livestock in the hope of finding pasture elsewhere.

Early migration

In Boulal this year, that migration has started much earlier than usual, said Matthews.

“The hardest months for pastoralists are April, May, and June—right before the rains begin,” he said. “But they’re starting to experience that now, in the beginning of February, so most of their productive animals have already started to migrate.” That means families must take their kids out of school prematurely and abandon other livelihood efforts, like gardens and small shops, that could help support them.

Poor harvests are also adding to the stress herders are feeling. With fewer crops pulled in from the fields that means fewer leftovers of leaves and stalks to feed to the livestock. And as the health of their animals declines, so does the value of sheep, goats and cattle.

Coupled with all of this, said Matthews, are climbing prices in the markets. A 50-kilogram sack of rice that once could be had in a trade of one sheep now costs a herder two or three.

“Because of all this, people are starting to employ early coping strategies,” Mathews said. “They are starting to change the way they eat and manage their finances to prepare for a long, hungry season.”

But even as they take these steps, the future hangs heavily.

“People are really worried about what will happen a month from now,” Mathews said. “Most of the food reserves are already exhausted.”

Solutions

Among the responses Oxfam is weighing are cash transfers—a tool that would allow hard-hit families to carry on as they would normally. With cash, they could buy the essentials they need during this critical period but not have to sell vital assets to do it, said Matthews. A second approach might be to help herders get access to fodder for their livestock, which provides both food and income for families.

But longer-term, the goal is to help communities become more resilient.

“The bottom line is working with communities to take charge of the issues and find solutions themselves,” said Matthews, pointing to a milking cooperative that had worked successfully in the area for a while. “It’s not about money. It’s about having, at the base community level, the desire to work together and the capacity to manage working collectively.”