Six months before the start of the 2009 rainy season the government of Niger was warned the rains would fail. In the drought that followed, more than half the population - 7.8 million people - faced food shortages. It was the third food crisis in seven years.
“It is part of my duties, and I gave a list of measures to the government to prepare for the drought, such as planting faster-yielding varieties of millet and sorghum (two of the main staples), but governments do not always listen to us,” said Prof Alhousseini Bretaudeau, executive secretary of the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), a scientific arm of the African Union.
“We have spent 30 years perfecting the science of predicting droughts, and developed tools to help countries prepare but few political leaders pay attention,” Bretaudeau told IRIN at a technical and scientific conference to brainstorm ways of getting the country out of chronic food and nutrition insecurity.
The Conférence Internationale sur la Sécurité Alimentaire et Nutritionnelle au Niger (CISAN) began on 28 March, hosted by a military-backed interim government that will give way to a newly elected civilian administration, headed by Mahamadou Issoufou, on 6 April. To many observers, CISAN represents a long-awaited attempt by Niger to get to grips with the food security issues that have plagued the country for decades.
“Better late than never - the conference was long overdue,” said Jean-Pierre Guengant, director of research at the France-based Institute of Research for Development (IRD), which gave the world Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based therapeutic food, and insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
Niger slipped into chronic food insecurity a long time ago, without any of the former governments noticing, said Guengant, who has spent a decade in the country.
Amongst those who singularly failed to address food issues was Mamadou Tandja, ousted by the military in February 2010. “He did not accept there was a food crisis [in 2010] because he did not trust what the NGOs were telling him - he thought they wanted to make money,” said the man behind the conference, Col Aboulkarim Goukoye, head of the Higher Authority of Food Security (HASA).
“The second reason was that he was a very proud man - he did not want to accept that there was a problem,” said Goukoye, who is also the interim military junta’s spokesperson.
“Under the previous regime words such as ‘food crisis’ and even ‘nutrition’ were taboo - we would have had to pack our bags and leave,” Simone Winneg, coordinator of Humedica, a German medical NGO, commented.
“When we came in power,” Goukoye said, “all the technical people in the agriculture department came to us and said: ’You are probably thinking of security issues, but we have a food crisis.” They turned to the international community for help. Mahamadou Danda, prime minister of the interim government, asked Goukoye to find out how the country could address the recurring food crises. In June 2010 HASA was set up and the idea of developing a food strategy was born. “It naturally led to the idea of a conference where we could consult with technicians and scientists to help develop this strategy,” Goukoye said.
Will the incoming regime follow through? Goukoye said he was trying to get at least 10 of the recently elected parliamentarians involved. “Our strategy is not going to be any particular government’s strategy but a Nigerien strategy.” Over the next few days, participants including technical experts from across the world will look at ways to ease access to food, reduce vulnerability and improve governance in food security.
Ibrahim Mayaki, head of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Union’s development agency, who served as prime minister of Niger from 1997 to 2000 and was asked to head the conference, said the process was as inclusive as possible, with all previous Nigerien regimes invited to participate.
Governance was a key issue in tackling food insecurity. Local authorities were in the frontline of government service delivery as “the first connection between the government and the people in the rural areas, where most of our people live” and could recognize and the first signs of food insecurity. Mayaki suggested empowering them to address the issue.
Previous regimes had not paid much heed to warnings by technical experts in the country. “This is the first time someone is paying attention,” said Prof Maxime Banoin, an agronomist and head of the scientific and technical committee organizing the conference, who noted that other experts had also presented explanations for why the country was grappling with food insecurity.
So what is wrong with Niger?
The northern two-thirds of Niger, the biggest country in West Africa, is desert, so the entire food requirement depends on the rainy season from May to September to grow crops in the south. “It is a scary thought, and often things go wrong with it [the rainy season],” said Humedica’s Winneg.
In an analysis prepared for the conference, Banoin and IRD’s Guengant identified the structural causes of the recurring food crises: food production has not kept up with population growth, and rainfall has declined considerably since the 1960s.
“Niger has the world’s highest fertility rate, with an average of seven children per family, so the population has grown at 3.5 percent per year, while food production, at best, has grown at about 2.5 percent per year,” said Guengant. Niger has struggled with a structural deficit for the past 20 years.
Declining rainfall has exacerbated the problem. The areas that grow staples like sorghum and millet, which need a minimum of 400mm of rain per year, has shrunk from 25 percent of the country to 12 percent since the 1960s.
Sorghum yields have dropped from between 600kg and 800kg per hectare in the 1960s to between 200kg and 300kg per hectare, while millet production has remained stagnant at 400kg per hectare.
Besides the shrinking amount of rain, the low production has highlighted the inadequate support given to agriculture, researchers said. “We have to have a multisectoral approach to finding solutions,” Guengant noted.
Investment in biotechnology to improve yields, adequate inputs, agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation systems, and education to empower women in a society that encourages them to have more children, are some of the policy measures the government should take, said Banoin and Guengant.
Harnessing the Niger River system could potentially give Niger 330,000 hectares of irrigated agricultural land.
The country has one of the world’s lowest scores in educating girls,the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and one of the highest infant mortality rates, which all highlight the low status of women in Niger, and the cause of the high fertility rate.
Only four out of 10 girls are enrolled in primary school, two out of 10 attend secondary school, and only three out of 100 make it into high school, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The social reasons for having large families are deep-seated. “If we have only two children, what if they both die? You need to have at least seven or eight so you still have some children - it is always good to have more children,” said Hadiza Halidou, a woman participating in the conference.
“Women’s education is very important - they are also the main producers of food, which men do not acknowledge,” said NEPAD’s Mayaki.
More money needed
Traditional donors like Europe and the US have been concentrating on their internal financial woes, so African governments had to become more proactive about mobilizing resources to invest in agriculture locally and regionally, Mayaki said.
The technical and scientific conference would be followed by a leaders’ conference, where the new food security strategy would be presented, said HASA’s Goukoye. Regional heads of state, traditional donors, and local and international NGOs would be invited to attend for feedback and investment opportunities.
Mayaki said Africa should consider tapping emerging economies like South Africa, Brazil, China, India and Russia for money. Goukoye commented: “The biggest problem in Africa is implementation and follow-up.”
So what would happen if the new regime did not consider food security a priority and reneged on measures to address it - would the military junta come back?
“Just for that?” Goukoye said. “But I don’t think governments will not act - food security is everyone’s problem now.”