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Could cooperation tackle food crisis in Africa?

Only by including the worst-affected will food scarcity solutions work
Only by including the worst-affected will food scarcity solutions work

As many countries in sub-Saharan Africa look set to face another food shortage in the coming months, something must be done to mitigate this in the future. Stanley Ellerby-English looks at how cooperation will be key to overcoming food insecurity in the long term.

Niger is on the verge of another food crisis – the last was in 2012. The cause seems obvious, the 2013 rainy season was incredibly bad and this led to a very poor harvest. Even in Niger's relatively rich neighbour, Nigeria, there is cause for concern, as meteorologists warn that 2014 will bring a shorter than hoped for rainy season. In fact, much of the Sahel region in West Africa is likely to face a food shortages in the near future.

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the Guardian reports on how a drought in Kenya is wreaking havoc on people's lives. Here, over 300,000 people are in desperate need of food and water if they are too survive. Just as in Niger, this is not the first time. A widely covered drought in 2011 claimed between 50,000 and 100,000 lives across East Africa, and now they are facing similar shortages.

The rest of the world rarely sits idly by in the face of these crises. However, aid agencies have sometimes been accused of being slow to act. The World Food Programme, for example, estimates food aid to Kenya and Niger totalled 224,000 and 156,000 metric tons respectively in 2012. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole received over 3 million metric tons that year, with the majority of this being for emergency relief efforts.

Donkey and boy in Niger
Limiting the effects of climate change is crucial to minimising the numbers of those affected by drought
A recent report, by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, claims that climate change will lead to increasingly common heat waves, similar to those that are affecting Niger and Kenya right now. Limiting the impact of these crises once they have started is important, but it would be far more effective to address the issues that lead to such devastating droughts in the first place.

Communities working together

Amadou Diallo, the high commissioner for the 3N initiative, agrees, telling the Guardian that Niger cannot “just keep going on having crises every few years.” The goal of the 3N initiative – Nigeriens Feed Nigeriens – is for the people of Niger to take control of its own food supply and overcome acute food insecurity. The initiative focuses on supporting local grassroots organisations to identify and overcome challenges. For example, in Koroma village regular flooding was robbing people of 161 acres of farmland, so the government paid local people to remove dead vegetation from the bottom of the nearby lake. When added together, local projects like this could improve the food supply and security of the whole country.

There are very good reasons to believe that this locally focused approach will offer holistic and long-lasting solutions to food insecurity. Firstly, local people are often well aware of the challenges that their livelihoods face and can be flexible in working to overcome them. Secondly, the people who are most affected by food insecurity have an obvious incentive to maintain the work that has been done. In Koroma village this will involve keeping the bottom of the lake clean and in another context it could involve maintaining irrigation channels. However, this depends on such resources existing in the first place.

Getting food where it is needed

According to Diallo, this is not the case in much of Niger and the reality is that the majority of the country's farmers continue to rely on the rains for water. This is equally the case in other drought-stricken countries, like Kenya, which disproportionately depend on rains that are becoming increasingly irregular. As well as investing in localised initiatives it is also necessary to fund larger-scale infrastructure to provide more regular access to water throughout the year. Broadly speaking, this requires harvest and storage systems to collect water when it rains, and irrigation channels to make this water available to those who need it.

Boy carrying water in Niger
Improvements to storage, processing and distribution could help limit food scarcity
Equally important are improvements to storage, processing and distribution infrastructure. A report by the Global Food Security Programme in 2013 found that in the regions of Africa mentioned above, food wastage post harvest remains incredibly high. For example, it is estimated that 45% of fruit and vegetables were lost after leaving the farm. In areas where food scarcity is such a pressing issue, levels of wastage like this are shocking. As the report suggests, even improving apparently unrelated infrastructure like roads could drastically reduce these losses and strengthen the food supply.

What is needed is an effective partnership between governments, NGOs and local people. Only by including and supporting those who are most affected will solutions be sustainable, but investment in large-scale projects is also important. Food aid will continue to be necessary in the short term, but with hard work and cooperation countries like Niger and Kenya can hopefully move past the cycle of crisis.

SOS Children works in 45 countries across Africa, 36 of which are located in the sub-Saharan region. Find out more about our work across the continent.