In Kolda, Senegal, farmers are struggling to feed their families

By Coco McCabe
Because harvests were poor, many farmers in Senegal now don't have much money to buy food in local markets--even as they need more of it.

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Southern Senegal is not technically part of Africa’s fragile Sahel region, but in this time of unpredictability, pockets of the country’s bread basket are beginning to feel the grip of a tightening food crisis. Across the Sahel, an estimated 12 million people are being affected.

What has the erratic weather—drought, flooding—meant for the people of Kolda in southern Senegal? It’s made them among the most food-insecure in the entire country, said Greg Matthews, a humanitarian livelihoods officer with Oxfam America, who recently returned from a field visit.

“In the village of Karcia bordering the region of Sedhiou, the overall production has dropped by 80 percent compared to last year,” added Isaac Massaga, an Oxfam America humanitarian program officer in Senegal. “A woman we talked to said she harvested 400 kilograms of rice last year and only 80 this year—on the same size of land.”

Massaga said lack of rain has also hurt the production of vegetables, an activity that usually provides a substantial source of income for women and their households.

Peanuts, the cash crop that many farmers in the Kolda area depend on to support their families, have taken a severe hit as well. During the last harvest in October, production plummeted by 60 percent, said Matthews, leaving  families with less money to buy food. And at a time when they need to purchase even more of it to make up for what their fields couldn’t produce, the shortages are beginning to take a toll.
When there is a lack of food—or money to buy it—families resort to other ways of coping. They may borrow food or cut down on the number of meals they eat each day. Often, they turn to searching for wild foods, such as roots, fruits, or grasses

“In the south, families showed us the clover-type grasses they were collecting for their households,” said Matthews. “People told us how they had borrowed rice from family or friends, or money so they could buy a kilo to feed their children.”

Normally January and February are times of plenty around Kolda. Farmers have cash from their harvests. They have stocks of food. Their families can eat three times a day, every day. But not this year.
“Now, they’re saying they’ll eat, definitely once, usually twice, and maybe three times—if they have enough money, or if they happen to sell a goat,” Matthews said.

Cutting trees to survive

To get cash, more people are resorting to a hard—and environmentally destructive—solution: They are fanning out into protected forests and cutting trees, which they then turn into charcoal. Senegal’s capital, Dakar, has an enormous appetite for charcoal, said Matthews, as it is the main cooking fuel used there. Neighboring Gambia is also a big market.

“You see huge trucks filled way higher than they should be—filled with thousands of sacks of charcoal—going into Gambia,” Matthews said.

“In our conversations with Abdou Seydi, the regional director of rural development for Kolda, he expressed deep concern about this phenomenon,” said Massaga. “It’s not only accelerating deforestation in an already fragile ecosystem, but it also heavily affects the soil fertility, and thus impacts the medium-to-long-term agricultural productivity in Kolda.”

But without alternatives for feeding their families, people are not likely to stop cutting trees added Seydou Wane, the executive secretary of FODDE, a local organization Oxfam works with.

What complicates the food situation in Senegal is that while one community may be struggling to ensure there is enough to eat, just a few short miles away another community may be faring fine—a disparity that makes generalizations impossible. Poor rainfall was not universal.

“We went into one village, Balkamissa, and the first thing I saw were these stacks—chest high—of millet that had been harvested, dried, and stored under a tent,” said Matthews.

As bountiful as the harvest may have been in Balkamissa, it’s clear from the assessment missions Oxfam has undertaken that many families are struggling and need help to make it through to the next harvest. In a three-phased response, Oxfam plans to help tens of thousands of  Senegalese meet their immediate needs, recover some of their losses, and better prepare for the next time trouble strikes. And among the initiatives around Kolda will be income=generating activities so families won’t have to rely on dwindling forests for their survival.