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Banking on grain helps a village fight hunger

By Chris Hufstader
Bady Ndao manages the grain bank in his village, Kouthiacoto, in eastern Senegal. Photo: Jane Hahn/Oxfam America

A simple structure helps farmers store their harvests, allowing them to get both better prices and better access to loans.

You can hear it in any rural West African village: the nearly constant tock-tock-tock of women pounding grain with a large mortar and pestle. It starts early in the morning, and it frequently signals an approaching meal time in the evening. It’s a subtle, ever-present sound, like a heartbeat.

In this eastern part of Senegal, it’s usually sorghum or millet the women are pounding. Afterward, they winnow the grain: letting it fall from one basket into another, the husks floating away in the breeze.

But women here in the village of Kouthiacoto do more than pound the grain. They grow it too.

Young girls pound grain for the evening meal outside their home in Kouthiacoto. Photo: Jane Hahn/Oxfam America

Farmers in the Sahel region, which stretches from Senegal east across the semi-arid belt south of the Sahara, have been growing millet and sorghum for centuries. Though grains like these are at the heart of the household economy and are the staple of local diets, increasingly erratic rainfall in the region has begun to jeopardize the ability of farmers to feed their families and to sell any extra crops for cash.

With the help of Oxfam’s partner, La Lumière, farmers in this village and 11 others in eastern Senegal are learning how to fight back. Through the Rural Resilience Initiative, or R4, farmers are adopting a series of strategies that allow them to save money, buy weather insurance for their crops, prevent land erosion in their fields, and get access to credit. At the heart of this last strategy is a simple structure—a grain bank, a dry and rodent-free place for farmers to store their surplus.

Tripling their prices

Most farmers in Kouthiacoto don’t own trucks, so they can’t transport their grain to local or regional markets. In the past, because they needed cash fast, they had no choice but to sell their surpluses to whoever drove up.

Right after the harvest, most people are lucky to get 100 CFA francs (about 30 cents) a kilo (2.2 pounds) for their grain, says local farmer Bady Ndao. But if they were able to keep their surpluses for a few months, the price could as much as triple. Now, they can: with a new grain bank to store their millet and sorghum safely, farmers are holding out for a better return on their hard work.

“Instead of selling to middlemen at a low price, we can either use it ourselves or sell it [later] and make more profit,” says Ndao, noting that the price can climb to 250 or 300 francs per kilo later in the year.

Bady Ndao at Kouthiacoto’s grain bank, a facility he says represents “a way for us to fight hunger.” Photo: Jane Hahn/Oxfam America

In the beginning, few women joined the bank. Now, almost half its 58 members are women farmers, says Ndao proudly. Among the advantages of joining is access to credit, something that can be hard for farmers in remote regions to get—particularly if they are women.

With support from Oxfam, La Lumière negotiated a deal with a commercial bank in nearby Koussanar that allows farmers to borrow cash using their stored grain as collateral. Ndao reports that the previous year, the 50 or so farmers depositing their grain in the bank borrowed a total of 1.2 million francs (about $2,500).

“They use the money to invest in livestock and food. Every farmer can get a loan based on 80 percent of the grain stored,” he says.

Reducing risk

The grain bank is just one of the initiatives that Oxfam and our R4 partners are supporting to help Kouthiacoto build its resilience to a changing climate. Community members also have been constructing rock walls to reduce erosion when heavy rains fall in rice-growing areas.

“The runoff would destroy the soil fertility,” says Ndao. Farmers used to grow a ton of rice per hectare (2.45 acres). With the erosion-control walls, some farmers are now harvesting three tons of rice per hectare.

Throwing open the heavy metal door of the grain bank, Ndao leads a visitor inside the concrete building. Sacks of rice, maize, millet, and sorghum, each labeled with its weight and a farmer’s name, fill only about a third of the space. If the rains had been better—and the harvest bigger—the bank would have more grain, Ndao says.

Still, he’s proud of the building and the opportunities it has brought. The storage facility is “up to standard,” he says, so when bank officials come to evaluate the stored grain they feel confident about loaning cash to farmers.

Bady Ndao,shown here outside his home with his three youngest children, says since his village began collaborating with Oxfam’s partner La Lumière there are fewer malnourished children in his village. Photo: Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

“It’s a way for us to fight hunger,” Ndao says of the grain bank.

Awa Ndao, a program officer for La Lumière and no relation to Bady Ndao, says she has been working in the area for six years and can see that the children are enjoying better nutrition. “They used to have big bellies, a sign of malnutrition, but now they are healthy,” she says.

Bady Ndao agrees. “We weigh the children regularly” he says. “Their weight is no longer decreasing; it’s always increasing.”


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