Sahel food crisis: Farmers cope with food shortages

By Chris Hufstader
Nicolas Keita (left) and Odette Camara are farmers in Bandafassy, in the far eastern region of Kedougou, Senegal.

Farmer Odette Camara says poor rains last year cut her rice harvest by 30 percent. “Parts of the rice could not be harvested, the rice plants were dried out and did not produce any grains,” she says the following April.  She came away with one metric ton of unprocessed rice. After dehusking the rice, it lasted her family (two daughters, her husband and mother-in-law) just a few months.

She planted a maize field and hoped to grow a ton, but only got one 50-kg bag. She says the poor result was due to “lack of rain, lack of good equipment for cultivation, and lack of money to pay for labor.”

Her situation is rather typical in the small village of Bandafassy, about 15 kilometers from the town of Kedougou in eastern Senegal, where erratic rain last year hit farmers hard. The resulting high demand for food grown in other parts of the country is pushing up prices, and forcing farmers who were already struggling to feed their families to find creative ways of coping.

Erratic rain prevented any decent harvest

Camara is the one in the family responsible for agriculture, but her husband Nicolas Keita helps prepare fields for planting and the harvest – when he is not away mining for gold to earn cash.

Keita says they planted in early June, but by the end of the month it had stopped raining, and what they were growing dried out in July. They replanted in August, and invested in some fertilizer. The rains were intermittent in September and stopped altogether in the beginning of October. "The rain gap in June and July prevented any decent harvest," he says.

"Things are going to go badly," Camara says she realized after the harvest. "But we will make every effort." She turned to gathering wild fruits in the forest, such as the seed pods of the baobab tree and jujube berries to feed her family.

To earn money, her mother-in-law began making clay pots for storing water; Camara walks 15 kilometers to Kedougou (carrying a 10-pound pot on her head) where she sells the pots for about $5 each. If she can make a sale, she buys food and returns. In a good week, she can sell two or three pots.

Camara reports that after a good harvest she can feed her family for about six months, but this past year the food only lasted about four. She says she is down to her last two bags of rice, one of which she wants to save for seed. “We will always find a way to get by,” she says with a certain resignation. The threat to farmers like Camara is that of another year of diminished harvests: Successive bad years can lead to a downward spiral that even the most resourceful farmer can’t avoid.

Oxfam is designing programs to help farmers like Camara get the resources they need to plant crops this year, so that when the rains come people will have an opportunity to grow what they need for food. Cherif Sow, who works for the Kedougou Association for Action and Development, an Oxfam partner, says the need for support in the area is crucial. “We have to help the communities as quickly as possible to help them survive the lean time, otherwise it will have an impact on their agricultural production.”

Oxfam is aiming to help 1.2 million people across seven countries with programs that include cash transfers and cash-for-work initiatives, veterinary care for the livestock on which many families depend, and access to clean water and sanitation. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts.

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