(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Food prices still climbing, crisis feared

[Niger] Haggling over food at Boubon market, southwest Niger. [Date picture taken: 08/23/2006]
Nicholas Reader/IRIN

Food prices at markets across West Africa are already high for the time of year and are still rising, suggesting aid agencies should prepare for a potentially serious hunger crisis later in the year as people across the impoverished region may not be able to afford enough to eat, despite food being available.

Normally in January and February cereal and grain prices in West Africa are driven down as harvests from the year before start hitting the markets.

But production of cereals was low across the region in 2007 because of a late start and early end to the rainy season, which affected production of millet, sorghum and maize. Analysts say traders are seeking to maximise profit by hoarding stocks, because they know the low production will yield higher prices.

“Traders are still buying in as much as possible to hold onto it until the price has doubled or more,” said Salif Sow, regional representative of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) food monitoring group.

FEWS NET has recorded rising prices at important markets in northern Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin.

The last time FEWS NET compiled regional information, in November 2007, prices compared to the same month in 2006 were 60 percent higher for millet, 51 percent higher for maize, and 43 percent for sorghum.

Almost all farming in West Africa is rain-fed, meaning farmers experience an intense burst of activity during the June to November rainy season, when they must grow and sell enough food to see them through until the next year.

By June, many of the poorest families in the region have run out of money and food. The period is known as the “hunger gap” or “lean season” and is usually accompanied by quickly accelerating malnutrition rates as families skip meals and in extreme cases rely on wild foods like weeds, leaves and berries and rubbish for sustenance.

For some families, the lean season starts as early as January or February. Even slight shifts in market prices can have a dramatic impact on peoples’ ability to get through the lean season, as all their reserves and credit are already used up.

The hardest hit people are in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad which are among the poorest countries in the world and together form West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region. The World Food Programme estimates that there are 1.5 million children under five suffering from under-nutrition in those countries.

Parts of Senegal and northern Benin and Togo also experience similar problems.

''...Maize is what people usually buy during the lean season because that is what is cheapest. This year maize will be... really expensive...''

Major humanitarian relief operations are launched annually to help support the most vulnerable people and prevent mass malnutrition-related deaths. In November 2007, the UN appealed to donors to provide US$133 million for food security and nutrition projects in West Africa in 2008.

Aid agencies and donors need to focus on putting in place mitigation measures now, before they are called on to respond to a potential crisis when the full lean season starts in May or June, Margie Morard, regional food security adviser at Oxfam said.

“Anticipating that people’s purchasing power is possibly going to be affected, we can support off-season programmes like giving cash grants and to assist people with purchasing the seeds and tools they will be needing for the next growing season, to lighten their load and make them slightly less reliant on the markets,” she suggested.

People in Sahelian countries have weathered successive years of natural disasters including drought, floods and locust invasions during the last decade. Many of them have incurred substantial debts as they struggled to get through the difficult years, and have experienced diminishing harvests because their land is denuded or because they lack the money to buy enough seeds and tools to farm efficiently.

FEWS NET’s Sow suggested the increase in maize prices could prove to be the most serious factor for the poorest families.

“Maize is what people usually buy during the lean season because that is what is cheapest. This year maize will still be on the market but it is going to be really expensive,” he said.


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