This is Niger, the gateway to the Sahara Desert. Ninety percent of the country’s population depends on subsistence farming. Millet is the crop that keeps most people alive. But last year the rains failed, leading to massive crop failure, and now the country is facing a potentially catastrophic food crisis. In 2005 food shortages led to a large-scale humanitarian emergency that affected three million people, causing high rates of severe malnutrition and death amongst children. This year, the situation is even more severe, with over seven million people now facing hunger. That’s over half of the country’s population.
Food has become scarce. Sometimes my family and I go for two days without anything to eat.
Concern Worldwide, an international aid agency, is responding early, trying to reach the most vulnerable before malnutrition rates spike to emergency thresholds.
NIALL TIERNEY [Concern Worldwide Country Director, Niger]
This year we have launched a multi-pronged program. We are trying to stabilize the health situation, re-inforcing the Ministry of Health’s capacity to address malnutrition.
Learning from the tragedy of 2005, aid agencies are better prepared. This year, interventions must reach families before it’s too late, before the food runs out.
DR. SAHADI [Pediatrician]
This happens a lot when there has been a bad harvest. Whenever we approach this period, cases of children who are malnourished begin to be reported.
AMANDA MCCLELLAND [Concern Worldwide Emergency Program Co-coordinator]
We have four hundred volunteers working at the moment in the various villages that actively go around and look for children with malnutrition. By having these mobilisers in the village we’re getting to the children early and quickly, which means the recovery is much quicker and much better for the family and of course much more cost effective.
Children suffering from malnutrition are screened by health workers and are either admitted for inpatient treatment, or referred for outpatient care. The results of the treatment are clear to see.
We have been here for a week and the health of my children is better than before we arrived. The vomiting and diarrhea is less.
ZALFA MOUSSAOU [Mother]
My daughter is much better now, you can see for yourself she’s even smiling. The doctors have told me she’s not starving anymore, that I can take her home. If she develops any problems, I’ll bring her back.
But this is only part of Concern’s three-pronged approach to the emergency in Niger. As well as working to prevent severe malnutrition in children, Concern has been distributing drought resistant seeds in preparation for the oncoming rainy season.
The rain cycle here has become more erratic and shorter. The type of seed that we’re giving out matures approximately one month faster than the type of seed that they would get from the local market. So, if rainfall is limited this year, people still stand a better chance of getting a better harvest than if they hadn’t had that variety of seed given to them this year.
I received millet, beans and fertilizer; I also received 20,000 francs, bought more millet with my money so I can have a larger harvest. I’m very grateful.
Traditionally, responses to food emergencies involve large-scale distributions of imported food aid. But Concern has introduced a groundbreaking new solution: text messages, mobile phone technology, and cash.
There’s food available in the region, it’s just not necessarily available on the markets in Niger and if it is available on the markets in Niger, often people don’t have money to buy it because their own crops failed, they didn’t generate enough revenue. So we’re trying to address that vicious cycle. What we’re doing is, we’re supporting 10,000 households with cash on a monthly basis through the period of April through the end of September, which is traditionally known as the hunger period. When the traders know that the people have purchasing power they’ll continue to supply food.
ABDULLAH MAMAHDOU [Concern Worldwide Food Security Manager]
Here we have five villages, which are going to benefit from our manual cash distribution today.
Targeting the poorest women, the program gives each recipient four monthly installments of 20,000 francs (about $44 USD), which amounts to about 80 percent of an average family’s annual income. An elated Assouma is glad to get her share.
ASSOUMA SOULEYMAYNE [Mother]
I have a family of five and this money is going to help me buy food for them. Thank you, thank you very much.
Manual emergency cash transfers are not new, but Concern is breaking new ground in its use of mobile phone technology. Jenny Aker, a renowned expert in mobile cash transfers is carrying out research for Concern on the effectiveness of both manual and mobile cash interventions.
JENNY AKER [Fletcher School of International Affairs]
These mobile money programs have been arising through a variety of countries since 2005 and the best known is M-Pesa in Kenya. But in West Africa it’s really becoming online and through one of the mobile service providers, Zain, they have the ZAP program, which allows people to transfer money to other individual users.
Unlike manual cash transfers that require money to be collected from the bank, a security escort, a long drive and several personnel just to hand it out, all a mobile money transfer requires is a mobile phone and a cash dispensing station.
HAWATOU OHONE [Mother]
Receiving money has helped my six children and I. Before the ZAP and Concern programs, we couldn’t afford to buy food. But now our situation has improved.
Initial results from the program and research show that mobile phone cash transfers are faster and more cost effective, and that getting aid to people in remote areas is much easier. The phones also bring additional benefits.
ZEINABOU HAROUNA [Concern Worldwide Community Development Advisor]
The phones have brought a great change to the women’s lives. Before they got their own phones they had to travel far to make phone calls to their husbands and relatives. Now that they have their own phones they are able to communicate and keep in touch with their husbands and relatives at any time and they don’t have to travel far to make a call.
Women who have received the mobile phones and the cash installments from Concern can now buy food in the market to protect their children from hunger. They are also empowered by having their own resources and the ability to make choices about their own needs. Concern’s program is the first of its kind ever in Niger or in any French speaking country in Africa. No one in Niger wants to relive the tragedy of 2005. But to stop the massive crisis that is unfolding, the world must respond with the most innovative interventions possible.
TOM ARNOLD [Concern Worldwide CEO]
What we’re facing here is a massive task in the next few months and I think that more needs to be done. There needs to be a greater level of international effort to make sure that that this situation does not become a lot worse.
Niger faces a huge threat, but Concern’s research here could provide evidence that will change the way the world fights hunger, making long food lines a thing of the past.