Cotonou/Rome — FAO is supporting farming families in northern Benin who lost crops, livestock and fishing grounds when the Niger River overran its banks in August, just as many villagers were only barely getting back on their feet from the last floods in 2012.
On his first day in Benin, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva met with President Yayi Boni, who welcomed him to the country and accompanied him for some of his travels.
Graziano da Silva lauded the impressive progress Benin has had in achieving the first Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of the nation's hungry, while the country is also near to achieving the World Food Summit goal of halving the actual number of people who are undernourished.
The FAO chief also voiced his hope that Benin, which has vast agricultural potential and water resources especially in the country's south, could become the future home of a regional food reserve that can offset shortfalls where production is weaker, such as in the arid Sahel.
Emergency assistance moves into action
Graziano da Silva also took part in an official signing ceremony Sunday to immediately activate emergency assistance to the northern villages of Malanville and Karimama, the communities worst affected by flooding. Nearly all agricultural production was wiped out, and farmers were left with no crops and no seed for planting anew.
A portion of the emergency funding will go toward rehabilitating the commercial activities of some 1300 young people who had started farming under a Beninese government programme aimed at creating rural jobs and economic opportunity to reduce widespread youth unemployment.
The government of Benin has funneled some of its own resources into helping those people worst affected by the floods. Crop losses are estimated at some $20 million, not to mention the hundreds of livestock animals lost and damages to fisheries.
Due to the scale of the destruction, the government of Benin has nearly exhausted its resources assisting victims with food, shelter and cash transfers, with little possibility to help re-launch the agricultural sector.
Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of nationwide employment in Benin. In the rural and impoverished northern region, families are even more dependent on agriculture and less able to cope with repeated set-backs.
Mainstreaming climate change resilience
The Director-General emphasized that the FAO programme recognizes the need to rethink the whole concept of 'emergency response.'
"This is emergency assistance with a longer-term view, in that it includes awareness raising and training on resilience for community members and local authorities. This can help shape a new approach that looks to the future beyond the short timeframe of immediate emergencies," Graziano da Silva said.
The programme includes training on the use of 'resilience funds' and structural reinforcements such as silos for preparedness in the face of more frequent and severe weather shocks due to the effects of climate change, Graziano da Silva added.
The emergency programme will move into action immediately, assisting a total of 7500 households who have been worst affected by the floods by supplying:
Quality seed for rice, off-season vegetables and floodwater-recession farming of maize along the riverbank for November/December planting
Farming equipment such as shovels, hoes and wheelbarrows
Training in post-harvest activities, such as seed production/conservation
Storage infrastructure to reduce production losses and promoting contingency measures
Farmers will also be trained in modern technologies and best practices, such as micro-dosing of fertilizers, to increase farm production, reduce costs and protect the environment.
The workshops on resilience will also benefit the local community services, as well as farmers themselves. The workshops will aim to build upon already existing community mechanisms aimed at improving resilience.
This is done by raising awareness of the principles of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and natural resources management, so that communities diversify farm activities, can accumulate assets which in turn can enable the creation of savings, loan and insurance or contingency schemes.
The crops can be harvested as early as January, which should lessen food shortages that could hit. It's likely that people will have exhausted food reserves and seed stocks, without which there can be no planting for the next harvests.
Songhai Centre - a model taking root far afield
Graziano da Silva also paid a visit Sunday to the national Songhai Centre in Porto Novo, Benin. This home-grown centre for sustainable, ecological agriculture strives to transform subsistence farmers into savvy, small and medium-size entrepreneurs who not only produce but also transform their farm output into a variety of diversified finished products.
The Centre was founded in the 1980s by a Catholic priest, whose vision was to reverse the rural exodus by creating opportunities in the countryside.
Farmers receive hands-on training and education to transform farming from a matter of living hand to mouth to a means of creating a better quality of life.
Songhai Centre has been supported by various UN agencies, including FAO, and is now being emulated in other countries, including Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, which have their own Songhai Centres patterned after Benin's example.
Graziano da Silva met with various civil society, producer and private sector groups while in Benin.
Africa Rice Center
On Monday, the FAO Director-General also visited the Africa Rice Center, a member of the CGIAR research consortium and a key FAO partner.
The Africa Rice Centre aims to improve food security and nutrition by increasing rice production and quality in its 24 member countries.
Many African countries have vast potential for production of rice - also often their main staple - but under current conditions must meet demand by importing the bulk of their rice from abroad.
AfricaRice aims to reverse that trend through science and local capacity development.