Amid grim new hunger findings, a holistic initiative helps build food security and resilience to inter-connected shocks
It's not even noon in Satara, a remote village in Niger's southwestern Tillaberi region, and the thermometer is already hovering near 40 degrees Celsius. The unpaved road to the village is bumpy and sandy. For people living here, however, the path and the intense heat are part of daily life.
High temperatures haven't stopped Foureyratou Saidou, a single mother of four and recent widow, from tending to the community garden next to the village. The payoffs are worth it.
"In this garden, we now grow and harvest onions, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables that we eat and that we can sell in the local market," she says. "Before, we didn't have much to live for. Now we do, and we don't want to leave."
Foureyratou is among thousands of farmers benefitting from the World Food Programme's (WFP) Integrated Resilience Programme, launched nearly a decade ago in Niger and four other Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania).
Supporting the Niger government's national priorities and in partnership with multiple United Nations and nongovernmental partners, the initiative here covers areas like land rehabilitation, livelihood diversification, school meals, nutrition interventions and improved agricultural production and market access.
So far, it's assisting three million people across the Sahel region - including 1.8 million in 2,000 villages in Niger alone last year - to better prepare for and recover from myriad interconnected shocks, including climate change, land degradation, soaring prices and conflict.
Those results are all the more important today, as newly released expert findings show that acute food insecurity in the Sahel is expected to reach a 10-year-high by June. In Niger, the findings predict some 3.3 million people will be acutely hungry during the June-August lean season, up from 2.5 million now.
"Turning around these numbers requires not only short-term actions but, above all, actors coming together to implement more sustainable and transformative solutions at an impactful scale," says WFP Niger Country Director Jean-Noel Gentile. "Through our integrated resilience projects, WFP with the government and partners are together empowering vulnerable populations to have the tools they need to thrive."
Indeed, WFP has scaled up its resilience activities in Niger, after findings showed they have restored natural resources, increased farm revenues, reduced migration and conflict over scarce resources, and improved education and nutrition.
"It all starts with the land," says Volli Carucci, who heads WFP's Resilience Programme. "Without productive land, there's no food production. The land is the starting point of resilient food systems, which communities can count on."
That's the case in Satara, where a WFP-supported community gardening initiative has transformed once-barren earth.
Foureyratou is now a proud member of a village market cooperative that sells the garden's surplus - beyond what members keep to feed their families - in the local market. Profits are plowed back into village-level investments to improve land productivity. It's just one of many examples where WFP is better linking farmers to markets, expanding their profits and overall food access.
While many men, in particular, have left villages like Satara in search of work, Foureyratou now sees reasons for staying.
"I am working for the good health of my children and to give them the chance to study and stay in our village," she says. "I want the garden to grow bigger, so that we have more to sell and more income to invest in the family and in the community."
Change is afoot elsewhere as well. In regions severely affected by the food crisis, a striking 80 percent of villages benefitting from WFP resilience activities did not require humanitarian assistance last year, research shows -- unlike others in the same areas which did. That translates into about half-a-million people who did not need emergency support, or about US$30 million in savings, thanks to multi-year investments in resilience building by WFP and our partners.
The programmes, which also promote women's participation and empowerment, are taking place countrywide. But much of the focus is on areas with the highest food insecurity; those which often face conflict or host large concentrations of displaced people, intensifying demand for scarce resources.
The initiatives include land rehabilitation, using techniques like digging 'half moons' that slow and capture rainwater flow - helping to nourish the earth and improve plant growth. So far, more than 233,000 hectares have been rehabilitated since the initiative's launch in 2014. WFP now plans to expand to new areas and equip more people with the tools they need.
Community role model
Around southeastern Niger's Gaffati village, for example, some 300 people are participating in a WFP-supported reforestation project that sees acacia trees, native shrubs and grasses for fodder sprouting across a region made barren by seasonal drought, floods, overgrazing and other harmful practices.
Participants have diversified their incomes by selling the fodder. With extra money, fewer people are migrating in search of work, and new food stores have opened in the village.
Besides offering training on farming and tree planting techniques, WFP and other partners are also supporting school feeding and malnutrition treatment, and sensitizing villagers about key issues like household hygiene and breastfeeding.
"I am determined to teach other women everything I learnt in the past years on how to cook healthy and nutritious meals to feed our children, and how to take care of ourselves as mothers," says 40-year-old Alia Issaka, a single mother of eight, who is enrolled in a community-based nutrition program.
"It is not an easy job to be a role model for the community," adds Alia, who heads a local women's association. "But I feel a responsibility, so more women can participate in decision-making and in improving their family's health."
WFP and partners require additional resources to continue scaling up and supporting Niger's government to increase the reach and impact of resilience building programmes country wide.