Friday, January 18, 2008

West Africa's Food Crisis

It's not so much that there's a shortage of food but, instead, it's a shortage of money to afford it in the face of rapidly rising food prices.

The UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs reports a crisis looming in West Africa.

"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."

“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.

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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