Women-run food banks provide cereal grains to poor farmers

In Niger, banks providing cereal grains to poor farmers are receiving support from the International Fund for Agricultural. But, the women running these cereal banks are doing more – they are reducing the impact of Niger's food crisis.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Newscom/File
Women scrape millet from the ground at the village of Koumboula in southern Niger on July 1, 2005. Women are running food banks that provide poor farmers with access to cereal grains, helping reducing the impact of Niger's food crisis.

A unique food bank in Niger supported by supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is reducing the impact of the food crisis on local communities and allowing local farmers to focus on cultivating their own fields.

The banks—run exclusively by women—provide poor farmers with access to cereal grains when there are seasonal (the period of hunger preceding harvest from mid-July to mid-September) or unexpected food shortages. More than 50,000 women are involved in the management of the banks, and during the rainy season, the women organize weekly distributions of cereals.

Traditionally, IFAD-funded cereal banks in Niger have been used to store crops post-harvest that farmers can sell later during the dry season when market prices are higher. However, in response to the 2005 food crisis—which simultaneously decimated the food harvest and reserves of 3.5 million people in 3,000 villages and drove up food costs—IFAD’s Project for the Promotion of Local Initiative for Development in Aguié initiated the first soudure food banks in Maradi.

A series of droughts in the Sahel that began in 2008 and continued through to 2010 has compounded the food crisis in Niger. The European Commission estimates that around 3.3 million people will require emergency food assistance and a million children will suffer from acute malnutrition.

The bank is financed through a system of exchange. Every week, poor farmers receive cereal as a credit. However, once the farmers have harvested their own crops, they repay the loan with cereals instead of money. Farmers repay the loaned amount plus 25 percent interest—a rate decided upon by the villagers themselves—to replace the stock and to cover the cost of storage and maintenance.

The banks may help speed agricultural recovery in Niger by allowing farming families to stay together as one unit to focus on cultivating their own fields. Otherwise, the men are forced to seek work outside of the villages or rent their labor out to other farmers' fields—while neglecting their own fields—and to offload their share of labor onto the women and children that remain in the household.

In 2006, IFAD and a number of villages established 111 banks containing more than 680 tons of cereal in Aguié—enough to feed up to 200,000 people. After a successful year during which almost every loan was repaid in full with interest, 50 additional banks were built and 1,200 additional tons of cereals were bought on the local market in 2007. By 2010, there were a total of 168 soudure banks holding about 2,800 tons of millet—enough to feed about 350,000 people for one month.

“This is significant because, in Niger, women have traditionally had little to no control over decision-making,” says Vincenzo Galastro, IFAD Country Program Manager for Niger.

“First, for the first time, we were able to set up a local system at the village level to prevent and manage food crises with a strong focus on poor families. Second, all women in the villages were able for the first time to be very actively involved in these activities with the support of their husbands. The banks presented an opportunity to create new, dynamic women’s organizations in the villages. And third, the project is now able to work with these women’s organizations to develop other activities that focus on issues such as health, child nutrition, HIV and other challenges.”

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