Cereal banks empower women and fight famine in Africa's Sahel region

Groups such as the World Food Program and Care are joining forces to create all-women-managed cereal banks in villages throughout the drought-prone Sahel region of Africa. They help protect against famine, but also empower women.

Samuel de Jaegere/Reuters/File
Women in Niger beat stems of millet in Salewa village, about 250 miles from the capital Niamey. Aid groups have begun women-run cereal banks to help ensure steady grain supplies year round in the drought-prone Sahel region of Africa.

Drought and high food prices in 2012 threatened the food security of more than 18 million people in the Sahel region of Africa, which includes parts of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, and northern Nigeria.

The Sahel is prone to drought, and is becoming increasingly so with climate change. Consequently the people in this region are experiencing more frequent bouts of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Fortunately, organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP) and Care are joining forces to create all-women-managed cereal banks in villages throughout the Sahel that not only help protect against seasonal famine, but also empower women as agents of food security in their communities.

Cereal banks are community-led grain distribution projects that store grain after harvests and then loan grain when food is scarce during what is known as the "lean season."

In 2009, WFP and Care established exclusively women-operated cereal banks to help ensure the availability of grain supplies year round. These community cereal banks loan grain below market price, helping protect against market speculation and enabling even the poorest women to purchase food for their families during times of scarcity. The women are expected to repay the loans, but at very low interest rates and only after they have harvested their own crops.

WFP and Care also fund educational enrichment programs that give lessons to women in arithmetic, reading, and writing, which give women the skills needed to manage the village granaries, including bookkeeping, monitoring stocks, and administering loans.

Education is of critical importance for the advancement of women in the developing world. As the Girl Effect reports, an extra year of primary school results in an increase in women’s eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent, while an extra year of secondary school increases potential wages by 15 to 25 percent.

Given women’s traditional role as primary caregivers who invest 90 percent of their incomes into their families (as compared to the 30 to 40 percent invested by men), it makes sense to employ them as managers of community cereal banks.

“Women traditionally feed the village; we know when our children and neighbors are hungry,” says cereal bank treasurer Sakina Hassan, “Our intimate knowledge of hunger drives our management of the cereal bank.”

Cereal banks decrease communities’ dependence on unpredictable weather and provide villages with a much needed safety net during times of drought and famine. In addition to emergency food relief programs, these cereal banks helped save thousands of families throughout the region from hunger and malnutrition during the most recent food crisis in the Sahel

These community granaries have also led to improved educational opportunities for women, empowering them to better provide for their families and their communities.

• Caitlin Aylward is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.

• This article first appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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