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Niger: Trying to end a hand to mouth existence

In Niger’s bustling capital, Niamey, it’s easy to forget that more than 80 percent of people in this country are dependent on the land for food and their livelihood.

Most are extremely poor – a combination of regular poor harvests which yield little and a hand to mouth existence when the harvests are good.

It goes something like this. Every September/ October when the harvest (however much or little there is) comes in, farmers have to sell their millet and sorghum immediately to make sure they have enough money to live and to pay off debts.

The trouble is this is the time of year when prices are at their lowest because there’s a lot of grain available (relatively speaking) so farmers make very little, if any, profit.

Furthermore, because most Nigerien farmers have nowhere to stock large supplies, farmers, frustratingly, end up having to buy back their own grain later in the year from traders at highly inflated prices to feed their families.

But things are beginning to change. Niger’s farmers are starting to use a system called “warrantage”. They stock their grain in community granaries while receiving credit (at low interest rates) on their harvest from local credit agencies.

This means they can store their grain until May when prices traditionally rise and they can sell it at a profit. Until now, any profit from selling in May has gone to traders who have bought up the grain in the Autumn at cost price.

But under the new system, the farmer can use his profits to pay off loans and any surplus can then be invested in other income generating schemes like buying sheep or goats.

Another bonus of the new approach is that farmers are increasingly able to store enough grain to feed their families during the year – avoiding the deeply frustrating need to buy their own grain back from the traders.

It’s taking time for warrantage to take off but Save the Children is working with both farmers and loan agencies in Maradi, one of the regions worst affected by the brutal food crisis blighting the country – to get it off the ground.

It could well prove to be one way the people of Niger, the least developed country in the world, begin to lift themselves out of poverty.

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