The Maradi area of south central Niger has suffered poor rains in recent years. Cereal harvests have dropped by nearly a third. Seventy percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The months before harvest are called “the hunger season.” From mid-July to mid-September, food supplies are at their lowest. Most families eat only one meal a day.
Balki Djibo is a farmer in the region. She explains, “In 2005, our agricultural production was not sufficient. I had to sell one of my goats to buy additional millet to ensure the survival of the household.” Her husband, Yahouza Djibo, got farming work in a nearby village.
But now many women, like Mrs. Djibo, are taking local food security into their own hands. In response to the food crisis in 2005, the International Fund for Agricultural Development created a new kind of food bank. The bank is run entirely by women. It lends food to farmers, not money. The food helps families make it through the hunger season.
Called the soudure bank, or pre-harvest bank, it is based on exchange. Each week of the pre-harvest season, farming families receive cereal on credit. They pay back the loan with their own harvest, and add 25 per cent interest. This covers the cost of storage and maintenance. The villagers chose this rate of interest. It may seem high, but traditional lenders charge 200 to 300 per cent.
The new banks have already made a huge difference. Today there are 168 soudure banks throughout Niger. Over 50,000 women are involved in village committees which oversee how the banks are run. Each week during the rainy season, the women organize the distribution of cereals from the bank. The committees may decide to sell surplus to fund repairs. They also choose whether to lower repayment rates in case of a poor harvest.
The banks store over 2800 tonnes of millet. This is enough to feed 350,000 people for at least a month. During the 2008 global food price crisis, when 90 percent of Niger’s population was at risk of starvation, villages with a soudure bank were able to sustain themselves through the harshest period of the year.
Mr. Djibo no longer needs to work on other peoples’ land. He concentrates on his own plot. He says, “With the bank, my own production has increased, I have less debt, and we don’t have to harvest too early in the season.”
There have been other benefits, especially for women. The banks help empower women who would otherwise be left out of community organizations and decision-making in Niger. They have new roles as bank managers. The banks have given women opportunities to be part of village committees and organizations. The International Fund for Agricultural Development now works with these organizations on other activities such as health and nutrition.
With the support of their husbands, women can now play an integral role in improving local food security, diets, and livelihoods.