Here’s How People Make Ends Meet in One of the Poorest Places in the World

Fellows 2015

By Armin Rosen

October 02, 2015

Also published by Business Insider

Niger is a country at peace. But a World Food Program distribution site in Torouf — a village about an hour’s drive from the city of Tahoua — seemed lifted out of a conflict zone.

Sacks of millet emblazoned with the logo of the United States Agency for International Development awaited villagers clutching yellow ration cards. Staffers from a Nigerien relief organization wrapped measuring tape around the forearms of young children, to check if their limbs were thin enough to indicate malnutrition. Food distributions like these are common sights in refugee camps. But there isn't a camp, or an active conflict, for hundreds of miles around.

Torouf, with the Qatari-built mosque at left.

Situated in the border zone between Niger's agricultural south and desert north, Torouf is a dusty collection of rectangular buildings fashioned out of tan-colored mud; its sturdiest structure is a mosque built by a Qatari charity. It’s a long 10 kilometers to the nearest secondary school. Animals wander dusty streets, and though power lines cross over the village, Torouf is virtually electricity-free.

And while it’s next to a major highway connecting Tahoa to the desert trading hub of Agadez — the so-called "uranium highway" through which the country's top mineral export is transited — there’s no market or even any roadside commerce. Vehicles rarely stop there.

Extreme hunger in Niger is caused by erratic rainfall.

The town and the surrounding area runs an 80% food deficit, according to the WFP. That means its inhabitants can only produce or purchase 20% of the amount needed for the population to be considered food secure. On a national level, 2.5 million of Niger’s 16 million citizens are classified as chronically food insecure.  

The village, like just about all of Niger, is landlocked, semi-isolated, and dry.

"The cause of the hunger is mainly erratic and uneven rain,” Vigno Hounkanli, the spokesperson for the WFP in Niger, told Business Insider. “There’s one rainy season for the year. If it fails, that’s it."

A building in Torouf painted with educational images and slogans meant to teach villagers about proper sanitation.

Over the past five decades, the three- to four-month-long rains have failed an average of once every two years in Torouf, and once out of five years nationally. And when the rains don’t fail, they can be dangerously inconsistent, coming in days-long torrents that wash away fields and villages — before disappearing for weeks or even months at a time. 

"The country is always on the precipice of a failed harvest," Aaron Ashoff, the West Africa regional director for the American aid organization Samaritan's Purse, told Business Insider.

Rainfall margins are so thin that any interruption to a local water system can have alarming consequences: For instance, some of the fields near Torouf are usually fed by a seasonal stream during the rainy season, which is connected to a simple irrigation system. Villagers told Business Insider that this year, a nearby community had diverted the flow of water, threatening some of the villagers’ crops. 

Irrigation is rudimentary or nonexistent. On a stretch of highway about 20 minutes down the road from Torouf, dying millet stalks yellowed by dehydration sat within eyesight of a year-round lake.

How people get by in Torouf

Villagers in Torouf, and in Sahiya, which Business Insider also visited with the World Food Program this past September, give an idea of how the poorest people in one of the poorest places on Earth get by. These villages are a glimpse into what markets, infrastructural investment, and targeted aid can accomplish against some of the structural causes of hunger — as well as where they fall short.

In Torouf I asked residents, all of them recipients of some form of WFP aid, what happens in the village when the rains fail.

Atiku, a 24-year-old mother of two, said that people engage in petty commerce, in the hope of earning enough money to purchase food at a market town up the road. “People will just go and look for a menial job," she said. "They’ll build mud bricks, for instance.”

Zairoua, a mother of seven, says that she’ll collect firewood for sale — a response to hunger that might explain where there are gaps of hundreds of feet between the few remaining trees in Torouf. She might need the extra income this year, as she’s worried her two hectares of crops could fail.

“Millet is dying in the field, before we can harvest it,” she said.

World Food Program-distributed aid in Torouf.

A place like Torouf often can’t support even a basic consumer economy — sometimes there just aren’t buyers for firewood or bricks. So villagers will migrate. They’ll go to Tahoua or Agadez to find domestic jobs, or to more prosperous neighboring communities. Libya was even a migration option, before that country’s collapse.

Mass internal migration could cause social and economic turbulence in areas unprepared for new arrivals — which is one reason the WFP emphasizes migration prevention as one of the benefits of its work. In lean times, the people who stay sometimes have to go into debt to obtain the cash needed to buy food. Households who own animals may be forced to sell them. In dire situations, villagers told Business Insider they gather leaves or berries from the wild. 

WFP studies has found that it takes communities three years of sustained assistance to make it back to the conditions preceding a food shock. An 80% food deficit qualifies as such a shock. Torouf will need years of outside aid just to avoid slipping into an even more serious crisis. 

Central Niger from the air.

More water — but similar problems

Sahiya, a village which Business Insider also toured with the World Food Program, is far from the nearest paved road. It's an hour down a broad, clay highway, then another hour down a dirt track about the width of a four-by-four. Most people traverse these roads in beaten-down pickup trucks overstuffed with cargo and passengers, on donkey carts, or even on camel-back.

From the air, places like Sahiya are suggested only by faint, sandpaper-green rectangles of millet crop, or the convergence of dusty cattle paths. From ground-level, teardrop-domed millet silos trace the outline of low hills.

By September, their supplies start to run low. "This is the rainy season. It is also called ‘hunger season,’” says Hounkanli. “Silos are going empty. People have finished their stocks." 

Silos in Sahiya.

Despite its distance from the nearest paved road or power line, Sahiya’s 40% food deficit is less severe than in Torouf, which sits along a major highway. The town has a huge built-in advantage: It’s right next to a sizable year-round lake.

The community supports herds of dozens of heads of cattle and has even set up irrigation systems with the help of international donors. It’s in a wetter area than Torouf. The air is sauna-like even on a breezy and slightly overcast day. But water alone isn’t enough to solve food insecurity issues.

The WFP gives cash and food assistance to 413 households in Sahiya, reaching some 23% of the area’s population. The UN agency also runs a program called Cash for Assets, where villagers receive food or monetary assistance in exchange for clearing land for agricultural use.

In a field outside Sayiha, millet plants grow out of hundreds of semi-circular trenches, dotting an area that used to be a rocky wasteland. Rain collects at the bottom of the shallow, fertilizer-lined pods, which the WFP calls “half-moons.”

The half-moons allow the village to grow out its agricultural capacity. There are 100 acres of them in Sayiha alone. But the margins of daily life are so precarious that without WFP-provided cash or food to compensate for the time and energy lost on infrastructural upgrades, the villagers would sooner migrate than dedicate hundreds of hours to rehabilitating land.

Half-moons in a field outside Sahiya.

As in Torouf, migration is on a lot of people’s minds. When asked what she would do in the event of a failed harvest, one woman told Business Insider that she would take her five children and leave town by foot, naming another village some 60 miles away as her destination. Alassane Saidou of the Nigerien NGO Action Le Bein Etre told Business Insider that a majority of Sahiya's population left during a particularly bad 2010 drought.

No easy ways to make ends meet 

A villager named Zaina explained how difficult life could be in Sayiha even in years where the rains don’t fail. She pays a landlord 20,000 West African Francs, or $38 to rent a hectare of land for one six-month agricultural season. She’s had this leasing arrangement for 11 years. With unpredictable rains and eight children to support, she’s had to take out a loan to pay her landlord in four of them. Insects are devouring her crop this year, so she thinks she’ll have to go into debt again.

Villagers line up for cash assistance in Sahiya.

Sayiha’s distance from major roads has a distorting effect on the area’s fragile economy. The nearest marketplace is 25 kilometers away, a far enough distance by foot or donkey cart that vegetables and even livestock can degrade in quality during the trip.

“Market access is the first issue people will raise with us,” Saidou told Business Insider. “Even if you have produce like tomatoes or cabbage, there’s no means to take it to the market to sell.”

Wholesalers sometimes make it to Sayiha, but they sell at inflated prices. If residents can’t grow enough to feed their household, they have to have money on hand, which means they need some level of participation in a cash economy in a place with no electricity or paved roads, and where a typical farm is a subsistence-sized two or three hectares.

Deals going down in the Sahiya cattle market.

The Sahiya cattle market.

Herders, or farmers who happen to own animals, have it a little better off. Sahiya’s cattle market is directly behind a school compound where the WFP distributions take place. Herders and buyers carry on lively negotiations next to baying sheep tethered to wooden stakes. A sheep can go for around 50,000 CFA, or $90 — which is three times the rent that a subsistence farmer might pay to a landlord for a single hectare during an entire six-month agricultural season.

But as one local relief agency staffer explained to me, a single sheep doesn’t carry the same equivalent value as a season’s worth of crops from three hectares. When someone sells an animal, they’re liquidating assets for a one-time payoff, and reducing their ability to breed additional livestock.

The realities of survival negate any prospect of a real market economy. That’s the way it is country-wide. As researcher and West Africa expert Tommy Miles told Business Insider, “Niger is not fully integrated into the capitalist world, and is thus incredibly vulnerable.” Most people in Sahiya don't have a reliable monthly income. If their crops fail, there's no labor market to create alternative jobs for them.

Boaters on the Niger River in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Growing from the ground up

Niger has an export trade in ground nuts, onions, petroleum, and uranium. But most people in the country are permanently mired in a subsistence economy that’s in constant danger of collapse. And the root problems could get more complicated as the population climbs. At the current birth rate of over 7 children per woman, the country is projected to have over 50 million citizens by mid-century.

There have been some notable improvements in development in recent decades, including adramatic drop in the infant mortality rate over the last 20 years, Aaron Ashoff of Samaritan's Purse notes. Even with things gradually getting better, the country still faces a huge, fundamental question.

"How do you build a sustainable economy here that can support people through perennial droughts?" Ashoff asks.

A very small fraction of the population can afford to accumulate or invest in the long-term when there are such steep structural factors — water, geography, and population growth chief among them — getting in the way of basic survival.

Even assuming there isn’t a security crisis that dominates the government’s attention and resources, it might take decades to build the roads, schools, power plants, irrigation systems, and telecommunications networks needed to really change things. And by then, Niger will be a thirstier and more populous country — and its problems could be even more urgent and difficult to solve. 

Armin Rosen reported from Niger on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.