This surprise in Mali ‘definitely’ helped save lives

It came unexpected. And we originally thought there was something wrong.

But in a country where a food shock can lead to a crisis, this surprise definitely saved lives.

Mali sits in the Sahel region of West Africa and is highly prone to food shortages from the harsh climate. CARE has been working here since 1975 with a number of humanitarian and development programs. In 2012, CARE Canada began a food and nutrition project in the Segou region thanks to the support of the Government of Canada and our generous donors. Formally titled the Initiative for Food Security and Nutrition in Segou (IFONS), this project seeks to work with communities to develop a long-term, sustainable supply of healthy food.

As part of this project, our team encourages community members to prepare proposals to receive funds to develop new ways to make money or produce more food through “climate smart” agriculture techniques. The idea is that beneficiaries can then use this extra cash to be able to better afford food and other daily needs.

In Segou region, which IFONS is based, people generally apply for funds for petty trade, starting a small business selling crafts or buying seeds for rainfed agriculture and backyard vegetable gardening.

All worthy causes, but this wasn’t the case in 2013.

Our project team started seeing proposal after proposal for funds to set up cereal grain banks.

“It was really unusual, even we were surprised to see such a large number of food grain banks,” says Pierre Kadet, food security and livelihoods advisor for CARE Canada. “Our colleagues at CARE Mali were worried there was something wrong with the project.”

What went wrong was the weather. The past year had seen worse rainfall than normal and community members were concerned that they would be facing a very lean season in the months ahead.

“Normally, the lean season starts around April, but when the harvest is bad it can start around February, which was the case in 2013,” says Kadet.

Thankfully, community members received grants through the CARE project, which they used to set up banks to store their food and be better prepared. Farmers would set aside their extra harvest in these banks, which could then be sold back to local residents at reasonable rates during the lean season.

Affordable food available

The local focus on these banks was crucial, as this food could only be sold within the community. Otherwise, says Kadet, it’s likely all of the stocks would be bought within a week and sold somewhere else at a far higher rate.

“In that area, you can have cash in your hand, but you can’t afford any food because the inflation goes so fast and so high that they can’t pay enough to eat,” says Kadet. “If you have enough community cereal banks, the prices are regulated and you can buy food at a very affordable price.”

Did these measures save lives?

“Definitely. Oh definitely,” says Kadet without hesitation.

In addition, he notes that since there was food available to the community at reasonable prices, families did not need to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as skipping meals or prioritizing food to certain family members over others, far too often the men over the women and girls.

This was not the first time such community food banks had been established in this region, but they had never been done here on such a massive scale. In total, the CARE project funded 21 community grain banks in four districts ahead of the 2014 lean season with a total of 276 tonnes of cereals (millet, maize and sorghum), redistributed at an affordable price to 3,210 vulnerable households, representing more than 21,800 people.

Each household had access on average to 180 kilograms of affordable cereals over the lean season. In addition, an extra emergency stock was set aside exclusively to support households with malnourished children, pregnant and lactating women.

Often when we discuss development programming we think long-term impact, not necessarily addressing an immediate emergency need.

But in Mali, thanks to the support of our donors, CARE has been able to work towards lasting change, while helping communities to prevent present challenges from becoming a crisis.

Learn more about CARE's work to increase access to health food.