Lebane (left) and Umale (right) are part of a community group in their village in south-west Niger that identifies families who need emergency food assistance.
Emily Cain/Canadian Foodgrains Bank

Lebane (left) and Umale (right) are part of a community group in their village in south-west Niger that identifies families who need emergency food assistance.

WINNIPEG, Man.— More than 18.7 million people, including one million children, are affected by a food and malnutrition crisis in the Sahel region in West Africa, according to reports from an United Nations agency.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is on the ground and providing emergency food assistance in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

The harvest failed in 2011 and the crisis has been deepening since the start of this year, says Mark Sprunger, an MCC director for West Africa. Through early warnings from partner organizations, MCC has been responding since April.

 “This is a very critical time,” says Sprunger.  “The Sahel is in the rainy season and it is when food supplies are the most limited. In some places the rains are better than last year. There is hope for a good harvest but until crops are harvested, food supplies will be low.”

Referring to reports from the United Nations, Sprunger says prices of basic food throughout the region have increased dramatically.  In Mali, for example, the price of the staple food, millet, is 116 per cent higher than the five-year average.

Among the most vulnerable are small farmers who have a few hectares or less and hope to grow enough food to feed their families and a few animals.

 “If anything goes wrong, they are in a bad way,” says Sprunger. “If they didn’t produce enough to last for a year, they use the seeds they were going to plant as a food source. When they don’t have access to credit, they have to sell off assets, like their animals. If something happens to the cow that they use for cultivation, they have to do the cultivation by hand. All these things make small farmers very vulnerable. “

Other factors contributing to the crisis include the conflict in Mali that results in families fleeing their homes. In northern Burkina Faso, sparse vegetation caused by deforestation forces traditional herding families to bring their animals further south where violent and sometimes deadly conflicts arise between herders and farmers.

Working through local church development agencies, MCC helps provide food and grain to vulnerable families, strengthens two grain banks that give farmers a local market, supports food-for-work and cash-for-work activities and others.

Most of the projects are funded through MCC’s account in Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). The total value of MCC’s response is over $1 million. This includes contributions to MCC’s account from the Canadian government.

Donations can be made online, by telephone (1-888-622-6337) or by sending a cheque to your nearest MCC office. Donations should be designated “Sahel food crisis.”

For every dollar individual Canadians contribute to registered Canadian charities, such as MCC, from Aug. 7 to Sept. 30, 2012, the government is setting aside one dollar in a matching fund. These funds will be allocated to charities applying for funds from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) for relief efforts in the Sahel.

Gladys Terichow is a writer with MCC Canada.