Finding Solutions to Fight Malnutrition and Drought in West Africa
By Alisha Rodriquez
For the 53 members of the Bouté women’s cooperative in Mauritania’s Guidimakha region, a simple grain mill was all it took to transform their community.
The women in this West African nation cobbled together 40,000 Mauritanian ouguiya – the equivalent of about $140 U.S. – to found a simple community garden. They used the initial funds to buy seeds, and men in the village worked together to dig a well to irrigate the garden. Counterpart International kicked in a motorized mill, providing them with an additional source of income.
“In Mauritania, staple foods are typically cereals that must be milled,” says Romain Kenfack, who leads the Counterpart program in Mauritania, which is facing the worst drought in 15 years. “Grain mills are valuable labor-saving technologies which allow for generation of income that can be leveraged into other projects. Having cereals milled at the village level also promotes increased food intake, as food is more often ready when needed.”
The proceeds of those initial enterprises in Bouté yielded incredible growth: the cooperative accumulated more than 2 million ouguiya in savings – nearly $7,500 U.S. dollars. The co-op used 10,000 ouguiya to open a butcher shop and 350,000 ouguiya for the construction and supply of a community store.
Today, these businesses thrive and the cooperative has accumulated 800,000 ouguiya, about $2,800, in savings.
“In the past, a family would sell a milk goat to earn money,” says the cooperative’s President. Selling animals too early reduces a household’s assets and takes away valuable sources of nutrition for children.
Now, she says, the families leave selling goats to the butcher shop, which buys goats for 7,000 to 8,000 ouguiya and earns 20,000 for a butchered animal – a 150 percent profit.
The cooperative’s community store, members say, has a tremendous impact on food security for families.
Cooperative members who work on monthly rotations as shopkeepers earn income from the store’s proceeds, which enables them to buy food when harvests are scarce; and the community is also able to maintain a stock of food to last two or three months during shortages or when heavy rains leave roads to nearby markets impassable.
In total, Counterpart has supported 160 committees through small initial investments and training in the creation of community development plans, implementation of community projects and management of community funds and assets.
Counterpart staff members can now take a back seat as Village Development Committees (VDCs) are able to use their new skills and growing resources independently.
The benefits of the VDCs’ activities go beyond economic growth and community development.
Committee members say they have also yielded immediate benefits on food security and health. Community gardens provide a steady supply of diverse, nutritious foods; one VDC member cited the impact of these gardens in reducing anemia among pregnant women and lowering the incidence of diseases among children in the village.
“Projects like community gardens can have a major impact on nutrition, especially for children,” says Jennifer Burns, Counterpart’s Nutrition Technical Specialist. Once parents learn good practices in nutrition, the gardens “provide communities with an opportunity to improve dietary diversity through increasing food availability and access,” Burns says. “Dietary diversity is vital to support optimal physical and cognitive development for children.”
The Bouté women say their cooperative’s activities have improved conditions for everyone in the village by guaranteeing that they have healthy food, clothing for children and better health for everyone.
The Sollou cooperative says the initial investment by Counterpart has not only provided the village with immediate benefits but also has made families more self-sufficient and resilient for the long term.
“We need new tools and irrigation pipes for our community garden,” the group’s President says. “We don’t have to wait for an NGO to help us, because we have the money to buy them. We know one day Counterpart will leave our community. We need to be ready to take over for ourselves.”
Lowering the Casualty Toll of Drought
On a drive across drought-stricken regions of Mauritania, the desert is punctuated by slowly decaying animal carcasses among the thorn trees and leafless baobabs. Each carcass represents a piece of the calamity for rural communities in this West African nation, which depend on livestock to generate income.
Every year, men and boys take herds of goats, sheep and cattle on long migrations, as far as neighboring Mali and Senegal, in search of pasture and water.
The current drought – Mauritania’s worst in 15 years – has contributed to a food crisis across the Sahel region of West Africa, putting more than 15 million people at risk. The U.N. Children’s Fund says it has raised only 38 percent of what it needs to address hunger in the region.
With less water, animals are at increased risk of disease and death. Dehydration and lack of forage are constant concerns. Animals in stressed conditions are more susceptible to disease. Water sources become increasingly contaminated through overuse, and the convergence of large herds around these watering holes creates easy opportunities for large-scale disease transmission.
For poor Mauritanian communities, the consequences of drought and animal disease can be tragic. Livestock provide a key source of income and food throughout the year, particularly when insufficient rainfall compromises production of staple food crops. In these water-scarce periods, successfully maintaining the herd is critical to a family’s survival.
When the health of their livestock is compromised by drought, many pastoralists resort to a process known as “destocking” – selling a significant portion of the herd to maintain the health of the remaining animals. This can help to reduce disease and dedicate scarce food and water resources to the livestock they retain, but at a cost: destocking periods mean reduced profits as increased supply drives animal prices down.
The drought has brought other costs. The early onset of herd migration in search of food and water takes men and boys away from their normal seasonal income-generating activities such as farming and trading, and animal deaths reduce earnings even further.
Families suffer. Reduced income means less food for children, the inability to buy medicines or send sick family members for treatment, and the sale of such vital household assets as farm equipment and tools. As a result, malnutrition rates among children and pregnant women rise, communities’ overall health deteriorates, and the next year’s earning ability is compromised.
That’s where Counterpart International comes in.
Through its programs in Mauritania, Counterpart works with pastoralists to promote improved animal health, especially during critical water shortages like the current drought. Counterpart has constructed five animal health parks – fenced facilities where herders can bring their livestock for vaccinations.
Partnering with government to reach more
Counterpart works in coordination with the Mauritanian Ministry of Rural Development, which provides inexpensive vaccines and the services of 57 government livestock extension agents, to offer animal health fairs.
Simple vaccination campaigns protect livestock from disease, and improved information and training about good animal health practices help empower pastoralists to manage herds effectively.
Before this year’s drought, Counterpart worked with the Ministry of Rural Development to offer vaccination campaigns that protected more than 200,000 animals in the Assaba and Hodh el-Gharbi regions from disease.
Although Mauritania’s weather conditions may always present a challenge for herders, improved access to vaccinations and animal health services can help them better overcome these challenges and maintain vital sources of income for their families.