Agadez onion crisis adds to Niger’s food problems
Onion is king in the land of uranium - until there is a bad crop. That is exactly what happened in Agadez, the northern region of Niger this past year. The Agadez onion is prized for its early harvest, usually in November/December, when traders from Benin to Côte d’Ivoire would come just to buy this early bloomer. The fickle rainfall thwarted this.
The late rains eliminated the advantage the Agadez onion had in the market, so the crop was harvested at the same time as other onions in the West African region. The glut of onions ruined farmers, and farm workers didn’t get paid.
“In November, at the start of the harvest last year, the cost of a bag of onions was 15,000 CFA (23 euros), and in January of this year it fell to 1000 CFA, which didn’t even cover the cost of transporting the onions from the fields up to the markets of Agadez,” says Patrick Andrey, associate director at Oxfam in Niger.
“We didn’t have a good market for the onion this year. It was a catastrophe,” says Duan Brotan, a representative of Ibrahim Farm. Farmers left the onions to rot in the fields, and workers were not paid.
The onion market collapse affected farmers, labourers, but also the region as a whole. Agadez receives only 15 per cent of the income from its uranium mines up north—the remaining 85 per cent goes directly to the central government in Niamey.
Add that to regional instability (in Mali and Nigeria), a government still slightly leery of yet another Tuareg insurrection-- there were ones in 2007 and 2010, and an influx of 100,000 economic expats returning from Libya after the fighting, and you have a recipe for disaster.
And the escalating food crisis throughout the region is proving to be worse than previous years.
The bottom fell out of the market nearly one year ago, but the damage continues to resonate. And while only 2.5 per cent of the total population of Niger lives in the northern mountainous Agadez region, they have suffered the most insecurity this year.
With no onion income, families have scrambled to make ends meet. Although the government has programs in place to deal with food insecurity, such as selling staples to the poorest at subsidized prices, those in the northern onion industry could not even afford the low prices.
But information coming out of the Agadez region was limited. Oxfam, an aid agency, decided to conduct its own survey to assess just how many were coming up short at dinnertime. Based on information gathered in and around Agadez, Oxfam put a temporary food program in place to supplement the poorest over the lean season from May to September.
“In order to have a better grasp of the dynamics of the region of Agadez, again, in terms of insecurity and other things, we decided to open an office and have a permanent staff being based in Agadez,” says Oxfam’s Andrey.
Transparency is key
The food distribution in Intata village is orderly: each person associated with the distribution has a specific job to carry out in order to make sure everything is fair. In the village, some 40 dusty desert kilometres outside of Agadez, the name of one person in the household is called out. That person shows their identity card, gives their coupon for the kit, and puts their fingerprint next to their name. The farmer/producer oversees this, and designated representatives of each village watch to make sure that person is who they say they are.
While those chosen to receive food kits were very happy to be able to feed their families, they acknowledged that others in their village were not picked and went without.
“We share what we have with our neighbours who are hungry,” says Telaza Tankaree, an Intata resident, standing in line to pick up her food kit. “But we’d like them to be put on the list, too.”
Tankaree says that people have been suffering during the lean season. But the Oxfam food distribution has prevented them from eating the grass that the animals eat, like they did before when there was no help. “I had diarrhoea, I had lots of problems,” she says.
Once called and fingerprinted, the household representative stands behind their kit. Once all ten households have been called, those people pick up their sacks of food and ten more kits are put into order. The kits are assembled under the watchful eye of another person from the community, who makes sure each bag does indeed weigh 30 kilos.
The men in Intata also have something to say. Resident Salé Bashar, leaning on a walking stick, says his situation is particularly difficult.
“I am blind, I have nine kids, I’m poor, and all my camels were stolen. My kids are looking for them now. But I came here to thank Oxfam for the project.”
Everyone in line laughs, even Bashar. They are relieved that they have been able to survive the lean season.
After the onion disaster, the combination of Nigerien government help and aid projects have also persuaded villagers to diversify their crops. Ahmad Emini, the Mayor of Dabaga, who oversees all the small villages around the larger town, says that this has been put in place for both farmers and villagers with small plots.
Emini says most households have a tiny plot of land to augment their incomes picking vegetables. Now, “they grow half onions, half grains in each garden,” he says, adding that vegetables are also important not only to the community, but to the region at large.
“You know that all the vegetables sold in the markets in Agadez are produced here in Dabaga,” he says proudly.
With these new programs put into place, the Agadez onion fiasco will hopefully not happen again. And the Oxfam food distribution has helped, he says.
“We have a lot of riches here. A lot of riches in our region. These projects help the population here have a better quality of life,” he says, referring to agriculture, not Agadez region’s uranium deposits.
For now, people in the region have a little bit of breathing space before the harvest –of Agadez onions and vegetables—begins.
The contents of the kit are the same for everyone and were determine after a consultation with villagers to see what essentials they needed. It is worth 32,500 FCFA ( 50 euros).The kit is per household, with an average of 7 people per home: