Breaking the cycle of hunger in Somalia, seed by seed and silo by silo

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Somalia has seen better days. A landscape in 2009.
It’s important to send emergency food aid to people in places where there is no food available, but we must also think about the entire food system in emergencies — how food aid affects markets, whether people can afford food on the markets, what incentives farmers have to continue producing, and whether they have the tools and inputs they need to do so.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its local Somali partners are thinking about all of this, and as a result, are doing amazing work that helps Somalia’s food and nutrition situation despite ongoing conflict. The FAO and one of its local partners, the Somali Agricultural Technical Group (SATG) reached out separately to ONE to share some of their agricultural work:

Emergency agricultural assistance: Because of the drought, farmers are without money to buy seeds or fertilizers for the planting season that begins this month and herders are without grasses for their animals to eat. FAO will distribute seeds and fertilizers to farmers so that they can take advantage of the October rains and supply more food to markets this winter. Seventy percent of Somalis are herders, and so FAO also plans to feed and vaccinate tens of millions of animals to prevent death and panic sales. Such interventions are important not only for keeping food prices reasonable, but also for giving farmers and herders a reason not to migrate.

Cash for Work: Food is available on markets in southern and south-central Somalia, but it is incredibly expensive. If food aid were to be distributed for free, traders would move food to other markets. However, if residents had more cash, they could afford to buy the food on the markets, the traders could afford to stay, and farmers would recognize an incentive to produce. This is the rationale behind the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Cash for Work program. There is also a productivity angle -– FAO pays people to improve their land and develop community irrigation systems, making land better suited to withstand drought. FAO says their Cash for Work program could immediately scale up to 130,000 people, but they only have funding to “employ” 30,000 people.

Grain storage: Typically small farmers in Africa (including Somalia) lose around one-third of their harvest due to spoilage or insects. In Somalia, this translates into almost 20,000 tons of grain per year, which is roughly equivalent to around 600 WFP plane-fuls of food. Such high rates of “post-harvest loss” traps farmers into a cycle of selling everything right after harvest (when everyone else is selling, which means low prices) — and being out of money and food later in the year. Good storage can help farmers save some of their crop to sell later in the year, making their income higher and more stable. To this end, SATG and FAO are doing innovative work: (1) teaching farmers to line their traditional underground storage pits with cement and plastic and (2) training entrepreneurs to build tiny metal silos to sell to farmers.

Private seed companies: In northern Somaliland and Puntland, FAO and SATG have been involved in the development of the one and only seed production facility in Somalia. The company is now self-sustaining, exporting and considering distribution in southern Somalia. The large number of Somalis who have fled Somalia has a silver lining -– some become entrepreneurs in wealthier countries and are interested in investing in Somali agribusiness.

The main constraint that FAO and SATG face in their Somalia agriculture programs is a lack of funding. Donors have met more than 100 percent of the food aid needs of Somalia (120 percent, to be exact), but they have filled only 41 percent of the appeal for emergency agriculture and livelihoods programs, which is the humanitarian aid that prevents additional humanitarian aid from being necessary. Funding is even harder to come by for long-term agriculture programs. However, some Somalia thinkers, such as Bronwyn Bruton, think that facilitating community economic development might be the best role for western nations that want to see peace in Somalia.

Donors don’t perceive Somalia, especially southern Somalia, to be a place where agricultural development can be pursued. However, groups like FAO and SATG have proved that it is possible. We must think about breaking the cycle of food crises, not just responding to it. Sign our petition to begin breaking the cycle of crisis.