As Niger’s men emigrate, women work to outwit a changing climate

As Niger’s men emigrate, women work to outwit a changing climate

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World Food Programme and Government join forces to boost farm production, strengthen livelihoods and empower women in a challenging environment.

Sa’a Moussa heads a cooperative of women farmers adapting to changing rainfall patterns to grow their businesses in Niger. Photo: WFP/Adamou Sani Dan Salaou.

Sitting atop a pile of millet sacks in the southern Niger village of Sarkin Hatsi, Sa’a Moussa beams with pride. Today is delivery day and, at the warehouse of her all-women’s cooperative, she eagerly awaits the arrival of trucks to collect their harvest.

“It wasn’t always like this. We’ve come a long way,” she says, reflecting on the journey of the 820-member Hadin Kan Mata farming association that she heads, in the country’s Maradi region bordering Nigeria. “For a long time, we have had to contend with seasons that change unexpectedly.”

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Here in Maradi, like elsewhere in Niger, farmers like Moussa face the relentless fallout of climate change, which has accelerated desertification and soil degradation. Along with soaring prices and insecurity, the difficult growing conditions in this Sahel country have driven many men to leave in search of work – with women remaining to till an increasingly unforgiving land.

“Rains start later and often stop early, disrupting the three-month crop production cycle and leading to reduced yields,” which, in turn, shrink family stocks and surplus to sell at market, says Ramatou Hinsa, rural development officer for the World Food Programme in Niger.

This year is no different. Experts predict shorter rains during the June-August rainy or lean season between harvests will leave nearly half-a-million people in the Maradi area – and some 3.2 million countrywide – facing severe food insecurity in the coming months.

The same worrying picture of either scarcer or overly abundant rains is forecast across a number of West and Central African countries, including Niger’s neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire, among others. The erratic weather could further imperil food security in a region where 55 million people are already struggling to feed themselves.

But in Niger and elsewhere, WFP is acting ahead – supporting initiatives have rehabilitated nearly 300,000 hectares of degraded land and built the resilience of more than 4 million people in thousands of villages across the region. Partnering with governments and other actors, we have together invested in social protection and inclusive food systems.

The programmes also offer sustainable ways to protect the environment, by linking watershed planning and land rehabilitation to school meals, for example, along with nutritional support and assistance for smallholder farmers. Additionally, WFP works with governments to strengthen their national disaster-risk financing management as another protective layer for small-scale growers and herders.

WFP is responding to the immediate hunger uptick by ramping up food and nutrition assistance over the lean season to reach 7.3 million people across West and Central Africa.

“The alarming hunger crisis in the region underscores the urgent need for transformative solutions to help vulnerable families meet not only their immediate food needs but also build a brighter future,” says Chris Nikoi, WFP’s Regional Director for Western Africa.

“We need to continue prioritizing emergency response for those most in need,” Nikoi adds. “But we need more investment in sustainable solutions to help strengthen food security, improve agricultural productivity, purchasing power of families at the right time, and cushioning economic and climate shocks.”


In Niger, where the vast majority of the population are smallholder farmers, changing weather patterns, along with conflict, have helped to wreak havoc on livelihoods. This arid West African country loses roughly 100,000 hectares of arable land yearly to desertification.

The rainy season has also been significantly shorter in recent years, shrinking yields as a result. Last year alone, cereal production dropped 14 percent compared to 2022, according to the hunger-measuring tool Cadre Harmonisé.

“Rains come and we hasten to sow, and then the drought strikes again, and we lose everything,” says farmer Moussa, a mother of four who grows staple millet and cowpeas.

Until recently, many smallholder farmers had few weapons to fight the harsher conditions. They had limited access to inputs like fertilizers and drought-tolerant seeds, or to markets and financing. For many men, considered the traditional breadwinners, the answer was leaving.

“Many of our men migrate to Nigeria or Europe via Libya,” Moussa says, “often not returning for years, if ever. This leaves families, especially wives and children, vulnerable.”

But that narrative is changing. For more than a decade, WFP has teamed up with Niger’s Government and local actors to boost and diversify small-scale production and entrepreneurship in areas such as Maradi.

Over the 2022-23 growing season alone, we purchased pulses and cereals from nearly 10,000 farmers in 40 agricultural cooperatives involved in our integrated resilience programme – mostly in Niger’s southern Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder regions. With six of the cooperatives managed exclusively by female farmers, the programme not only helps build community resilience, but also women’s empowerment.

“It’s a comprehensive approach,” WFP’s Ramatou Hinsa says, “from reclaiming land and empowering small-scale farmers with skills and post-harvest tools to finding markets for their products.”

In Maradi, for example, WFP works with local organizations like the Maradi Regional Chamber of Agriculture to help local growers better organize themselves and access the necessary skills and training – such as in accounting and post-harvest management – to move ahead.

“We support smallholder farmers by formalizing their organizations, providing market and climate information, and boosting visibility through trade shows and fairs,” says Guéro Magala, Permanent Secretary General of the Maradi Regional Chamber of Agriculture.

As a result, farmers have increased their yields and access to markets – earning income they can spend on household necessities or schooling for their children – or plow back into their businesses.

“With training and improved seeds, our harvests have tripled. Previously, a hectare produced 187.5 kg of millet; now it yields 750kg to 1,000 kg (a metric ton),” says cooperative president Moussa.

Dreaming again

This year, WFP plans to buy some 3,000 tons of millet and 1,000 tons of cowpea from Moussa’s Hadin Kan Mata cooperative and others for the national school feeding programme we support, along with other activities.

Over the past decade, WFP has invested US$12 million in buying some 27,000 tons of grains and legumes from smallholder farmers nationwide – reflecting Niger’s own national strategy of purchasing from its small-scale growers. The food often goes to supplying the country’s school canteens.

“This strategy not only aligns with local diets but is also cost-effective,” says Salou Abdou, regional coordinator for school canteens in the Maradi region. “It bridges the gap between home and school meals, reducing logistics costs.”

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Sarkin Hatsi village chief Elhaj Oumarou sees other paybacks. The farming initiatives, which support producing and sourcing food locally, are revitalizing once-struggling communities, and strengthening livelihoods and local economies. By cutting transport and storage requirements, they also help to reduce pollution and keep food fresh.

“We take immense pride in knowing that, instead of relying on unknown sources, it’s our own products that will nourish our children in schools,” Oumarou says. “It’s this homegrown food that will sustain our families and that fills us with satisfaction.”

Moreover, one government study found participants in these resilience schemes earn on average the equivalent of US$750 over several years – a promising trend in a country where many practice subsistence agriculture. Maradi’s men may not return home for many years to come, but the women are flourishing anyway.

“Our products have thrived thanks to WFP’s support,” says Moussa, whose cooperative also has a contract to sell food to the Government. “With the income from our sales our families not only can eat again, but above all enjoy life and dream again.”

WFP’s initiatives supporting smallholder famers and other vulnerable communities in Niger are made possible thanks to the generous support of Australia, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, the United States, and international nonprofit Education Cannot Wait.

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