By Guy Hubbard
OUAHIGOUYA, Burkina Faso, 15 October 2012 - In northwest Burkina Faso, deep in the Sahel belt, a small oasis is beginning to take shape.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on a garden managed by local women that benefits a whole community in Burkina Faso. Watch in RealPlayer|
Bordering the vast Sahara Desert, the Sahel stretches across the African continent. Eking out any kind of life here is tough, but a group of women are turning their corner of this harsh, arid region into a lush and productive garden. In a place where people survive mainly on nutritionally poor grain millet, the vegetables these women produce are changing their families’ diets – and lives.
In this area, malnutrition is rampant. Burkina Faso was one of nine countries affected by recent droughts. But even in times of plenty, nutrition is a problem – not necessarily because of a lack of food, but rather because of a lack of the right kinds of food. Vitamin-rich fruit and vegetables are expensive, and mothers are often unaware of the importance of these foods to their families’ diets.
Kientego Sierotta heads a group of 54 women who are transforming the landscape. She’s a mother and works with her 8-month-old baby on her back. After an hour of digging and planting, she takes a break to feed him.
“The nutritional situation of children before the setting up of the project was severe,” she says. “The children were falling sick regularly. But, since we started to work here and the garden started producing vegetables, the children have been less sick, and we have changed our diets.”
“We couldn't afford vegetables before,” Ms. Sierotta continues. “Now we can eat them and sell the surplus, and generally the situation has improved significantly.”
The women receive training on farming techniques and funding towards the construction of wells. The initiative is part of a 1.7 million euro joint action between UNICEF and the European Union aimed at improving nutrition security. The four-year programme aims to reach almost one and one-half thousand villages across Burkina Faso through various projects and interventions. The programme is not an emergency response mechanism, but rather an effort to improve nutrition security across the country so that when nutrition crises do happen, families, especially children, are better able to handle the impact.
Through crop selection and rotation, the garden produces fruit and vegetables year round and is giving the women a more active role in their community. After feeding their families, they can sell the excess produce, providing income for the women.
“The benefits are huge for us and the community, in general. It allows us to feed our families better. It also allows us to be a breadwinner for the family – we can help with our children’s school fees, their health and also assist friends and family,” explains Ms. Sierotta.
Some of the excess fruit and vegetables end up at the Ouahigouya market, where, through the programme, fruit and vegetable vendors have been taught the nutritional value of their wares. The vendors also share this information with their customers.
Sawadogo Detu is one of the vendors who has been trained. Each vendor has volunteered, and each one feels it is his or her duty to help the community improve its nutritional status.
“I received training about the causes of undernutrition and how to prevent it, so, when customers come to buy from me, I explain the benefits of each item to their diet and how they should prepare them,” she says. “I volunteered because I am a mother, and I need to make sure that my family is fed properly. Now that I’m trained, I teach others, as well, so that every family is well fed.”
It is early to gauge the impact such interventions will have in the long term. However, mothers involved in the programme are already reporting that their children are healthier and more energetic, that they’re doing better in school – and that they fall sick less often.
Communities are better fed, more educated and more financially secure and are looking forward to a time when they are no longer at the mercy of the Sahel.
Food crisis in the Sahel