Nearly 12 Million Face Starvation in Niger

While mothers continue to bring children weak with hunger to feeding centers, market stalls are filled with food — but at prices well out of the reach of many in this desperately poor nation.

"It is the government's job to deal with the hungry, we the traders are here for business," said Ibrahim Baye, who sells millet, a staple in Niger (search), at a Maradi market.

The well-stocked markets are deceptive. The food shortage is real. Last year locusts, in the worst invasion in 15 years, ravaged 7,000 square miles of Niger farmland. That and a subsequent drought cut cereal production by 15 percent last year, according to the United Nations (search).

Hunger was a problem in Niger even before the locusts and drought. Today, more than a third of the nearly 12 million people in Niger face severe food shortages. Children are most at risk.

On Tuesday, Baye shooed away beggars dressed in rags and staring at the heaped food on display. A friend sitting with him who gave only one name, Louali, said the grains on display had been stockpiled "and traders wait until the lean season to sell at double its price."

Prices have dramatically increased. A bag of 220 pounds of millet went from $23 to $44.

Few can afford that in the second-poorest nation in the world, where 64 percent of the people survive on less than $1 a day.

Hundreds of mothers who cannot buy turn up daily at feeding centers like the one run by Doctors Without Borders (search) in Aguie, some 28 miles east of Maradi.

"At this time last year, we had 300 admissions in our centers. Today, the number stands at 1,037," Dr. Ibrahima Alzouma said. "We are just completely overwhelmed."

Children have been left so fragile that even a change in the weather can be a threat. Doctors say a fine rain on Tuesday, the first in 12 days, and slightly cooler temperatures almost killed Firdaoussou Bassirou.

Firdaoussou, 7 months old and weighing a little over 5 1/2 pounds — the weight of a newborn baby — was moved into the intensive care unit after her temperature dropped. Her mother looked on helplessly as doctors try to place a drip on Firdaoussou's collapsed veins.

Until international food aid reaches the most vulnerable, UNICEF is trying to bridge the gap by setting up community-managed cereal banks for those who can still afford to pay for food.

With an initial stock of 10 tons, 3,000 villagers in Tsaki and surrounding villagers can buy millet at less than half the market price.

With the $7 Khadija Sani's husband earned plowing somebody else's farm last week, Sani walked nearly one hour to buy subsidized millet.

"I left the house completely empty," said 30-year-old Sani, her baby, one of nine, nestled on her back. "I don't know when I'll go home but at least I will not come back empty handed."

She was among some 200 women dressed in rainbow-colored robes who were waiting when community leaders opened the big iron gates of the cereal bank's storage room Tuesday.

To avoid any speculation or the millet finding itself to local markets, only a weekly family ratio is sold.

"We know here the exact size of each household," said Moustapha Chetima, a UNICEF officer in charge of rural development. "This is a small community ... and we don't want people to stock the food when others don't have any."

The experiment is yielding results throughout the region of Maradi and Zinder, where 200 cereal banks have been set up. In 2004, some 78,241 people regularly purchased rations of millet in Aguie's cereal bank.

The U.N. food agency was looking ahead Tuesday, appealing for $4 million to provide Niger's farmers with seeds for the next planting season and to replenish the livestock of families who have lost or been forced to sell their animals.

If the stricken farmers and herders are not helped to recover before the planting season starts in October, even larger amounts of food aid will be needed to prevent them from starving, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said.