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Cell Phones, Composting, and Emergency Feeding Centers

By Michele Learner
July 2010

"Our arrival in Burkina Faso was a shock," says Bread for the World policy analyst Eric Munoz of his fall 2009 visit with Bread's managing director, Jim McDonald. "Just off the landing strip was the bare hulk of a plane being slowly devoured for parts. Even before we left the airport, the magnitude of poverty in the country hit us squarely in the gut."

The people of Burkina Faso – a landlocked West African country just north of Ghana – are extremely vulnerable to hunger because of poverty and climate change.  The global spikes in staple food prices that began in 2008 created deeper poverty and more malnutrition. Poverty and high food prices mean that Burkina Faso's grain belt actually has one of the nation's highest rates of malnutrition.

 On the day in September 2009 that McDonald and Munoz visited an emergency feeding center in the north-central region of Kirsi, more than three dozen young children were being treated for severe malnutrition. Eleven were sent to the nearest hospital because their lives were at immediate risk.

The good news is that the feeding program, run by Doctors Without Borders, has a high recovery rate -- more than 90 percent. But longer-term, sustainable steps that will make emergency feeding unnecessary are also essential.

Burkina Faso's national government has been proactive in addressing nutrition problems. There is a nutrition directorate in the Ministry of Health as well as a national nutrition strategy to help coordinate the many nongovernmental organizations and donor agencies who want to help.

However, all the efforts face a major complication: Burkina Faso's farmers and pastoralists are already suffering the effects of global climate change. As the Sahara Desert expands, the country is losing arable land. It is now much harder to know when to plant crops, for example. The community's historical knowledge is no longer reliable, and there is no national weather forecasting available.

As more than one author has noted, adapting to climate change is simply "development in a hostile environment." Thus, development strategies can help families and communities respond to climate change – but resources and commitment are more critical than ever.

Fanwargu is a very small village in eastern Burkina whose people depend on subsistence farming. Development based on appropriate technology has found success here. For example, Natama Alimata's cell phone enables her to find out whether there is an open slot to use the mill that her farming co-op has purchased -- before she sets out on the 15-mile walk to process her sorghum.

Natama Alimata, Burkinan Farmer
In Fanwargu, Burkina Faso, Nata Alimata (center), and other women from the village earn their living as farmers, as do most women in Africa.
The mill itself, purchased with a microloan, has reduced the time it takes to mill grain from eight or nine hours to 15 minutes. This has enabled Alimata to relieve her daughters of chores so they can spend more time studying. The families in the co-op also rent out their mill for additional income.

Alimata has recently begun composting plant matter for fertilizer, which has helped boost her crop yield. People in Fanwargu are also planting trees, whose many benefits include decreased soil erosion and fruits and nuts to eat or sell.

Technologies which are still relatively uncommon in the United States often make very good sense in developing countries like Burkina Faso. For example, virtually no one in rural Burkina has access to electricity. It is simply too expensive to expand heavy infrastructure to remote villages. But experts say that clean energy, such as that supplied by solar panels, is making electricity much more feasible for rural areas.

Efforts to help hungry people in Burkina Faso bring together emergency feeding, attention to agriculture, traditional "appropriate technology," and newer solutions like solar power.  It's an approach that suits today's conditions.

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