Farmers, fields, food aid & the future of Niger

Farmers, fields, food aid & the future of Niger


A few weeks ago, a call came from the leading poverty-fighting organization CARE inviting me on a Learning Tour to Niger.  This program, first established in 2009, brings together members of Congress and their staff, issue experts and policy wonks to visit development programs in some of the world's toughest and most impoverished places.  At first I was confused: What did chefs have to contribute to the conversation around global development programs in Niger?

After hearing about the itinerary, it started to make a little more sense.

I traveled to Niger – the world’s poorest country, the one that is last on the human development indexes – to see these programs firsthand and meet the people whose lives are being changed thanks to a variety of food aid programs. Our itinerary included meetings with Nigerien government officials, representatives from the World Food Program (WFP), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Save the Children, World Vision, Helen Keller International, Nigerien companies, and of course, CARE’s in-country staff. 

As the Senior Director of Food Policy & Advocacy at the James Beard Foundation, I traveled to Niger as a representative of our more than 9,000 professional staff members around the country, including dozens of chefs who are working on international food aid issues. That includes Jose Andres who is leading efforts for clean cookstoves and economic programs in Haiti (another place where CARE has programs).

Chefs such as Asha Gomez, Spike Mendelsohn and Victor Albisu, who have also traveled with CARE, as well as Emily Luchetti, Ben Hall, Mary Sue Milliken, Evan Hanczor and William Dissen, all spent time on Capitol Hill this past year fighting for the historic passage of the Global Food Security Act (GFSA), which was recently signed into law by President Barack Obama.  This new law will make investments of up to $7 billion in initiatives that focus on agriculture, small-scale food producers and the empowerment of women and girls worldwide.

 So off to Niger I went, and in just a few short days we:

  • Saw the food storage warehouses;
  • Met the people organizing aid distributions;
  • Talked with the government officials monitoring the food and other forms of direct aid;
  • Sat with women in their villages and listened to the stories of how food aid and village savings & loans are helping to empower them; and
  • Learned about a systematic approach to end child marriage, improve literacy, deliver nutrition to new mothers and foster new businesses.

It was an inspiring – and exhausting – trip hosted by CARE through support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

During this election season, this trip was also defined by the bipartisan group of people chosen to participate. At a time when the United States is being ripped apart by extreme rhetoric and the issues that divide us, it was nice to spend a few days with a group of Republicans, Democrats and Independents who were consciously in search of common ground on how best to support countries such as Niger.

For me, a young woman I met named Houre Maazou is Niger’s future. Houre is a young farmer living in the village Benni Kanni. She is part of a cooperative that tends to a field of moringa trees; a nutrient dense plant that can serve as a supplement to the diets of expectant and new mothers and young children.

The trees she loving – and fiercely – cultivates serve her whole village including more than 400 women and their children. It is also a business supported by CARE’s Village Savings and Loan Association program that provides jobs and opportunities, and helps build women’s self-confidence and economic standing in their community.

Houre is just one of the women in her village who are building successful businesses. In addition to moringa, women in the group  also own small businesses that produce millet pasta and new varieties of baked goods, as well as a village store for food-stuffs. These groups provide a growing ability for these women to sell to other communities and into markets in cities such as Niamey.

Niger is a country where the majority of people live on less than one dollar a day.  More than half the country is illiterate. Young women, many before the age of 15, are married, and the average family will have 7 (or more) children.  Eighty percent of the country is agriculture dependent with farmers, again many of them women, hand planting and hand harvesting three main crops (sorghum, millet and cowpeas).

Niger is not the place where you would expect to find young women like Houre. Her bright but serious smile belie her tenacious work ethic. She probably doesn't know all the statistics I just shared. She just knows that people have invested in her, have given her the opportunity to work hard and enjoy the successes of that labor, including even more investment and respect from her father and the men and women in her village. 

As she shared, there are others who help tend to the moringa listen to her and follow her direction. With these women (and men) she grows a crop that helps to ensure that her children will grow up stronger, healthier and ready to take their future into their own hands. 

Houre is the future of Niger. With support from CARE, the U.S. government and other NGOs, she and others like her will have the opportunity to farm, build businesses and contribute to and lead their communities. That Houre and so many other women are doing it with food-related businesses is something that the Beard Foundation’s membership can completely relate to and support. 

Globally, 795 million people around the world are chronically hungry. But with the proper tools and resources – these communities and families can lift themselves out of poverty, and in turn, build stronger and healthier nations.

I encourage chef leaders and others to stay engaged and find ways to use your voice to advocate for individuals around the world like Houre. Food is a basic human right – it connects people across tables and nations – and we should do everything we can as food policy leaders to ensure nutritious food is accessible for all.  One easy thing to do is to sign this petition urging for the full implementation of the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) Strategy, including the empowerment of women and girls and natural resource management:

Katherine Miller

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